< November 07, 2010 >

Commentary on Ephesians 1:11-23

 

The final phrases of a Jewish-styled opening berakah prayer of blessing join in this text to a Christocentric thanksgiving in "prayer report" form.

The writer (likely not Paul, but someone greatly influenced by him) does not list, as we might, the addressees' troubles, promising prayer. Instead, he lets these humble believers know who they truly are by celebrating the ongoing, world-changing redemptive action of God in which they are caught up. Scholars debate whether verses 20-23 include fragments of an early Christian hymn; but hymnic or not, these exultant lines heap one upon the next like breakers rolling ashore.

Two stories nest one inside the other in these verses. The "big" story, couched in the lyric prose of verses 17 through 23, unfolds like a grand-scale landscape. Active verbs convey what God has done for Christ and through Christ, raised and reigning. This divine story surrounds and sustains a human story that turns on two pronouns, "we" (referring to the first, Jewish believers) and "you" (the new Gentile siblings in the faith family). Repeated references to "hope," "inheritance," and "glory" connect divine action and Christian experience.

Several homiletical clues are worth noting.

First, the structure of Ephesians as a whole reminds us of a principle my preaching students hear constantly: "Indicative before imperative!" What this means, of course, is the paraenetic material in the New Testament, frequently expressed in imperatives, depends theologically upon material expressed in the indicative mood. Indicative statements declare what is (now) the case. Our Christian experience, difficult though it may sometimes be, is "reframed" within God's already-established future embodied in the risen Jesus Christ.

Although the prayer report includes a petition that "God ... may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation ... so that ... you may know ... the hope ... his glorious inheritance [and] ... his great power," this is not a homiletical prompt to scold the congregation for failing to recognize and use its gifts. An approach in line with the text will motivate the congregation by giving thanks for them. Congregations hear far too little about what they are getting right. We can help them sense how God's future rushes forward, even now, to meet us, reclaiming and realigning every present joy or sorrow, failure or achievement, within God's glorious intent.

Second, the question of power informs this text. The Christians of Asia Minor felt vulnerable. They constituted a religious minority in their towns--probably not dissimilar to the status of Muslim worshipers in many North American settings. They worshiped and behaved differently. Rumors circulated they were a simmering threat to the stability of culture and state since they claimed as their ultimate Lord not Caesar, but one Jesus Christ, crucified at the hands of Rome but (so they claimed) raised to life by God. Christians were shunned and sometimes persecuted.

The question, "Who really has the power in this world?" remains a live one for Christians today. As I write, the disastrous oil well leak in the Gulf continues spewing life-threatening crude up from the ocean floor unabated. The "powers that be" fumble. Whether it is a matter of lack of will or lack of skill is hotly debated. Meanwhile, fishermen's livelihoods are in ruin, and many predict the coastline will not recover for a dozen years or more. Amid waste and tragedy, who, indeed, has the power?

The Ephesians writer answers that human struggle in all its strutting power and stumbling failure plays out within a vast landscape lit by the eschatological hope of God's future. The reign of Christ is not a future "maybe" but already begun. The realized eschatology of Ephesians declares Christ reigns not "when" all enemies are put under his feet, but "until" the day when all creation acknowledges his rule. God works, and Christ reigns even now; our part is to discern how we are summoned to participate.

Making too much of the four Greek words for "power" in verses 19 and 20 would be a homiletical misstep, however; these terms carry different shades of meaning, but the intent is rhetorical. A preacher too focused on parsing fine the differences may not reap a sufficient theological harvest to sustain a hungry crowd.

A sermon might explore what it looks like on individual, ecclesial, and social planes to live the present moment as one already claimed by God's future. Here, concrete examples and stories will be essential. It can be all too easy in a text of such grand theological proportions to produce a sermon that deals in impressive but remote abstractions. A helpful sermon will interface the sweeping divine landscape this text paints with features of local geography. The preacher must ask, "What difference do these profound theological claims make in the lives of Jane, Ralph, and Melanie?" (or whomever comes to mind as she mentally scans the pews and community). The point for us, as for the Ephesians writer, is the difference this makes in our present struggle to live faithfully.

The preacher may, in fact, choose to "reframe" a particular challenge facing the congregation within the text's vision of "what is really going on." Some particular situation may leave the congregation feeling impotent and overwhelmed, their lives determined by forces beyond their control. A plant closing may have cost lost jobs and homes and a drastically reduced church budget. Natural disaster may be impacting the congregation and community profoundly; or it may simply be that a confluence of forces has led to dwindling church membership and flagging zeal for ministries long central to congregational life. Such a congregation needs help reframe their experience within God's future in the making. Congregational ministry, however modest its scale, is active participation in all God is doing, here and now, to defy the destructive forces of death and dissolution until all things shall be made new.