Text Study — Ephesians 1:3-14,

Pull It Together!

“In Ephesians 1:10,” N. T. Wright suggests, “Paul says something which many Western Christians have never grasped, that the whole point of what God was doing was to sum up everything in heaven and on earth in the Messiah, in Christ” (page 9). He outlines our current passage in three parts: the purpose of God (vv. 3-6), the unveiling of the mystery (vv. 7-10), and the unity of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit (vv. 11-14).

This “downpayment” of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in individual believers is, Wright notes, the foretaste of what God intends for all of Creation when it is renewed. “By the Spirit coming and taking residence in the actual physicality of Christian believers,” he concludes, God is saying “I am doing this now because one day that’s what I am going to do to the whole world. This,” God promises, “is how it is going to work.” It works this way, Wright notes, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (page 12).

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Let’s look at how we can talk about this text today. It seems like everything is falling apart. Race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, party—take your pick. In a time when we seem to be more connected than ever, we are retreating into ever smaller cliques and cocoons. As the world widens, our vision narrows. We are headed toward eight billion individual empires—all at war with one another.

Life these days seems like a washer tied to the end of a string. As you swing that washer in a circle, you can feel it tugging to escape. The faster you twirl it, the harder the washer pulls. If you spin it fast enough, the washer and string may fly right out of your hand. The results can be destructive and even painful.

Physicists call that tugging “centrifugal” force. If you are interested, centrifugal force is defined as “the apparent force…drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation…” If you were alert, you noticed something in that definition. Centrifugal force—that urge to come apart—is only an “apparent” force. Something else is at work.

Physicists call that something else “centripetal” force. This is the actual force “acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or the axis of rotation.” No matter how it feels, the force holding things together is real.

Why in the world have I given this lesson in basic physics? I want to focus on Ephesians one, verse ten—“gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.God pulls it all together in Jesus. That’s the main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ll come back to that theme many times this summer. So it’s worth saying again. God pulls it all together in Jesus. When it seems like everything is falling apart, that’s some pretty good news.

Honest preachers will tell you that we are often preaching to ourselves. The rest of you get to listen in. I imagine that was true for Paul as he wrote this letter. In chapter three, verse one, he reminds us of his situation. He is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” He’s not exaggerating. Paul is under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. He is accused of treason because he obeys Jesus rather than Caesar. In a few months, an executioner will separate Paul’s head from his body during the persecution of Christians in Rome.

Paul has every reason to think everything is falling apart. He sits in jail while Christians are hounded from pillar to post. His churches in the eastern Mediterranean roil with conflict and division. The Roman Empire reels under the rule of Nero the Narcissistic Bully. During Nero’s persecution, for example, Christians were covered with tar, tied to poles and used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties. It was hard to make sense of anything.

And yet…Paul launches this letter with a magnificent prayer of blessing. How can he do this? Let’s review our little physics lesson. This feeling of flying apart is not the real force in the universe. The real force is that which holds all things together. God pulls it all together in Jesus.

God’s plan has always been to fill this good Creation to overflowing with God’s unending love. That’s the power that holds it all together. God has always planned “to bless us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” God has always planned to make Creation flourish. We know this plan was delayed by sin, death and the devil. But delay is not defeat.

In his prayer, Paul rehearses God’s strategy. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God rescues all of Creation from sin, death and the devil. That rescue operation comes to a head in Jesus. The fake forces of division and destruction are defeated. That rescue operation continues in and through us, the body of Christ.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. Jesus pulls it all together through us. God has chosen us in Jesus by grace to be part of that rescue plan. “We aren’t chosen for our own sake,” says Tom Wright, “but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us.”

How does this happen? Our part of God’s plan begins in worship. Twice in these opening verses, Paul identifies our primary purpose in life. We are made, he says, “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” We are most truly human when we live for the praise of God’s glory. That kind of worship makes us more of what God created us to be.

We have a great variety of fans in our local congregations—black and gold, scarlet and cream, cardinal and gold, purple and gold, red and white, and more. Sundays in the fall are always interesting here. Even if I don’t hear the scores, I can tell who has won just by how some people post online. If my team has won, I stand taller, smile bigger laugh louder. That victory makes us more than we are in defeat.

That’s what worship does for us when we live for the praise of God’s glory. “When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made,” Tom Wright reminds us, “you do indeed grow. You discover what it means to be fully alive.”

Jesus leads us to that point in the Gospel reading as well. The Sabbath was made for human flourishing, not in order to fulfill some legal requirement. Worship makes us truly human. Rest makes us truly whole. God longs for us to live for the praise of God’s glory because it is good for us.

God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. That happens whether we are face to face or face to screen. We can depend on the Spirit to hold us together even when we’re sure we’re coming apart.

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-3.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-5.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].

Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.

Text Study for Luke 2:22-40, part 1

Luke 2 moves from the birth of Jesus, set in the broad sweep of history, and then narrowed down to a poor, pregnant girl in Bethlehem, to angels in heavens and shepherds on the ground, and then to life as might be expected of a faithful Jewish couple. Throughout Mary is treasuring the meaning of all these things (verses 18 and 51). Luke locates the life of the Messiah and Lord both in world history and in the human heart. It’s not John’s “Word become flesh,” but it is nonetheless a deeply incarnational reflection on the meaning of the Messiah.

