Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

This is a text of almost unfathomable depth.

July 15, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

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.