Ephesians 3:1-13: Whether or not this is a genuine letter from Paul, the writer assumes the guise of Paul. If it is from Paul, the imprisonment mentioned is an imprisonment in Rome, Paul’s final imprisonment. He was executed in Rome.
Paul’s imprisonment on this occasion, and on other occasions are related to his commission as apostle to the Gentiles. He has done his work for them. He has taught a mystery which has long been hidden from humankind. It is a mystery that the Spirit has given the apostles and Christian prophets. The great mystery of the gospel which Paul has been given, and which has been given to the Christian community is that God brings together Jews and Gentiles into a single community. At the heart of the Christian understanding of the work of God is that God breaks down barriers between people. God seeks to bring people who have been separate together. The church should be a place of connection and reconciliation. That it has often been a place of segregation and separation runs counter to the great mystery of how God is at work in the world through Jesus Christ and the Spirit.
Paul’s mission is seen as a gift of grace. He saw his mission as bringing “the riches of Christ” to the Gentiles. How and to whom are we bringing the riches of Christ? God created all things, and in Christ God seeks to bring all together again. The church has the task of sharing “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.” The church shares such wisdom in such a way that even the cosmic powers see it. This is a powerful description of ministry for a community that may have been relatively small and sometimes beleaguered. In Christ, all have access to God, a bold connection with the God who created all things. The Ephesians are encouraged not to lose heart in the face of Paul’s suffering, or perhaps in the face of their own.
If this letter is not from the hand of Paul, it is, in part, a wonderful tribute to his ministry.
Ephesians 3:14-21: Ephesians is often prayerful and poetic, even in its theology. The writer returns here to prayer. “Father” and “family” are a word play in Greek – pater and patria. The point is not to engender God but to remind the reader of the inclusive vision of God, who includes in God’s family all persons. The writer prays for these persons who know God’s love and care and are a part of building God’s inclusive family that they may be strengthened in their inner being with power through God’s Spirit. He prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts, which is to be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that they might know God’s wisdom in breadth and length and height and depth and God’s love in Christ. All this is what it means to be filled with the fullness of God.
How will all this happen? Because God is able, by the power at work in us, “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” The Message: God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. While I wish Peterson was a little more attentive to inclusive language here, I appreciate his rendering of this passage.
God is at work, in our lives and in our world. God gives wisdom to be shared, love to be shared, and breaks down long-standing dividing walls between people. And we are invited to be a part of God’s work in the world.
Ephesians 4:1-16: As is typical of Pauline letters, the emphasis shifts from more theoretical theology to practical theology. What does living life in the power of the Christ and the power of the Spirit look like? How can we demonstrate in our lives that God breaks down dividing walls? If God’s power is working in us, what are the evidences of that and how can we help that along? Some of the answers we will struggle with, but will need to try and understand them in their cultural setting. We might even disagree with the implications for living drawn from the theology sketched in the letter.
In general, we are “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We are to do this “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Humility was considered a weakness in first century Hellenistic thought. Here it is seen as an essential quality of life in the Spirit, and I think we need to understand that it has nothing to do with self-denigration. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, an understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (Robert Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171) Deep spiritual humility defies the connotations of self-debasement, of ineffective meekness, that our culture assigns to the word “humility” and that I too imagined until I dug into sacred text, and lived with my children, and embarked on this odyssey of conversation…. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything anew, is closely linked with delight. This original spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder. (Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, 236, 237)
We are to strive for unity and peace because, the writer reminds us, we are one. At the same time, within our unity, there is a grace-filled diversity. Each person has been given gifts and graces (the word for “grace” also means “gift”). These gifts come from the Christ who has been on earth and in the heavenly realm. The list of gifts here, while similar to lists in Romans and I Corinthians has a more universal tone. In those writings, the context of the gifts given is the local Christian community. Here the context seems to be the church worldwide. The gifts – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – are to be used to equip all for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Notice the inner and outer focus of these phrases. God’s people together do the work of ministry, participate in God’s work in the world. They also work together to build up the Christian community. A strong Christian community is a necessary support structure for doing God’s work in the world, and it embodies God’s work in the world as it is a community of peace.
Christians continue in ministry and in building up the body of Christ until we all mature in Christ, until all become Christ-like. The opposite of being mature in Christ is to be immature, childlike in a negative sense, easily distracted by every new religious fascination. Instead we are to speak the truth in love (both parts of that are vitally important). “The truth of the faith can be claimed in an unloving way that violates the very claim to Christian truth; love can be affirmed in a shallow manner indifferent to truth” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Speaking the truth in love to each other, the community grows into who it is, Christ.
Ephesians 4:17-24: The writer has been describing the new way of life in Christ. He now looks at another way of life which needs to be left behind. There are elements of the Roman culture that don’t fit with the Christian way – confused thinking, hardness of heart rather than sensitivity. This is not the way of life they have learned, and what they have learned ultimately comes from Jesus. The Ephesian Christians are invited “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Ephesians 4:25-32: Part of this new life is “speaking the truth to our neighbors.” The universal human assumption is that people say what is to their own advantage, that projecting a desirable self-image is primary in what people say. Christians are freed from this concern with the self. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Anger may occasionally be an appropriate response to certain circumstances in the world, though it should be used sparingly. However, to nurse a grudge, to hold tight to one’s anger, is not appropriate for Christians. Christians are to work to support themselves and to have something to give others in need. Words should give grace to those who hear them. In general, do not grieve God’s Spirit, not break God’s heart. Put away bitterness, wrath, anger (anger is not encouraged), wrangling, slander, malice. Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving. I think it is interesting to note the primary images of the Christian life here – kindness and peaceableness, watching our words so that they give grace. Even as we struggle for a better world, work hard for justice, we should never forget this important side of being Christian, and our faith communities should be marked by such behavior. The churches can be mean-spirited places is so foreign to the vision of the Christian way of life described in this text. It must break God’s heart.