January 6, 2008 - Epiphany
Let me tell you who did it. I’m violating the fundamental principle of a good mystery story, which is to hide until the end the answer to “Whodunit?” But in the mystery story Paul unfolds in Ephesians 3, he tells us almost from the beginning who the perpetrator is. God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, they’ve revealed the mystery to him, and Paul reveals it to us. Jesus did it. If you’re here, you probably already knew that. So where’s the mystery?
As a whole, the Bible would be lame reading for the mystery section at Borders. The writers are always revealing who did it right at the outset. Genesis starts “In the beginning, God…” Mark’s first words are, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And Paul starts his letters by revealing he was sent as an apostle by Jesus Christ. No secrets, no guessing who’s behind it all—it’s told in the first few lines. So where does Paul get off here in verse 3, verse 4, verse 6 and verse 9, calling any of it a mystery?
One of my favorite mystery detectives will cause some of you, who are younger than, say, 45, either to groan, like my youngest daughter, with excruciating boredom or to stare at me blankly. Yet the best way I can explain how Paul’s story here is a mystery is to talk about television sleuth Lieutenant Columbo.
Peter Falk first brought Columbo to your living room screen in a pilot show in 1968. He appeared on and off until 2003. Last year rumors surfaced of one more Columbo show in the works, but it appears Falk may be too old to pull it off.
Lieutenant Columbo is a likeable, shabby plain-clothes police officer who wears a long wrinkled putty-colored rain-coat in sunny Los Angeles. He is absent-minded and seems a bit slow on the uptake, always fumbling through his pockets for a pencil or a piece of evidence and forgetting where he was in a conversation with a suspect. He drives a beat-up old 1959 Peugeot and smokes cheap cigars that come six to a pack in the supermarket. One of his main ploys is to conclude an interview, leave and then snap his fingers and turn back at the door to ask “just one more thing.”
Columbo has a wife he’s always talking about and loves dearly, but we never get to see her or even know her name, other than “Mrs. Columbo.” In fact, in all the years of the series, we never learn the lieutenant’s own first name. So he’s a little mysterious, but that’s not the big mystery of the show. Nor is the identity of the murderer.
Watching Columbo, just like reading the Bible, you always know who did it from the beginning. In the early years, it was always a famous person in show business as the killer. Somebody like Dick Van Dyke, Eddie Albert, or William Shatner would commit the murder in the first few minutes, while we all watched. For the rest of the show, we know who did it and are just waiting to discover how Columbo will figure it out. It’s what’s called an “inverse mystery.”
The “mystery of Christ,” as Paul tells it, is an inverse mystery. There are no guessing games, nothing hidden about what has happened. Like the writers for Columbo, Paul more or less tells it all right at the beginning. In verse 4 he calls it the “mystery of Jesus Christ,” then verse 6 starts, “The mystery is…” and it’s all laid out, “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.”
That mystery of Christ is what we are celebrate on Epiphany. The “administration of God’s grace,” as Paul calls it in verse 2, is for everyone. It meant Gentiles as well as Jews, and it means what our other texts imply. Isaiah 60:3 says “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Psalm 72:11 says, “may all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.” And in Matthew 2 we read the sweet, mysterious account of Persian astrologers journeying across desert to kneel before the boy Jesus. We know the story, the mystery is told, revealed, shines forth on Epiphany. The grace of Jesus Christ is for the whole earth, for every last man, woman and child on this planet.
Verse 11 says this mystery was God’s eternal purpose. He always meant to include everyone. Talk about inverted mysteries. God knew it from the beginning and frequently mentioned it. In Genesis 12:3, talking to Abraham, God says, “all nations on earth will be blessed through you.” Paul says it was, “accomplished in Jesus Christ.” Jesus did it. We know the mystery. Jesus is both the victim and the perpetrator. He died on the Cross to accomplish forgiveness and grace and He rose from the dead to prove it was done.
It’s so plain, it’s so obvious, it’s so revealed. There’s hardly any mystery to it at all. Yet it remains mysterious. The Epiphany of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is an inverted mystery. We may know who did it, but like Columbo, we’re still fumbling along, trying to discover how it will all work out. And that, especially our part in the story, is still not clear.
The mystery of Epiphany is unclear in Kenya today. Different tribes, many of whom believe in Jesus, are murdering, raping and torturing each other. Pakistan postponed elections, North Korea is stone-walling on nuclear disclosure, and people are still dying in Iraq. A 17 month old boy in Florida was tortured with hot oil and a hair dryer on Thursday. Our new friend Arezoo is dying and some of you have recently lost people you love. Driving in town this past week, you likely saw someone standing in the cold, begging for cash. The mystery’s revealed: grace, salvation, “the boundless riches of Christ,” for any and everyone, says verse 8. Jesus did it. But how’s it going to work out? How will they all, all the nations on earth or even all your friends, discover the mystery you and I know so well?
