Second Sunday of Christmas (Year C)

At least three observations are in order before we set out to explore the “content” of the epistolary reading for this Sunday.

January 3, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

At least three observations are in order before we set out to explore the “content” of the epistolary reading for this Sunday.

First, Paul’s letters have a regular format. They begin with a salutation (naming sender/s and recipient/s, and offering a word of greeting) which is normally followed by a thanksgiving-prayer that precedes the body of the letter and the other parts of the epistle.

In Ephesians, verses 1-2 of chapter one form the salutation; verses 15-23 of chapter one are the thanksgiving-prayer. The verses of our lesson, 1:3-14, are a grand theological doxology that intervenes between the salutation and thanksgiving-prayer.

Second, anyone attempting to comprehend and interpret this epistolary lesson should read several translations of the text, for the vocabulary and syntax of the lines are rich and challenging; so that different translators have rendered the lines into English in different ways.

Third, in Greek (despite the punctuation offered in contemporary editions of the Greek text of the New Testament), the lines of our lesson are actually one long, complex sentence. Interpreters often refer to this passage as a “hymn” or a ‘confession.” It may well have been sung or recited in the life of the early church, for there are observable patterns and rhythms in the text that suggest that these lines are more than a casually composed statement. Commentators have proposed a number of possible settings in the worship of early Christians where these lines might have been appropriate.

For us, however, a sufficient understanding of the text may be arrived at without having to determine how the passage was used in the early church, though the worshipful and praiseful nature of the material should have some influence on the character and purpose of a sermon that derives from or relates to these verses.

The opening words of this lesson, “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” are similar to a Jewish berakah or word of praise for God. Remarkably, the God who is blessed is the God who has blessed the Christians “in Christ.” God’s blessing in Christ means the lavishing on the believers of every spiritual blessing — even blessing in the heavenly places; so that the blessing of God is even cosmic in scope and nature. This declaration stands as a kind of general opening to the lines that follow.

After noticing this blessing, we may view the verses that follow in two broad units of materials: 1:4-10 and 1:11-14. First, in 1:4-10 the author offers praise to God for both what God did before the foundation of the world (or, “cosmos”) and what God has done and is doing in the context of history. Initially, the author celebrates God’s having chosen the Christians (verse 4, “us”). The Christians are not only chosen before the foundation of the world, they are predestined to be God’s children through Jesus Christ. This perspective leaves unanswered the question, what about those who do not belong to the Christian body? The author is simply not interested in this issue and does not attempt to offer information that might help answer the question.

Here, the predestination that Ephesians commemorates is the choice of Christians before creation itself. The author is basically occupied with this positive dimension of God’s working. In turn, from the perspective of the historical experience of the Christians, the author continues the celebration of God’s work by focusing on “redemption” and “revelation.” The phrase “through his blood” mixes metaphors for understanding the significance of Jesus’ death. The reference to “blood” introduces images of sacrifice and blood purification, whereas the term “redemption” puts forth a metaphor from the marketplace.

Thus, we see that no one explanation was sufficient to illuminate the early Christian conviction that salvation had come through the death (and resurrection — see 2:1-10) of Jesus Christ. Redemption itself is said to be God’s gracious, lavish forgiving of the trespasses of those who were predestined and who now are called. Moreover, the revelation over which the author rejoices is the revelation of the mystery of God, which is God’s purpose and plan that is set forth in Jesus Christ.

In other words, what God had planned to do from the very start was to act in and through Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of those who are chosen and believe — and now God has made that plan known to those who believe. The striking thing about this redeeming work that is done in Christ is that it is cosmic in span, including “all things . . . in heaven and things on earth.” God’s work aims as a cosmic reconciliation and this plan of God has been revealed to Christians in Christ.

Second, in 1:11-14 the phrase “in him” occurs in the verses of this lesson three times at verses 7, 11, and 13. In addition, there are several occurrences of the phrase “in Christ” in the passage. These features have led interpreters to recognize and emphasize the Christological dimensions of the passage. At times, commentators have spoken about an “in Christ” mysticism that they believe permeated the fabric of early Christianity. The verses of our lesson, however, do not seem capable of supporting the weight of such an interpretive suggestion.

Rather, we should note that “in him” at verse 11 and verse 13, names the Christians’ relationship with their Lord (verse 4). Here, verses 11-14 make the fairly plain point that what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ sets the task for Christians: “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” Moreover, having spoken throughout this passage (verses 3-12) using the pronouns “we” and “us,” the author shifts in verse 13 to use “you” — probably an indication that reconciliation had taken place between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Finally, we read of the Holy Spirit, learning that the Spirit’s work is like a down-payment on our anticipated inheritance, until that inheritance is possessed — a clear indication that the cosmic reconciliation that Ephesians celebrates was still underway (leaving Christians today with something to do!).