Sunday 6 February 2011

We must start with Jesus Christ

On the five Sundays before Lent I shall be giving a series of addresses on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. This is the first, given in Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 6th February 2011, the 5th before Lent.

Today and the next 4 Sundays I shall be talking about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
When the Rector invited me to give a series of themed addresses I confess I gulped hard several times. But something prompted me to reply, ‘Why not?’ And when I thought about possible themes ‘Ephesians!’ jumped straight into my mind, as if somebody had put it there.

In many ways it’s the supreme expression of Paul’s vision for his churches. I see the whole letter as Paul’s answer to this question: ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s church’. Its often poetic imagery is just as relevant today as it was in Paul’s time, I think.

I’m enjoying the challenge of probing deeper than I've done before into Ephesians and what it means. Inevitably in just five addresses I can only talk about some of its themes, but I hope you will find my take on it thought provoking. If you miss an address one Sunday, or want to come back to one, there will be paper copies available.

But there is no substitute for reading and reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself. So I would encourage you to take down your Bible at home and read perhaps a chapter or two of Ephesians a week, keeping pace with these addresses. It’s quite short – 6 chapters take up just 6 pages in my copy.

This week I shall first look briefly at the context of the letter, and then turn to examine the great theme of chapter 1, ‘We must start with Jesus Christ' - he is the source of all our blessings.

What is the context of Ephesians - who wrote it, to whom, and why?
The letter claims to be written by ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’. But many scholars doubt that it was written by Paul himself, for reasons of style and vocabulary. They suggest that it may have been written by a slightly later author in Paul’s tradition, drawing on other letters, in particular Colossians, in order to summarise and pass on Paul’s thinking about the church.

In the version handed down to us the letter is addressed ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus’. But most scholars today think that it is really a circular letter sent to several of Paul’s missionary churches, and wasn’t written specifically to the Ephesians at all. The earliest manuscripts omit the words ‘in Ephesus’. And it is strangely impersonal, unlike Paul’s other letters. There are no personal messages or references to specific events in Ephesus, even though Paul knew the Ephesian church and people very well.

Ultimately I don’t think these scholarly arguments matter a whit. What does matter is the quality of the thinking in it about the nature of the church and its role in God’s plan of salvation. I shall continue the ancient tradition of calling its author Paul and those to whom it’s addressed Ephesians.

We are all saints! Did you realise that? You, you, all of you, and me too – we are all saints, at least in the way that Paul uses the word - ‘hagios’ in Greek means one who has been made holy. The idea that a saint is someone with a halo, someone who is peculiarly good, someone able to grant miracles through intercession, is a much later idea, a medieval superstition. We are saints because by the grace of God we are Christians, ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’, to use Paul’s words. Our baptism was an external and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God has made us holy.

In fact I suggest that we should see Paul’s letter as addressed to us – we are ‘the saints who are in Ephesus’!

Paul begins his letter (1:3-14) by counting the ways in which God has blessed the saints.
It is an amazing, poetic passage, a single sentence in the original Greek. The subordinate clauses break one after another like waves on a seashore, pounding in the message that God, in Paul’s words, ‘has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’. It is the same message we heard in the Gospel reading (John 1:14-16): ‘From (Christ’s) fullness we have all received grace upon grace’.

The name of Christ echoes and re-echoes through Paul’s words:
  • ‘In Christ, God ‘chose us … before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love’.
    We are not Christians because we choose to be, but because God has chosen us to be - and we can trust God not to change his mind, because he chose us from the very beginning.
  • ‘Through Jesus Christ’ God has ‘destined us for adoption as his children …, according to the good pleasure of his will’.
    God adopts us as his beloved children, full members of the household of God, because God's Son Jesus Christ introduces us to him.
  • ‘Through (Christ’s) blood we have redemption and the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us’.
    It is Christ’s example of self-sacrifice upon the cross which shows us the way to redemption and forgiveness. It is a gift from God we do not deserve.
  • In Christ, God has revealed ‘the mystery of his will … as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him’, that is in Christ, ‘things in heaven and things on earth’.
    The Greek word translated here as ‘plan’ is 'oikonomia' - also the root of the English word 'economy', which we are probably tired of hearing in this election time! It literally means the stewardship or overseeing of a household or institution. Paul is saying here that God’s purpose in overseeing his creation is that the whole of it should be drawn together in Christ. The whole of creation - chosen, adopted, redeemed and forgiven, all in Christ - what a breathtaking cosmic vision!
  • ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’. Those who hear Christ’s ‘word of truth, the gospel of salvation and … believe in him’, are ‘marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit’ And ‘this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people’.
    It is precisely because we feel Christ’s promised Spirit at work in and through us, that we can be sure that God has chosen and adopted us as his children, and has redeemed and forgiven us.

Paul almost bludgeons us to recognise that we must start with Christ! This is the key message Paul begins with. This is the message which I hope you will take away from all my words today. We must start with Christ – everything else, including the church insofar as it is a human institution, can only be secondary to Christ.

Paul continues, thanking God for the Ephesians’ faith and the love they show the saints.
He prays in beautiful words that they may know ‘the immeasurable greatness of (God’s) power for us who believe’ - we will shortly pray them for ourselves as our parish prayer for February.

And finally Paul drives home again to the saints at Ephesus, that Christ must be their starting point, finishing the 1st chapter with these words: ‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand … And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head of all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ’

He must be our only starting point! Amen

Next week we shall look at Ephesians 2:1-10, and the theme ‘We are saved by grace through faith for good works’.


Cassa said...

Dear Joc,

I am really enjoying your excellent series of sermons on Ephesians, even from a distance! Well done you for taking on this challenge and particularly appreciated with all things considered:-)

With very best wishes,

Joc Sanders said...

Many thanks for your kind words and encouragement, Cassa!
God bless