Second Sunday of Christmas

Ephesians begins by baptizing its hearers in a flood of poetry.

Frozen Dew
"Frozen Dew." Image by Jenny Downing via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

January 4, 2015

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians begins by baptizing its hearers in a flood of poetry.

After the conventional opening in 1:1-2, the writer himself overflows (see verse 8) in one very long sentence (less a problem for Greek-speakers than for us), filled with so many images, promises, and challenges that we barely know where to enter the text. Ephesians 1:3-14 is like one of those rushing streams that looks easy to wade in but sweeps us off our feet by its sheer flowing power. Yet, it is worth trying to enter this stream for these verses set the tone of the letter and the tone of our lives in Christ the beloved one (verse 6). How does a contemporary preacher help a congregation hear poetry, catch the hymn, hear an echo from such a distant past?

I have two images that may be helpful. The first is that rushing stream, clear, swift and sparkling that has many stepping stones by which we might find a path. The stepping stones in Ephesians 1:3-14 are repeated words and phrases that highlight different ways to engage the stream (yes, you might fall in, but, finally, would that be so bad?).

These verses pour their energy into helping their hearers imagine that the coming of Jesus, God’s Messiah, the one beloved by God, was all according to the will of God and God’s good purpose (eudokia, verses 5 and 9). Since we English readers miss many of the repetitions that would have served as stepping stones or links throughout this passage, let me highlight a few of them.

Eudokia shows up in verses 5 and 9, providing a frame around the very important verses 8-9. Eudokia is a reminder not only of God’s purpose, which is also very much emphasized by the long-range planning of God (coming up in a moment), but also the good gifts which it was God’s long range plan to impart. God’s interaction with humankind, both Jew and Gentile, is based on God’s favorable purpose.

In addition, the hearers of Ephesians (then and now) need not doubt that God’s good purpose has always included them. The hearers of this letter are part of a larger group of believers who have been fore-ordained, fore-planned, fore-chosen as God’s own from the very foundations of creation. See verses 4, 5, 9, 11, and 12. God’s calling of a new people by Jesus the Messiah had been God’s plan all along. The alliteration of all these “pro” syllables in Greek would have powerfully reinforced confidence.

Note that the above verses do not include, but rather frame, the mighty declarative statements of verses 7 and 8. In these two central verses, we hear quite directly — and this is our great “stepping stone” — that we have (echomen, a present tense, indicative verb) redemption and forgiveness through a grace that has been poured out on us to overflowing. There is more.

We also hear in verses 8 and 9 (recall that this is all one sentence) that this gracious gift is one that comes with all wisdom (sophia) and understanding (phronesis) that clarify the mystery of God, that is to say, God’s favor toward us. Why would God so love us? It is not to be fathomed. But we can fathom, through this gift of wisdom and understanding, that God indeed does.

Again, there is more. This passage is laden with purpose clauses. The love of God given to us in such overflowing measure, the wisdom that clarifies God’s mysterious but undaunted good purpose for all of us, is for the express purpose of our salvation, which is to praise God. The very, very good news is that we have been sealed by the promised holy spirit as God’s own heirs along with God’s covenant people Israel (not named here, but note the “we” and “you (pl.)” contrast between verses 3-12 and 13-14. We contemporary hearers are the “you (pl.)” who have been made heirs of God’s promises, so long awaited by Israel. We — to our eternal surprise and joy — have been sealed with God’s Holy Spirit. And we are called to render praise.

Purpose clauses abound, but in Ephesians 1:6, 12, and 14 the great repetition of for the praise of his glory/reputation (“eis epainon doxes … autou … “) resounds over and over. A drum beat or a stepping stone, whatever image captures this for you and your congregation. It is for the praise of God’s glory, a God who reaches out to all God’s creatures with forgiveness, with wisdom and understanding to grasp that God thus loves in Christ.

How to make all this concrete and graspable for those whose sense of having been grasped is weak, intermittent, or nonexistent? In addition to stepping stones into and across a stream, a second image that emerged for me was that of painting. In a powerful, even disturbing, exploration of art and artists, Louise Penny (The Long Way Home, St. Martin’s Press, 2014) shows us a very successful painter who had run dry, gone empty. Penny describes the work of this man as he seeks for himself and the “lump in the throat” that is the beginning of all art. Desperate to find and paint from his elusive emotions, the artist’s paintings are uncontrolled combinations of color, nearly formless, and wretchedly messy. Yet it is clear to all who know him that the sheer intensity of his painting, the plethora of colors, brush strokes, shapes bespeak a newly discovered passion to communicate a truth for which standard images are inadequate.

I wonder if this is comparable to Ephesians 1:3-14. While not quite formless and not wretchedly messy, this passage offers a mass of images, of claims, of promises, all trying to get at the enormous and unexpected gift of God that has been granted now to all God’s people. The writer conveys sheer jubilation at God’s grace poured out with a heedless abundance. The very abundance, the generosity of God in Christ is who God is, oh so worthy of praise. Ephesians 1:3-14 is an instance of the very praise for which it calls from all believers. What, then, is the art of our praise?

Do not look here for careful, systematic theological propositions. Look here for the poetry of the faith, stretching speech, grammar, and words further than they can comfortably go.

It is a somewhat clumsy eloquence, powerful and rich, hard to preach, difficult to hear for some. You know your congregation. What is the poetry of the gospel in your place? What colors, strokes, images, juxtapositions will be evocative in the power of God’s Holy Spirit for those in Christ? This text is call and freedom to evoke the nearly inexpressible joy in God’s generosity and the harsh realities of our lives that make God’s gift such a source of joy.