The Epiphany mystery calls us to be like Columbo. In verse 3, Paul talks about the mystery being made known to him. In verse 4 he tells the Ephesians they will “understand my insight in to the mystery of Christ.” We begin where Columbo begins, with a little revelation, a little insight into the mystery. For him it’s a wine cork that doesn’t match its bottle or a tiny inconsistency in someone’s story or a name in hotel register, but the good lieutenant always starts with a little flicker of light, a tiny bit of the truth. It pinpoints for him the key suspect at the outset.
You and I are always begin with this insight into the Gospel mystery. Like the magi, we may not know quite where we are going, but we see the star guiding us. The key suspect is Jesus. In Christ, God gives us the central clue to figure out all the rest, how the mystery of grace will work in us and in the world. Like Columbo keeps coming back to his suspect, we keep coming back to Jesus, bowing down with the kings of Persia in wondering adoration and worship of His mystery. It’s why we’re here today.
But we can be also like Columbo in his persistence. He keeps at it, studies evidence from every angle, leaves no one unquestioned. He learns from anyone who has seen or heard something. He keeps trying to piece the whole story together. Let us study as hard as Columbo does. Let’s sit down day after day, year after year, studying this same Book, learning as much as we can, seeking the whole story. We will read and listen to teachers, and we will find new clues into what Christ has done and what He’s still doing.
Paul talks in verse 9 about his “administration of this mystery.” He’s working at it, studying it, getting as clear as he possibly can. But not just for his own sake. Verse 8 says “this grace was given me: to preach… the boundless riches of Christ.” Like Columbo making his investigation so he can turn the murderer over to others, you and I investigate Jesus so we can turn Him over to friends, neighbors, our children. We administer a mystery everyone needs to know, clear out to Kenya and China and Colombia.
Yet let us be like Columbo in his humility. We have a mystery the world needs to know, but they need to hear it spoken humbly. In verse 8, Paul says “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given to me…” Columbo is self-effacing, always saying he’s not quite sure. Neither the apostle nor the lieutenant is stupid or incompetent. They are brilliant practitioners of their mysteries, but they put themselves in second place, caring more for truth than for their own glory. They are servants of justice and truth. Let us be such humble servants of the mystery.
And let us be like Columbo in his confidence. Despite humility, shabby clothes, dumpy car, and forgetfulness, Columbo is supremely confident the truth will come out, the case will be solved, justice will be done. You and I may be confident in the mystery of Jesus. Verse 12 says, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Paul personalizes that in verse 13 by asking the Ephesians, “not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” Let us not be discouraged by our own sufferings or those of others.
It’s not just Columbo. Almost the whole genre of the mystery story expresses a kind of holy confidence and faith that you and I may should imitate. As Stanley Hauerwas finds said by G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers, “detective fiction involves an extraordinary metaphysical draft on the way things are… justice is deeper than injustice… evil is bounded by a greater good.”
We have this mystery, this revealed mystery, this inverted mystery of the grace of God poured out on the whole world through His Son. Jesus did it. And living in the mystery of Jesus, you and I may be confident, absolutely confident, that in His time, in His kingdom, God’s justice will be done. It may not be done tomorrow, it may not be done this year, it may not be done before we leave this world for the better one, but we know Jesus did it, and that He will do justice.
As Columbo would say, there’s “just one more thing.” Because we live in the mystery of God’s grace and love toward all nations, toward every person on earth, we have a deep responsibility toward each other, toward all those around us. Hauerwas quotes one of my own favorite mystery writers, P. D. James, as she says,
It is very reassuring to have a form of fiction which says that every human life is sacred, and if it is taken away, then the law, society, will address itself to finding out who did it. The attitude is not “Well, one more chap’s got murdered—hard luck.” Infinite pain and money are spent trying to find out who did it because we still have the belief that the individual life is sacred.
If the mystery of Christ is truly for the world, which is what we are saying and celebrating today on Epiphany, then what P. D. James says about detective stories applies even more to our story, our true story. We have this belief. Jesus did it. He did it for you as struggle with trouble at home or at work. He did for you as you suffer in pain or despair. Jesus did it for a poor raped woman in Kenya, did it for that little boy in Florida, did it for the teenagers who bum change downtown by the library. We know the mystery, we know Jesus did it. Now how will we work it out? Believing that Jesus died and rose again because every human life is sacred, what pains will we take and how much money will you and I spend to reveal His mystery to them all? How will we administer the mysterious grace of Christ so that it shines into every heart and soul waiting to receive it?
Verse 6 says “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus.” Every life is sacred. Jesus did it for us all, to bring everyone together into the fantastic mystery of His body, the Church. It’s that mystery, the mystery of Holy Communion with each other in Him, to which we turn now. As we eat together, let us remember that mystery is the whole world will be fed at this Table. Come eat and drink and keep the mystery alive in you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj