Lectionary Commentaries for July 15, 2012
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 6:14-29

Emerson Powery

The report of John’s death, Jesus’ mentor (cf. 1:9), was the end of innocence for Jesus’ mission.

Placing this account between the commission and the return of the twelve disciples (during the heart of the expansion of the Jesus movement), Mark relayed the story of John and Herod as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death by the hands of a political, though sympathetic, figure. Immediately before Mark told this story—the only one in which Jesus was not the primary subject—he told the story of the rejection of Jesus at home.

The death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29)

Mark chose this opportunity, after Jesus sent out his disciples on their first formal mission, to report the death of John the Baptist. Mark hinted at this political death earlier in the story when John was arrested (1:14), but saved the full report until chapter 6. Interpreters who choose to think that Jesus’ life and mission were disconnected from the socio-political affairs of his first century context must view this account (John’s death by Herod) as an aside.  Using intercalation (i.e., the “sandwich” technique) once again, Mark placed this account between the commission and the return of the disciples to intimate its significance for the expansion of Jesus’ mission.

Despite what some scholars suggest, this scene is not an interlude. The manner of John’s death was intimately tied to the mission of Jesus. This story showed Markan narrative technique at its best. Not only did John’s message meet with political obstacles, so would Jesus’ and so would his followers’ (cf. Mark 13). John’s declaration of the unlawfulness of Herod’s marriage to Herodias would probably have been shared by Jesus as well (cf. Mark 10). In addition, marriages of this type already had huge political implications attached to them. (Compare the less sensational account in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews.)

At the beginning of the section, Mark offered transitional verses (verses 14-16) in order to express Herod’s views of the Jesus’ movement. Unlike others who thought that Jesus was a “prophet” (cf. 8:28), Herod thought that Jesus was a resurrected John (6:16). Herod’s assessment made a close link between the missions of Jesus and John. Not only was Jesus’ mission initiated only after John’s arrest, according to Mark, but Jesus’ continual activity was viewed by the “powers that be” as intimately associated with John’s. These close ties would appear again later in the story (cf. Mark 11:27-33).

The length and detail of this account were also significant. There is not enough space here to explore in depth Luke’s omission of this story or Matthew’s abbreviated version, but a few words are in order. Mark’s version was filled with detail and intrigue.  Only Mark’s audience would have discovered other views of Jesus (besides Herod’s), Herodias’s grudge, and the specific conversation between Herodias and her daughter.

In addition, there was a relevant disagreement between Mark and Matthew on Herod’s view of John. In Matthew, Herod feared the people, who considered John to be a prophet (Matthew 14:5). In Mark, Herod feared John himself, considering him a “righteous and holy man” (dikaion kai hagion).  Herod, in Mark, “protected” John (6:20) until the request came for his head. In Matthew, Herod wanted him killed (Matthew 14:5). Even after his agreement to fulfill his oath, Herod “deeply grieved” in Mark’s account (6:26). This word, perilupos (“deeply grieved, sadness”), was used only here and to describe Jesus’ feelings in Gethsemane (14:34)!

We should assume, in light of the description of Herod’s attitude towards John (in verse 20), that this was a sincere contrite feeling. Mark’s Herod was a sympathetic figure, whose public oath became his own demise. In the biblical tradition, oaths were not easily dismissed among Jews. The tension was depicted clearly at the end of 6:26.

Finally, Mark’s portrayal of women in this chapter deserves mention.  Mark’s more sympathetic depiction of Herod did not carry over to Herodias. Her grudge against John finally found its satisfaction—by means of her daughter’s entertainment value—as she became the person most responsible for John’s death in Mark’s account. (Josephus blamed John’s death entirely on Herod, never mentioning Herodias or her daughter in his account of the murder.)

While most of the positive examples of women in the story were unnamed, this woman of high standing received her name, as well as her “prize” on a platter. Yet, her reward halted the work and mission of the messenger sent by God. So, her overall role would have been viewed in a negative light. To be fair to Mark, the author bracketed this portrayal of two negative female characters with two positive female images (cf. 5:24-24 and 7:24-30).

Many scholars have imagined a highly charged sexual event in the dance, partly due to Western scholarship’s interpretive views of the “Orient.” A number of feminist biblical scholars have rightly challenged this interpretation. Mark simply writes that she “came in and danced, (and) she pleased Herod and his guests” (6:22). Mark described Herodias’ daughter as a korasion (verse 22), which was used only here and for the 12-year old “little girl” in 5:41-42.

It seems that their daughter (since she was Herod’s daughter, too; 6:22) was young.  At the same time, John could not have died a more ignominious death in the culture of the first century … at the instigation of a woman.  As Janice Capel Anderson stresses: “(T)o die in battle at the hands of enemy soldiers is honorable.  To be executed or to die at the hands of a woman is a mark of shame.”1

However one understands the relationship between John and Jesus, one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.


  1. “Feminist Criticism: The Dancing Daughter.” In Mark & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, 2nd edition. Eds. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Fortress Press, 2008), 111-144 [126].

First Reading

Commentary on Amos 7:7-15

David G. Garber, Jr.

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting,” mocks Prince Adhemar, as he admonishes William, a young squire posing as a knight in the 2001 movie adaptation of Chaucer’s A Knight’s Tale.

When William defeats Prince Adhemar in the final jousting contest, he and his friends repeat these words to the fallen knight.

The sentiment of weighing and measuring guides the principle of the brief visionary report in Amos 7:7-9 in which God shows the prophet a “plumb line,” a piece of lead or tin hanging from a string used to measure the straightness of a recently constructed wall. In essence, YHWH has measured the northern kingdom of Israel and found the nation wanting.

Silencing the Prophetic Voice: Amos 7:7-15 in its Canonical Context

The lectionary inventively combines two distinct genres that many commentators tend to separate based on form criticism: the first-person visionary report in 7:7-9 and the third-person biographical prose in 7:10-15. The lectionary, however, eliminates the concluding judgment oracle to Amaziah in verses 16-17. This demarcation suggests an emphasis on the defense of the prophetic voice, a major theme in the book of Amos. It also suggests a tendency in the lectionary tradition to avoid sentiments that seem less than palatable, namely, the two verses that predict the punishment of Amaziah’s family for his sin of attempting to silence the prophet.

Israel stands under harsher judgment for their social and economic sins than do the other nations precisely because of their covenantal relationship with YHWH, who provided prophets to help keep the Israelites in line. Amos concludes his initial indictment of Israel with the lament: “you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy'” (Amos 2:12).

The two brief visions preceding the plumb line vision reinforce the necessity of the prophetic voice. Amos 7:7-9 stands within a series of four very brief visions in chapters 7-8. The first two in 7:1-3 and 7:4-6 follow a consistent pattern. First, God asks the prophet what he sees. Then, the prophet reports locusts in the first vision and fire in the second. The locusts devour the produce of the field (7:2) and the fire is strong enough to evaporate the waters of the great deep (7:4). In both vision accounts, the prophet protests on behalf of the nation of Israel: “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:2, cf. verse 5 where “forgive” = “cease”). In response to the prophet’s intercession in both instances, God relents from sending this destruction on Israel.

The pattern shifts in 7:7-9. Here, the prophet does not intercede, and YHWH does not relent. Rather, the vision leads to an oracle of judgment declaring the demolition of Israel through military invasion. The fourth vision in 8:1-3 follows a similar pattern to the third. Amos reports seeing a basket of summer fruit (qayits), and using a pun, YHWH declares that the end (qets) is coming for Israel. After describing the macabre scene of funeral laments and dead bodies that will lie in the wake of the destruction (8:3), the passage ends with the strange interjection: “Be silent!”

The Prose Tale and the Prophet’s Unpalatable Words

The prose biographical tale in 7:10-17 interrupts the series of four visions in its current canonical arrangement. If we read the four visions as a unit unto themselves, the message is quite clear: YHWH’s anger increasingly grows and will ultimately result in the suffering and destruction of Israel. But why would the shapers of the book of Amos place the prose tale in the middle of this series of visions?

A possible answer lies within the intent of Amaziah. Amaziah wishes to silence Amos, whom he views as a charlatan from Judah. He accuses Amos of using his prophecies for financial gain and suggests that he go back to the southern kingdom and “earn his bread there” (7:12). Amos rejects this accusation, saying that he is not a professional prophet, but earns his living in agriculture (7:14). He is in Israel on the direct command of YHWH (7:15).

Amaziah’s attempt to silence the prophet backfires, and Amos adds to his oracle against Jeroboam a personal judgment against Amaziah’s family in 7:16-17. The lectionary’s elimination of these verses certainly make the text much more theologically palatable to a Christian audience that would like to emphasize God’s love and mercy as well as individual responsibility. The oracle’s elimination, however, softens the indictment of Amaziah who is attempting to silence the prophet’s voice.

When we read the prose tale in the context of the visionary reports, a pattern emerges. The first two visions include an intercession by the prophetic voice that results in God’s merciful repentance. The third vision does not conclude with the prophet’s interjection, but with a narrative that shows how a human authority might vainly attempt to silence the prophetic voice and thwart YHWH’s intentions. The fourth and final vision concludes in 8:3 with the enigmatic interjection, “Be silent!” Just as YHWH is the only one who can raise the voice of the true prophet, might this interjection suggest that only YHWH can silence it? Is it this silencing that leads to the famine “of hearing the words of the LORD” in 8:11?

What might paying attention to the theme of silencing the prophet mean for the teacher or preacher treating this text in the context of Christian community? First, this passage could encourage Christian communities to measure the cacophony of religious and political rhetoric presently in the media as we seek out the prophetic word. Second, the prose narrative might encourage laypersons, who like Amos, might heed God’s call to exercise their prophetic voice in their community, their workplace, or the public forum. Finally, when read in the context of a God who demands justice, the defense of prophecy in the book of Amos might stand as a cautionary tale against our tendency to silence the unpalatable prophetic voice that might just demand change in those areas in which we have been found wanting.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Samuel Giere

Since the pulp-patron saint of archaeologists, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., appeared on the cinematic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1984), the ark of God has played a role in popular imagination beyond the pages of Scripture and the walls of any synagogue or church.1

I, for one, remember my squeamish wonder the first time I saw the climactic scene when Indy’s archrival, Belloq, befitted with high priestly regalia,2 opened the lid of the ark and unleashed the glory of the LORD, which quite literally melted Belloq and his Nazi benefactors, all those who would dare look upon the LORD.3 

This week’s text provides a fine opportunity to the preacher to invite her/his hearers into the story of the ark of God, as David brings it to Jerusalem.  This text provides a dynamic portrait of God’s presence and power with the people of Israel and the danger and joy of being in God’s presence.

Textual Horizons

While King David plays a prominent role in today’s text, at the very center is the ark of God, “which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.”4  The movement within this text is around the ark of God, which is nothing less than God’s throne —  God’s presence. 

A brief sketch of the ark’s history is in order before getting into the text at hand. 

Per the LORD’s instructions to Moses,5 the Israelite artisan Bezalel crafted the ark;6 and per the LORD’s instructions,7 Moses placed the testimony8 in the ark and ark in the tabernacle.9   The ark traveled with the people of Israel from Sinai into the Promised Land. Led by the ark of the LORD, the exiles crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.10  The ark also functioned as a talisman of sorts in the siege of Jericho.11 

In the narrative of Israel, the ark then goes virtually unmentioned until the time of Samuel, whose call as a child servant in the temple in Shiloh came as he slept “where the ark of God was.”12  The ark then takes center stage in 1 Samuel 4-6, where the ark is captured by the Philistines,13 subsequently causing so much pain and suffering among the Philistines that they give it back.14  It first ends up in Beth-shemesh, where the townsfolk greeted the ark with rejoicing,15 though some looked into the ark, insighting the wrath of the LORD — seventy died.16  Not surprisingly the survivors commented, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?   To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?”17  From Beth-shemesh, the ark is picked-up by the people of Kiriath-jearim (a.k.a. Baale-judah), where it remains until the point of today’s text.18

The ark is the locus of the LORD’s presence with the people,19 often quite specifically identified with the place between the cherubim upon the lid of the ark, the mercy seat.  The formula employed in today’s text, “the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim,”20 is not unfamiliar to the larger biblical narrative.21  The ark serves as the LORD’s throne and place of self-revelation, such that Moses would hear the voice of the LORD coming “from between the two cherubim.”22

The ark, the locus of God’s presence, is not power neutral.  Rather, there is great power that often results in blessing and joy23 but can also result in death.  On the latter, consider Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, the seventy snoops of Beth-shemesh, and most innocent of all, Uzzah from today’s text [nota bene — please read the pericope’s donut hole, 2 Samuel 6.6-12a, which again buttresses the text’s main character — the ark of God].  The death of Uzzah is quite positively outrageous and confusing as he is simply trying to stabilize the ark, rattled by the movement of the oxen.  Our outrage and confusion, however, pale to the holiness of the LORD and the LORD’s throne, the ark of God.

