Here we are about to wrap up Ephesians! Lots of you have commented that this time we’ve spent together on this epistle has been very meaningful. A couple have even told me this series was the deciding factor in their making it to Mass on a particular Sunday. It just goes to show that when we open up Scripture and pay specific attention to what the text says, people discover how powerful and useful it is. I’m telling you, the Bible is really worth your time. We’re near the end of the Epistle today, with this famous section about what makes for spiritual strength. I do want to unpack this passage a bit, but I also want to give a quick recap of where we have been together.
You’ll remember that Ephesians is like most of Paul’s letters in that it falls into two major sections. The first is a section setting out in some way what God has done in Jesus Christ. Paul wants to get us situated up front in the truth of what has happened to us, who is the God who has done this, why he did it, and so on. What is true? What is reality? Paul starts with telling us or reminding us of things like that, because he knows all too well that most of us base the way we approach our lives on some other reality than Jesus. And when some other reality is the lens you’re using as you read, you won’t really be able to receive what the text is getting at. You’ll see it colored through some other lens and miss the point. Now, of course Paul lived 2000 years ago. The other lenses taken for granted in his day were things like the crushing power of empire, the availability of a smorgasbord of spiritual options, entrenched economic injustice, deep ethnic divisions – you know, all the usual stuff we’re still dealing with. So he starts by saying: No, remember, that’s not ultimate reality. What God has done in Christ is ultimate reality. In Ephesians, that section is chapter 1-3, and we were there for three weeks.
And after Paul has made that point very clear, only then does he go on to say: Given that what God has done in Christ is ultimate reality, here’s how it looks when that reality works itself out in your life and your church and your neighborhood and your culture. Here’s what will be different if you – and we – live as if Christianity is real. And that’s the second half of the letter, chapter 4-6, and we’ve been here for three weeks too.
So the first half went like this: Fr. Caleb started off by helping us notice that in Christ, God has revealed things about his plan. God “has made known to us… according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ... a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” As Father said, in Jesus God has started “resolving the gap between heaven and earth,” and is using us in that project. There is nothing that will not be gathered up in Jesus, and God has not just told us this, but enlisted us to help.
The next week, I led us in looking at what the Epistle teaches about the plan’s strategy – how it works like a construction project first for us as individuals and as we are brought together, for the church as his body. In the section we focused on, Paul writes that Christ is the cornerstone of the project, and “in him the whole structure is joined together and grows… [and] you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” We talked about how once you sign on as a plan participant, God actually goes to work inside you to shape you into the image of Jesus, and into the most effective possible member of your Christian community.
Our final week in the first half of the letter was all about the astoundingly deep prayer Paul prays over the Ephesians in chapter 3, asking God to help them really take in and experience the truths that he has been sharing so far. The prayer sets forth a vision for broadening our minds to the point that we start to grasp how huge God’s plan is, how deep inside us his power for making the plan happen actually goes, and how we can access all that by faith -- in other words, by believing what he says and trusting him.
That prayer led us into the second half of the letter: the section that helps us imagine what things will look like if we let the first half happen. As Deacon Chris called it in her sermon, the "If…Then." She told us that if we grasped that first half and let it go to work in us, then we would see unity in diversity – common goals, but a wide variety of kinds of people joined by them. These people would be equipped with gifts that were equally diverse, ways that they contributed actively to God’s construction project in keeping with who they were. And all of this, she said, would be bound together in an overarching way by love. Totally different people bound together and motivated by love. What a beautiful vision.
But the vision doesn’t stop there. The next week we saw more things that it would look like if we fully grasped the truths Paul lays out in Ephesians 1-3. Father Caleb talked about Paul’s image of the imitation of God, not a presumptuous effort to act like individual little gods, but the leitmotif of a community that, as Paul says, walks in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. And then last week I noted how Paul depicts people who are letting Christ live in them as people with clear priorities, people who seem to be filled with and under the influence of the Spirit, and people who are full of joy that overflows.
So we studied the plan, and then we studied the results of getting in on the plan, and as we close today with the sixth chapter, we get a rather serious exhortation that we'd better not think this is just a bunch of Pollyanna inspirational stuff. Living in Christ is not all Instagram pictures with gorgeous ocean views and uplifting quotes. It’s a battle. And if you have ever tried to believe and live the plan in this world, you know it’s a battle from your own experience. You discover very quickly the enemy inside yourself, the resistance to God, the habits of self-seeking or mistrust or control.
And you discover, as the brilliant Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge insists in her book on the Crucifixion, that when Christ comes into the world, or into a culture, or into a life, he is not simply stepping into neutral territory. He enters a world where things already need to be made right, and where good is already being actively resisted. He comes to a place where evils have already been entrenched in human systems, whether those are government systems full of corruption, church systems that shelter abusers, family systems that are deformed by addictions, or any other system. This world is not neutral territory; it is a place where things need to be made right and where efforts to make them right encounter active resistance.
Before I went to seminary, I helped run a homeless shelter in the basement of a church. It was in an urban retail area, but there were a few condos nearby, and we had some neighbors who embodied the principle of Not In My Backyard. One of them started a talk radio show which was mostly about how terrible our shelter was, and there would regularly be comments impugning the motivations and integrity of those of us who worked there, but always phrased so as not to be actionable. Things like “Have you ever heard anybody saying that Ms. Maynard is stealing from the residents’ disability checks?” It was not easy to endure. This passage from Ephesians, and a few well-selected hymns of praise, was what helped many of us remember first, that any conflict our shelter had was not with these individuals who wanted to shut us down -- as Paul puts it, it was not about enemies of blood and flesh. No. Each of them was a precious creature of God, a person he loved and wanted to bless.
Our struggle was not with them, but with the cosmic powers of this present darkness, with the forces that despise the kind of vows we take in Baptism, vows to respect the dignity and freedom of every human being, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We couldn’t possibly respect the dignity and freedom of some human beings by attacking the dignity and freedom of other human beings, even if they were attacking ours. So this passage helped us to use spiritual tools: Not to rebut the slander, not to expose embarrassing things we knew about the neighbors. Not to hate, but to love. Love your enemies. The only answer was the kind of weapons Paul discusses in this passage: Peace. Faith. The Word of God. And truth. (Yes, there is such a thing.)
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. If you believe Ephesians 1-3 and if you try to put Ephesians 4-6 into practice, there will be times when you need these tools, perhaps most especially the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Because this world is not neutral territory. People are being hurt every day. Lies are being told every minute. Greed and revenge are being applauded, and forgiveness and moderation are being mocked. The world is not neutral territory, and yet Christ came among us, carrying in his very body this glorious cosmic plan we have been studying, and through his death and resurrection purchasing the possibility to bring it about in us and through us.
What we have studied together this summer in Ephesians is real. It can happen in you, it can happen in us, it can happen in our world. May God almighty be praised now and forever for the truth and the power of his Word. Amen.