Welcome those who were excluded
In Ephesians 3, Paul shares a little of his biography. He talks about the mystery of God that was revealed to him and he talks about the commission that was given to him to share the good news of Christ with the Gentiles. He presents a very minimal biography here, but it is helpful to know a little more of Paul’s biography. He was born into privilege as a Roman citizen, which means that his father was a Roman citizen. He was born into an affluent family that could afford to send him to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, one of the most renowned Jewish scholars of all time. Paul advanced beyond others of his age as a respected Pharisee. The driving force in his life was to maintain the purity of his religion, pushing away those who didn’t fit in the religious structure he loved so deeply. He took on the responsibility of hunting down and locking up those whom he considered to be polluting his religion. But on his way to Damascus to lock up Christians, Christ appeared to him in a vision and transformed his life. After that, it became the driving force in Paul’s life to welcome those who had previously been excluded.
In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli tells the story of Margaret, who experienced deeply the pain of rejection. After Margaret rushed late into class at nine years of age, Ms. Garner placed Margaret at the front of the class and said, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl. I have tried to help her to be responsible. But, apparently, she doesn’t want to learn. So we must teach her a lesson. We must force her to face what a selfish person she has become. I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this experience will motivate her to become a better person!” (p. 45)
Yaconelli shares, “Margaret stood frozen next to Ms. Garner. One by one, the students began a silent procession to the blackboard. One by one, the students wrote their life-smothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul. ‘Margaret is stupid! Margaret is selfish! Margaret is fat! Margaret is a dummy!’ On and on they went, until twenty-five terrible scribblings of Margaret’s ‘badness’ screamed from the blackboard.” (p. 46)
Over the years, the trauma stuck with Margaret to the end that she slowly became what the students wrote. Eventually Margaret sought the help of a counselor. After two years of intensive work together, Margaret’s counselor said to her, “I guess it’s graduation day for you. How are you feeling?”
After a long silence, Margaret replied, “I…I’m okay.”
Yaconelli reports, “The counselor hesitated. ‘Margaret, I know this will be difficult, but just to make sure you’re ready to move on, I am going to ask you to do something. I want to go back to your schoolroom and detail the events of that day. Take your time. Describe each of the children as they approach the blackboard, remember what they wrote and how you felt—all twenty-five students.’
“In a way, this would be easy for Margaret. For forty years she had remembered every detail. And yet, to go through the nightmare one more time would take every bit of strength she had. After a long silence, she began the painful description. One by one, she described each of the students vividly, as though she had just seen them, stopping periodically to regain her composure, forcing herself to face each of those students one more time.
“Finally, she was done, and the tears would not stop, could not stop. Margaret cried a long time before she realized someone was whispering her name. ‘Margaret. Margaret. Margaret.’ She looked up to see her counselor staring into her eyes, saying her name over and over again. Margaret stopped crying for a moment.
“‘Margaret. You…left out one person.’
“‘I certainly did not! I have lived with this story for forty years. I know every student by heart.’
“‘No, Margaret, you did forget someone. See, he’s sitting in the back of the classroom. He’s standing up, walking toward your teacher…. She is handing him a piece of chalk, and he’s taking it…. Now he’s walking over to the blackboard and picking up an eraser. He is erasing every one of the sentences the students wrote. They are gone! Margaret, they are gone! Now he’s turning and looking at you, Margaret. Do you recognize him yet? Yes, his name is Jesus. Look, he’s writing new sentences on the board. “Margaret is loved. Margaret is beautiful. Margaret is gentle and kind. Margaret is strong. Margaret has courage.”’
“And Margaret began to weep. But very quickly, the weeping turned into a smile, and then into laughter, and then into tears of joy.” (p. 55-56)
In Ephesians 3:6, it is as if Paul erases what had been there before and writes a new declaration about those who were previously excluded, “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In verse 8 he adds, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.”
With the love of Christ flooding his soul, the driving force of Paul’s life became the quest to welcome into God’s family those who were previously excluded. Shouldn’t that be the driving force of our lives as well?