King David’s response is anger, unleashed in a tirade that curses even the memory of the spot where Uzzah died, calling it Perez-uzzah — [the LORD’s] bursting out against Uzzah.  So great was David’s anger (which often times is an external symptom of greater fear!) that it was three months before he gave the ark another run into Jerusalem.  And in the meantime it ought not to go unnoticed that the ark’s temporary host, the house of Obed-edom, was blessed by its presence.  The LORD’s holiness, as in the ark of the LORD, is wholly other, working and affecting the world beyond the bounds of our imagination. 

Preaching Horizons

David danced with joy leading the ark of God into Jerusalem.  It is interesting that on the first dance into town the king and “all the house of Israel” are accompanied by “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals,” whereas during the second there is only a trumpet — perhaps a dampened mood following Uzzah’s death.  Nevertheless, the dance goes on.  Joy flows from and accompanies the movement of the ark, God’s presence into the city.  Michal’s ire at David’s foolish behavior — dancing au natural24 — is of no consequence, for the presence of the LORD, when all else is stripped away, evokes joy.

1In the popular imagination, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones has long outlasted the impact of Richard Gere’s portrayal of David in King David (1985), released just a year after Raiders of the Lost Ark. 
2Cf. Exodus 28.
3Within the narrative framework of Leviticus, in the wake of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2), the LORD tells Moses to tell Aaron: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2).  Similarly, Exodus 19:21-24 and 1 Samuel 6.19 [RSV].  Recall, that Indy and Marion Ravenwood do not look and therefore do not melt.
42 Samuel 6:2b
5Exodus 25:10-22
6Exodus 37:1-9
7Exodus 40:1-3
8Testimony is a better English translation of ‘eduth than covenant, lest there be unnecessary confusion with brith.  Testimony here is shorthand for the two tablets of the Decalogue. 
9Exodus 40:16-21
10Joshua 3:7-17
11Joshua 6:1-14
121 Samuel 3:3
131 Samuel  4:11. The capture of the ark by the Philistines culminates with the birth of Ichabod, which literally translates “in-glorious,” but which the text flushes-out further as “the glory [of the LORD] has departed from Israel” (1 Samuel 4:21-22).  Such a departure of the ark and with it the glory of the LORD gets played out dramatically in Ezekiel 10:1-22, 11:22-25, with the return recorded in Ezekiel 43:1-12.
141 Samuel  5:1-6:12
151 Samuel 6:13b
161 Samuel 6:19 – The NRSV is misleading here, unnecessarily following the LXX.  The RSV is preferable here: “And he slew some of the men of Bethshemesh, because they looked into the ark of the LORD; he slew seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had made a great slaughter among the people.”
171 Samuel 6:20
18Psalm 132, often thought to be a psalm used in ritual remembering/reenacting of the ark’s entry into Jerusalem — the story in today’s text — may well suggest that the location of the ark was forgotten in this interim period, in particular in Psalm 132:6.  Cf. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard, 1973) 96.
19Exceptions to this come when the Deuteronomist describes the ark without cherubim or mercy seat but as a mere receptacle for the tablets, e.g., Deuteronomy 10:1-4. Cf. Alexander Rofé, Introduction to the Composition of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: Sheffield, 1999) 50.
202 Samuel 6:2b
211 Samuel  4:4; 2 Kings 19:15, Psalm 80:1, 99:1, Isaiah 37.16.
22Numbers 7:89, also Exodus 25.17-22, 30.6.
23“Wherever the ark is, Jahweh is fully present… This presence was always regarded as bestowing blessing.  It is characteristic that the coming of the Ark to Israel let loose great outbursts of joy, even leading to corybantic behavior before it (cf. 1 Samuel  4:4ff, 6:13, 19; 2 Samuel 6:5, 14).” Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (D.M.G. Stalker, trans.; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962 & 1965) 1.237.
242 Samuel 6:20


Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13

Beth L. Tanner

Reflecting on Psalm 85:8-13 without the first 13 verses is akin to a liturgy that omits the call and prayer of confession, moving instead straight to the assurance of pardon.

