Over the next five weeks at SBC, we will be reading through the letter to the Ephesians together. That’s basically one chapter a week, except that we will run chapters two and three together next week. Our teaching since September has been mostly thematic, and so I thought it would be good to shift gear and do something which began with rather than looked to scripture. I chose Ephesians by instinct really, but as I read it again, I was delighted to rediscover some wonderful passages that I think it will be great for us to dig into.
I thought it might be helpful to start with a bit of an introduction to the letter, but it turns out we don’t know all that much about it, so this will be brief. The letter itself claims that it is from Paul to the church in Ephesus, but a number of scholars have questioned those opening verses, claiming that there are a number of differences between this and the letters we are sure were written by Paul, and noting that a number of early manuscripts don’t specify Ephesus as the location of the church the letter was written to. These scholars therefore argue that it was in fact written by someone else and perhaps to someone else, and was reattributed later.
It felt right to acknowledge that debate, but I don't want to get too bogged down in the scholarship, because while context is really helpful when it comes to getting to understanding the original intent of a text, and I would normally be all for trying to understand the historical and personal context of the letter, I believe that we can still read with an openness to hearing what God wants to say through those words now, even when that context is missing.
And to be honest, I’m not sure it matters overly much if Paul did or didn't write the letter, unless we think that he had a kind of authority possessed by no one else, and I think that is overselling him a little. It is clear that he was hugely significant in shaping the theology and practice of the early church, but we have to discern the truth and the wisdom of every text on its own merits, and as should be clear from the inclusion of letters from other writers in the New Testament, it is not Paul alone of the early church leaders that still has much to teach us.
And while we may not know for certain the situation the letter was written into, we can make some reasonable assumptions. Working backwards from the text we can guess that its intended readers were largely Gentile converts, although they appear to have lived in some tension with Jewish converts. So there is a sense in which these readers are discovering something new, something which changes their relationships with others. We can expect then that this letter will speak to how we relate to one another in unity and across difference, which makes it a great text for us to study together.
On Sunday we started, as you might expect, with Ephesians 1. There's a lot to go at in there, but one of the first things I had to learn when I started preaching was that I didn't need to say everyone all at once, so rather than working through verse by verse, I decided to focus on two phrases - “the riches of God’s grace” and “a spirit of wisdom and revelation”.
I may have been going slightly loopy after a few nights of broken sleep, but on about my fourth reading of the passage, “the riches of God's grace” jumped out at me and made me think of my toddler and one of his favourite games, which is playing at being a pirate. You can tell he is being a pirate because he will clap a hand over one eye, give a great big piratey “argh!”, then run off in search of treasure. Of course God's riches are not like pirate treasure at all, but knowing what something is not tells us something of what it is, so I'm going to follow this line a little way.
God's riches are not like pirate treasure because they are not and can never be stolen. They are gifts freely given. Of course we give in return, but that giving happens in relationship, and so it’s not a case of earning or paying back, but of reciprocating. Our giving is a natural response, not a condition. And we don't only give back to God, but we also give on to others. Receiving God's grace compels us to show that same grace to others, and indeed to ourselves, which can sometimes be the hardest part.
God's riches are not like pirate treasure because they are not hidden on a desert island and we don't need a map where x marks the spot to get to them. We know exactly where they are because they are in God. Of course God isn't always easy to find, not because he's hiding but because the world obscures our vision and confuses our understanding, and so we need pointers to get us looking and thinking in the right direction, but I do think we should avoid seeing scripture or tradition as simple maps. They are important guides, but God is so much bigger and more dynamic than that kind of approach allows for, and we also need to seek the living word not just the written word, which is why we need to develop our worship and our prayer lives.
And God's riches are not like pirate treasure because they are not cursed or boobytrapped. God wants us to take them and he wants them to bless us. Not that they are always easy to take hold of. Accepting the riches of God's grace means recognising that the riches God gives don’t always look like the riches we expect or desire, which can be frustrating. And of course God engages with us in the context of a fallen and fractured creation, and that causes all sorts of complications. God works with the world not against it, and as the world has exerted its free will, we have made that work harder. It's really important that we don't fall into thinking that if we're not experiencing God's riches it's because we've been forgotten or abandoned. The truth is far more complicated than that.
So what are these riches? In order to start answering that, I want to look at a number of other words which appear in this chapter. They are not explicitly named as the riches in question, but they are part of the same thought, and they look like riches to me, the jewels in our treasure box, if you will.
HOLINESS Verse 4 tells us we were chosen to be holy and blameless in God’s sight. “In his sight” is important because it says to me that this isn't laying on us an expectation to actually be holy and blameless. It says to me that even though we we are always going to mess up, God chooses not to focus on that. He knows all the rubbish we do and think and feel, but he chooses to see us as our best selves. We often picture God as a stern headteacher, pointing the finger at us, but in fact he is our greatest cheerleader, reminding us of all we are capable of.
