When we turn from Galatians to Ephesians, the change of tone is startling. This is one of those letters where the tone is rather less argumentative as well as less specific than Paul normally is. For many scholars, that suggests a disciple of Paul summarising some key elements of his master’s teaching. For others, it represents simply a different scribe, and Paul in a more reflective and different mode of teaching. The letter certainly shares Paul’s love of long and convoluted sentences, with Eph 1:3-14 essentially being a single sentence in the original Greek (depending on your view of what a sentence is!).
Extracts from Ephesians are mainly read in the summer months in Year B. It also provides a number of epistles for saints’ days. As I say, it seems less specific than many of Paul’s letters, which is a reason some people raise questions about how closely it is connected with Paul himself. Indeed, some of the best and earliest manuscripts don’t actually have a destination: the words “in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1) may well be a later addition to the text. This would further add to the sense of a more general letter. For some that is another reason for questioning how it relates to Paul, for others that is further explanation for why Paul adopted a different writing style.
Two key emphases in this letter, which seem to develop Paul’s earlier thought, are on the cosmic dimensions of faith and the placing of the church at the heart of the gospel. The union of Jew and Gentile in a single body of Christ, a single humanity in Christ, at the heart of a restored and harmonious creation, is presented as the eternal plan and purpose God has been working towards, even from before he created the world.
The nuts and bolts of that idea are scattered throughout Paul’s earlier writing, but here they are drawn together more boldly. The first three chapters riff on this theme of the mystery of Christ as God’s means to bring about the unity and harmony of the cosmos, with humanity restored in Christ – the church – as the centrepiece of a renewed creation.
The next three chapters (which make up the second half of this letter) bring this vision rather more down to earth. Paul reprises his themes on the unity of the church, with the differing gifts God has given it needing to work together in one body. In 1 Corinthians and Romans, those gifts were abilities, talents that people brought to the common life. Here, however, they are the different ministers or ministries, which God has given to the church, so that all God’s people can serve him as they grow in mature faith (Eph 4:11-13). There are still plenty of imperfections that need to be addressed, and Christian need to live out in practice the life to which they are called, and continually renounce unethical behaviour.
Towards the end, the letter seems to take a step back from some of Paul’s earlier positions, in a passage not used in the Sunday lectionary. Although the writer puts some stress on the need for husbands to love their wives, fathers not to wind up their children, and masters to treat their slaves well, he nonetheless upholds the basic structures of a patriarchal and authoritarian society. Wives are expected to submit to husbands, children to obey fathers, and slaves give their masters the respect and obedience they owe to Christ. It seems a long way from some of the more radical statements we find elsewhere in Paul, and rather disappointing as a corollary to the lofty vision set out in the first three chapters of this letter.
The church, it seems, needed in the first century, as much as it has done in any other, to make compromises and accommodations with the surrounding society in order to make its message able to be heard. Perhaps the real spiritual battle, with which the letter finishes in fine metaphorical form, is to continue to work out how the vision of God’s purposes needs to be reimagined in every culture. Which compromises are necessary to gain a hearing, and which end up so changing the message that it ceases to be good news from God? There is much prayerful work to be done, in discerning how to translate the faith for every context.
Constantly ask God’s help in prayer, and pray always in the power of the Spirit. To this end keep watch and persevere, always interceding for all God’s people. Pray also for me, that I may be granted the right words when I speak, and may boldly and freely make known the hidden purpose of the gospel.Ephesians 6:18-19 REB