First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 7

William Loader

Pentecost 7: 15 July  Ephesians 1:3-14

'You, too!' The acclamation with which the letter begins after its formal greeting is a rolling wordy sentence that tumbles from one set of wonderful themes to another, finally coming to rest in the affirmation to the readers that they belong, too! 'You, too!' They have been included. Ephesians is celebrating the inclusion of both Gentiles and Jews in this new initiative of God to bring together all people, indeed, all things into unity under Christ.

Ancient letters were even more formal than ours, although ours conservatively retain standard forms no longer in use in normal discourse, such as 'Dear Kate' and 'Yours sincerely'. After the formal identification of the sender, the recipient and a word greeting, there usually followed some thanks to the gods for the recipients, which might also include assurance of prayer on their behalf. Paul's letters all begin this way. 2 Corinthians varies this with a statement of blessing towards God. Ephesians is similar and we see this form also in 1 Peter. The acclamation is so elaborate that one wonders whether form has subdued content, but the content is worth considering, because it was doubtless chosen with care.

God to be blessed because God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (1:3). The word play does not hide a slight difference in meaning: from praising God to benefiting us. The benefit has a context: 'the heavenlies' and 'in Christ'. While 'in Christ' might mean nothing more than through Christ, there is a strong possibility that both Christ and the heavenlies refer to location. The focus is not so much the heavens, as it is the sphere of spiritual power which shapes life, not as something outside it, but as something profoundly within it. We might change the spatial imagery and say: we have received benefit where life matters most, at the very centre of our being and all being. The celebration continues in 1:4 with an assertion of chosenness. Its focus is not to exclude others but to express love and intent. God wanted this for us and always has. What God wants is holiness and blamelessness, which is spelled out not in terms of sterile morality, but love.

The next metaphor comes from family life. Not abandoned, we have been taken into the divine family through Christ (1:5). This is still the language of caring and nurture. Again we hear it is what God wanted and its goal was that we should be lovers of love, the love shown in Christ (1:6). This is all about ultimate values and the focus of our spirituality: appreciating love. That love receives fine tuning in the verses which follow. The author sees it in Christ's death as an act of love, which leads according to the widely espoused tradition which interpreted Christ's death as a vicarious atonement, to forgiveness of sins (1:7). Even then we are reminded again that the basis for such forgiveness is rich love (1:7b). But straightaway we are drawn up into a much larger vision, called a mystery. It is God's plan to bring the whole creation together in unity with Christ as its head (1:8-10). In the context of the strong emphasis on grace and compassion, we should see this not as a divine power grab, but as a dream that one day love, Christ's love, might give unity to the whole of creation.

This lofty vision does not leave people behind. We also have a place, writes the author, and this has always been what God wanted (1:11). The author will soon address the hearers as 'you', so we should take these statements as referring primarily to the author and those associated with him, primarily Christian Jews. They were the first to put their hope in Christ (1:12) and they know their role is to bring praise to God, to God's glory, which is a way of talking about honouring and valuing God's very being. Such openness to God and who God is belongs to the heart of spirituality and to being human in the fullest sense.

Now the attention turns to those who would hear this letter read before them: 'you'! They are not Jews, but Gentiles. They, too, had responded to 'the word of truth, the gospel of salvation', which must include both the message of divine forgiveness and the vision of a transformed world (1:13). That becomes clear in the language which follows, for it speaks of being 'sealed', receiving 'a guarantee of inheritance', looking forward to 'redemption of what has been purchased', all reflecting the language of commercial transactions, which some communities had employed to celebrate Christian conversion and baptism. The Spirit is the advance instalment of the fulfilled vision. What will the vision be like? It will have the features we recognise in the Spirit. And what are they? Some might think of ecstasy and wonders. People who have listened to Paul will answer: love.

This elaborate and somewhat flowery acclamation is grounded in its underlying vision of divine love. People and things will be one when they acclaim love and compassion and acknowledge those alone as what rules. That vision of Christ is then a vision for the church and the whole world. It already shows itself where barriers and prejudice are broken down. The 'you, too' is part of the realisation of the vision. The spiritual life, the fully human life, is life joined with the yearning of God for all people and all creation. The glory of God fills the earth when the world finds reconciliation and hope in love. This is a single and big vision of justice and peace, in which we, too, are invited to share.

Gospel: Pentecost 7: 15 July Mark 6:14-29

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