Ephesians: a love letter

Working through Ephesians at the moment when time allows. It is an immensely rich letter and it is a privilege and pleasure to spend time in it. I know it’s a question of ‘Well you would say that wouldn’t you?’ but the Bible is really rather amazing. Here’s this ancient text, getting on for 2000 years old, written to an obscure minority within a great Empire and it is just bursting with power, creativity, freshness and compelling good news.

It is also beautifully written, with layer after layer of careful thought and structured chiastic patterns, all arranged to draw the reader into the compelling argument of the letter.

There are lots of excellent commentaries on Ephesians. Some of the ones that I have found most helpful are:

John Stott. The Message of Ephesians. 1991. A classic Stottian masterpiece.

Clinton Arnold. Ephesians. 2010. ZECNT. Very good.

Frank Thielman. Ephesians. 2010. BECNT. Excellent.

Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians. NIV Application Commentary. 1996. Extremely readable and well researched. Gotta admire the name.

Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. 2002. Baker Academic.. Heavyweight and more technical.

Heil EphesiansBut for sheer originality and freshness, nothing has surpassed John Paul Heil, Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ. (SBL. 2007).

The title says it all. What Heil does so persuasively is to argue that the essential theme of Ephesians is love. But on either ‘side’ of that core theme are ‘power’ and ‘unity’.

POWER

Heil argues that the Epistle not only talks about power a lot, but as it was read orally, the reading in itself would be powerfully transformative.

God demonstrated his great power in raising Christ from the dead, a power now available to believers (1:19-20).

Heil puts it this way,

The very experience of listening to the Letter’s elaborate and ornate language of power and grace communicated by the way of the oral patterns of its chiastically arranged units not only persuades but empowers the audience to the conduct envisioned for it by Paul. (p.2)

Here’s an idea – why not try reading the letter out loud to yourself or a group and see how that goes …

TO WALK IN LOVE

‘Walk’ appears at critical junctures in the letter (2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15). Like modern English, it carries a sense of a ‘way of life’. We talk of ‘walking the walk’. A key command, which shapes all that comes after it is 5:2.

Walk in love, as also Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

‘In love’ (en agapē) is a recurrent phrase – see 1:4; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2. It carries the sense of a dynamic domain of love, a sort of fusion of God’s love poured out for us in Christ which empowers believers’ love for God and for one another. The verb ‘love’ (agapaō) occurs even more often. Love is beginning, middle and end in Ephesians.

Just consider the closing verses of the letter to see the overwhelming emphasis on love.

Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. 6:23-24

UNITY

The empowering by God (and the Spirit is a major theme here), associated with ‘walking in love’, leads to a profound and deep unity in Christ.

There is the cosmic unity of all things being united in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (1:9-10). This finds its fulfillment in the marvellous verses of 4:15-16 where believers are united together in Christ and with each other.

… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 4:15-16.

Power, Love, Unity – Ephesians in a nutshell.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS Update. I meant to say that the NIV, in my humble opinion, does a poor job in communicating the importance of  walk (peripateō) in the letter. For example, 5:2 is translated ‘and live a life of love’. This is a real loss. It loses the contrast between the Christian walk of 5:2 and the command in 4:17 not to walk as the Gentiles do (the NIV translates this ‘that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do’). Commands to ‘walk’ are significant in the letter but you would not know it reading the NIV. The ESV is actually much better here.

 

 

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REFLECTIONS ON ‘LIFE IN REVERSE’: END, MIDDLE AND BEGINNING

Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.

Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.

I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!

In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.

DEATH

First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.

I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it is likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.

dylan

Stanley Hauerwas

As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)

Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.

In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.

I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.

It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah

… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)

Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?

I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.

As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.

But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.

And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.

CELEBRATING A MILESTONE

The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.

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Cutting the cake

Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.

I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.

The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.

In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.

Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.

BAPTISM

The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.

It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.

The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.

The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …

The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS

As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.

Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.

  1. Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
  2. It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
  3. It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
  4. True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
  5. Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
  6. Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
  7. Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
  8. And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.

Comments, as ever, welcome.