This enfleshed Word is revealed to a couple of oldsters in the Jerusalem temple before anyone else really catches on. I don’t know if Luke is thinking about the prophet Joel at this point, although Luke will be thinking about Joel at the beginning of the Book of Acts. In Luke 2 we see the Holy Spirit giving visions to the young and fulfilling the dreams of the old, just as Joel promised.

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1. The Faithful Parents

According to verse 21, the child’s father and mother faithfully bring Jesus to be circumcised and named according to Old Testament law. The regulation on circumcision of infant males on the eighth day is found in Leviticus 12:3. The Hebrew Bible contains other references to circumcision attached to other rites of passage. The name they give the child is the name announced by the angel, Gabriel. The parents may carry out the rite, but God is the one who names Jesus.

The rites mentioned here — circumcision, presentation, and cleansing — were performed by one of the priestly “directors” who came in from the countryside as part of the annual rotation of outlying priests. “The director of the weekly course, during the week of his duty, performed the rites of purification for lepers and women after childbirth,” Jeremias writes in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, “who were pronounced clean at the Nicanor Gate when the rites were complete” (page 164).

This gate stood between the “Court of Israel” and the “Court of Women” in the temple. Until the rite of purification was completed forty days after childbirth, the new mother could not really enter the Temple at all. It was at the Nicanor gate, Jeremias says, that the director would have received the offering from Jesus’ parents for her purification. Luke draws no explicit connection between Zechariah’s role as one of these outlying priests in chapter 1, but he was in Jerusalem for this reason when he had his encounter in the temple with Gabriel. Perhaps there is a small hint that Mary and Joseph are faithful where Zechariah had doubts (but that is mere speculation on my part).

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that “a number of social implications of the practice can be seen in Luke’s Gospel” (page 293). It signifies acceptance of the child by the father. Circumcision on the eighth day required that acceptance at the beginning of the relationship between father and child. And, they point out, the public and community nature of the rite “sealed with public recognition” the father’s acknowledgement and assumption of his paternal responsibility.

We know that in the second century, pagan critics asserted that Jesus was Mary’s illegitimate child, perhaps from a sexual escapade with a Roman soldier. “In the second century, the Greek writer Celsus wrote a book about how Jesus was the illegitimate low-birth offspring of a spinner called Mary and a Roman soldier called Panthera,” writes Giles Fraser. “The implication may also have been that she was raped. Various later rabbinic texts refer to him as Jesus ben Pandera.”

While Luke’s Gospel predates the writing of Celsus, doubts and concerns about Jesus’ legal status as Joseph’s accepted and acknowledged son were likely abroad, at least in Gentile and formerly pagan circles. These are the folks Luke consciously addresses in his work for “Theophilus” (see Luke 1:1-4). We can see this concern expressed in other ways in John’s Gospel, with the constant questions to Jesus, “Where are you from?” That question is far less about geography than it is about genealogy.

Then they come back to the Temple after forty days, “according to the Law of Moses,” to present Jesus to the Lord and to do the appropriate sacrifices for Mary’s purification after childbirth. Jesus is formed as a child in the practices of Jewish piety. Paul notes this in Galatians four when he points out that God’s Son was “born of a woman, born under the law…” Luke notes that, living under the law, the parents did everything that the law required.

That law has great concerns about purity and pollution, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The point of such systems, they suggest, is that “the perception of dirt and the behavior called cleaning both point to the existence of some system according to which there is a proper place for everything” (page 72). Purification rituals don’t atone for some sin or fault. Mary does nothing wrong in bearing a child. It simply necessary to conduct a ritual to put everything back in its proper place.

So, we see that Jesus’ parents are faithful Jews who embrace and abide by the Law of Moses. As Jesus is born and grows, everything is in its proper place. He is fully acknowledged as Joseph’s son. His parents do what is needful for the Law, even if it strains their limited resources to do so.

Almost as a footnote, we do see that Jesus’ parents were faithful and poor. The offering they present is that allowed for impoverished people as a concession to their poverty (see Leviticus 12:8). Poor people offer two doves or pigeons because even that meager offering is split between the offering to God and the offering which is for the priest.

At least in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is born poor. His “self-emptying” as it is described in Philippians 2 involves the deprivations of actual human poverty. This is a real human life under challenging conditions.

It is not in spite of his Jewish upbringing but rather as a result of that upbringing that Jesus is prepared by the Holy Spirit – through his parents – for the work that stands in the future. The text could present an opportunity to reflect on the importance of forming children in the faith from the moment of birth in order to prepare them for lives of discipleship.

Why does it matter to Luke to include this in the gospel account? It is not found in the other gospel accounts. We don’t get the little adventure of Jesus getting lost from his parents and debating in the Temple. That we save for another year. But this last half of Luke 2 is certainly intended to make clear that Jesus is a very human little boy before he grows into being a very human adult man. But it is also clear that Jesus is not merely human. Instead, he is the model human. He is strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God and human beings.

Luke then includes a narrative about the recognition and response of the right ancestors, Simeon and Anna. The faithfulness of the parents brackets the validation by and witness of these righteous ancestors. Based on the number of words used, this recognition and response is an important moment for Luke at this point in his gospel narrative. More on that tomorrow.

References and Resources

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition

Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Josey-Bass, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Palmer, Parker J. On the Brink of Everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown, and Company. Kindle Edition.

Fraser, Giles, “The Story of the Virgin Birth Runs Against the Grain of Christianity.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/24/story-virgin-birth-christianity-mary-sex-femininity#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20century%2C%20the,him%20as%20Jesus%20ben%20Pandera.

Malina and Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.