Category: Ephesians

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13B (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Ephesians 6:10-20 New Revised Standard Version

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth  around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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                Two hymns stand out from my early years growing up in the Episcopal Church. The reading from Ephesians 6 brings them to memory. They may or may not be recognizable to everyone because they don’t appear in most Mainline Protestant hymnals published over the past few decades. These hymns are “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” These hymns pick up aspects of the biblical message, including the one we find here in Ephesians 6.  And as the second verse of “Onward Christian Soldiers” declares:

At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers, On to victory.
Hell’s foundations quiver, At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, Loud your anthems raise.
Onward, Christian soldiers! 
Marching as to war, 
Looking unto Jesus, who is gone before. 

These hymns have disappeared from most of our hymnals as Mainline Protestants have rightfully tried to step away from the militaristic dimensions of our former commitment to the expansion of Christendom. But you can see why they might resonate with a church that saw itself as the vanguard of God’s saving work in the world.

                As our exploration of the Ephesian letter, which has been featured in the post-Pentecost season, comes to an end, we encounter this call to put on the whole armor of God. The author of the letter (we’ll once again call him Paul for the sake of tradition) envisions the church in a battle with the devil. If you’re in a battle you will need protection and weapons so you can stand against the “wiles of the devil.” For early Christians who lived as a religious minority within an often hostile culture, this call to arms seems appropriate. The same is true for Christians living today in places where survival as Christians is always under threat. For middle-class Mainline Protestants living in suburban North America or Europe, such a message might seem out of place. But is there a message here that speaks to our situation without embracing the militarism that seems to be tied up in the metaphor? As my Muslim friends remind me, jihad can be conceived as a form of spiritual struggle rather than holy war.  Might we understand the passage here in the same way?

                As for this passage, the author makes use of an image that would be immediately recognizable by any reader living in the Roman Empire.  With the call to put on the whole armor of God issued, we need to take an inventory of that armor that will be used not in physical warfare but spiritual warfare. Paul begins with the belt of truth. The belt might seem irrelevant, but it holds everything together. From there we move to the breastplate of righteousness. That piece of armor is much more prominent as it is the key piece of protective body armor. From there we go to the shoes (military grade), shield, helmet, and finally the sword. Now Paul gives each of these armaments a spiritual definition. Thus, the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness are foundational elements for the definition of the Christian identity. Christians by definition should be committed to truth and righteousness (justice. From there we move to the shoes, which enable the legionnaire to march across the empire imposing Rome’s vision of good news/peace. For early Christians, this image is a reminder that theirs is a missionary movement. They have good news to share as well, and they likely will be traversing the Roman roads, which requires sturdy shoes. So, be ready when the call comes. Recognizing that not everyone will receive their message with open arms, but might shoot flaming arrows, a good shield is required. Of course, every soldier needs a helmet, and here the helmet represents salvation, the ultimate protection. With all of this protective equipment, the soldier for Christ is ready to go on the offensive with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. That is, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Paul seems to recognize that this evangelistic work of proclaiming the peace of God could be dangerous. So, it’s good to be prepared for opposition.

                Paul’s use of this imagery is rooted in his cosmic vision. For him, to proclaim the good news of Jesus is to engage in spiritual warfare. He might be using imagery taken from the Roman legions that were ubiquitous across the empire, especially in more restive provinces, but he’s not envisioning forced conversions. While this is a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the enemy is Satan who has taken control of the world situation. This battle to deliver the people from Satan’s control is not a battle against flesh and blood. It is instead a spiritual battle. Unfortunately, it’s easy to move from spiritual to actual battle. This is especially true when non-Christian religions and traditions with the gods of the other traditions being conceived as demons. Thus, Christianity is good, the other religions are evil. Therefore, they must be destroyed (together with their adherents). We’ve seen this take place down through the centuries. As Miguel de la Torre and Albert Hernández write: “Over the next two thousand years, this exclusive understanding, coupled with the historical process of conquest and colonization, will lead to much suffering, misery, and death between Christians and the people of other faiths and cultures” [The Quest for the Historical Satan, p. 79]. So, whatever we say about this passage, we must be careful not to use it to justify oppression, conquest, and more.

