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Ephesians – Glory and Grace

Who is this God person and what does he want from us? The beginning of Ephesians gives us a place to start.

A Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 for Proper 10 (15) the Seventh Week after Pentecost Year B for Preston High Street UCA

I thought, as a bit of a change from preaching on the gospels every week, we might have a look at Ephesians. It’s up in the lectionary, it’s fairly short – seven weeks worth, according to the lectionary elves, and has a lot of interesting things to.

I’ve entitled this first sermon “Glory and Grace”, because, well, that does seem to be the theme of this first section of the letter.

It seems to me that here Paul sets out to answer a specific question here: Who is this God person exactly? And what, if anything, does God have to do with me?

So, big picture first. What are we dealing with here? What is this “Letter to the Ephesians”?

Firstly: who wrote this letter? The traditional answer to this is “Paul.” But, based on differences in style, and some differences in theology between this and other Pauline letters,[1] it is an open question. Was it Paul – or was it someone, perhaps a student of Paul, who did their best to figure out what Paul would have said in the particular situation into which the letter was written?

However, it seems to be a reasonably open question, so, having noted the caveats, I’m going to call the author of the letter Paul, if only for the sake of simplicity.

So who actually was this Paul character? Obviously someone significant if we are reading letters written by him something like two thousand years after they were written.

The short answer to that is that Paul was a Jew, born in Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, in around 5 AD. He never met Jesus during his earthly ministry. Rather, he trained in Jerusalem as a Pharisee, and was vigorously persecuting this new Christian sect, when, according to Acts, he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus[2]. This completely transformed his life – hence the idea of a “Damascus Road” experience. He became an Apostle – one sent to tell the Good News – all over the Roman world. Long story short, he did this by planting churches and writing letters. He seems to have been martyred in Rome, probably in the 60s.

He was one of the first people to reflect on what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection actually meant. One of my New Testament lecturers described him as Christianity’s “first intellectual.”

Paul’s letters are among the earliest Christian documents we have. They were written earlier than the Gospels, which I’ve always found a bit confusing, given that the Gospels come before the letters in the Bible. Again, it’s a bit of a long story.

Perhaps the biggest controversy in the church in Paul’s day – which is to say, in the first decades of the church – was what to do about all these Gentile converts who were becoming Christians. Did they need to become Jews first? Did they need keep the Sabbath, keep the dietary laws, become circumcised?

There was a lot of conflict about this whole area. It can sound a bit trivial to our ears, but it touches on big questions. Questions like: Who is this God person? What about the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants? What about the formative stories of the Exodus from Egypt, and the captivity in Babylon? What relationship do the Gentiles – that is, the non-Jews – have to these stories?

So, Paul wrote a bunch of letters. This one to the church in Ephesus – or at least to the churches in the Ephesus area[3]. Like a lot of letters, it was written to address a particular context, which seems to have been this very conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

That can maybe sound a little remote – two thousand years is a long time after all. However, churches are still riven with conflict. We still wrestle with how to be church together with people we don’t agree with. The Uniting Church in particular works hard to be a “uniting” church – one that draws together different theological traditions in a culture which seems ever more divided, ever more conflict-riddent.

So, maybe two thousand years is not such a long time after all.

All that clarified – well, perhaps not clarified, but gestured vaguely towards – what are we to make of today’s passage? It is essentially the beginning of the letter – the reading misses out the first few verses for some reason – and it is an extended prayer. It is complex to unravel – there is a lot going on here, but let’s have a bash.

Broadly, it is the story of God’s dealing with humanity, putting the initiative firmly on God’s side.

We can break it down into three parts.

The first part – verses 3-6 – is about grace. God chose us – chose you – before all time. This is an idea which has done a lot of work in Christian theology, under the term “predestination.” I’m going to leave that to one side for today, except to make two points.

Firstly, Christianity isn’t actually about being a good person at all. Christianity is about what God has done in Jesus Christ. We don’t earn God’s favour by clocking up lots of hours doing good works. God doesn’t set an entrance exam. God doesn’t care about karma. God doesn’t sit around in heaven contemplating the divine essence in a passive sort of way. God is active in the world, and calls us to be part of this work in the world. That’s what grace means.

