First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 10

William Loader

Pentecost 10: 5 August Ephesians 4:1-16

These rich 16 verses are the beginning of an exhortation to the hearers to abandon the old way of life and fully enter something new. In the background is the fact that they look back on having been Gentiles and that they are now one in the new people of God, they and the Jews who believe, together. This broader context reappears soon enough in 4:17-19. The positive message in 4:1-16 is big enough for all to find themselves addressed.

Reading the passage is like climbing a mountain which peaks in 4:13 and then takes us down and out into a vision which encompasses the whole world. It begins at a low point. The lowliness of the writer, "prisoner in the Lord". Then it reminds the hearers that living the life, responding to the call (which is how it understands conversion; 4:1) starts with abandoning arrogance and ego-struggles with others (4:2). If love generated the call in the first place, which Ephesians keeps emphasising and has just prayed about in 3:14-21, then love determines the way we live, our attitudes towards each other. Concretely the author may be saying to Gentiles not to feel superior to Jews, but the vista is larger than that.

"The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:4) does not just happen spontaneously. It needs some keeping. It needs some focussing. In the context of writings by Paul and those who follow him, we know that love is not an ideal we summon up by discipline and motivational hype, but a fruit of a relationship, most often expressed as sharing in the life of the Spirit. The unity is generated on the basis of that relationship as an ongoing phenomenon. The result is wholeness - peace in the broadest sense.

We now have a series of 'one' statements in 4:4-6, perhaps even more dramatic in English than in Greek which has a different sounding word for 'one' depending on the gender of the noun in 4:5. Why put "One Lord", "One Faith" and "One Baptism" together in 4:5? Because these belong to the common language of celebrating conversion. Baptism celebrated submersion into the one river of life which flows from Christ, the effect of a response of faith, and that river is otherwise described as the extensive being of Christ, the sphere of his influence, or, more personally, his person expanded so that all can become incorporated into it. That is why the text begins with "one body" and "one Spirit" (4:4), which is sometimes seen as the way the being or influence of Christ is mediated. So the unity consists in our belonging in that sphere, our incorporation into Christ, Christ's body. The word about "one hope" is about something dynamic. Being in the body is not something static. It is to be engaged in a process which is about bringing hope and life to the whole world.

4:6 directs our attention to God, but not so much as God above as God of, over, through and in all. The idea of unity in Ephesians is not about a huddled unity which keeps itself safe, but about an expansive and open unity. This is so because its understanding of God is like that. God is clearly personal, but also able to be thought of as being like a fluid which flows through all the universe. A positive relationship with God opens us to all of life. It is not about withdrawal or escape. As we shall see, Christ's body becomes an image for dreaming about the goodness of God filling the whole world. It is like Christ is a large body which keeps expanding as it incorporates more and more of reality and brings more and more of it into unity (both with the body and with all other reality).

4:7-13 uses Psalm 68:19 (an image of triumph originally about God's enemies!) to expound the nature of this body. Leading captivity captive is an interesting thought, but is not the focus here. The emphasis is the gifts. The Christ who ascended to God through his resurrection poured down benefits on those below. The reverse image is also important: he came down to the lowest points (even to the level of Gentiles!). The spatial dimension is important: descending to the depths, ascending to the heights! Both images express love: nothing is too low and no generosity is too great. The hearers might have thought about triumphant generals showering gifts.

Here the focus is on generous love and what it enables. It both reaches out to include - no one is too far away, too far gone, sunk too low; that is a message of grace. But this love is also engaging: it embraces us into a new belonging where something is going on. We are in this growing body which exists to fill the entire universe with God's love. So we are not invited to belong in some state of inactivity and rest, but to be part of this pulsating body. Love not only embraces us; it also empowers and equips us. This is the author's rationale for then identifying some key roles in this growing body as it shows itself in his time: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. These are roles to exercise, not rewards, let alone awards.

Notice that such roles exist for the sole purpose of helping all members engage in ministry ("to equip the saints for the work of ministry" 4:12). We reach the peak of the mountain when our attention moves in 4:13 to becoming the full grown Jesus in the world. We need to imagine with the author that together we form a giant expanding human body which is gradually filling the entire universe. It is not a Frankenstein - although sometimes the church can resemble monstrosities in its imperalism - but something more gentle; it is an image of love. Contrasted with the picture of maturity and fulfilment in 4:13 is the warning about immaturity in 4:14. Do a bit of serious theology and don't be naive! A lot of what passes for Christianity is very childish and manipulative. We have plenty of examples. Part of equipment for ministry at all levels is the ability to think critically and not get carried away by fads and falsities (4:14)!

4:15-16 brings up back literally to the image of the body. Now we see Christ the giver of gifts as being like the brain which is like the source of life and energy. Each of us has a part in the body - different parts - but we all need each other and together the whole body is a unity which can grow. A fascinating image of mission. But don't miss the closing words in 4:16 which carry the emphasis: for the building up of itself in love. "Love" comes in the emphatic final position (look also at its prominence in 4:15!).

The image we have before us sets things in perspective. Ministries exist for the sake of ministry, not for their own sake. The ministry of all is about living out the life and love which constituted us in the first place and keeps us going together. The ministry is fully incorporated into the God-body who takes shape in Christ. It is all about "filling all things" (4:10) with the glory/goodness of God.

Gospel: Pentecost 10: 5 August John 6:24-35

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