< November 23, 2008 >

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

 

Perhaps many of us remember a typical childhood conversation.

Approaching our mom or dad, we would say something like, "Mom, when I turn my head like this," (which was then demonstrated with great intent and vigor) "my neck hurts." The response was always, "Well, then don't turn your head like that." This is a logical answer, indeed, but frustrating for a child of eight-years-old or so. It may be the case that a similar conversation occurs in the minds of preachers for this Sunday. "When I try to preach Christ the King Sunday, my neck hurts." The answer may be something like the following, "Well, then don't preach Christ the King Sunday."

The result of moving back and forth between text and liturgical context can indeed be a pain in the neck. We are given texts that are rich and unique on their own merits, yet in our efforts to preach the day we do not preach the text. Sometimes the chosen lens through which to read them can seem forced or even manipulative. We find ourselves searching for what Christ the King Sunday says about the text rather than what the text might say about what it means to claim Christ as King. On Sundays such as this, it is a good reminder that the sermon takes place within the context of a worship service. It may be best to let the rest of the hour preach Christ the King and not the sermon itself.

This commentary will suggest that the particularities of this text can offer the preacher a thicker understanding of and presentation toward how we interpret Christ as King. It is important to note that in the coming lectionary year, Year B, the Fifteenth through the Twenty-First Sundays after Pentecost (Propers 10-16) will be devoted to reading through Ephesians with the exception of the passage chosen for today. This affords the preacher an opportunity to dive deep into the rich and varied theological images and claims offered in this letter. Today, we just get our feet wet, but it is important to utilize the entirety of the letter to help in the interpretation of the pericope set aside for today.

The first chapter of Ephesians establishes the cosmic scope of this correspondence. As is typical of the Pauline adaption of the Greco-Roman letter, the opening greeting immediately clues the reader into the letter's focus on God's plan and purposes, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God," yet verses 1-2 are left off the lectionary selection in Year B (Ephesians 1:3-14; Proper 10). While the thanksgiving usually follows the salutation, verses 3-23 resemble more of a prayer than general thanksgiving. "Blessed by the God" is a common Jewish prayer opening, and direct language of prayer is found in the first verses of the passage for today. Indeed, chapter one reads like a combination of thanksgiving and prayer. It is worth considering not only what difference this makes for the tone and direction of the letter itself but also how it will be heard by the recipients. What meaning is communicated by the language of prayer not otherwise made available?

The will, purpose, and plan of God dominate the language and images in verses 3-14 which is couched in the language of blessing, praise, and glory. There does seem to be a slight shift in verse 15, taking on the feel of the thanksgiving section of Paul's letters. As such, the gratitude for the Ephesians is cast in the form of a prayer. The aspects of God that were given glory and praise are now that which is requested be given to the Ephesians. That is, as wisdom is God's (1:8), the author prays that God "may give you a spirit of wisdom" (1:17); as hope is set on Christ (1:12), the prayer is for knowing "the hope to which he has called you" (1:18); as he chose us in Christ (1:4), so also may we know that it is hope to which we are called (1:18); as we are destined for adoption (1:5), the prayer is that we see with the eyes of our hearts "the riches of the inheritance" given to Christ. The cohesion of chapter one underscores the union between God, Christ, and the believer and looks toward the participation of the believer in the cosmic plan that will be addressed beginning in chapter two.

In fact, it would be worthwhile to extend the pericope through 2:10, as 2:1-10 is not included in the lectionary reading in Year B. The reason for this is twofold. First, the first section of chapter two (2:1-10) foregrounds oneness with Christ and will be more explicitly stated in the rest of the chapter (2:11-22). The inheritance of Christ is also our inheritance (1:14), because the power with which God raised Jesus from the dead (1:20) is the power that "made us alive together with Christ" (2:5). It is the same power that "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (2:6). Destined to be children of the heavenly father (3:14-15) through adoption (1:5), that which Christ has received is also for us.

Second, given the fact that these verses (1:15-23) are read on Christ the King Sunday, the notion of power, dominion, rule, and authority are re-imagined through the life of the believer. That is, God's power at work in Christ is also God's power at work in the believer toward good works (2:10), in the life of the assembly (ekklēsia) that makes known the gift of God's grace and the riches of Christ (3:10), and in the struggle against the powers of this world (6:10-17). The sheer use of synonyms for power in this small section of text (ischys, exousia, dunamis) reinforces that God's power in Christ is all-encompassing, all-embracing, and all-in-all (1:23). It is worth considering, on this Christ the King Sunday, the ways in which we exercise this power−a power that first raises from the dead (1:20; 2:5), a power that makes us servants (3:7), a strength that enables us to realize "what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ," that means the "fullness of God" (3:18-19). Finally, it is a power at work within us, "able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (3:20) toward God's plan "for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10).