                I should say something here about the mythological imagery here (I should note that I’ve been reading a bit of Rudolph Bultmann lately). Paul’s vision reflects a particular worldview that we moderns may have set aside, but the language of myth is designed to communicate deeper truths. For Bultmann, this imagery needed to be set aside through the process of “demythologization,” so that it could be more accessible to moderns. I’m not so sure we can completely remove the mythological elements from the conversation, because there is a growing feeling that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. So, maybe the language here is filled with mythological elements, but at the same time, it reflects cosmic realities that lay behind the evils present in this world. One way to look at this passage and conceive of our work as Christians is to recognize the reality that structural evil exists and that these structures take on a life of their own that envelope us. So, the work of God involves resistance to those cosmic forces that seek to enslave us.

                This is a war of resistance, but the question is the nature of our response. Paul doesn’t mention love here, but it probably should be brought into the conversation. Richard Beck has written an insightful book titled Reviving Old Scratch. Old Scratch is a nickname for Satan that Beck encountered as he taught a bible study in a maximum-security prison. He writes that what he learned at the prison was that “there are forces in the world satanically opposed to love. So, if love is going to invade and establish a beachhead in our lives, we’re going to have to fight for it. That is what I mean by spiritual warfare.” It is a path that took Jesus to the cross [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 97]. In the book, Beck reminds us that social justice is itself a form of spiritual warfare, and therefore needs to be engaged in with spiritual weapons lest we make people the enemy rather than Old Scratch.

                The work of spiritual warfare as outlined here includes the proclamation of the good news of God’s peace (as opposed to the Roman peace) and prayer. The closing paragraph of our passage calls on the readers to “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” This requires alertness and perseverance as they pray for the saints of God, including Paul and his companions. In fact, Paul (or whoever the author is) asks that they pray for him specifically asking that he might have boldness as he proclaims the “mystery of the gospel.” Why? Because he is an “ambassador in chains.” Tradition suggests that Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison, perhaps in Rome. Yes, even in prison he continues his work of proclamation. Therefore, he asks for boldness. Yes, knowing that the churches are praying for him gives him boldness. The question then for us as modern Christians who likely aren’t sitting in prison is what does boldness look like?

                We live in challenging times. Churches are struggling to survive. In North America and Europe, it’s not a matter of persecution and oppression, but the world is not as receptive to the message. To be honest, Christians have been part of the problem. But there is also something spiritual out there that requires our attention. It requires boldness. But standing firm for what is true and just requires boldness also requires grace and love so that we might be peacemakers, not spiritual warmongers.

                For more background on the passage see my Ephesians: A Participatory StudyGuide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 85-97.

Wise Living – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12B (Ephesians 5)

Lamp of Wisdom – Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire

 

Ephesians 5:15-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

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            Be imitators of God. That is the message we heard from the previous lectionary reading (Eph. 5:1). As we discovered any attempt to live in this way requires the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  As chapter 5 continues, the author (for simplicity we will call the author Paul) calls on the readers, most of whom were of Gentile background, to live as children of light (Eph. 5:8) rather than as children of darkness. There is a bit of “comeoutism” here, as Paul reminds the readers of their former lives that were marked by all manner of disobedience. So, don’t go back to that life (Eph. 5:3-14). Remember, you are a new creation in Christ, so live accordingly. What we have here is not only an ethical imperative but a call to discipleship. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

            The reading from Ephesians 5 is brief, but it follows upon what came before concerning their new status as children of life and precedes the household code that presents so many problems to Christians. What does it mean for wives to submit themselves to their husbands? What does it mean for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church? The lectionary creators have chosen to avoid these verses, which gives preachers a break but doesn’t give us the ability to answer that question (for a discussion of the household codes and the idea of mutual submission see my Ephesians’ study guide, pp 71-81).

            Here in our reading, the focus is on wise living. So, as Paul writes: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). You will notice a bit of the apocalyptic here with the reference to the days being evil. For a minority religious community whose beliefs and practices stand apart from the rest of the community, this seems like an apt description of the situation. For Jewish Christians, there is a long tradition to draw upon, but for Gentile Christians, this is all new. To be in Christ is to leave behind everything they understood to be true. So, Paul asks them to live wisely. For Jewish Christians at least, the Wisdom tradition might have given them guidance, whether that be the canonical book of Proverbs or the non-canonical books like Wisdom of Solomon. So, guided by Wisdom (Sophia), they should refrain from all foolishness. Instead, seek to discern the will of God. In other words, wisdom and the will of God are parallel to each other.