Secondly this idea of call. It isn’t a call to privilege, but to service. To be part of God’s remaking of the world – which is, I think, is part of what it means to be adopted through Jesus Christ.

A key theme here is the question: who is God? Paul says that, if you want to talk about God, you have to talk about Jesus. God isn’t some free-floating, hard to define, abstract idea. God is the one who revealed Godself through Jesus Christ.

The second part – verses 7-10 – is a very, very short summary of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Hovering in the back of the story is the story of the first Passover.

Passover was the night when the angel of death came through the land of Egypt, and the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts rescued the Israelites from the judgment that would otherwise have fallen on them. [4]

A key word here is “redemption.” Does anyone know what “redemption” means outside a religious context? Have you ever “redeemed” a voucher for something – say a Sausage and Egg McMuffin at McDonalds? If you pawn something and then buy it back, you have “redeemed” it. So it’s something to do with purchase. God has, in some mysterious way, purchased us, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

The third section, verses 11-14, continues the Exodus theme. Like the Israelites inheriting the promised land, we, too are inheritors of the promises of God.

You may remember earlier on in the sermon, I talked a bit about the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians? You can see this going on here[5], when Paul draws a contrast between “we”, the Jewish Christians, who were “who were the first to set our hope on Christ”, and then “you also”, the Gentile Christians, have also believed.

And both groups have been “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”

We’re back in the land of commercial metaphors here. The Holy Spirit, it turns out, is like the deposit you put down on a car or a house before you pony up the full amount.

So, having gone into so much detail about this – almost a line by line exegesis, or at least a lot closer than we usually do, where are we?

It seems significant to me the that the letter begins with prayer. It’s a metaphor for the whole Christian life – that it is rooted in prayer – in the praise and worship of God.

This God is not just a free-floating sense of the divine. It is the God who was been active through history, who made a covenant with Abraham, led the children of Israel out of slavery into the promised land, and who has revealed Godself through Jesus Christ.

The final point I want to draw attention to is this mysterious language around glory and grace. At one level it seems odd that God is concerned with things like “praise and glory.” Is Paul saying that God’s ego needs stroking? Surely not. That would make God nothing more than yet another idol like the Greek gods.

I think, in talking about the “glory of God” Paul is talking about something more like what we might call the “meaning of life.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, the glory of God, the shekinah, is almost a living thing in its own right. God’s glory is not something which depends on human, or even angelic, praise. Praise is, however, the natural response to it – just like we think that praise is the appropriate response to, say, a stunning waterfall, or the astonishing night sky.

There is something frightening, something dangerous about the glory of God.

In Exodus, Moses prays to see the glory of God. And God responds: ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you… but no-one can see my face and live.”[6] So God puts Moses in a cleft of the rock, and puts his hand before his face to shield him from the full reality of God.

God’s glory is a picture of the absolute nature of God – the power which made the universe and everything in it, and holds it in the palm of her hand like it’s a tiny, fragile thing like a bird’s egg.

Paul is saying that, in Jesus, that unspeakable, unimaginable power has spoken to make a covenant between God and the Israelites, and then finally expressed itself in the person of Jesus, and has called us into a relationship of love.

So, from this, one way of telling the gospel is this: The final end and purpose of human life – in fact the final end and purpose of the whole universe – is not content to sit on a mountaintop waiting to be found, but reaches out to us decisively in the person of Jesus Christ. God does this, not because we have somehow earned it, because what on Earth could we possibly do to be worthy of that? God calls us of God’s overflowing love. And this God wants to involve us in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation in the world.


[1] Read more about this in e.g.  Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 4). SPCK. Kindle Edition and Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] This is the version in Acts. The version in Paul’s letters is different.

[3]  Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

[5] Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Exodus 33: 18-21

Image: Swanson, John August. Peaceable Kingdom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56556 [retrieved July 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1994 by John August Swanson.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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