Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

This section of Ephesians begins a series of ethical instructions firmly based on the preceding three chapters.

to cut the bread
to cut the bread, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

August 2, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16

This section of Ephesians begins a series of ethical instructions firmly based on the preceding three chapters.

In those early chapters, the author has laid out the new reality, that in Jesus God has broken down the “wall” between Jew and Gentile, now offering through the blood of the new covenant, salvation and koinonia to all persons. The letter speaks directly to its Gentile audience (Ephesians 3:1), believers gathered in communities in cities throughout ancient Asia Minor. These cities, already ancient in Paul’s day, were major urban areas with all the diversity of population, trade, religious groups, and social classes that was typical of a Greco-Roman city. Ephesus in particular held an important place in Asia Minor as city of substantial population, the location of the great temple of Artemis, and the place where great Asian games were held. During the reign of Augustus (after 27 BCE) Ephesus was made the proconsular capital city of the Roman province of Asia.

In the midst of this city, the claim that believers “have been joined together into a holy temple in the Lord, … a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:21-22)” is a major claim over against the worship of Artemis or the emperor. In this letter, the writer calls upon these believers to abandon their old ways as Gentiles (Ephesians 4:17) and live in accord with the new “temple” they have become.

Our passage begins with “therefore” which implies that the earlier material in the letter leads directly to the “architecture” of this new life, a life worthy of their having been called into new life (cf. Ephesians 4:1 with Philippians 1:27).

In the sixteen verses considered here, believers are called to a unity that is created by and grows in love. The unity is based not in similarity of gifts, but in connections created by the Spirit given and shared in baptism. All has been given; believers have not attained or reached or otherwise brought upon themselves the great gifts of God. (Notice the passive verbs in Ephesians 4:1, 4, 7, and 16.) Even as all has been given, the one Spirit, Lord, baptism, and so forth (Ephesians 4:4-6) such that everyone has been filled with a whole new life (see especially v. 6 in which this uniting bond of oneness is above all AND through AND in all), there is a calling inherent in the bond.

The activities of those called and in-spirited by God, summarized by living worthily (Ephesians 4:1), include bearing with one another, maintaining the unity of the Spirit, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ.

Why, one might ask, would a body truly united in one Spirit with one Lord, thoroughly permeated by Godself, need to be reminded of this calling? There are several possible answers, both of which continue to pertain in our own time. The first is rooted in the self-consciously hierarchical nature of ancient societies based on familial and also patronal loyalties that were seen to serve the general welfare. Benefits and obligations made the ancient world go ‘round. Loyalties and rivalries were taken for granted as part of daily life in the ancient political, social, religious, financial economy. To set such matters aside in this unified body or persons not related by blood or patronage would be very difficult.

A second problem is the one addressed in Ephesians 4:7-13. The NRSV translates the de at the beginning of v. 7, giving it a full adversative force. These verses explore the gifts given by the ascended Lord to his people. Disunity emerges from the differences among the gifts, differences that could result in competition for authority. Surely such competition (turf wars?) is not unknown among us. The writer reminds us by means of an inclusio using the words metron … tou christou in vv. 7 and 13 that all the gifts God’s people receive were given according the “measure of Christ’s gift”(v. 7) and for the sake of growing into the “measure of the full stature of Christ (v. 13).” Gifts are given to us that enable us and call upon us, the recipients, to grow in Christlikeness, “created in Christ for good works (Ephesians 2:10).”

A third issue is able to be read in Ephesians 4:14 where believers are seen to be in need of a warning to “grow up.” Growing up in Christ is a very interesting idea for us. If anything, in our age of rapid and unedited communication, the winds of opinion and doctrine fly faster than we can keep up. Scientific studies, poorly reported, spin us from one healthy option to the next without time for reflection and good decision making. How do we slow down enough and build enough trust with one another to speak the truth in love?

Perhaps the most important thing for us in these verses is the clarity of purpose in the lives of believers. In Ephesians 4:12 there is a simple statement of the purpose of God’s gifts, given to believers (not attained or earned by them): to equip the saints for ministry and almost in apposition with that, “to build up the body of Christ.” All gifts are given for the sake of the increase of the whole. Rivalries, competition, judgmental evaluations are precluded.

The preacher does not have to look very far to see the destructive power of factionalism. Within faith groups, within nations, between nations, lack of concern for building up the body results in suicide bombers in the midst of a congregation at prayer, refugees on boats being thrust out to sea by the countries they are trying to reach, an explosion of rage in Baltimore or Ferguson. What might it look like if we lived worthily of the life of the one who gave himself to and for us? Imagine that.