< January 02, 2011 >

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

 

The opening words of this reading from Ephesians signal to whom the praise should be given on this Sunday and every Sunday -- God.

While we tend to put Jesus front and center at Christmas, and legitimately so, it is worthwhile to remember that at stake in all of this is God's longing to bring the entire world into the relationship that is acknowledged at the start of the blessing-- "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). Just as God is Father to Jesus, God desires to be father to all who are in Christ. In fact, in verse 3, the root for "blessing" is used no less than three times in this one verse. This repetition of blessing sets the stage for the claim of the abundance of God's grace that is at the heart of these opening verses of the letter.

These verses of the letter to the Ephesians are always the designated epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Christmas, paired with the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18), in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. One obvious reason for this matchmaking lies in the language about adoption and inheritance found in the Ephesians text as compared to John's similar claim, "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God" (1:12-13).

These Sundays after Christmas are some of the more challenging preaching opportunities. What does a preacher say that has not already been said? One solution is to take our cues from these biblical texts as to general themes about what Christmas is and can mean. While I am usually a proponent of preaching only one text on any given Sunday, and do not typically encourage finding connections between the lectionary texts, the resonances between John and Ephesians might create some much needed creativity and imagination on these "morning after" Sundays.

For example, another connection between the two readings might be the cosmic perspective of each of these writers. Just as John puts the beginnings of Jesus outside of time and space, "in the beginning" (1:1), the writer of Ephesians also places us in an eternal reality, "in the heavenly places" (used only in Ephesians; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12), "before the foundation of the world" (1:4), "things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10). This connection alone offers a different take on the meaning of Christmas. Putting the birth of Jesus side by side with the claim of his pre-temporal existence reminds us that when we confess our faith in Jesus, we give testimony to both the incarnation and the divination of Christ. We hold both together simultaneously -- that Jesus is fully human yet fully of God, and for John, the very presence of "I AM" in the world.

The writer of Ephesians communicates that in Christ, God is making God's self known to the world, "he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ" (1:9). A similar claim is made by the author of John's Gospel, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" 1:18). While the terminology is different, Ephesians uses the term gnorizo, John uses exago, there is a shared sense that God is revealing God's self in a new way through Christ. How does Christ make known God? How often do we ask what we learn about God when we hear the stories of Jesus' ministry?

Amazingly, Ephesians 1:3-14 is all one sentence in Greek. Taking the form of a general blessing rather than the more usual thanksgiving of the first verses of a Greco-Roman letter, these verses could easily be transported to a number of different literary contexts because they do not specifically speak about or to the recipients of the letter. In this sense, there is a reinforcement of the cosmic nature of God's activity in Christ. That is, the blessing that is possible because of what God has done in Jesus Christ transcends the boundaries of a particular audience. This resonates with John's prologue, where the entire world is the recipient of the word made flesh, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (1:9).

The urgency of one long sentence gives emphasis to the bountiful blessings that are made possible in Christ's death and resurrection. It is as if the author cannot stop, cannot contain "every spiritual blessing" (1:3) once he gets started. Verse 6 is better translated, "to the praise of his glorious grace that he graced on us." Note also the repetition of the word "all" and the use of the word "lavish" (1:8). The translation "lavish" is certainly acceptable for a term that means "abundance," "overflowing" or "make extremely rich," but it has the sense of being more than enough with even some left over.

There is an extravagance communicated in these opening words to this letter that gets at the heart of what God becoming human can and should mean. This claim is not unlike what we hear in John's Prologue, "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (1:16). The grace that God shows in the birth of Jesus is only the beginning of the grace we will see in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Verse 10 in the Ephesians text expresses this claim as well, "to gather up all things in him." A better translation of the meaning of this verb is "to bring everything together" or "to sum up." In other words, Jesus, in the Word made flesh, sums up what God's grace upon grace looks like.