Our look at the first chapter of the “Letter to the Ephesians” concentrated on “who you are” – who the Ephesians were, both as a culture and as Christians: members of God’s family; forgiven; adopted, by God’s grace – like all Christians, including us. Our look at the second chapter examined “how you became who you are”: it is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that Christians move from a state of being separated from God and without hope of eternal life to a situation of reconciliation and peace with God. We also heard how Christ offers us peace with one another as well; dividing-walls between Jews and Gentiles, or between any two segments of humanity, are broken down by Christ.
With chapter three, today, we begin our look at what we can become as Christians – where do we go from here. And the chapter divides itself pretty neatly into two parts: the first reflecting on the life of Paul and what he would become as he grew and lived out his Christian faith. He becomes sort of a “case study” on what we can become. And the second a prayer by the writer, as to what he hopes his readers will become, as Christians. We will look at each of the two parts, in succession, today.
Once, there was a man named Saul. Saul had been born, at about the beginning of the first century, and brought up in the city of Tarsus, which was located in the southeastern corner of present-day Turkey. So his family did not live within the boundaries of Israel, but they were part of the Jewish community in Tarsus – probably sort of like living in the Italian section of Chicago. While his legal status was that of a citizen of the Roman empire, the culture Saul was immediately surrounded with was the Jewish culture, including traditional Jewish religion. Around his neighborhood, then, were Greek and Roman practices, but in Saul’s neighborhood, and household, Judaism prevailed.
Within his Jewish religion, Saul had attached himself to the “denomination” of the Pharisees; that is, the most strict and traditional school of thought on questions of lifestyle and mission. So Saul, like other Pharisees, had become quite devoted to the Law, as written in our Old Testament, as the guide for his life. And like other Pharisees, he had gone to be trained in the Law, to Jerusalem.
Students of the Law always had a trade to live by, while they studied, and Saul’s trade when he arrives in Jerusalem is that of a tentmaker and leatherworker; this is how he supports himself. Also while he is in Jerusalem, now probably in his early 30’s, he comes in contact with a new religious movement among certain Jews called “Christianity.”
Saul does not like Christianity. Among other things, it calls certain traditional ideas into question, like the importance of the Jerusalem Temple as central to worship, and, probably most important to Saul, the importance of following the Law in all its details. To Saul, whose life revolves around the Law, questioning its importance is blasphemy; and Christianity becomes the enemy.
So Saul sets out to wipe out the enemy; he begins persecuting the Christian Church, encouraging the arrest and stoning of Christians, since that was the penalty, in Jewish Law, for blasphemy. He is quite zealous in this activity, working, the “Interpreter’s Dictionary” tells us, with all the intensity we know can develop in one who has grown up as part of a small minority in a large and alien city. He pursues his new work with a passion.
In fact, when Saul hears of a Christian colony in the city of Damascus, some 150 miles away, he decides the threat is grave enough to go and try to eradicate the Christians there as well. Acts 9 reports that “Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any Christian men or women there, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” It appears he got his letters. But Saul’s trip does not go as he has planned.
Something happens to Saul on the road to Damascus: A light from the sky flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice speaks “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asks “Who. . . who are you?”, and the reply comes “I am Jesus, and I am the one you are persecuting.” The voice continues with instructions to Saul about what to do when he reaches Damascus, and he finds, when the light fades and he stands again, that he is blind.
Saul’s blindness is healed in Damascus by a Christian named Ananias, whom God has sent to Saul. And Ananias also brings him to the disciples at Damascus, and describes to them the events of Saul’s change of heart. In some ways, it is not a “conversion” in the way Christians today use the word: Saul does not have to drastically change his lifestyle, since he has always lived according to the Law; and he does not now believe in a brand new God he had not followed before, since God is one. But Saul’s understanding now is more completed; some previous mistaken notions have been corrected – and Saul sets about promoting his new understanding of true discipleship just as vigorously as he had his old. He also becomes known by the new name of “Paul.”
