Thursday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-10

We begin today reading from the Letter to the Ephesians and we will continue with it until middle of Week 30. In our bibles this letter follows immediately on Galatians but belongs to a later period in Paul’s missionary life.

It is useful to be aware that the Pauline letters, from Romans to Philemon, are arranged, not according to the date on which they were written, but according to their length. Early editors would not have been too clear on the chronological order of the letters. They did not have the editorial tools which are available to us now.

Because of the general nature of its contents, the Letter to the Ephesians is often thought to be a kind of “encyclical” sent to several churches in the region. Many of the best manuscripts do not have the name “Ephesus” in the opening verse. Also, because of noticeable differences in style and language compared to letters regarded as definitely from Paul, doubts have been raised about the Pauline authorship of this letter. It is possible that it was written by a disciple familiar with Paul’s teaching and issued even after the apostle’s death.

The letter is thought to date from late in the first century AD and seems to be addressed to a predominantly Gentile church which already has lost most of its links with Jewish traditions. Overall it is a letter extremely rich in its ideas and that is why we will stay with it over the next nine weekdays.

In commenting on the readings, for convenience we will attribute the contents to Paul, because, although he may not have penned the letter himself, it undoubtedly reflects his teachings.

In the opening sentence, the greeting is from Paul, who calls himself an apostle of Christ Jesus appointed by Christ. An ‘apostle’ (apostolos, from the verb apo-stello) is someone who has been entrusted with handing on an official message – an ambassador or emissary. This responsibility has come direct from God and, later in the course of the letter, Paul will emphasise the role of God’s planning in the unfolding course of events.

The letter is addressed to the “saints” (hagioi), who are defined as those who are “faithful to Christ Jesus”. In fact, the word “saints” was used at this time for all the baptised members of the community. The word really denotes people who are set apart from others.

There follows the usual greeting, in words that we now use in our Eucharistic liturgy: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Familiarity with such phrases can prevent us from fully savouring the content of the greeting which asks for “grace” and “peace”.

These are both key words in this letter: “grace” is used no less than 12 times and “peace” occurs seven times. “Grace” (charis) is the unmerited love of God as experienced in our lives and “peace” (eirene) is that deep harmony between God, other people, our environment and ourselves. We could hardly wish people richer gifts than these.

The words “Blessed be God the Father…” now introduce a beautiful prayer of blessing which goes to the end of today’s reading and continues up to the end of tomorrow’s reading as well. In the Greek, it forms a single sentence (writers of classical Greek and Latin liked long sentences but in our writing style they need to be broken up). The prayer is what we call a “doxology” because it recites what God has done and is a paean of worship and praise. The term comes from the Greek word doxa which means ‘glory’.

Paul speaks first of the blessings we have through the Father (v.3), then of those that come through the Son (vv.4-13a) and finally of those through the Holy Spirit (vv.13b-14). Today’s reading ends at v.10 and the rest will be read tomorrow.

It begins with praise for the Father, who is the source of all the spiritual or “heavenly” blessings we have received through Jesus Christ. The term “heavenly realm” occurs five times in this letter and emphasises that Christ is now in glory and points to our future sharing in his life. Paul calls them “spiritual blessings in the heavens”. In other words, these blessings are not just recent. God had chosen us from the very beginning, long before our world came into existence. And the complete fulfilment of these blessings will only be experienced after our time on this earth. In the meantime we continue to experience them in this life, hopefully in ever-growing degrees.

These blessings come from the Father “in Christ”, a phrase which is used 12 times in this prayer alone and expresses our close union with him as members of his Body.