The words are applicable alone, yet are designed as part of a whole. The psalm is a communal prayer for help and can be divided into three sections or stanzas, verses 1-3, 4-7, and 8-13. Verses 1-3 serve as a reminder of God’s forgiving acts in the past, followed by pleas by the people for God’s forgiveness in the present, ending with a section expressing hope for restored relationship between the people and God.

Verses 1-3 function as the call to confession reminding the people and God of God’s past saving acts. God’s active grace is clear in the verbs used “favor,” “return,” “lift,” and “cover.” These acts are God’s alone given to an undeserving people (verse 3). The people have angered God repeatedly and in response God has relented and turned back all anger.

We like to think of God as always loving and forgiving and that is the case. However, there are real consequences to our actions that hurt the humans we love and God. It is a sobering thought to think of God’s “fury” and “fierce anger” against us. It is easier to imagine God’s wrath poured on the heads of our enemies. The actions of the people in the past and the actions of the people at present have angered God and the only way back is for God to relent and forgive. Without God, there is no future for this people.

The second section, verses 4-7, is a cry to God for restoration now. The sinful acts of the people are not named specifically, allowing for use of this psalm in many times and places. Yet, the sins are clearly present as the people ask God if God will be angry forever (verse 5). The people clearly stand in need of God’s grace and ask if God will show God’s steadfast love (hesed) and give the people (again) salvation. Indeed, the whole section is bracketed by “salvation” calling on “the God of our salvation” in verse 4 and ending the stanza with “Give us your salvation” as its last imperative plea.

Many scholars see this psalm in light of the exile and this as a prayer for restoration after the exile was over. This is a possible context, but certainly not the only situation to which this prayer can apply. The pleas in this stanza are universal and, as we all know, from Genesis 3 forward, the story is a long one of sin and redemption. Over and over, the people found ways to turn from God either out of fear, lack of faith, greed, or in a search for other gods. These verses are then not about one event, but they reflect all of the times that God has restored “the fortunes” of Jacob. “Fortunes” (NRSV, NIV) is best understood not in terms of monetary gain, but as a restoration of the community to full communion with God. Tate suggests a meaning of “well-being” instead of “fortunes” (Psalms 51-100, 364).

A new voice enters at verse 8. The voice could be a prophet or a worship leader. Ultimately, it is not the person speaking the words that matter, but the message being delivered. The imperative form of the last section, give way here to the cohortative, meaning a wish for the future. The wish is a view of the world ordered by God’s kingdom. The last line of this verse is a source of debate and the NRSV reads the LXX here as “to those who turn to him with their hearts.” Most scholars, however, read the MT, “but do not let them return to stupidity (or “folly” NIV).”

A warning within a wish for the future is not uncommon (Psalm 95:8-10). The warning serves as a reminder that the people and God have been in this place before, and the people will probably put them there again. The response to God’s great forgiveness should be more than words, it involves a change in behavior. It involves remembering the warning.

The remainder of the psalm gives us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. The foundations of that kingdom hesed and faithfulness meet righteousness and shalom kiss. The vision is one of a long awaited reunion as God again sets the world right. It is a powerful way to declare an end to the impasse between God and the people. The images continue and this restoration involves the whole creation, reuniting heaven and earth (verse 11), and God will give what is “good,” also understood as what is beneficial, pleasant, and for the welfare of all. The land responds with its own gift of bounty in response to God. All of this is in preparation for God’s arrival in verse 13.

The image is of a world transformed by God’s forgiveness. What if for just one Sunday, we could see and believe the power of God’s forgiveness? Could we imagine the world as it should be when God sets it back in place? What if as we hear the words of assurance, the heavens open and we see the glory of God? Would we listen the warning and change our world?

Since I began participation in the weekly liturgy, the assurance of pardon has always been the most sacred to me. All worship rituals are weighty and important, but to speak God’s forgiveness to the people is a powerful priestly function. Like me, the ones who spoke these words in the temple were mere humans and the pronouncement was as much for them as it was for the people.

To announce God’s grace and restoration is to call a new beginning into the world. Psalm 85 celebrates God’s grace and offers all of us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Sally A. Brown

This is a text of almost unfathomable depth.

Before exploring some of the many ways a preacher might preach from it, we can start by taking off the table one way it ought not to be preached.

