This is the second of seven Sunday mornings where the epistle readings are all from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, so I thought it might be helpful to share with you an overview of this most distinctive of the 13 letters attributed to him.
Ephesus is where Paul lived for a couple of years. It’s in modern Turkey, west of the Mediterranean, the temple of Artemis still one of the one of the wonders of the world. (We were there in the Spring; an astonishing moment to sit in the theatre where Paul had once stood.) Now, probably, he is in prison in Rome, certainly he refers to his imprisonment seeing it almost as a way of honouring Christ: ‘I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus’, he says.
The letter has a quite different flavour from his others. It is less personal. Only at its end does he refer to anyone by name Tychicus, ‘ a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord’. Some scholars assume that this therefore may have been a circular letter sent via his friend to others in various churches Paul had founded. Some of the earliest copies of the letter in fact don’t specify Ephesus at all.
If that is the case it helps to explain the very different style of the epistle. Some scholars doubt whether it was written by Paul at all, for whilst it includes many of his traditional themes, it does so in a new, rarefied, dogmatic way as if it was Paul’s final and considered theology. He writes with enormous authority. All by himself, perhaps, without comforters and friends, his incarceration means that he focuses on what for him is the essence of the new faith he has so bravely advocated, often against much opposition and physical violence.
He writes as a Jew but specifically to Gentiles. All the old so called ‘rules’ about the chosen race have been cancelled by the coming of Christ and he makes some quite enormous, even formidable claims for the centrality of Jesus to Christian faith. Let’s look at some of them.
First, then, Jesus himself.
Paul rarely refers to him as Jesus, more often as Christ Jesus or Christ. The man of Nazareth who went about healing the sick and teaching the poor as we have heard this morning in the gospel reading, has become for Paul an elemental figure, existing before the foundation of the world and now set in heaven as the power that is above all earthly powers.
It is almost as if the earthly ministry didn’t happen and the terrible end to it on the cross and the wonderful resurrection that followed it are of lesser importance than these almost apocalyptic views of the glorified and ascendant Christ. Nothing is too great for Paul to claim in his vision of the person and power of Jesus.
Reading these tremendous ideas I was reminded of the colourful and technically brilliant otherworldly films of popular culture, where all that is normal has been transcended into a new realm of reality beyond our sight and senses. But whereas in such culture, the baddies often seem to win, and there’s more gore than glory, this is the story of goodness triumphing. Sometimes we perhaps claim less for Christ than we should. Paul urges us to see the coming of Christ and his impact on the human story in a far wider perspective than we might be used to. He writes of the ‘immeasurable greatness of his power…ruling from heaven’. But the work that will go on, for the glorified Christ will purge us of our sins so that we can be re-created in him. So Paul will have nothing to do with a meek and mild picture of Jesus and claims for him everything that otherwise he associates with God.
Second the Church
There is no doubt in Paul’s mind that the Church is part of the gospel – born of the good news and destined to convey the good news to the world and for Paul, the Jew, particularly to the Gentiles. The church is gifted by God. Many members but various gifts. He names some of them. ‘Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.’ So what was true of one man, Jesus, our gathered gifts form some sort of equation with him.
That’s a very high definition of the Church indeed, and one not easily recognisable in any picture of your average Methodist congregation. And although we may lack such depth and richness of spiritual life, we do have at least a similar intention. We know that we aren’t all the same; we honour our differences; but we seek a unity of common life. We live in utterly different times from Paul, this stern but dear man trying to guide his churches from the uncompromising incarceration to which he has been reduced. But his vision is an inspiration and a rebuke to us – when God welcomes us into the community of faith, he equips us to live as brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a high aspiration but without it we are in danger of becoming creatures of habit, limiting our life together because we don’t expect anymore from each other than we have had before. For Paul the Church is a vital creative experiment in how people can live together, peaceably and in love.
Third, individual Christian behaviour.
Paul the puritan comes to the fore in these six chapters, again reflecting perhaps his own narrow horizons as he sits in his prison cell, perhaps very much alone with his own thoughts. He is fiercely moral in his expectation of how Christians should live, as ‘children of the light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’ As opposed to what he calls ‘unfruitful works of darkness’. So – don’t get drunk, for that is debauchery; don’t be foolish; put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and slander and be kind to one another. Obscene, silly and vulgar talk is entirely out of place, he says. He warns against greediness which he sees as a form of idolatry, a timely condemnation for us of the astonishing and insatiable greed of certain bankers in our own society on which they feed and for whom clearly money (our money often) has become a plaything and a god. Instead we are to be imitators of God as beloved children, living in love as Christ loved us.
It’s when Paul gets on to family relationships that we become aware of the years that divide us from him. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church but they are to be loved, the two becoming one flesh, a brave statement against the customs of his day and one that still has to be remembered in our day.. Children are to obey their parents, and slaves (ouch!) are to obey their earthly masters with enthusiasm and masters mustn’t threaten them.: knowing that both have the same master in heaven. Whilst it’s true that slaves in that age were members of the wider family and treated as such, we have learned that no one has the right to rob another of their liberty. And Christians have eventually been foremost in arguing for that belief.
A sectarian is someone whose belief takes them away from society and lands them in a small self-interested group which by choice exists alongside rather than with the rest of the world. (Back to the bankers and onto all the religious weirdoes who listen to no one but each other). Despite his high doctrine of what the Church should be like, Paul is not a sectarian. He was, for example proud of his Roman citizenship and whatever the failings of that imperial nation, he recognised that it had a global reach. Paul is in Rome because he demands that– as a Roman –his trial should take place there. It was precisely against Jewish sectarianism that Paul argued for the right of everyone to hear the gospel and be changed by the generous and gracious love of God.
From the Father, says Paul, every family in heaven or on earth takes its name. ‘We must speak the truth to our neighbours’, he says, ‘for we are members of one another’. One of the three churches I was responsible for in the 1980’s was a small community church in the Borough of Newham, surrounded by low rise flats.( And its still there!). We had a morning and then an afternoon service, when only three or four of us, sitting in a circle, were the congregation. I was doing the equivalent of preaching one Sunday and said we must love our neighbours. ‘You should meet my neighbour’ said Doris and gave us a long spiel on what she was suffering from the woman in the flat above her. And it was terrible. Well, it’s like that. Unless we are extremely saintly, we don’t instinctively love the funny people around us. And yet, they – even the really nasty and totally irresponsible ones who live as if no one else mattered – are part of the human family. Paul, the strict moralist, still accepts that the saints and sinners, kind and cruel, gentle and violent people are all and equally part of a broken unity, but one which can be made whole.
I have hardly done the beginning of justice to the six chapters of Paul’s deeply thoughtful letter, but trying to do so raises the question of how we read the bible. The tradition we inherit has been that biblical ideas are the raw material from which our doctrines are formed. My question – without the possibility of an answer- is to wonder if Paul wanted to evoke faith, rather than prescribe belief and practice, even though he does a lot of both. Paul’s visionary glorified picture of the Christ consoles him as he continues to care for ‘his’ churches. Thank God for him and for his creative thinking in captivity. But if we only define our belief through his experience, he may be standing in the way of our search for truth, instead of helping to release us to find it for ourselves and in fellowship with others.