Welcome to this first Sunday of our summer preaching series on the Letter to the Ephesians. I want to begin with a word about the context for this letter because Paul is writing to the church, the first generation of Christians, in a particular place and time.
When you think of first century Ephesus think of a multi-cultural, affluent sea-side centre of trade, pilgrimage and entertainment. There was a bustling harbour, a medical college and a large public library as well as numerous shrines and statues. There was an underground sewer system and a magnificent outdoor amphitheatre which seated more than 17,000 people.
And we know that Ephesus was the sacred home of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, protector of nature and animals, and the goddess of fertility. A large industry developed around the cult and temple of Artemis. Think of Disneyland with religious themes and you likely have it right. There was a lot of money to be made in peddling statutes of the goddess made and sold in Ephesus!
It was pluralistic society in every way. Ephesus was defined by the occult, including belief in magic, incantations and spirit powers, likely originating in a pagan, animalistic world view. Moral beliefs, like religious ones, were diverse and there was a wide range of social acceptance of behaviour in the name of tolerance. There was a strong tendency to regard truth as relative… truth as nothing more than individual preferences; something could be true for you but not true for me. And that was ok… sort of.
As a result, any individual or group who claimed to have the ultimate truth, the have knowledge of the “right one” to worship; was bound to face social pressure, rejection and persecution. This was Ephesus and indeed much of the Greco-Roman world from the latter part of the first century until the middle of the fifth century. Sound familiar?
Paul’s purpose in this letter is to instruct and encourage believers in Ephesus to hold on… to hold on to their calling to unity as the Body Christ (both Jew and Gentile) and to grow in their faith and unity in the face of strong counter cultural forces. Paul recognised there were many choices, so many distractions but he knew that the good news, the gospel would be received in the hearts and minds of those God had prepared from the beginning of time. Rooted in the truth, encouraged and sustained in the word, the church would not only survive but flourish, growing in leaps and bounds throughout the ancient world. The world was changed!
And so the purpose of this letter is to instruct and encourage the community of faith… then and now… to be faithful in worshipping God and serving Jesus Christ the Lord. For you see, God’s mission has a church!
Words of encouragement aimed at the church spill out onto the pages of this letter right from the beginning. Paul is retelling, really celebrating the story of what God has done in the past, what is unfolding in the present and what the future holds. But this is not an effusive greeting card; and it is certainly not sentimental – this is a letter of rigorous encouragement firmly rooted in the story of God’s work of redemption from the very beginning of creation.
It opens with a Jewish-style thanksgiving prayer: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, who…” has now accomplished the long-awaited purpose. The letter opens with a stunning summary of the story of creation and exodus, of redemption and inheritance. This is the great Jewish story now seen and understood from a new perspective because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul plunges us into a verbal cascade of beauty and riches; something like fireworks on July 1! It is an exuberant over the top benediction, recounting God’s blessings on a cosmic scale… past, present and future. The words flow like an endless song… a stream of praise and wonder, much like the language and music of worship; the language strives to lift us into the very presence of God.
Paul piles one blessing upon another as if he is concerned that the congregation doesn’t really believe they are beloved by God. I wonder if he uses words as a mantra: words like blessed, chosen, forgiven, adoption, destined, inheritance, lavish, glorious grace – to hold a mirror up before the congregation… as if to say, hey remember who you are… you are beloved of God… the flowing cascade of words in this text envelopes us with the love of God… lavish, excessive, tender, unconditional. A bit like drinking from a fire hose!
I think Paul is using his words to provoke and challenge believers… to stir them up, to make this mantra their own; to hold it up against a difference cascade of words, a different mantra they might be bombarded with more often; a words like rejected, failure, tired, lost, irrelevant, despair, not good enough…
There are so many influences in our life, voices, choices and background noise that challenge us to lay hold of what it means to know, really know ourselves as God’s beloved. Our regrets, our fears, the hurts and sorrow, not to mention the overwhelming demands of work and family and the demoralizing abuse of power, of greed and control we witnessing in the world around us. All of that can so easily discourage and dampen us as individuals and the life of a community of faith; taking it off course as it turns inward, reducing it to a dwindling social group struggling to see God’s presence and to faithfully engage God’s purpose day by day. We know the Ephesians!
I hear a bell ringing in this passage – a wake up call! Paul is not describing just a future possibility but how things are right now for those who have committed their lives to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. The message from the beginning of this letter is that God has a purpose for each and every human life, determined and destined before time, a purpose actively accomplished in Jesus Christ and already ushering us into His wondrous future. The text before us this morning grounds us, it situates us in God’s plan from the beginning, and pulls us into the future God has prepared, to a glorious inheritance already begun. Paul is retelling the story of what God has done, is doing now and will complete in the future. God is the initiator, God is in charge, not you or me. Such good news! And we are called, equipped and empowered as partners in God’s mission as that future breaks into the present… the ramifications are mind blowing as we reclaim who we are and whose we are… welcome to the Letter to the Ephesians!
These opening verses are crammed with all God has done through Christ, in Him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ… just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love; he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ… through his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved; in him we have redemption through his blood; in him we have the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us… in him… in Christ we have obtained an inheritance… in him you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit… beloved child, your inheritance is assured; now live!
The inheritance Paul has in mind is the whole world when it has been fully renewed by a fresh act of God’s power and love… this is the good news, the sign and meaning of the resurrection of Jesus! God intends to flood the whole cosmos, heaven and earth together with his presence and grace, with Jesus himself as the central figure. All those who have come to know trust God in Jesus are to live as signs to the rest of the world that this glorious future is on the way. But notice how this opening part of the letter offers no obvious imperative, there is no specific task or work to do… other than to “live for the praise of God’s glory”.
In his wonderful commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians New Testament scholar Bishop Tom Wright urges us to look back over the story Paul tells in the first part of the letter as an act of worship and praise. He writes this:
“God has taken the initiative; God has done what was necessary, at great cost to himself, to buy us back from the slavery of sin; God has given us the spirit as a sign and foretaste of the whole renewed cosmos which awaits us as our inheritance. Discovering that you are to receive an inheritance like as God’s beloved child that should change your whole life. How can you not join in the hymn of praise?”
There is much more to come in this preaching series; I hope I have whetted your appetite to dig in, to read along and to join in the conversation as we learn and share together all that this letter has to say to us… I promise you will not be disappointed! But for today… for right now, let’s soak in the sheer awesome wonder of being beloved of God before the beginning of time, now and forever.
And let us give all praise and glory to God alone as we join in Paul’s act of worship by singing together hymn #401: My Life Flows on in Endless Song!