This morning I am really excited to begin a new series with you, studying the book of Ephesians. We are going to study one chapter per week from now through Labor Day weekend. This is a natural continuation of our study on the early church. Last week we heard a story in the book of Acts that took place in the city of Ephesus so we’re going to follow that story line right over the book of Ephesians.
Ephesians was written either by the apostle Paul or by one of his close followers who was responsible for continuing to teach Paul’s ideas. Although the letter may have first been sent to the church at Ephesus, it was almost certainly designed to be shared with all the churches in the area. The letters in the New Testament, the ones addressed to churches in specific cities, like Ephesians, these letters were all intended to be read out loud when the people were gathered for worship, as we are. So although it’s good to read these letters by yourself, we get the truest sense of them when we read them out loud together. Any time you hear the word “you” in this letter, you should think “y’all” because it was written to a group of people, not to an individual.
The city of Ephesus was incredibly influential in the ancient world. It was a center of trade, of culture, and of government; a metropolitan city with 250,000 people from all walks of life. Ephesus had a temple to the goddess Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It had a huge marketplace, and an amphitheater that sat 20,000 people. At the time of the early church, it was a port city although over the years, the geography shiften, the port was filled in by silt and the city became a swamp and was eventually abandoned and buried under mud. Excavations didn’t begin there until 1865 and only about 10% of the city has been uncovered so far. In 2007 my mom and I took a trip that included a tour of this ancient city so I thought I would show you a few of our photos so you can imagine what this city looked like to the people who heard this letter.
The growing community of believers in Ephesus was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. These people are learning how to live together, how to live differently than they used to, and how live as followers of Jesus in a society that really doesn’t understand them. Because this letter could have been written as much as 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection, it is not concerned with expecting Jesus come back soon. Instead is is concerned with how Christians live day to day in the meantime. In order to give those everyday instructions, the author begins with a cosmic overview of God’s work in the world. The sentence structure is long and complicated and so I want to invite you not to tune out or assume it’s just a bunch of theological mumbo jumbo. As I read, I ask you to listen for the verbs, the specific things that God is doing. See if you can catch what God’s plan for the world is. After I read these verses, I’m going to point out a few themes that will show up over and over again in this book, and then we will celebrate Communion together. So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God.
From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To God’s holy people (in Ephesus), the faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace and peace to you from our Father-God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise the Father-God of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. God destined us for legal adoption as heirs through Jesus Christ, in accordance with God’s pleasure and will—to the praise of God’s glorious grace, which God has freely given us in the Beloved One. In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of trespasses, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that God lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which God purposed in Christas a plan for the fullness of time—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth, under Christ.
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we Jews, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of God’s glory. And you Gentiles also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you trusted, you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is a down payment guaranteeing our inheritance toward the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
I have heard about your trust in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, and for this reason I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints, and God’s incomparably great power for us who trust. That power is the same as the mighty strength God exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be named, not only in the present eon but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under Christ’s feet and appointed Christ to be head over everything for the church, which is Christ’s body, the fullness of the One who is filling everything in every way.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.Ephesians 1:1-20
I told you it was thick. Verses 3 through 14 are actually one long sentence in Greek, so thank goodness our translators broke it up for us. We don’t know if this was originally a hymn or some liturgy that the church recited together or just the author working up a good charismatic lather, but these verses are rich in images and assertions. I want to pull out four themes for you that the author introduces in this first chapter and will call on again and again throughout the rest of the book.
The first theme is that we belong to God. Yes, in some ways we can say that all humans are children of God. But we who trust Christ belong to God in a particular way. By trusting in God’s grace, we receive all the blessings that God is pouring out. God blesses us, God chooses us, God destines us to be adopted into the heritage of the people who were blessed to be a blessing in the Old Testament. God redeems us, forgives us, lavishes grace upon us. God reveals the cosmic plan to us, seals us with the Holy Spirit, and gives us wisdom and understanding. All of this God does. We do not do it. All of it is done by God’s grace and we access it simply by trusting that God has done it and is doing it. Our trust makes all of this a done deal. We belong to God. Period.
The second theme is that because we belong to God we have been initiated into God’s secret plan for the world, which is to bring unity to all things, under Christ. This “secret plan” is described as a mystery, which in the ancient world was something that was known only to those who had fully committed themselves to a religion. God doesn’t desire to keep it a secret from everyone else. It’s a secret, a mystery, because it doesn’t make sense to outsiders. God’s plan for the world is to reconcile and restore all things, to bring unity to all people. This makes no sense to the world outside of Christianity because the world thrives on differences. Jews versus Gentiles. Democrats versus Republicans. Mask-wearers versus non-mask-wearers. We love nothing more than to be right and make someone else wrong. When we disagree with someone, we can only see our differences. We don’t want to hear how we are the same as our enemies. We want to hear how we are better than they are. But God’s plan is to unify us, to break down the dividing walls of hostility. And because we are now agents in this mission, we must begin to break down those walls. Now. Each of us. In our own lives.
The third theme is that we will be have the ability to break down these walls because the very same exact identical power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us. The very same exact identical power. The power that accomplished resurrection is alive in us, as individuals and especially as a community. The spirit of resurrection is working in us and through us, and we will know that’s true when we do things that bring us more in line with God’s love. And if the actual power of Christ’s resurrection is at work in us, then there is nothing that we can’t do.
The fourth and final theme is that Christ is over all. There are forces of evil at work in the world. Even if you don’t believe in actual demons, you can see that systems and corporations and countries seem to have an energy that is greater than the people who supposedly run things. There are problems that keep happening over and over regardless of who is in charge. For example, having a black president didn’t eliminate racism in our country. There’s something else at work here. But whatever that something else is, Christ is greater. Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and every name and title. This book says that the powers are real but that Christ is over all of them. And Christ is also over us; Christ is the head and the Church is the body. The arms and legs and hands and feet and ears and guts all take their directions from the head. Christ is over all.
So those are the themes. We belong to God by grace through trust. God’s plan it to unify all things. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us. And Christ is over all, the head of the church and more powerful than the powers. Those are the themes of Ephesians, and some core ideas for us as we grow in our love and allegiance to Jesus.
What better way to respond to that than by celebrating Communion together. In this symbolic meal we remember Jesus’ selfless act of love that undeniably demonstrated God’s grace to us. We gather around Christ’s table in unity, recognizing that we are equally in need of grace and forgiveness. In this moment, we are particularly sensitive to receiving again the grace and the power that God is constantly extending to us. And we affirm Christ’s victory over the powers of the world and his authority over our individual lives and our life together. As we gather, the voices of our ancestors in the faith ring out to remind us that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, all races, all genders— people in every type of body— may come from the north and the south and the east and the west and be welcomed by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.