            Paul issues a contrast here. Don’t get drunk with wine because that’s debauchery. No Bacchanalia for these believers, who might have participated in the rites of Bacchus/Dionysius before their conversion. For Mainline Protestants, many of our traditions were at one point committed to a temperance message. My own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, can claim as one of its own Cary Nation, who was known for taking her hatchet to saloons to do damage to their trade. In recent years, we’ve thrown that message off, even if we continue to use grape juice in communion. The danger is to go the other direction in reaction. Unfortunately, we are beginning to see the growth of alcoholism among Protestant clergy. While a sermon about refraining from too much alcohol consumption might not go over well in our congregations, the warning to stay clear of drunkenness is likely worth heading as drunkenness is not a good expression of Christian discipleship. In addition, addictions of any kind can be damaging to the health of individuals and communities.

            So, instead of getting drunk with wine, which might have been part of these Christians’ former worship experiences, Paul invites them to be filled with the Spirit. This call to be filled with the Spirit reminds us of the promise we hear in Acts 2, where those who are being saved in Christ will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts2:38). Here in Ephesians, it is the Spirit who inspires and empowers the people of God as they move toward maturity in Christ, gifting the church with persons/gifts that equip the saints for ministry as they move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). [For more on the subject of spiritual gifts see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, 2nd edition, (Energion Publications, 2021)].

            This call to be filled with the Spirit leads to the next point in the passage. That point has to do with worship. The worship of God is the foundation of the Christian life. So, as we are filled with the Spirit we gather to worship God, sharing together in singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.” Yes, as we are filled with the Spirit we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. As someone who finds singing to be foundational to my own worship life, I’m especially appreciative of this encouragement to sing to the Lord. Interestingly, the next phrase in the reading takes us beyond the corporate worship experience, though assumedly it flows out of that experience. Paul asks us to give thanks to God the Father As we do this, we can give thanks to God “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).

            With that, the reading ends, but the chapter does not. Interestingly, the Common English Bible extends the sentence to include verse 21: “and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.”  So, wise living includes submission to one another out of respect for Christ. That, of course, leads into the Household code that begins in verse 22 and continues through Ephesians 6:9. It is important to note that the verb in verse 22, which enjoins wives to submit to their husbands is derived from verse 21. In that transition verse, the author calls on the people of God to submit themselves to each other “out of reverence for Christ.” [For more on mutual submission see my Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Bible Study, (Energion Publications, 2016), pp. 55-64]

            Whether the author (Paul) envisioned this as a call for a form of mutual submission that would overturn the traditional understanding of the household codes is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, however the household codes are understood, the call here is to live wisely as an expression of the Spirit-filled life that shows respect and reverence for Christ Jesus. In doing so, one will be an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1).

For more on this passage and its larger context see my Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 59-83].

 

Image Attribution: Lamp of Wisdom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54977 [retrieved August 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rowanbank/5815103193/.

A Christian Way of Living – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11B (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers – Eduoard Manet 1865

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 New Revised Standard Version

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore  be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

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                Interestingly, polls suggest that people are leaving the church (dones) or avoiding Christianity altogether (nones) is that they feel that Christians don’t live a very Christian life. I want to rebut this feeling, but when I look around at the state of the world, especially American Christianity, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment. Clergy scandals that range from pedophilia to embezzlement are rampant. There are political alliances that undermine Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor. I know I was appalled to see the “Christian Flag” being carried by rioters as they stormed the capital building (to be honest I’ve never liked the Christian flag, but that was the last straw for me). Now, I know that these are not the only expressions of “Christianity” present in our midst, but they do resonate with the broader public. So, a word like the one we hear in the reading from Ephesians for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost is worth considering as an antidote to the current situation. What we hear in this reading is a call to live one’s life in a way that reflects the message of Jesus. Surely this would be a good vaccine!