Famously, these verses comprise one long sentence in Greek. Daunting enough in English so that translators have almost universally split it up into shorter phrases, the sentence exhibits a flowing style valued in Hellenistic rhetoric, but unmanageable in English translation. Turning the sermon into an analysis of this sentence, mapping it subordinate clause by subordinate clause, may be a good exegetical and theological exercise in the study, but hard to follow or appreciate from the pew.

What begs to be “translated” into proclamation is the lyricism of this doxologic text: a poetic, hymnic exultation that bids us bless the God who blesses all. And blessed be the preacher and church musicians who can craft preaching and liturgy in a way that captures the dignified exuberance of this paean to God’s act of blessing all, “in Christ.”

Redemption is a word often said and little understood in Christian worship. A preacher might help listeners discover its meaning as described by the Ephesians writer: God’s determination to bless humanity. In fact, the opening of today’s reading — “Blessed be . . .” — brings to mind the Jewish synagogue liturgy with its berakoth, its series of declarations of blessing.

The first part of this sermon might evoke God-given experiences of the community in which they have discovered the depths of what it is to be “blessed” — a joyful baptism; the profound joy of participating in a community effort to restore homes destroyed by tornado or flood waters; a memorial service marked by sorrow and yet the deep conviction that death does not finally have the last word. The sermon might then explore what it is like when a congregation lives into its God-given vocation as a “community for blessing.” Churches exist to bless the neighbor, near or far — a potentially powerful counter-testimony against the widespread belief that religious folk are mainly interested in judging and cursing other people, not blessing them.

A route to preaching often chosen, but no less significant for its familiarity, is to focus on what it means to be “in Christ.” The phrase “in Christ” and its close variants (“through Christ,” “in him”) are used ten times in these verses alone, thirty-four times in Ephesians as a whole. And while, as we have noted, the Jewish liturgy of blessings echoes here, the Ephesian writer transposes that familiar structure into a Christological key. Especially if the preacher is planning a series, short or extended, on Ephesians, exploring what it means to be “in Christ” is essential.

Two guidelines are in order here. First, the “us” here indicates a community, not a collection of individuals. The preacher needs to take this seriously and not overly individualize visions of blessing. Second, it will be crucial in designing this sermon not to sink into a plodding didacticism that would be at odds with the lilt and energy of the text. “In Christ” we are transported into a new world. Being “in Christ” reframes everything: we see ourselves and one another, neighbor or stranger, in a fresh way.

“In Christ” every experience is reframed, from our most bracing joys and cherished achievements to our besetting temptations, our most anguished regrets, and our most wounding losses. “In Christ” we are joined to the power and presence of God. “In Christ” we are knit to others who will cry over our dead with us even as they help us sing hymns of resurrection. At the same time, being “in Christ” is no sentimental togetherness. An “in Christ” community has to reckon with the fact that it will be perceived at times as more a threat than a blessing. Part of the community’s calling is to be a truth-telling, truth-living reflection of the God who has called it into being.

If questions about the meaning of “election” have come up in the congregation from time to time, this text creates an opportunity to address it, through the idea of a primordial divine “choosing” in verse 4. In Ephesians, the idea of a double divine election is muted. Although much depends on how one parses the syntax of the text, some interpreters argue that the divine act of election in view for the Ephesians writer is not the election of individuals but God’s election of Christ, and God’s choice for all of us, in him. Christ is the one who represents all humanity; thus in choosing Christ, God chooses all of us. God pursues humanity — all of us — with relentless love. 

Four other themes can be noted briefly, each one worth a sermon of its own:

1) the theme of adoption as God’s own children  (verse 5);

2) an exploration of the gifts “lavished on us,” which include redemption, forgiveness, and a spiritual inheritance of which the gift of the Holy Spirit is the seal; 

3) the cosmic scope of God’s redemptive project (verse 10); and 4) the phrase “to the praise of his glory,” which occurs in verses 6, 12, and 14. 

The opening of Ephesians gives a preview of the theology of the book as a whole. Lines of perspective set here can be traced through coming chapters: the cosmic consequences of the earthy and earthly living and dying of Jesus; the healing of all human enmities, beginning with the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile; the identity and vocation of the church as agent of the God who is out to reconcile and bless until all “things in heaven and things on earth” (verse 10) harmonize “in Christ,” tuned to the glorious music of God’s own joy.