Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ephesians 1

Ephesians 1:1-2: We have already discussed the issues with the authorship and destination of this letter. The letter begins with an identification of author and audience and a wish for grace and peace from God and “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 1:3-14: In Greek, these verses are one long sentence. This “style” does not fit with Paul’s style elsewhere. In any event, this one long sentence is a statement of blessing which in the language of worship and poetry expresses the basic theology of the letter. Given the distinctly poetic language of these verses, and of much of the letter (and of a great deal of the Bible itself), it would be helpful to say a few words about the poetic nature of theological language.

In his book, Hopeful Realism, theologian Douglas Ottati shares his guiding convictions about theology. Two of them are particularly relevant and helpful to us at this point. The first conviction is that a Christian theologian works with the church’s poetry (the many symbols, images, and patterns that emerge in the church’s scriptures, traditions and contemporary life) in order to portray the world, our possibilities, and our limits in relation to God. Theology traffics in images, symbols, and themes that clarify life in its true depth and circumstance. Thus the great doctrines of Christian theology help us orient our lives as they point toward and put us in touch with that which remains beyond our comprehension. They do not offer detached descriptions of things completely known so much as evocative images, patterns, models, and paradigms that interpret and explore but never entirely capture the reality in which we live and move and have our being. In this sense, the language of theology operates at a different level and with a different purpose than the quantitative discourse that has come to dominate so many aspects of our culture…. My second conviction is that Christian theology has a practical aim. Like a pastor, it tries to help persons and communities interact with current situations and realities in a manner that is faithfully responsive to God. (1-2)

Andrew Shanks, theologian and priest in the Church of England also offers an assessment of faith, theology and poetry in his book What is Truth? Faith is a community-building or community-transformative appropriation of the very deepest poetic truth…. The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed. Changed in the sense of saved. (5)

To see the language of Ephesians 1:3-14 as theological poetry helps us understand it more adequately and makes it more relevant to our lives. For instantce, we can worry less about how we were chosen, “before the foundation of the world” and ask what the author is trying to convey by such a phrase.

This long sentence begins as a word of blessing to God – the God Christians come to know when they affirm Jesus Christ as Lord. We bless God because we have been blessed by God in Christ. “In the heavenly places” is a phrase peculiar to Ephesians. It is a majestic phrase, indicating that Christian faith, this small struggling faith, has a cosmic scope. We have been blessed and chosen, chosen before the foundation of the world. Does this mean God knew all along that in the year 2008 I would be sitting at a computer pondering the very meaning of being chosen? I don’t think so. In a world where the empire was considered cosmic and destined from the very beginning of time to rule, this writer is making a counter claim for Christian faith. The claim has a practical import – we are to be holy and blameless in love. Using yet another image of the way we have been blessed by God, we are told that we were destined to become adopted children of God through Christ. All this is a gift of God’s grace, freely and lavishly given. In grace we have been blessed, chosen, destined for adoption, and forgiven. Though the focus has been cosmic, the author here introduces a very earthy event – the death of Jesus. That death is a significant part of God’s grace given the world. The precise significance of that death is not spelled out in detail. We have also been “clued in” to God’s work in the world, given wisdom and insight into the mystery of God’s purposes. Finally, it is God’s purpose to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” “God’s plan for history is to unite and reconcile the fragmented, alienated, and hostile universe” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In Christ we are given meaning and purpose. We are to live in accord with the mystery of God and God’s purpose to bring everything together in love. Those who have responded to the good news of God’s loving purpose for the world in Jesus Christ have been given the Holy Spirit, and this Spirit will continue to work in us. All of this will glorify God.

The language here is dense and poetic. It is audacious when you consider how small a movement the Christian church must have been at this time. To claim that you were part of the mysterious purposes of God in the world, when you had a powerful empire claiming that it was the will of God, that claim must have seemed startling. But that is what is being claimed. It must have served as tremendous encouragement. We are invited to the same encouragement. God has worked in our lives, and God continues to work in our lives and in the world to overcome alienation, fragmentation and hostility.

Ephesians 1:15-23: Following this incredible theological and poetic meditation on God and God’s work in the world a prayer for the readers is offered. It, too, is filled with some incredible poetry.

Verse 15 seems to indicate that the writer is not familiar with the readers, which would have been odd if Paul is the author of this letter and it was intended for the Ephesian Christian community.

Having heard of the faith and love of the community, the author offers prayers of thanks for them. He also prays that these persons and this Jesus community may be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they deepen their knowledge of God. He prays that this increasing wisdom will enlighten the eyes of their heart – a beautiful image. Christian wisdom is wisdom of the head and heart! The author wants the Ephesian Christains to know the hope which is part of Christian faith, know all that God has in store for Christians as partners in God’s work, and know the incredible power of God’s love as it works in our lives. The Message renders this part of the prayer as a prayer to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians, oh the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! We can use these words and images in our own prayer for our lives and our church.

The power at work in our lives is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, a life-giving power. The author also adds another dimension to the resurrection – Christ seated at the right hand of God. The reference is to Psalm 110:1. Notice the language of Christ seated at the heavenly places – “above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” This language runs counter to the imperial language of the time. It is Christ that rules ultimately, not the emperor or the imperial power in Rome. Christ is the ultimate ruler, and the church is “the body” of Christ, the presence of the one who fills all in all. In a city that was an important imperial center, the author of this letter is asserting that the Christian way of life will ultimately triumph over the imperial way of life. Once again we are challenged to ask, "Where there are “imperial” values in our world that we need to struggle with and against?" We do so trusting that the way of Christ is a way in tune with the grain of the universe.

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