We have little specific information on the next several years of Paul’s life; there is a gap in the record. It is believed that he may have gone to Syria and to his native land around Tarsus, preaching his new understanding there. He also writes of one short visit to Jerusalem, where he meets Peter. Finally, the book of Acts picks up some years later with what has come to be known as “the first missionary journey,” through Cyprus and southern Turkey. On this trip, Paul preaches Christianity to both Jews and Gentiles, which leads to what is called “the Jerusalem Council,” described in Acts fifteen: The question is taken up by the Jerusalem Christian Church of just how Gentiles are going to fit in to their religion.
The decision is made by the council, due in part to Paul’s success, that the gospel is in fact for Gentiles as well as Jews, and Paul is commissioned at this time as a missionary specifically to the Gentiles. Why he has a particular interest in the Gentiles is not completely clear. Perhaps it is a reaction against his own previous history of emphasizing the Law and Jewish exclusiveness so much. Perhaps his field of vision is bigger than the other apostles’: why shouldn’t God be for all people? Or perhaps it is just as unexplainable as many particular calls to ministry – why do some people feel called to work with inner city youth, and others to go to Africa? Whatever the reason, Paul is now officially “missionary to the Gentiles.”
Legends describe what Paul looks like at this point in his life. If they are to be believed, he is small in stature, baldheaded, bowlegged, and of strong physique. His eyebrows meet in the middle, he has a slightly hooked nose; and he is full of grace toward all he meets. He has some undefined persistent physical ailment, but it must not be one which makes him frail or weak, for he perseveres through not only the rigors of travel but also many beatings and imprisonments. His letters show no sense of humor, but the greetings they contain reveal that he has many many friends.
Over the next few years, Paul embarks on at least two long journeys preaching the gospel and beginning new churches, and on each of them he makes stops at the city of Ephesus – for a short visit the first time, and staying over two years the second. He begins one of his successful Christian churches there. He also makes many close friends in the city, and his farewell upon leaving them to return to Jerusalem is one of the more moving sections of the book of Acts.
Upon his return to Jerusalem, Paul is falsely accused of bringing one of his Gentile friends into the Temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles – up the steps, and into the near courts, past that warning sign we described in part 2 of our series. This, you’ll remember, was considered punishable by death.
Upon his arrest, he chooses to be tried before Caesar in Rome instead of by the local authorities, and he ends up spending two years in Rome. Many people believe that at this time he writes our “Letter to the Ephesians.” We have no positive information on what happens after these two years – another “gap” – but the majority of legends and evidence indicate that the great apostle Paul is put to death at this time, in about the year 60, by the emperor Nero – a martyr to his beloved faith.
What Paul left behind was many new Christian churches, in places which had previously never heard of Jesus Christ; several letters to those churches, which are in our Bible; and through those letters a profound influence on Christian thought and the development of the Christian Church. As just one example, it was reading Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” that began Martin Luther toward the conclusions which would eventually result in the beginning of the Protestant Church.
Among the things Paul wrote about were the subjects we’re covering in our series: who we were before Christ – dead in our sin, without hope of knowing God; who we are in Christ – part of God’s family, with the promise of eternal life with God; and who we can become in Christ – where do we go from here.
And to begin discussing who we can become in Christ, the writer turns at this point in his letter to prayer. The next few verses of the book of Ephesians consist of a prayer as to what he hopes its Christian readers may become – what we may become. Hear his prayer for you:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” And what I pray is that God may grant you. . .
First, that you may be strengthened with power through God’s Spirit. He prays for our strength. We see that strength in Paul’s life, as he traveled his long journeys, and evangelized long days, and endured persecution and imprisonment. And perhaps you can tell stories of Christians you have known who have been sustained by a strength that comes from their faith – persevered through a long illness, or difficult financial times, or a time of betrayal or abandonment, sustained by their strength of faith. “I pray that you may be strengthened by the Spirit”; that you may become strong, sustained by the power of God’s Spirit.
Second, he prays that Christ may dwell in your heart. “Dwell” is a specific word here indicating permanence – not that Christ may visit a little while, or vacation with you, or have a sleepover, but live, always.
