Christ the King: 23 November Ephesians 1:15-23
What appears to be a letter to the Ephesians by Paul may well be something of a more general kind composed in this format. In any case it is dense with allusions to Paul's ideas as well as developing particular slants of its own. Its lack of particular attachment to a context gives it a general character and wide application, as key themes receive attention which are applicable to all.
It is designed as a source of teaching for Gentile believers and identifies key foundations for their faith. Its language tumbles to excess with nouns piled up which fall forward, as it were, in overbalance to make its point. When we pick ourselves up from the ocean floor having surfed across so many "of"s, which kind translators often try to disguise, we find that important things have been said.
The first two verses are simple enough and follow the traditional pattern of beginning letters with assurances of interest in or prayer or thanksgiving for the recipients, but then the wave builds and in 1:17-19 we are scrambling to keep upright as words tumble and rumble. Basically the prayer is that the Gentile believers will understand what their hope is and how powerful God can be in their lives.
If we let the thoughts run up onto the sand, we can see that it is reassuring to tell people via a prayer what you wish for them and want them to know. Whatever it may take, ensuring we have a sound foundation of hope is a key to life. Hope occupies the God-spot in our lives, just as God occupies the hope-spot. It gives us a sense that life is worth going on. Notice that the wisdom about this is not expansive knowledge or speculation about what it might turn out to be in detail. There is nothing of that. The hope is totally focused on God - so the details can be left. It is not a hope we control by having knowledge about it. It is rich; it is glorious; it is, in fact, God's being. It is not to be commodified into a package and put on the greed-shelf of spiritual consumerism.
In the Greek our whole passage is really one single sentence. So when the prayer also expresses the wish that we may know the power that this unleashes in us in 1:19, it simply continues in 1:20 with the relative pronoun, "which". The power which we experience is the power "which" elevated the dead and rejected Christ. So we can surf down the sentence a good while longer with its twists and turns.
In 1:20-22 the passage uses a string of ideas we find elsewhere, for instance in 1 Peter 3:18-22 and Hebrews 1-2. They include: God raised Christ from the dead; God seated him at his right hand (using the imagery of royal coronation from Psalm 110:1); God subjected powers (including angels) to him; God subjected everything to him (using imagery from Psalm 8:6). Colossians which Ephesians uses extensively employed many of these ideas. Paul uses them in 1 Corinthians 15 and, partly, in Romans 8:34. In other words the passage uses a sequence of ideas designed to tell us about God's response to human rejecting of Jesus. It is language from the sphere of kings and coronations (as is the word, "Messiah", Christ, which means Anointed).
Where people had rejected Jesus in the worst possible way, God affirmed him in the best possible way - at least within the prevailing value system of the day. The message is clear. God does not abandon the one who loves. The powers that destroy do not have the last word. Love overcomes hate. God took Jesus home and celebrated him. The same God and the same hope is the life force of believers. It could just be wishful thinking. It can never quite escape the charge that it is wilful defiance of what appears to be reality. Faith understands that and needs to recognise that it is often wilful defiance in the name of love. Christ's hope and ours belong inextricably together.
The connection between God's affirmation of the rejected Jesus and ourselves comes through very strongly in the last two verses. It is not just that our fate may mirror his. It is not just about affirming a principle of hope and its power in our lives. Rather what happened with Christ was the beginning of something which reaches out and encompasses others and brings together into a network of people who share the same source of energy. Borrowing from an idea developed in new ways in Colossians, Ephesians speaks of Christ becoming the head of an expanding body into which we are incorporated. Paul's image of the body for the local congregation now becomes the basis for understanding how all believers belong together.
It is interesting to examine the language used of mission. Here the central term is filling. May the earth be filled with the glory of God! Such thoughts will have inspired this new image of what God is doing through Christ: filling the world with grace and doing so by filling the world with the community of faith and life.
It is also a very dangerous image when given definitive status and not allowed to blow away in the wind as good images must to uncover the truth. The church has not shown itself to be good news when it has seen its role as filling the universe and controlling it. It slips off its board in the turbulence when it forgets its fallibility and need to see to balance. Nevertheless, the image can inspire. Far from being an ever expanding hand reaching out to grab, manipulate and control, it can understand as its authority the engagement in bringing transforming grace and hope, both of which carry their own authentication and infallibility.
Christ the king is also an image which has both cursed and blessed the world. It is at its most powerful when captured in the vision of a thorn-crowned figure on the throne of a cross. The power of which Ephesians speaks is not a power to undo that image and replace it, but to affirm it. And such abundant love needs to reach every shore.
Gospel: Christ the King: 23 November Matthew 25:31-46
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