Saturday of Week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:7-16

We continue Paul’s plea for unity in the churches. Today he moves on to speak of the gifts or special graces which have been given to each one of the community. “Each one of us has been given his own share of grace.” ‘Grace’ is charis (from which comes ‘charism’, and ‘charismatic’). It is a totally gratuitous gift from God which we have in no way earned by our own efforts. As we shall see, these gifts are given to ensure the better service of the whole community.

Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and, following rabbinic style of interpretation, applies it to Christ. He focuses on two phrases: “He ascended to the height” and “He gave gifts to men”. He uses the text to point to the resurrection and triumphal ascension of Jesus which was followed by the outpouring of the Spirit on his disciples. The intervening phrase, “he captured prisoners”, may apply to the spiritual enemies that Christ overcame on the cross.

Paul then comments on the Psalm with the observation that, if Christ “ascended”, it could only mean that he had first “descended” to the “lower regions of the earth”. This could mean either that Jesus had come down to earth (“the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us”) to dispense his gifts before ascending into glory or it could refer to his visiting the dead in Sheol between his death and resurrection. The first interpretation would seem more appropriate in the context.

“The one who formerly descended is now the one who ascends above all the heavens to fill all things. In other words, “by ascending through all the cosmic spheres and taking possession of them all one after another, Christ becomes the head of the whole pleroma or total cosmos and makes the entire universe acknowledge him as ‘Lord’ (Jerusalem Bible).

It is this Lord of all who has given gifts to his people. And what are these gifts? The list Paul gives is not exhaustive and is not intended to be. Only some of the more important gifts are named.

These include the gift to be:

Apostles: the twelve foundation stones, so to speak, of the whole Church but also including some other key founding members, like Paul himself.

Prophets: these are the people who pass on a special message from God relevant to a particular need or situation. Their role is regarded as very important and they are always listed immediately after the apostles. While the apostles are concerned with the handing on and conservation of the traditional beliefs, the prophet’s role is to make sure that the church is faithful to its mission and responding to real and current needs.

Evangelists: their role is to proclaim the Gospel and invite others to know and accept Jesus as their Lord and to become members of the Christian community. “While the other gifted people helped the church grow through edification, the evangelists helped the church grow by augmentation.”

Pastors and Teachers: those who take pastoral care of the community and those who pass on and explain the message of the Gospel to the members.

In general, Paul limits his list of charisms to those who are concerned with passing on the Gospel message because these are the ones who are most relevant in the present context.

The purpose of being endowed with these gifts is clear: it is so that all the “saints”, the baptised Christians, join together as one in the work of service to the whole community, to build up the Body of Christ. The particular “saints” Paul mentions here seem to be missionaries and other teachers, but may include all the faithful in so far as they all help to build up the Church.

It is very clear that the gifts are not meant for oneself but decide the area in which each one is called to make a contribution to the life of the community.

The desired result of all this is clearly expressed by Paul:

In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith
and in our knowledge of the Son of God,
until we become the Perfect Human Person,
fully mature with the matureness of Christ himself.

“Unity in our faith” refers to the Christians’ common conviction about Christ and the doctrines concerning him.

“Knowledge of the Son of God”: unity is not just a matter of a loving attitude or religious feeling but of truth and a common understanding about God’s Son. It also implies a personal knowing of Jesus and not just a knowing about him.

The “Perfect Human Person” does not refer primarily to the individual Christian. The sense is collective. It can be taken as referring to Christ himself, the New Man, the archetype of all who are reborn, or else (and this sense is to be preferred) as referring to the total Christ, i.e. the whole Body, made of Head and the rest of the Body (cf Jerusalem Bible)

United by a common faith by which we pool our Spirit-given gifts for the service of all in the community and grow in our knowledge and understanding of Jesus our Lord, in time we become the “perfect human person”(anthropos), sharing the maturity and perfection of the Risen Lord himself. This “perfect human person” is not to be seen individualistically; rather it refers to the way in which the whole community becomes identified with Christ as his Body.

The gifts, then, are not to be, as sometimes happened, bones of contention and division (“I am for Paul… I am for Apollos…”). By their diversity and complementarity they are to be agents of greater unity.

And that brings us the second half of today’s reading. Paul begs the church(es) not to be immature, not to be like impressionable children who get carried away or tossed about like a cork on a wave by the latest religious fad thrown at them by hacks and charlatans. The nautical image suggests the instability of those Christians who are not firm in their faith.

Such people are so easily carried away by “every wind of teaching arising from human trickery”. Then, as now, there were many distorted teachings that would easily throw the immature off course. While some of these false teachers may be convinced of what they say, others may be deliberately misleading and even evil.

It is clear that Paul, by speaking in this way, was referring to situations that had actually arisen. And indeed the Christians of the day (as in our own) were constantly being led astray by the religious practices of their pagan neighbours and the eccentricities of some of those within the Church itself.

Instead, by always “speaking the truth in love”, Paul says we shall grow in all ways into Christ. It is a wonderful phrase but not always easy to carry out. We must be unbending in our commitment to truth, never willing to compromise on it, while at the same time reaching out in love and care to all, including those who see a different truth or who are clearly disloyal to the truth.

If we Christians had always been faithful to that principle, there might not have been the split of the Reformation and many people over the centuries, believed to be heretics, might have remained within the fold.

And by adhering to this principle of truth spoken in love, we will then “grow in every way into him who is the Head”. This is the test. Does my grasp of, and living of, the Truth as I understand it lead me to a greater maturity, to becoming someone who more and more grows into the image of Christ, a person “full of grace and truth”.

Paul concludes the passage with a wonderful image of our growing “in all ways” to Christ:

He is the Head by whom the whole body
is fitted and joined together,
every joint adding its own strength,
so that each separate part works
according to its function.
In this way, the body grows
until it has built itself up,
in love.

This is a truly beautiful picture of unity in diversity which Paul envisages for the church. It is the image of a group of people who share one faith in Jesus as Lord, who acknowledge their origin from one common Father, who are identified by their having been baptised into the community in the name of Jesus, and who have a common goal to build each other up into a community of love with the ideal of the perfect humanity of Jesus as their goal. At the same time, each one has a different calling to make their own distinctive contribution to the building up of the community.

They do this by teaching each other about the Gospel message and its meaning for their lives, by praying together and, above all, by celebrating the Eucharist together.

At the same time, each member has been endowed with a particular gift by the Spirit. The gift (charis) indicates the specific role that each one has to contribute with others to the building up of the community.

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