First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 9

William Loader

Pentecost 9: 29 July  Ephesians 3:14-21

This passage consists of a rollicking prayer of tumbling phrases, concluding with an elaborate acclamation of glory to God. It needs to be slowed right down if we are to appreciate its direction and focus. Notice the play on 'father' in 3:15. Literally it is saying that God is the father (Greek: pater), from whom all fatherhood (Greek: patria) is named. Naming is about authorising. Fatherhood, here, is not so much fathering or even parenting, as exercising power. It is a quaint of way of asserting that God is God and not allowing rivals, whether other gods or other claimants to power and authority. As a structure of thought it is interesting. There is a sense in which it means: any exercise of authority needs to be based on the way God is, if it is to have legitimacy. This is a challenging thought, especially if God is understood as exercising authority in a way which runs against the trends and popular notions of authority (and parenting). What matters most to God emerges clearly as the sentence progresses.

3:16 reaffirms the god-ness of God, this time by referring to 'the riches of his glory'. What are 'the riches' or what is of so high value? What is 'the glory' or what is it that shines? It is something that empowers people. Here the author speaks of the inner person and speaks of the Spirit. This is not about God's Spirit as something other worldly communicating with our spiritual part. It is about our inner self, which governs all we do and are, and about God's Spirit connecting with us so that all that we are and do is transformed or empowered.

Closely linked with the statement about the Spirit is the word about Christ. Frequently in Paul and later writings which stand under his influence the Spirit and the living Christ are interchangeable. When people wanted to speak of the risen Christ being present and making an impact on people they spoke of the Spirit, even sometimes the Spirit of Christ. Ultimately it is all a way of talking about God's being, and God being present in people's lives. The faith that makes the presence of God possible is  openness to God, the willingness to let God be God for us.

Notice what follows. We are rooted and grounded in love. We are like a tree with roots and like a building with foundations. Our roots are planted in the presence or being of God. Our foundations are laid on the firm ground of who God is. That being is now identified in all its authority, riches and glory. It is love. In Galatians and elsewhere Paul speaks of love as the fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul declares that love is the sign of the true life of faith. Here love is the basis for constructing who we are, the soil which enables us to be nourished and to grow.

3:18 takes us back to the notion of empowerment, but this time the emphasis is on company. We are not alone. Probably the author is thinking in particular of those who will hear his letter as Gentiles and thinking of 'all the saints' as the Jewish Christians. He has been celebrating the creation of a new united people from both. Now he says: together we are being empowered to grasp something. It might sound initially like the prayer is for greater understanding and knowledge. It is certainly about big thinking, multi-dimensional: breadth and length and height and depth! Ephesians often emphasises a universal dimension. It frequently uses words like 'all things' or 'fullness'. It is not about trying to give encouragement to some small sect or some private spirituality. It is about the whole of life and whole of creation.

Just when we might think the goal of the prayer is greater expansive knowledge we are told it is not about knowledge at all. 3:19 tells us that it is about love and love surpasses knowledge. It is about Christ's love. This could be love for Christ, but is more likely to be the love which flows through and from Christ. So it is less a knowing about than it is an acquaintance, a getting to know and be acquainted with. We might use other language like, being attuned to, but the focus is something very big and wholistic. It is about a relationship with God in which we appreciate God as love, active and dynamic love, such as we have seen in Jesus and which the Spirit keeps giving birth to in the world.

The first part of the intended prayer ends in 3:19 with a world about 'fullness'. 'Filling' is a favourite image in Ephesians. It is a way of talking about what God is doing. It reminds us of the prayer of the psalmist that earth may be filled with the goodness of God. What fills God is love and what God is seeking to fill the universe with is this love and we can be a part of it. What a wonderful definition of Christian spirituality and mission: participating in flooding the world with God's love!

Cut off from the preceding prayer 3:20-21 sounds all like glory and honour language with the focus on fantastic answers to prayer. Its context, however, leads us to appreciate the acclamation as one of affirming God's love and treasuring God's self-giving. You can't affirm God's being as love and then turn around the next moment and portray God as bent on winning approval and adulation. Unfortunately this is how such language too often functions with the result that despite all our talk about love our overriding value is something else: being honoured and glorified by others, because, by implication, that is also God's ambition. We do not glorify and honour God when we imagine God is desperate for attention and affection. There is an honouring which need not revert to models of egotism and reverse the gospel of love. It is possible to delight in the light of divine generosity, say how it shines with glory, elevate it to the highest praise without undermining it, but it is very hard to do when much of our tradition of worship has come to us from royal courts and procedures designed to ascribe value to power and might. When we run on that model, we are running on empty and have not understood the prayer for fullness in 3:14-19.

Gospel: Pentecost 9: 29 July John 6:1-21

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