                The word we encounter here at the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 of Ephesians picks up after a conversation concerning spiritual gifts. According to Paul (remember for sake of tradition and brevity I’m assuming Pauline authorship even though it is disputed) these gifts have been given to the church by the grace of God to equip the saints for ministry so that the saints might move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). The reading for the Eleventh Sunday is an outgrowth of that earlier word from Ephesians 4. There is, however, a paragraph that separates the two lectionary readings that need to be mentioned. In verses 17-24 Paul tells the readers, who are mostly Gentile, not to live as Gentiles. That is, they should not live in the futility of their minds with darkened understandings that result from living outside the sphere of God’s reign. Paul reminds them that because they are in Christ, they have to put away their old (may we say pagan) way of living. In line with the eschatological vision of the early church, Paul reminds them that to be in Christ means moving from the old world/life/creation to the new world/life/creation. Since they are in Christ they should clothe themselves in a manner that reflects that they have been “created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”  (Eph. 4:24).

                The paragraph omitted by the lectionary creators is an important connector between the word about spiritual gifts and the call to live a life that is worthy of their calling as saints of God. Now that they are clothed with Christ, Paul tells the Ephesians (and all other readers if this was, as it appears, a circular letter) to put away falsehood, speak truth to one’s neighbors (now that’s a word for today), not let anger lead to sin (Paul recognizes that anger is a normal experience, just don’t let it fester and lead to evil deeds), and finally, he tells them not to make room for the devil. This last reference needn’t be taken literally in reference to a personage called the devil, but it is a recognition that evil is a spiritual force that can take root in our lives if we give it room to maneuver (vs. 25-27).

                Now Paul’s not finished. He also speaks of those who transgress the law by stealing rather than engaging in honest work so they can set aside a provision for the  needy. Paul’s is still not finished. He also includes a word about our speech. Don’t let any evil talk come from your mouth is the message that he gives them. What does he mean by this? Well, the phrase that follows is pretty clear. Let what you say build up others and provide words of grace. It is worth considering the message of James concerning the tongue, which he calls a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Yes, it can be used to bless God, but it can also be used to curse those who are created in the likeness of God. James tells us that this is not the way things are supposed to be (James 3:9-10).  While we don’t have a full rundown of the Ten Commandments here, I think we get the point. The Christian life may begin with grace, but there are ethical expectations for us.

                Earlier in the chapter, Paul speaks of his desire that the people experience the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He reminds us that there is but one body and one Spirit as well as one Lord, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:3-5). If you go to this passage do you see a possible allusion to the Trinity? In our reading, we hear the author tell the people not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). The reference to the seal of the Spirit could be understood as being baptism. So, to those who are sealed in the Holy Spirit through baptism, they are called upon to live accordingly. Don’t grieve the Spirit by living in a way that dishonors the Gospel with which they are sealed through baptism.

                Having spoken of this seal of the Spirit, the author again addresses the Gentile way of living. Since they are sealed in the Spirit, they should put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. Instead, they should be kind to each other, be tenderhearted, and forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven them. With this word as a foundation, Paul makes a major ask of them— “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

                Imitate God as beloved children. How might one imitate God? Paul’s answer is this: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Later in this chapter, Paul will encourage husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church by giving themselves up for their wives (Eph. 5:25). However, we read that reference (and it can be read as a call to mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), it seems logical to answer the question of how to imitate God is to love as Jesus loves. Perhaps if we love as Jesus loves we will show the world a different face. Is that not a message for today?

                For more background on the passage see my book Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), chapter 6.

No More Dividing Walls – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (Ephesians 2)

Ephesians 2:11-22 New Revised Standard Version

 

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

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                It’s been decades now since Ronald Reagan stood at the wall in West Berlin and declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Well, Mr. Gorbachev didn’t actually tear down the wall, but in 1989, while the world watched (I watched) residents of East and West Berlin mounted the wall and began to tear it down, uniting the divided city. Before too long, the wall of separation that divided East and West Germany came down as well, allowing the two parts of the country to come back together. It was an amazing sight that for a moment gave the illusion that a new age in world history had begun. Unfortunately, many dividing walls remain in place across the globe, including in many of our communities. There is a wall running through Palestine dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories. There is the wall that runs across the southern border of the United States that has become a focus of attention in the United States. These are literal walls, but there are other walls that are spiritual/cultural/ethic that continue to divide persons and communities from one another.

