The Letter to the Ephesians
Starting today, and continuing for seven weeks, the second reading at Sunday Mass is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians.
Oprah Winfrey has said that the most important book in her life is the Letter to the Ephesians. Scholars of the Bible tell us that Ephesians is more accurately described as ‘school of Paul’ rather than coming directly from the pen of Saint Paul himself. Nor does it seem like a letter in the ordinary sense. Its first half(chapters 1-3) is a majestic prayer and its second half (chapters 4-6) a homily or exhortation to worthy living. It begins with a brief greeting and ends with a brief farewell as if someone, in sending on the prayer and homily, adds a short covering note. In between is a wonderful summary of Christian ‘doctrine and life’.
The first half of Ephesians is one of the greatest Biblical texts on the theme of ‘grace’. Grace is God’s kindly love turned towards humanity, God’s generosity and forgiveness, God’s initiative in creating and re-creating. This kindly love is a blessing for us who receive it but is also a reason for us to bless God in return. In fact God’s grace is itself the source of our capacity to give thanks to God in a way that is fitting.
God’s grace is not just a sentiment or a thought in God: it is something powerful and effective, a mystery hidden in God from all eternity but revealed historically in the election of God’s people, the coming of Jesus Christ and the founding of the Church in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.
Ephesians has much to say about the ‘household of God’, the community of the Church, where the variety of gifts ensures that the needs of the community are met and the unity of ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ means this variety is held together in harmony. The Church is where Jew and Gentile, reconciled through the death of Christ, share a new life of faith, integrity and holiness.
Nobody is a stranger or outsider to this mystery. Each of us is a participant in God’s grace. Each of us is called to be a ‘servant of the gospel’, ‘imitating God’ by loving as he loved us and offering ourselves as a fragrant offering.
Ephesians exhorts us to live lives worthy of what we have received, a translation into Christian terms of Shakespeare’s ‘to thine own self be true’. The motive for right living is that we be true to who we now are, that we ‘walk’ in accordance with our new life, that we grow towards the fullness of God and of Christ in which we already share. Our older, outer self dies as our newer, inner self is built up through faith, hope and love.
Worthy living for Ephesians is about honesty and integrity in speech, sexual relationships, family and business life. The language of Ephesians is marked by the social circumstances of its time but the key values remain pertinent and challenging, not least the placing of human marriage at the heart of the Christian mystery.
At first sight Ephesians might seem like exactly the kind of text we do not need: ‘wives be subject to your husbands’, for example. But it says a lot more: ‘submit to one another’ or ‘husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church and gives his life for her’, for example.
Ephesians stands in a long biblical tradition for which the relationship between God and God’s people is compared to marriage which is then a symbolic or ‘sacramental’ instance of the mutual love of God and God’s people. The focus for Ephesians is the intimacy of the married couple and how that unique human experience might help us to understand how close Christ is to the Church which is his body.
At first sight we might react to the language of Ephesians about married life. Thinking about this text again we might find ourselves wondering what it means for a man to make a woman holy by loving her or for a woman to make a man holy by loving him.
Both parts of Ephesians speak of power and of the Christian calling. God’s love is powerful in raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him above all other powers as head of the Church. Human beings are involved in the same mystery and are called to live it out by renouncing older ways of relating. Walking in a way that is worthy of our new life is only possible if we put on ‘the armour of God’, truth, integrity, faith. Our only strength is ‘in the Lord’ who has made us members of His household and whose grace continues to fashion us as ‘God’s work of art’.