Here’s the first post of the Queer Ephesians project. I’m struck that the opening passage of the Epistle is so encouraging for members of the Church. But actually, because it talks about the gifts and the promise of God to all believers, who are nothing less than God’s adopted children, there’s a powerful message of inclusion and belonging here for those of us who are so often made to feel on the outside of God’s people.
vv.1-2 – Grace and Peace
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The majority of modern scholars do not believe that Paul was the actual author of Ephesians. And that is ok. We misunderstand the purpose of the ascription at the beginning of an ancient epistle if we think it is to tell us who was the author of the text. Rather, it more often tells us who the ancient author considered to be the source of the style or ideas contained in the text. In other words, the fact that the author of Ephesians ascribes the letter to Paul (v.1) tells us that the author believed that they stood in the tradition of which Paul was the main source – they wanted their writing to be seen as stemming from Paul’s, to be read as a faithful exposition of the ideas contained within Paul and as a faithful development of those ideas in dialogue with him.
The structure of Ephesians emphasises this desire to be read in continuity with Paul. It contains the Pauline elements of salutation, thanksgiving and conclusion, and incorporates much of Paul’s thought along with developing ideas about liturgy, worship and the Christian way of life that were emerging in the early Church. Ephesians is not a new idea, but is staking its claim to be a part of the thinking of the churches founded by Paul. It claims to be legitimate Christian, legitimate Pauline, and demands to be read as such.
In verse 2, the author begins the letter with a statement of the fundamental aims of that Church: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The communication of God’s grace and the gift of peace which grace affords are the central theme of this epistle. As queer readers, and many others, for whom Ephesians can often be a problematic text, especially with its seemingly strict teaching on gender, sex and family life, it is worth remembering that the key message of this epistle is two things first and foremost: grace and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to you, members of the Church.
Let’s therefore keep grace and peace firmly in our minds as we journey on through the text.
vv.3-8a – Blessed Children in the Church
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us.
The section that follows (vv.3-14) is a hymn of praise – it is often considered to be borrowed from a hymn of the early church and owes a great deal to the hymn in Colossians 1:15-20. But as it praises God for His goodness and greatness, it also contains a great deal of material to encourage the believer.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” does not stand alone, but is immediately followed by the encouragement: “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (v.3). The affirmation that God is to be blessed is integrally linked to the affirmation that the believers are blessed as well. God should be blessed by the Church precisely because we are so greatly blessed by Him. When we bless or praise God, we affirm also the extent to which he has blessed us already, by the gift of Christ. This gift of Christ was not only the very earthly gift of allowing us to see God in the flesh, as it were, but also contains the gift of all the gifts that heaven can afford, gifts we cannot comprehend and gifts we cannot even imagine. The writer of Ephesians blesses God because the sheer greatness of God’s gifts to us are beyond the power of words to describe.
On what basis, then, do we receive these wonderful blessings from God? Here, I believe, is Good News for any of us who at times feel excluded from or on the edges of the Church community and institutions. Ephesians makes it clear that “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him” (v.4). Before God created the world, He had already intended to draw you to Himself. Before the ground beneath your feet, before the air you breath or the sun that shines on your face, His purpose was you, the blessings He wishes you to receive… and all this “in love” (v.4).
Before God had even begun to create, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (v.5). God knew that we would fail to live up to his good purpose for us. God knows we are not as perfect as He is perfect, as good as He is good, and so before we were made, He already intended to take us back. God, who is our parent in the truest sense, was prepared to adopt us, to become our parent again when we had gone away. And he did this “through Jesus Christ” (v.5). God gave us the gift of Jesus as a means of adoption, as a fleshly, living, breathing way of saying, I was your parent, and I will be your parent again and for ever. You were my child, and you will be my child again and for ever. And He did this, not because He felt He had to, but “according to the good pleasure of his will” (v.5), because He loves us, and it is good for Him to be our parent and for us to be His children. God does not have to take us, and we do not have to belong to Him, but it is “good” and it is sheer “pleasure” for God to be our parent, whoever we are.