                The lectionary takes us back to the Ephesian letter for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. In this letter, the author, whom we will again refer to as Paul even though the authorship of the letter remains contested, speaks to a concern present in the early church. That concern is the ongoing tension existing between Jewish and Gentile believers. If, as many scholars believe, this letter was written in Paul’s name after his death, we are reading a letter written as  Gentiles had begun to be the dominant group within the church. It would appear that the wall of separation that we witness in the Galatian letter was still present within the church. The letter is, it would appear, written to Gentile believers because Paul reminds them that once they were strangers and aliens (xenoi) and therefore far off from God’s people. That is, they are part of the household of God that is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. Therefore, while the Gentiles were once a people without hope because they were without God, now they are no longer Gentiles but they have become citizens in the Israel of God. Now that they have embraced the message of Jesus there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile for all make up the one people of God in Christ.  Therefore, now Jew and Gentile were one people in Christ.

                In fact, in Christ, God has created a new humanity, reconciling both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, “putting to death that hostility through it” so that there might be peace (vss. 15-16). That dividing wall has been broken down, just like the Berlin Wall. In the process of doing this, we’re told that Christ has abolished the law, with its commandments and ordinances. Most likely, the author has in mind the ordinance of circumcision not God’s moral commands, like the commandment against murder. What is abolished is the requirement to fulfill certain observances that had once divided Jew and Gentile from each other and had created hostility between the two. Note that in verse 11, Paul acknowledges that the Gentiles had once been known as the “uncircumcised” by the “circumcised.” Thus, for the citizens of God’s realm, circumcision had been the marker, the documentation, of their citizenship (at least for males). The hostility that had existed between those inside the household of God and those outside based on circumcision as proper documentation of citizenship would have to go if the church was going to move forward with both Jewish and Gentile members.

                The dividing wall was demolished through the cross. Sammy Alfaro puts it this way:

In the one act of the cross, those who were far off and those who were near were reconciled unto God. No special shortcut treatment for the chosen nation and no back-of-the-line stiff-arm status for Gentiles. Hearkening to the Trinitarian blessings of God in the first chapter of the letter, access to God takes on Trinitarian form: the Son provides the means and the Spirit the avenue for reconciliation with the Father (v. 18) [Connections, p. 172].

To be in Christ is to become part of the Temple of God, the place where God meets God’s people. The means of access to God has been opened up to all through Christ. While there was, in the Jerusalem Temple, a “Court of the Gentiles,” access to the Holy of Holies had been denied to them. Now, even that was open to Gentiles through Christ, who is the fulfillment of the Law.

                So, what do we make of this word to the church? Do any walls of hostility still exist within the church? By church, I don’t simply mean local congregations or even denominations, I mean the church at large. The answer, of course, is yes, walls still exist. Some are doctrinal, others are ethnic. Some churches fully welcome LGBTQ persons, affirming their personhood so that there are no barriers to their participation. They are, in Christ, fully citizens of the realm. There are other churches that either won’t allow LGBTQ folk in the church or at the very least limit how they are present (“don’t ask, don’t tell”). Some churches ordain women and churches that don’t allow women to speak in the church (at least not when men are present). I think you get the picture. We may say we are one in Christ, but we remain divided. Thus, this word to the church given centuries before must continually be revisited. What walls must come down today? How is the Spirit at work breaking down these walls?

For more on this passage see my book: Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion Publications, p. 23-33].

Chosen for Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7B (Ephesians 1)

 

Waiting for the Blessing —  Pymonenko, Mykola

 

Ephesians 1:3-14 – New Revised Standard Edition

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

 

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                Every professional team sport has a draft in which teams chose athletes to stock the team. If the team has the first pick in the draft, the choices are limited only by the number of athletes available. It’s a coveted position to be in, though the pick comes with a caveat. The team with the first pick normally is the one with the worst record in the league. That is, they are a bad team. The hope is that by giving the worst team in the league the first pick, they can begin improving themselves (as long as they choose wisely).

                The opening chapter of the Ephesian letter takes up the question of being chosen by God to be part of God’s team. In a sense, everyone is a first-round pick. At least that’s one way of reading the passage before us. Just a note, the passage is also featured in the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Christmas. Liturgically, the context is somewhat different. Instead of a Christmas message, we find ourselves situated on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B). The reading is the first of several that will take us through the letter until we reach chapter six.

