Articles, Essays & Sermons

Three exegetes—a traditionalist, a modernist, and a post-modernist—walk into a bar

Pastoral commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

by Ken Sehested, slightly adapted from a Feasting on the Word article

        A traditionalist, a modernist, and a post-modernist walk into a bar. Over shots of bourbon, the three friends discuss the prologue (1:3-14) to the epistle to the Ephesians.

        [The following exchange is fictitious—though quite plausible—imagining the voices and perspectives of three particular friends.]

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        Aaron, the traditionalist: Attention to the opening lines of this letter from Paul to the church at Ephesus is among the most-needed antidotes to the nihilism and moral confusion so evident in the world, generally, and in our culture specifically—from the inaugural line about blessing “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3), to the admonition to holiness (v. 4), to the emphasis on Christ’s salvific blood atonement (v. 7) and the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit (v. 13). In Christ, and Christ alone, do we find our salvation. By grace, and grace alone, are we redeemed. This stuff will preach!

        Bob, the modernist: Aaron, I do sometimes think you exist to get under my skin! All the comments you just made have the effect on me of someone raking their fingernails across a chalkboard. First of all, Paul almost certainly didn’t write this letter (though neither he nor his pseudonymous friends ever escaped their chauvinism). And your obsession with Father language is beyond me. Don’t you realize this impoverishes the prayer life of more than half the human family and reifies patterns of gender discrimination? Furthermore, focusing on Jesus’ turns the Ground of our Being into a child abuser, just as linking God’s grace solely as a response to human weakness reduces the I-Thou relationship into a pattern of co-dependency. And this inheritance language, coupled with the claim that we alone are “God’s own people,” fosters the kind of hubris that has undermined the church’s therapeutic and civil-reconstructive purposes throughout much of our history.

        Charles, the post-modernist: Would somebody hand me a shovel, so I can dig my way out of this compost pile of a conversation! Both you guys are locked into the rationalist assumptions of this passage. Don’t you understand the deterministic function of such “cosmic” constructs (“before the foundation of the world,” “gather up all things”)? I mean, the twentieth century—ushering in the “age of optimism” about human potential to make history turn out right—was the bloodiest in recorded history, and virtually all its campaigns of butchery were undertaken on calculated, “scientific” grounds? Think of Stalin’s gulags, the Nazis’ extermination camps, the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, can’t you see that assertions about truth mask the competition between self-appointed superpowers? (President Bush’s announcement that he intends to “rid the world of evil” is but the latest verse in a very long song.) Putting a “religious” face on this power struggle makes the irony that much more cruel. Your God, all gods, are killing us—and the planet itself! If we have any survival options left, all such metanarratives must be deconstructed.

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        Pity the pastor whose flock has gathered from each of these pastures!

        But wait. The geo-cultural backdrop to the Pauline corpus is not unlike the ideological clash summarized above. It’s important to remember that this original Christian missionary movement took place both: (1) among Jewish communities formed in Hellenistic culture outside Judea and its priestly-temple ethos; and (2) among Gentile communities to whom Paul and his fellow missionaries were vigorously and radically extending fellowship at YHWH’s table. The cultural chaos, then as now, included profound questions of legitimate authority, the applicability of inherited holiness codes and behavioral norms, and the breakdown of religiously-sanctioned social hierarchies. One of the most pressing motives for composing and circulating these epistles was: How can a harmony, rather than a cacophony, be created from this choir loft of distinctive voices? Is there a center to this swirling whirlwind? What is the particular shape of our set-apartness, and how is Jesus’ lordship different from that of Caesar? This last question is fruitful and has pastorally-relevant implications for the contemporary church.

        More than ever we are realizing the truth in the aphorism “what you see depends on where you stand.” Scholars increasingly help us locate the historical contours of Scripture, allowing us to view the text in three-dimensional ways. The canon’s imperial backdrop—especially that of the Roman Empire for the Newer Testament—allows us to uncover assumptions and histories we hardly recognized before.

        When in 31 B.C.E. Octavian (who took the name of “Augustus,” meaning “revered”) defeated Anthony for control of Rome, he was acclaimed as “Savior” who had brought “peace” to the whole world. One inscription spoke of Caesar as the gift of “Providence,” “equal to the Beginning of all things” who “put an end to war and set all things in order.” He “gave to the whole world a new aura” and, beginning with his birth, marked “the beginning of good news (euangelion)” and thus was “god-manifest.,” with citizens to celebrate his reign in “assemblies” (ekklesiai). [1]

        This is the landscape of Pax Romana, the empire that secured the peace, fruitful security and an expanding global economy. Is it any wonder that the assemblies who gathered to hear Paul preach were accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar” (Act. 17:7). Is it any wonder that the early Christian community chose the phrase Pax Christi as the counterclaim.

        This prologue testifies that a New Order is unfolding, despite the chains that shackled the apostle even in his writing; that the very foundations of Creation are inscribed with our names; that our mistakes do not make us a mistake in God’s eyes, for indeed we have been adopted out of the penurious life of the conquered and into the Beloved’s. Ground is being laid here with details to follow: that the disordered life of “fleshliness” results in creating “children of wrath” (2.3), whereas “grace and peace” characterize Christ’s ekklesia; that the “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) is destined for collapse, resulting in the welcome of all, whether “far off” or “near” (2:17), turning “strangers and aliens” into citizens” (2:19) in the empire of God whose Lord himself abolishes all lording and whose “economy of underserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts.” [2]

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

This essay is slightly adapted from "Pastoral Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14" in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Endnotes

1. See especially Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), pp. 23-24.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 85