ADOPTION Verse 5 tells us that in love God predestined us for adoption to sonship. I struggle with “predestined” because that implies a whole theology I don't subscribe to, and which isn't necessarily intended here, but the adoption metaphor is powerful. Adoption in the ancient world was a way of conferring all the rights of inheritance, and of course that is a part of what the writer is thinking of here, as it is because we are made sons and daughters of God that we receive this riches as our inheritance, but there's more going on here, for we are told we were adopted in love. You didn't need to love the person you were adopting at the time the letter was written, you just had to want to make them an heir, and that could be a very pragmatic decision, The reference to love means that our current model of adoption is actually a much better fit. Yes we become legal heirs, but more than that, we are embraced as part of a family, finding not just a rich benefactor but a loving parent.
FORGIVENESS In verse 7 we find that we have redemption through Christ’s blood, the forgiveness of sins. In many ways this echoes what I said about being holy and blameless in God’s sight, as again we are reminded that God chooses to look beyond our mistakes and our faults, to treat us better than we deserve, but there is more to say here because having forgiveness is not just about being forgiven, it is also about being able to forgive. I know from bitter and painful experience how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply, but also how necessary and how freeing. Forgiving others for the hurts they have caused is made so much easier when we understand that we have already been forgiven for the hurts we have caused, because we cannot offer less than we have received.
UNITY In verse 10 we hear that God's will is to bring unity to all things. There is something about rebalancing the whole of creation here, but unity in the church is certainly a significant part of that. This theme is elaborated on later in the letter, but it seems apt that we should be introduced to it this week, as it is teh Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Unity was a really important thing for the early church to deal with, because it very quickly brought men and women and masters and slaves and Jews and Gentiles into the same worship space for perhaps the first time. there were fractures and barriers within these Christian communities that needed to be dealt with, and really very little has changed all these centuries later. The key to the unity God wills to bring about comes a few verses later on, when we are told that we were included in Christ. It is the fact that we are all brought into Christ that brings us into unity with one another, the truth that we are all included by Christ that calls us to include one another. That such inclusion is one of the riches of Christ only reminds us why it is something we must keep wrestling with.
HOPE Verse 18 speaks of the hope to which God has called us. Hope is a very precious thing because it calls us onwards and upwards. My first experience of depression was so horrendous precisely because I lost hope, but by the grace of God I lived through it, and knowing that I survived once gives me hope that I can survive again, and that hope is what has stopped things from ever getting so bad again. I feel like we collectively need some hope at the moment. Whatever side of whatever political debate we sit on, things are rough at the moment, and there is a lot of fear. I read the news with a sense of dread, and I have to keep reminding myself that we have a hope beyond all of this, that however bad things get, there is nothing that God cannot redeem.
POWER Finally, verse 19 testifies to God's incomparably great power for those who believe, which we are told is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus sent his disciples out to perform miracles, and he promised them power in his final words before his ascension, but power is a tricky thing, and I’m not sure we really know what to do with it. I think some traditions create such a weight of expectation that many are left disappointed or feeling like failures for not experiencing or demonstrating this power, while other traditions are so shy of it that it hardly figures in their thinking. Like all pendulums, I think there is a balance point in the middle, but it’s tricky to find and it’s something I’m still figuring out. I think we can start by being bolder in our prayers, believing that God can move in power, but also bolder in our actions, believing that we have more power than we know. Paul is talking about supernatural power, but there is also a power in our collective action, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much we can achieve through together modelling a different way of life, one shaped by the encouragement and love and forgiveness and unity and hope that are the riches of Christ.
So we’ve thought a bit about God’s riches, but I said there was another phrase I wanted to explore. Verses 17-19 are a prayer for those reading the letter, that God will grant them a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that they may know God better and so know his riches. Some translations have “the Spirit”, and while strictly speaking “a spirit” is more accurate, the truth is that we can only develop our own spirit of wisdom and revelation through the our openness to the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so really it is a bit of both.
I chose this phrase as the title for my sermon because it is so important. We are not going to discover the fullness of God’s riches simply by being told about them, but only by encountering the living presence of God through the Spirit, and so nurturing our own spirit. But as important as it is, I find it really difficult to preach on, which is why I ended up focusing on the riches of God's grace, although the title had already been set by then. Encountering the Spirit will be a different experience for all of us, and it will bring different wisdom and revelation to our spirits. I can’t tell you what it will be with you, only encourage and help you to make space to find out for yourself.
With that in mind, I want to reccomend to you the practice of lectio divina, which you may like to try with a passage from Ephesians 1, as we did together on Sunday. This is a way of reading scripture with an openness to hear what the Spirit may be saying to us through it. There are a number of variations but the basic pattern is to read a passage through several times, listening for a word or phrase that seems particularly significant; then to talk with God about that word or phrase; then to meditate on it, remaining open to the Spirit bringing new insights; then finally to simply sit in God’s presence with your thoughts. It won't work for everyone, but you may find it opens up scripture in a new way.
Whether you get along with lectio divina or not, I want to pray Ephesians 1:17-19 over you this week. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. Amen.