                When it comes to conversations about the Ephesian letter, the identity of the author always comes up. There is no consensus, with some scholars accepting the traditional view that Paul is the author. After all, the letter opens by identifying the author as the Apostle Paul (Eph. 1:1). Others argue that based on the theology, the style of writing, and other markers, it must be the product of a later author. I address some of this in my Participatory Study Guide on Ephesians, though I don’t take a position on the question of identity. For our purposes, I’m not sure it matters whether it is Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name (according to ancient practice this doesn’t make it a fake letter if Paul didn’t write it). What seems clear is that the author is a Jewish Christian/Christian Jew, and the audience is predominantly Gentile. Note that Paul uses the word “we” in verse 12 and “you” in verse 13. The we who were the first to set their hope in Christ would have been Jewish believers in Jesus. Nevertheless, as verse 13 spells out, “you” (Gentiles) are also included in this act of adoption since they had heard the word of truth and believed in Christ and had received the seal of their salvation, the Holy Spirit. If we keep all of this in mind, then we can for the sake of simplicity call the author Paul.

                “Paul” begins by affirming the many spiritual blessings God has poured out upon God’s people, doing this in Christ.  Having declared that God is the giver of spiritual blessings in and through Christ, Paul speaks of God choosing “us” before creation to be holy and blameless, predestining us according to God’s plan. If we understand the author to be of Jewish descent and most of the audience is Gentile Christians, then the “us” includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians, creating the bridge that the author wishes to build between the two communities.

                Now, words like choose and predestine found here tend to be problematic for some audiences. Indeed, it is a problem for me. So, what does it mean for God to have chosen “us” from before God began to create? How does that affect our own ability to choose? For those of us who embrace an “open and relational” view of God, which assumes that the future is open how might God predestine us for adoption as God’s child? Don’t we have a choice in the matter? As we ponder these questions, we can return to the opening line of the passage, which calls on us to offer blessings to God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

                It is, in my opinion, best if we do not read these words about predestination in an individualistic manner. It’s not that God has predestined each of us individually for salvation (or damnation for that matter), rather God has chosen Jesus to be the agent of reconciliation. Thus, Jesus provides the means by which we are adopted as children of God. According to our reading, this involves the blood of Christ. Paul doesn’t go into graphic detail here. He doesn’t refer to the cross, only that in some way the blood of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins and receive God’s grace. Whatever the means, this act of grace is costly and should not be taken for granted.

                As the passage continues, Paul takes up the matter of our inheritance as one’s adopted as children of God. When it comes to adoption, the New International Version uses the word “sonship,” which is rather gender-specific but would reflect the way inheritances were understood in the ancient world, as an inheritance generally went to a son and not to a daughter. Thus, the choice made by the NRSV translators is likely a better one for a modern Christian audience. Now, when it comes to the heirs of God in Christ, note that the author speaks of all things being gathered up, both in heaven and on earth. Thus, in Christ we receive an inheritance. This reference to all things being gathered up is intriguing because it is suggestive while not being definitive that God has an eye toward universal reconciliation/redemption (vs. 10). While this word includes heaven, it also speaks of God’s care for the creation.

                This is a passage rich in meaning. It raises difficult questions that might not be resolvable in a sermon, but what it does say is that God is concerned about the creation, so much so that God has chosen a way of redeeming that which is broken. This comes as an act of grace in Christ and through the Holy Spirit (there is a Trinitarian feel in this passage). What it does, however, is invite gratitude to God on our part for the decision to choose us in Christ to be the recipient of God’s blessings. This need not require of us a belief that God determines all things. It does suggest that God has chosen to act on our behalf to bless us in Christ. In that way God is sovereign—not as a tyrant or despot but as one who acts graciously on our behalf, inviting us to become part of the family of God. That is not something we earn but which we receive as a divine gift in Christ our savior.   

For more on this passage see my book on Ephesians in Energion Publication’s Participatory Study Guide series.      

Image attribution: Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55788 [retrieved July 4, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PimonenkoNK_PashalZautrRYB.jpg.