He Sent them out Two by Two,
James Tissot, 1886-1896, Brooklyn Museum
He summoned the Twelve
and began to send them out
two by two.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Letter to the Ephesians 1:14
July 11, 2021
This summer we will be studying the 2nd reading for Sundays which is now called the “Letter of Paul to the Ephesians”. Most discussions of this letter begin by asking if it was written by St. Paul himself in the 60s or a disciple most likely in the 90s. This will not concern us here. It is a complicated question and as we will see in a few weeks, it has much to do with post reformation church politics. Another question is the original audience. This too does not directly interest us. It was most likely written to several churches, one of which was Ephesus. This will mean that it will not have the local color of some of the letters attributed to St. Paul but will free the author to more directly examine “Cosmic” themes.
Our reading today is the opening of the letter. It is a difficult passage to summarize. Indeed, it is the longest sentence in the New Testament. Translators have punctuated it, but it is meant to be read without breaks. We could best view it as an overture to a Broadway show or an opera. The themes of the major work will be in it, but are placed for effect not for logic. To understand this, it is necessary to read it through without stop or immediate comment.
This passage is in the form of a blessing. It is a traditional Jewish prayer and may be found both in the Old Testament and in other letters of Paul. The outline provided below perhaps adds more order than the author would have wanted but I do not think that it distorts the message.
Overview of the Blessing (1:3)
These prayers are in a Jewish traditional form called a berakah, loosely, blessings. It first blesses God and then thanks him for his blessings to them. The audience would have immediately found a difference. The blessing is “in Christ.” The author will deal with cosmic issues, but it will always though Jesus as the anointed Christ.
The Father’s Plan of Salvation (1:4–6)
The author accepts the Jewish understanding that the world was created by an all-powerful God who did so out of love. His initial intention was that all creation live in harmony:
…as he chose us in him,(Eph 4b-5)
before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself
through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
Holiness means separate from that which is not of God. The sin of Adam disrupted this and required Jesus to come and save us.
Fulfillment of the Plan through Christ (1:7–10)
This restoration was accomplished not by bringing a new and wonderful teaching or by God’s ordering it away by fiat but by a specific act: the death and resurrection of Jesus:
In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, (Eph 1: 7a,b) he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him. (1:9)
This reveals the mystery of creation. Let us remember that this is an overture, and the theme of mystery will be developed more fully later in the letter. We note now that “mystery” is not a puzzle to be solved but the fullness of hidden plan of God revealed by Jesus. He literally “demystifies” the world and shows us God’s intention.
This is that in “the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” The author means “all things” literally. This is a common New Testament theme. The synoptic Gospels speak of the Kingdom of God, best described as perfect harmony between God and Humanity, humans ourselves and humans and all creation. Ephesians expands this awareness: human harmony is more than playing well together and harmony with nature is more than not destroying it. The entire cosmos was created to be obedient to Christ. This is a constant theme of Paul and his disciples.
We see it in 1 Corinthians, an undisputed early letter of Paul:
When everything is subjected to him,(1 Co 15:28)
then the Son himself will (also) be subjected
to the one who subjected everything to him,
so that God may be all in all.
And Colossians, the letter most usually associated with Ephesians.
Here there is not Greek and Jew,(Col 3:11)
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.
Inheritance through the Spirit (1:11–14)
Our purpose is praise and worship God whether we are born Jews or Gentiles.
So that we might exist for the praise of his glory,(Eph 1:12)
we who first hoped in Christ
The author wishes to make very clear that this participation does not depend upon Jewish lineage but on being part of the wider people of God, the Church. This is by the action of the Holy Spirit. Those who have entered the church have done so by the Spirit:
… and have believed in him,(Eph 1:13b–14)
were sealed with the promised holy Spirit,
which is the first installment of our inheritance
toward redemption as God’s possession,
to the praise of his glory
A seal in the ancient world could be either wax or a brand. Roman soldiers were literally branded with the name of their commanding general. Christians were now marked with the sign of Christ.
The Holy Spirit was promised throughout the Old Testament for the last days. The Holy Spirit is with us now means that work of God has come to its final stage. There can be no one who will bring us into the divine life more than Jesus.
First installment means a down payment. The Holy Spirit is the sign and proof that God will fulfill his promise to us. The author however is aware that inheritance has two meanings in the Old Testament, and he uses both at good effect.
Our inheritance is what God has given to us. In the Old Testament this was most clearly the Land. But there was also a sense that even more important than that was the experience of God himself. We sing in Psalm 16:
LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,(Ps 16:5)
you have made my destiny secure.
By the New Testament that has been expanded to include life with God through Jesus not only on earth but for all eternity,
Thus, there is another and more important inheritance. We are God’s inheritance.
“The LORD’s own portion was his people,(Dt 32:9)
Jacob his allotted share.”
We belong to him and so we end today with the acknowledgement that our role in creation, the fulfillment of our being is to “praise his glory for all eternity.”’
This letter is not the easiest read in the New Testament, but we will not lose our way if we remember that there is a center to the cosmos, and it is not us.