Reading the letter to the Ephesians can be something of a challenge, because of the exalted language the writer uses. That’s why I have chosen the translation by Eugene Peterson from “The Message”, since I think it best explains to people of our day what the writer means. Let’s get a hold on some background so we understand the issues better.
Most of the time in scripture, and in many other writings, there’s an “arguing partner”. Clearly, that’s a person or a group who the writer is disputing with. For Ephesians, it’s the Gnostics. Don’t go to sleep yet, because this actually matters. The Gnostics believed that salvation involved the “good” spiritual part of ourselves being freed from the “evil” material world. Christian Gnostics denied that Christ came in the flesh, and they rejected mainline scriptures and traditions, claiming a privileged knowledge of God and our human destiny from secret traditions and revelations.
They taught that people had to make their way through many “layers” of angels on their spiritual journey, and that only a few, the elite, reached the goal of real knowledge of God. They weren’t bothered by excess, either. You could indulge in all the pleasures of the flesh or you could live a life of ascetic denial: it was all the same to them, because the life in the body didn’t matter. Still awake? Good, because this does matter.
Now we get to the contrast with genuine Christianity, which the letter to the Ephesians sets out. Firstly, we have all we need, spiritually, through our relationship with Christ. There is no other “secret knowledge” necessary. There are no “layers” of angels to make our way through to a proper understanding of God’s ways. Secondly, there is no spiritual “elite” who are more favoured than others by God. God’s desire is that we should all be brought into relationship with him, through Christ. God’s grace has been lavished on us through Christ, and we are forgiven through our faith in his God-revealing life, death and resurrection. God’s plan is that all things, all people, be brought into unity with one another, through Jesus Christ.
Now what could possibly be more relevant for today? How many areas of tragic conflict are there, where peace and unity are so desperately needed? We think of many nations in the Middle East, for a start, such as Israel and Palestine. There is the civil war in Syria, in which the ruling regime is still supported by countries like Iran, despite the horrific measures taken by the military against the Syrian people. We are aware of the difficulties which the newly elected government of Egypt is experiencing in relation to the military there- which is blocking the recall of parliament.
We know of so many areas where God’s justice, equality, harmony and peace are desperately needed. We need to never forget that we live in one of the most peaceful, safe and prosperous countries in the world. Don’t you think our hearts should go out to those who live in more danger than most of us can even comprehend?
This is exactly where our call to relationship with God comes in. We know that it’s not simply a matter of gladly receiving the Good News of God’s love for us and sitting back and saying “Well, that’s really nice, God’s done everything for me in Christ, and I can sit back and think how wonderful it all is.” As “The Message” translates it: “(God) set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth”.
And so we take upon ourselves, in our baptism, to live our whole lives in relationship to God. To live as people whom God calls to be part of God’s work of reconciling people to each other, and to God. Of course that means, contrary to the Gnostics, that our life in the body matters very much. Living this life is not some sort of tragic exile from the divine, amongst an evil, material world. Living this life isabout eagerly accepting the relationship with God opened up for us in Christ, a relationship in which God’s love and forgiveness flow freely towards us.
Given that this is the truth set forth by our faith, we are called to co-operate with God in the divine work of bringing peace, harmony, justice, and equality to reality in this world. In our baptism, we declare that we intend to live a life of compassion towards others who have nothing, compared to what we have. Likewise, we commit ourselves to living as people who do not judge others by appearances, but who are willing to open ourselves up to personal relationship with those in need.
We commit ourselves to being ready and willing to hear the story of those who come into our lives, especially those whose circumstances are difficult. Therefore, you can see that the idea of an elite who have special knowledge of God through secret revelations is quite unchristian. No, God’s welcome, God’s grace, is extended to all of us and we simply need to eagerly accept it. I have recently been reading a biography of John Wesley, in which is mentioned a “lady of the nobility” who was scandalized by Wesley’s preaching of the fundamental doctrine of the Reformation that “by grace we are saved through faith.” She couldn’t accept that God’s forgiveness was for the “common wretches” just as it was for her. I have a nasty feeling that she needed to take a good, hard look at herself. I wonder if she ever did? God grant that the Church not be seen as populated by people like that!
It may be fair to say that the polar opposite of the Gnostic view that the material world is evil is the view current amongst some that the world is to be exploited for our gain. Heaven help us, literally. Look where that viewpoint has got us. The Christian view is that the world is God’s good creation, in which we have been placed as stewards and caretakers. The world is not ours, it’s God’s, and we have a responsibility to care for it. That is a most important part of God’s call on us as his people. We seem to be very seriously behind the 8 ball in this regard.