“Heart” was considered the center of a person’s total identity and existence – vitality, intelligence, will, decision. I pray, then, that Christ may always be at your center, that Christ will fill and direct you. This does not mean that individual Christians do not have their own personalities and interests and abilities; we do not become an army of Christ-robots, identical Pringle’s potato chips. But just like we try to establish a sense of right and wrong at the center of all our individual children, it is prayed that our center will be directed by Christ, that we will decide as he would.
We see Christ filling and directing Paul, as he overcomes his previous belief in Jewish exclusive access to God, and argues for the inclusion of Gentiles – just as Jesus reached out to Gentiles and other excluded “outsiders.” And perhaps you know Christians you would describe as being particularly attuned and reflective of the ways of Christ – people whom Jesus shines through. “I pray that Christ may dwell in your heart,” that you may become one through whom others see Jesus.
Third, I pray that you will be rooted and grounded in love. If we picture Christ as a seed being planted in our centers, then the soil, Markus Barth suggests, is love. If we provide an attitude of love, or even attempting to love, wanting to love, Christ will take root in us, and our ability to act as he did will grow. Paul doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm-and-fuzzy kind of guy, but there is no doubt of his love for others, as he repeatedly puts himself in difficulties and danger in order to share the story of Jesus Christ with them. And again perhaps you can think of Christians in whom one can see their genuine care for humanity, or for people in trouble; who are constantly speaking and acting in love.
“I pray that you have the power to comprehend,” the prayer continues. That we may gain some knowledge of the big mystery of God. God is far larger than our limited human understanding can fully comprehend, but the prayer is that we will be given the power to know some, and to be able to explore the difficult issues which accompany walking in faith. Paul’s greatest leap in understanding came when Jesus met him on that road to Damascus, and corrected his previous mistaken ideas. But even if you have not had such a dramatic reversal, perhaps you can think of times you discovered something new of how God works, or who God is. We pray that progress will continue.
“I pray that you may know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” Remember, Paul thought he “knew” a lot back when he was persecuting Christians. But even in spite of what he “knew,” in spite of his professing his hate of Jesus Christ, Christ broke through with love to claim him, forgive him, change him, save him. Regardless of how much or how little you understand today, or how much or how little you think you understand, may you know the love of Christ; may you become surrounded, upheld, and sustained by that love.
And may you be filled with the fullness of God. Our journey toward fullness of life in God is a lifelong one; no one has arrived, is perfect, has nothing left to learn, nothing more to do. May you continue to be filled. Several of Paul’s letters refer to the continuing journey of growing in faith, of being works-in-progress, of leaving behind the basics to mature even more.
So the prayer for us Christians describes six wishes for us:
- I pray that you may be strengthened with the Spirit’s power,
- that Christ may dwell in your heart,
- that you may be rooted and grounded in love,
- that you may have the power to comprehend,
- that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, and
- that you may be filled with the fullness of God.
This is what I pray that you may become.
Finally, let’s notice one more thing: This chapter is the beginning of the section on what the writer wants us to become, on where we go from here. It will be followed by instructions, suggestions, pleas, on how we should live as Christians – and we will take those up in our fourth and final sermon on this letter. But the writer doesn’t begin the section with a threat: “Now if you don’t do this, fire and brimstone await.” He doesn’t do it out of a sense of pride or control: “Therefore, everybody, be like me. Do things my way. I insist you do it my way.” He doesn’t begin with questions of authority or obedience: “Out of my superior wisdom, and my personal relationship with God, because I say so, you shall…” He doesn’t even begin with moral lists of “shoulds” and “oughts”: “Therefore, you must do this, and must do that.”
As the writer tries to encourage his fellow Christians to become better people, he begins by praying for them. As we attempt to guide one another toward the Christian life, may we do it not by telling each other what to do, but by upholding one another in prayer.
Let’s pray now: God thank you for the example of Paul, and what he was able to become as your disciple. Help us to become the disciples you would have us be – and to encourage one another, beginning with our prayers. Amen.