Second Sunday of Christmas (Year C)

Ephesians begins with both a blessing (verses 3-14, as in 2 Corinthians) and a thanksgiving (verses 15-23, as in most of the undisputed letters of Paul).

Dance of Bubbles
Dance of Bubbles, image by Massmo Relsig via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

January 3, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians begins with both a blessing (verses 3-14, as in 2 Corinthians) and a thanksgiving (verses 15-23, as in most of the undisputed letters of Paul).

This redundancy is only one part of the overflowing abundance which this text expresses. The style here is elevated, even extravagant; it is a bewildering array of participles, pronouns, and genitive forms piled one upon another, forming (despite the usual practice in English translations) one breathtakingly long sentence. The claims are every bit as extraordinary as the style, as God’s gracious act of salvation is described in the broadest scope possible. Here all creation is declared to be loved and redeemed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus the rambling form of the sentence, which seems to have trouble finding a place to stop, reinforces the claim that there is no end to God’s grace. This is the grammar of worship more than it is the grammar of logical argument, and it is no surprise if we are left struggling to keep up.

The pericope begins in verse 3 with a play on words. “Blessing” may mean either the gift, or the response to it. Here, the author picks up both possibilities and says “Blessed be God because God has blessed us with every blessing.” This blessing by God is described in three important ways (all of them beginning with the same Greek preposition “en” (English “in”):

1) “in Christ.” This pericope repeatedly points to Christ. In fact, it happens in nearly every verse. God’s self-revelation and saving activity have come to clear focus in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Too often we reduce our picture of Jesus to something comfortable, a tendency especially strong during the Christmas season. Ephesians gives us a better perspective, and declares that Jesus is the focal point of all time and existence.

2) “in every spiritual blessing” (here, NRSV uses “with”). God has given to the church every possible good gift, and God’s generosity knows no limits. These blessings are “spiritual” because they are given and empowered through the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the church (see verse 13).

3) “in the heavenly places.” This phrase may be the most difficult of the three to understand (in the New Testament it only appears 5 times, all in Ephesians). Unlike some current ways of imagining spiritual geography, in the first century the demonic forces were not pictured as being “down.” Rather, people feared that such hostile forces were “in the air,” where they might come between people and God (see Ephesians 6:12). To say that God has already blessed us “in the heavenly places” indicates that God has done so in the face of such spiritual opposition, and thus nothing is able to stand in the way of God’s rich blessing. Where others might see reason for fear, the church can be confident in God’s gracious generosity.

Verse 4 says that God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing” not simply before we asked or did anything to deserve it, but before the world was created. This is an indication of how seriously Ephesians takes the claim that salvation is by grace (see 2:5, 8). This text consistently maintains that salvation is, from beginning to end, the accomplishment of God alone. Thus, we hear that God chose (v. 4), destined (v. 5), bestowed (v. 6), lavished (v. 8), made known and set forth (v. 9), and accomplishes all things (v. 11). All of this has happened according to God’s good pleasure and will (v. 5, 9), plan (v. 10), and purpose (v. 11). This is good news! Our fate is not in our own hands but in God’s, and God in mercy and love refuses to be limited by our abilities to produce death.

Such statements about God’s predestining grace are not puzzles to be solved or explained. Thus, we don’t find any words here about “others,” or even if there are such others, who might be destined by God for something else. Rather, such words are expressions of wonder in the face of God’s inexplicable grace. This language of praise is the context to which biblical talk about predestination properly belongs.

It is no wonder, then, that verse 9 speaks of God’s will as a “mystery” that has been revealed. Here, a “mystery” doesn’t mean something difficult to figure out, but rather something that goes beyond human ability to discover; it must be revealed by God. There are some mysteries which, once solved, become something that we grasp and comprehend (like the answer to a crossword puzzle), and thus they become far less interesting. That is not the sort of mystery this verse is talking about. There are other mysteries which, even when we have experienced them, continue to be beyond our ability to comprehend fully and remain as much a mystery as ever (like falling in love). Such is God’s grace.

This text invites us to wonder at the ultimate mystery of God’s will, namely that God will gather all things together in Christ (verse 10). “All things” should be understood with the widest possible meaning, including not only humans but all of creation. There is nothing that can stand in the way of God reconciling all things in Christ. God has already made Christ the head of all things (Ephesians 1:22) so that Christ fills all things (1:23). There is nothing that can escape or resist God’s reconciling plan, and that includes any forces or powers that might worry the readers. There is no reason for the church to feel timid or afraid in the face of momentary opposition; God’s intent is clear in Christ: redemption as God’s own (v. 14).

The only appropriate response to all of this is praise of God, which frames this text at the beginning and the end. A life of such praise, through words and actions, is the life to which we are called, because it is where God intends to bring the whole cosmos.