First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 4

William Loader

Lent 4: 18 March  Ephesians 2:1-10

We have made the move together. That is a central theme in Ephesians. The 'we' is: we, Jews, and you, non-Jews. Together we have become something new. This could boil down to religious self congratulation of the saved, but it is clearly something much more than that.

This letter, probably written later under the inspiration which Paul the community's founder evoked, rather than directly by the apostle, himself, addresses Gentiles. The writer has been using very fulsome language to acclaim the hope which faith has generated. He has already focused on the 'we' and the 'you'. After the great declaration of 1:3-12, he affirms that this is true for 'you, too'. 1:15-23 he reaffirms that they have been joined to the grand scheme. 1:23 uses the image of 'filling' to describe the vision. That vision is that God will fill all things. It is another way of speaking of 'the kingdom of God' or of God's being spreading out to encompass all. It assumes that this is not the case in the present, because it is not talking about a kind of pantheism. Rather this is God's 'ambition'.

'Ambition' can be good or bad. Some have taken the divine ambition as justification for creating their own empires. Our flag shall fly, our values be reflected in every land! It led in history to well meaning conquests in the name of Christianity. It still inspires political leaders to profile themselves and their nations as saviours of the human race, justifying not only persuasion, but also war. Two sets of imperial ambitions, variously judged, and quite differently constructed, are currently in a stand-off, one threatening violent acts of terror, the other threatening violent acts for control, 'for good'.

Who is this God who wants to fill all things? Will this be a drowning, a death? The grand vision in Ephesians has its foundation in the life of Jesus and in an understanding of the mind of God. The focus is life, not death; freedom, not slavery. The motive is love, not oppression. The initiative flows from God's compassion. Our passage uses words like love, grace, mercy, a number of times. This big vision is enough to bring the diverse cultures together. Not that they cease to be Jews and Gentiles. In the vision and its image - lived out in Christ, the model Adam, the template for this new creation - there is room for people to be what they were created to be.

When we focus more sharply on the contrasts we can see why the author speaks of the need for such a vision. Our passage begins by speaking of living people being dead. To get through to deeper meaning, you often have to start with what is absurd; it is a way of inviting people to think differently. The death in which people lived and live is characterised by being dominated by destructive powers. One could reduce it to demonology, but the author locates it very much within and among human beings. Careful not to give the impression that only non Jews were and are in such a plight, the author affirms that the same applied to Jews (2:3). It assumes people are swayed by values and powers which they do not question and whose vision is different from God's. Whether grand political powers, or the individualised motivations of a single human being, these are the forces which argue for self-gratification and protection of self-interest. They are not generous (except if there is some reward) and depend on assumptions that some people do not matter: sharing of resources with others can be at most incidental and 'useful' investment.

The passage tells us that God, too, is rich, but indulges in compassion and generosity as a way of being. In God, what God wants and what is in the interests of others coincides, because God is love. The globalisation which Ephesians envisions is not one which exploits in the interests of a few, but one which includes and cares in the interests of all. It produces spirals which lead out of conflict and distrust, whereas the globalisation of the world's empires exacerbates conflict into war and to protect its interests needs to be able to discount others and treat them as expendable collateral to its aims.

The author links this 'move' from death to life with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The execution of Jesus was not a major event for Rome or the local Judean authorities. It was little more than a bit of tidying up in the interests of the empire and its interests. The death symbolises all deaths caused by injustice. The resurrection is a blatant defiance that death is the end of the story. Those who enter the death, see it at work on themselves and in themselves (including in their group, family, community and nation), have a chance to move from death to life. The being of God is the gift which persuades people to choose the offer of life.

The world of transactions for profit frequently invades such reflections and reduces them to market commodities. One common way has been to see salvation as the ultimate luxury (manufactured by God) and to cultivate those qualities deemed to deserve it and hold proudly to them. We are then 'God's special people' - the worthy, who can then strut our stuff and tell the rest of the world that they should be like us. Even when the persistence of the tradition succeeds in convincing people that it is not something we deserve, but is God's gift, theological accountancy reduces the transaction to the level of the markets again by imagining that God needed to be paid off to be free to love (on the assumption: who'd want to love, if they weren't paid for it!). Then we are told that God instigated a self payment by engineering the punishment of his son. Accountancy wins. The ledger was squared. Despite God's daring and generosity our values are then upheld, because we have found a way of reducing the whole thing to being just like the transactions which are fundamental to our economic system, now globalised.

2:8-10 give us a chance to see beyond the reductions to the real foundations of the divine vision. In fact the language shows that it is really about God's creative generosity. God's intention all along has been that people become what they were made to be and the 'earth be filled with the glory of God'. God's glory is God's goodness. The move which the passage celebrates is not a move from this world to the next, from the outer to the inner world, from the world to the church community, but a move from a death way of being to a life way of being - here and now. 'Created for good works' (2:10) might also be 'created to work well, to be in good working order'. The 'good works' are not to be reduced to a list of moral 'do's which match a list of moral 'don't's. Throughout the passage 'good' is about God's goodness and generosity. It is about finding life in which we know ourselves to be made for love and compassion - almost like we are saying: that's in fact how we are likely to function best. That was the Adam template we find in Jesus.

The choice of life and death is often not a choice between blatant opposites, but between what masquerades as good and what truly is good for humankind and our world. That is why it is so hard for people to make the move. 

Gospel: Lent 4: 18 March  John 3:14-21

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