Second Sunday of Christmas

There are all kinds of reasons to object to the opening salvo of the New Testament letter to the Ephesians.

January 4, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

There are all kinds of reasons to object to the opening salvo of the New Testament letter to the Ephesians.

To insulate yourself against the direct challenges to your personal sovereignty represented in this passage, it is possible to bring up the question of authorship: Is the letter really from Paul’s hand? Or is it, tsk, deutero-Pauline, written by some enthusiastic pretender, and therefore not really scripture, that is, not really authoritative and binding? Such questions ignore the fact that these words had the ring of the apostolic message for the ancient church, and, therefore–Paul, part-Paul, or no-Paul–these words were God’s life-giving words to the early believers.

It is also possible to approach these words at a scholarly distance. Public theologians and professional exegetes are particularly good at this. We are, after all, trained (and maybe even paid) to interpret scripture. If the books delineating the hermeneutical task teach us anything, it is how to put scripture under a microscope, standing over the good book and gazing at its words through whatever our preferred hermeneutical lens–a lens that we convince ourselves is “objective,” perhaps even “scientific.” We kid ourselves, however, when we think these words from Ephesians can be viewed through such microscopic lenses. No, these words about Christ are so grand, so large-scale, so universal, that the only way to view them is as you would view the heavens on a moonless night: gazing with awe, wondering at the vastness, convinced and convicted of your own finite infinitesimal-ness.

No, in the end, you are going to have to face these words head-on, staking your sense of entitlement regarding the determination of your own destiny against twelve verses that insist most insistently that even your destiny–especially your destiny–has been in Christ’s hands all along. In fact, if you were pressed to sum up these twelve verses in one sentence, you might try this: “Christ Jesus is in charge (and you are not).”

The passage represents a full frontal attack on our human disposition of wanting to be in charge. It doesn’t merely disagree with our protests regarding personal autonomy and “freedom of choice,” it overwhelms such protests under a flood of divine ordaining. Consider only the grammatical construction, with an eye toward who acts and who is acted upon, who gives and who receives:

  • God “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3)
  • God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (1:4)
  • God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (1:5)
  • God “has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (1:9)
  • In Christ, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (1:7-8a)
  • In Christ, “we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will” (1:11)

In terms of “Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen,” this passage puts the accent on Risen: Christ is not only risen from the grave, ascended into heaven, seated at God’s right hand, but he’s also the one in whom we are blessed, through whom we are destined and chosen, and by whom we have redemption and the divine inheritance. Now that’s Risen.

Well, if you can hear good news in the promise that you are not in charge of your destiny, there’s more good news to come. Alas, as the lectionary goes, this passage has been cut off from the verses that follow. You either have to hearken back to Christ the King Sunday or jump ahead to Ascension Day if you want to get “the rest of the story”–that is, if you want to cover Ephesians 1:15-23. On the other hand, there’s nothing to keep you from taking on the chapter all at once, in all its glory.

The first chapter of Ephesians concludes with a dramatic statement regarding this One who is in charge. When God raised up the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, he was placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21). Moreover, God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). In other words, Christ Jesus is as in charge as in charge gets.

Those final lines of Ephesians are pure promise to us, the body of Christ, the church. For if Christ is the head of the church, he is in charge of the church. That is, Christ is not up in heaven, letting the rest of his body run around like, well, a church with its head cut off. Though it may appear that bishops and pastors are in charge (or not), the final promise of Ephesians chapter one is that Christ is in charge of all things in the church. Could it be that “in charge” here means that Christ is running the show (though perhaps “behind the scenes”)? Could it be that “in charge” here means that Christ is working even now to accomplish God’s good purposes, seeing to it that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven–often despite human efforts to the contrary?

Perhaps Martin Luther was on to something when, speaking to a group of his fellow monks in Heidelberg in 1518, he offered the following proposition for debate: “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe this,” and everything is already done.”1

1LW 31:41.