This is what Christians mean when they talk about grace, for God’s purpose was to become our parent, again and for ever, before we were even created, “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (v.6). God’s choice, His election, of us is completely free, and the gift of adoption and the heavenly blessings that He offers each and everyone one of us, is completely free as well. For “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us” (vv.7-8a). God redeems us by taking us back as a parent adopts a child, and he does this through Jesus, who lived and died and rose again. God forgives us for our going away from Him, the times when each of us turn our backs on Him and His love for us, just as children do to their parents. And this is the gift, the grace, that he lavishes upon us. We do not earn it. We do not even have to ask for it. All we have to do is receive it, for all God seeks to do in Jesus is to give it.
As I read this passage, I actually find it hard to imagine not getting spoilt by God’s good gifts!
vv.8b-14 – Trusting the Wisdom of God
With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
God’s knowledge is not like our knowledge. The Church often needs reminding of that fact. And so do queer commentators too. God’s knowledge of us is far greater than our knowledge of God or even our knowledge of ourselves will ever be. God, unlike us, has “all wisdom and insight” (v.8b). He does not plan merely for today or tomorrow, but His “plan” is “for the fullness of time” (v.9). When we think about God’s plans for us and for His creation, we must bear in mind that his purposes are greater than we will ever be able to comprehend.
But the author of Ephesians does not wish to let us be downhearted by this. Although there is so much about God’s plans that we cannot know, there are certain things about “the mystery of his will” that “he has made known to us” (v.9). God reveals something quite remarkable to us “according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ”, according to the love that He shows He has for us in Jesus. This is his “plan… to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v.10).
In Jesus, God is not only adopting us as children again, but he is drawing all things on earth and all the things in heaven closer to Himself. And Ephesians wants to make the point that this is not a way to fix a failing in creation, but is the very point of creation. It is a “plan for the fullness of time” (v.10): not a plan at the end of time (as if the tape sadly comes to a stop and God has to work out what to do next), or a plan to put things back on track (as if the world has developed a fault which God needs to fix). Rather the “plan for the fullness of time” was the plan from the beginning and will be the plan until the end. The world reaches its “fullness” when God in Jesus adopts it and draws it to Himself. We reach our “fullness”, we are most ourselves, when we are most what God wants us to be, when we are adopted once more as His “children through Jesus Christ” (v.5) again and forever.
We can take heart that God’s plan for us was always that we would become His children, along with all of creation, united once more to Him through His Son Jesus, and that when we are His children, we are ourselves in the “fullness” of what it means to be ourselves.
In the following verses, the focus shifts from adoption to inheritance. Just as children receive and inheritance from their parents, we receive an inheritance from God. Firstly, we can trust God’s plan because it is “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will” (v.11). As a queer person, I need to be better at remembering this. When God wills something, it happens. When God assures us that he wills something, we can trust that it will. Just as an inheritance comes to the children of human parents, the inheritance of our redemption, our new and eternal life in Christ, will come to us from God. And God has even given us a “pledge of our inheritance” (v.14), the Holy Spirit, which is the proof that God wills to give us our inheritance of eternal life in his love. For God does not wish to appease us with empty words, or soothe us as we lament our mortality, until the moment that we wink out of existence. God wills those of us “who set our hope on Christ” to “live for the praise of his glory” (v.12).
Our adoption, and the blessings that God gives us, are things of which we can be sure. No matter how much the church or my own anxieties tell me that I as a queer person am not a child of God, I know that I am, because I can trust God’s promises to humankind that those who believe really are his children. As Paul puts it in Romans, “When we cry, ‘Father! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
The message of the opening of the Letter to the Ephesians is a hymn in praise of God, but it is also a hymn of encouragement, for queer and straight alike. Ephesians reminds us that the Church exists to communicate God’s grace and peace, that those of us who believe in Jesus are God’s blessed children (nothing less!), and that we can trust God, whose wisdom and knowledge is so much greater than our own, to fulfil his promises of good things.
That’s certainly encouraged me at the beginning of this project!