Why were we were chosen (why us…why me)? A number of reasons are now given:

  1. We are called to live “in Christ” and to be “holy and spotless”. Holiness is the result – not the basis – of God’s choosing. It refers both to the holiness imparted to the believer because of Christ and to the believer’s personal sanctification (see 1 Cor 1:2). It is both our vocation and God’s gift to us. Holiness is not our doing. And let us never say, “I don’t have a vocation”. Every baptised person has been called from all eternity, truly a sobering thought. The question each one of us needs to answer is: to what role in the community am I being particularly called? (We will see something of that later in the Letter.)
  2. We are called – in a lovely phrase – “to live through love in Christ’s presence”. That phrase makes a perfect summary of a Christian life; everything is there and the rest is icing on the cake. ‘Love’ here is primarily the love God has for us (agape), and that leads him to ‘choose’ us and to call us to be ‘holy’ but, at the same time, does not exclude our reaching out in love for God which results from and is a response to his own love for us.
  3. We are called to become adopted children of God. In a sense every person is a child of God by virtue of creation but, through our baptism and our special relationship through Jesus, we become “adopted” children of God not just by virtue of creation but, through a mysterious calling, to be in a special way brothers and sisters of Jesus and partners in his work to establish the Kingdom. Jesus Christ, the only Son, is both the source and the model of the way God has chosen for us to become holy, i.e. by adopting us as his heirs.
  4. We are called to make known the “glory of God’s grace”. God’s grace is the gift of being called to share God’s life through Jesus Christ. These are the two themes that run through this account of God’s blessings: their source is God’s liberality, and their purpose is to make his glory appreciated by creatures. Everything comes from him, and everything should lead to him.

    This we are to proclaim “from the housetops” so that others too may open themselves to this gift. This is what Jesus meant in another context when he spoke of our being the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” so that people may come to be drawn to the love and service of the Lord (cf. Matt 5:13-16).

  5. And lastly, by our being called we have, through the “blood of Christ”, that is, by his suffering and death on the cross which has, so to speak, bought back our freedom. “The Ephesians were familiar with the Graeco-Roman practice of redemption: slaves were freed by the payment of a ransom. Similarly, the ransom necessary to free sinners from the bondage of sin and the resulting curse imposed by the law (see Gal 3:13)” (NIV Bible).

This freedom comes through the forgiveness of our sins, which in effect means a total reconciliation with God through what Jesus has done for us. As we mentioned earlier when reading Galatians, the experience of freedom is an important element in our Christian life.

Summing up, Paul refers to all this as the “richness of grace”, the abundance of freely-given love which has been “showered” on us in God’s unique wisdom and insight. The word ‘grace’ (charis) as it is used here emphasises not so much the interior gift that makes a human being holy, as the gratuitousness of God’s favour and the way he manifests his glory. These are the two themes that run through this account of God’s blessings: their source is God’s liberality, and their purpose is to make his glory appreciated by creatures. Everything comes from him, and everything should lead to him.

All this happens because of God’s “wisdom and insight”. That wisdom is, in an extraordinary way, being shared with us. God “has let us know the mystery of his purpose”. “He has made known to us the mystery of his will.” The word “mystery” is used here in a sense somewhat different from our contemporary usage, which usually refers to something we cannot understand. In Paul’s day, the word mysterion was used in the context of certain cults whose inner workings were only revealed to the initiated (something like the “secrets” of Freemasons in our day).

But Paul uses the word here and in other letters to refer to truths which were formerly hidden or obscure but now have been revealed by God for all to know and understand. For instance, it is used by Paul of the Incarnation, the death of Christ and its meaning in God’s plan, God’s intention for people everywhere – both Jews and Gentiles – to be his people.

The mystery or ‘hidden plan’ which he mentions here is God’s plan to “bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and on earth”. Paul uses a significant term here that not only has the idea of leadership but also was often used of adding up a column of figures. A contemporary way of putting it might be to say that in a world of confusion, where things do not “add up” or make sense, we look forward to the time when everything will be brought into meaningful relationship under the headship of Christ.

The main theme of this letter is how the whole body of creation, having been cut off from the Creator by sin, is decomposing, and how its rebirth is effected by Christ reuniting all its parts into an organism with himself as the head, so as to reattach it to God. The human (both Jew and Gentile) and the angelic worlds are brought together again through the fact that they were saved by a single act.

Of course, this is all a mystery in the contemporary sense too, something we will never fully grasp on this side of the grave, but Paul is emphasising the uncovering of an exciting aspect of God in his relationship with his creatures, of which even God’s people up to this time, had hardly an inkling.

The rest of this magnificent blessing-prayer will be concluded in tomorrow’s reading.

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