I don’t know if this custom was ever practiced in this church, or if so, how long ago it was, but it used to be the practice, in many Presbyterian churches, of deciding what the topics for sermons would be in this way: The minister would select a book of the Bible, like Exodus or Acts or Hebrews, and in a series of sermons, week by week, preach straight through that book, chapter 1 to the end, as many Sundays as it took.
They didn’t choose their topics by looking at a particular issue or development in the world or in the church, and addressing that. Or by following, more or less, a Lectionary or other schedule of Bible readings that allow the congregation to sample most sections of the Bible over the course of a couple years. Their series weren’t interrupted by special days or seasons like Pentecost, Advent, or Community Honeybee services, because they didn’t observe those days and seasons back then. Nope, straight through one book. I’ve heard accounts of 30 consecutive sermons on Romans, or Revelation, as they were analyzed paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word.
Now I can’t imagine spending 30 consecutive weeks on any one book of the Bible—except possibly Matthew or Luke, as long as I could interrupt it for special Sundays. I especially can’t imagine 30 Sundays on Revelation.
But the Lectionary does turn our attention to the short letter of Ephesians from mid-July to late August, so I thought this might be an opportunity for us to experiment with a short sermon series going through one book of the Bible, to see how that feels, if we like it. It will only be four Sundays, and only the Sundays I preach, not Laurie, so they won’t be consecutive. And if a major event or development in our church or world does happen, to which we should turn our attention on a Sunday morning, we will. This is a tentative plan; I might change my mind tomorrow. But for this moment, let’s say we’ll try the old traditional Presbyterian pattern, with four sermons on Ephesians.
Today, looking at chapter one, we will see who the writer of the letter considers the Ephesians to be, what their identity is, now that they have become Christians; what does that mean, for you to call yourself “Christian.” And along the way we’ll reflect on what it means for us to be Christians; what does that name say about us.
In other weeks we’ll look at how they came to become Christians – their faith journey – and our own. And where they, and we, go from here: what does God hope we will become, now that we are Christians. And we’ll see if we like this straight-through-the-book-stuff.
The first-century city of Ephesus was located on the western coast of what is now the country of Turkey, along the Aegean Sea, across from Greece. It was a port city, not only on the sea but along a river, for excellent access inland as well. The Greeks had taken over the city shortly after the year 1000 BC, so it was a Greek city for several hundred years, following the Greek religion, which featured many gods and goddesses. The goddess the people of Ephesus were most dedicated to was Artemis; in fact one of the ancient “seven wonders of the world” was the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Rome conquered the area in 2nd century BC, and since Rome had appropriated the Greek gods and goddesses, Ephesus continued to be the city of Artemis, or as Romans called her, Diana.
Being a port city of many international travelers and merchants, however, and a city known for always being interested in the newest religious ideas and philosophies, Ephesus easily accommodated other religions besides the worship of Artemis. They were welcome and their adherents could worship openly – as long as they didn’t interfere with the worship of Artemis. Jewish synagogues were among the other religious influences present.
Archaeology has been able to recover much of the old city of Ephesus, which can be visited today. There was the great temple of Artemis, a stadium for athletic events and races, a library, an outdoor theater which could seat 24,000 people, and a main street running from the theater to the harbor which was lined with buildings and shops, baths and schools and gymnasiums. Ephesus, in short, by around the year 52 A.D, was quite a metropolis.
That’s when a man named Paul comes to town. Paul is a member of a new religion called “Christianity”; in fact Paul is its main missionary to the province of Asia. Being from Israel, a Jew, and considering Christianity a fulfillment of the Jewish religion, his usual practice is to go first to the Jewish synagogue and preach his religion there, using the Jewish Bible. For about three months Paul continues to preach his religion in the synagogue, before some of the members of the congregation decide that what he has brought to them really is a little too revolutionary, and ask him to go elsewhere. So for the next two years, he preaches Christianity in the lecture hall at a local school of philosophy instead, during the hours the building is not otherwise in use.
“God does extraordinary miracles through Paul,” the book of Acts reports, including many healings and exorcisms. Many Jews and Greeks become Christians, and many of them who had practiced magic now reject magic, and even burn their magic books. “The word of the Lord,” Acts continues, “grew mightily and prevailed.”
In fact a little too mightily for the comfort of some citizens of Ephesus. A man named Demetrius is a local silversmith, who makes silver statues of Artemis, and apparently he notices a decline in business as this Paul continues to preach that gods made out of silver aren’t really gods and there is no need to spend one’s money on them.
Demetrius and his fellow artisans get a riot started one day, when they suggest that Paul is denying Artemis the respect she deserves. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” the crowds shout as they surge through the streets, dragging with them two of Paul’s assistants.
But a town clerk of very cool head eventually calms the crowd, saying “We all know that Artemis is great, and therefore Ephesus is great, and these men are no threat to that greatness. If Demetrius has a legal complaint, let him go to the courts, but there is no cause for this commotion.” And the uproar ceases, and the people go home, and not long after this Paul turns the new Christian church of Ephesus over to the new disciples there, and moves along to Greece.
Now it is Paul’s usual practice to begin a church, stay just a little while, move on to begin new ones, and continue to encourage the ones he has left behind through letters. In face it is thought that several letters we have in our Bible which he wrote to other churches he had begun were written during his 2 ½ years at Ephesus. And some years after leaving Ephesus, Paul, or possibly a close disciple of Paul, wrote a letter back to the church there – our “letter to the Ephesians,” in our New Testament.
Letters of this period, like letters of our time, have a particular form – a pattern which we all recognize, so we can say, when we see it, “Look, a letter.” How do our personal letters begin? “Dear Aunt Eleanor” (She was an aunt of mine who used to send me Christmas presents). How do our personal letters which arrive soon after Christmas from eleven-year-old nephews begin? “Dear Aunt Eleanor, Thank you for the socks.” How do serious business letters begin? “To: Client. From: Supplier. Regarding: June shipment. Sirs: Pursuant to our conversation of 16 June 2018. . .” and so on. We see the form, and we know it’s a letter.
Well letters of Paul’s time have a certain form too: They begin with the names of the sender and the recipients, with a greeting formula: “Paul, and 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.” This greeting is always followed by a thanksgiving to God, and often a prayer request of God. “I thank God every time I remember you,” the letter to Philippi continues, “and pray that your love may overflow more and more.” Then there is an introductory formula and the main body of the letter – the purpose for writing – and finally concluding greetings and best wishes. When we see this pattern, we can say “Look, a letter.”
As we begin our look at the letter to the Ephesians today, we see three things: First, like the other letters in the Bible, it provides good instruction for all churches, not just the one it was first written to. As we read it, we can ask, “What is the author saying to us as a Christian Church, to Paris Presbyterian Church?” Second, we find that all of chapter one in this letter is the introductory part – the greetings, thanksgiving, and prayer request. We won’t get to the body of the letter until the next sermon. And third, we see that what this introductory section does is to tell us a lot about who the Ephesians are.
“Well wait a minute,” you say, “we’ve just heard who they are: They are citizens of Ephesus in the first century AD, living in a leading city of the Roman empire, on the west coast of present-day Turkey, at the mouth of a river – a city of many races and religions but dedicated to the goddess Artemis; a city with a great temple and a stadium and a huge theater and a nice harbor and a cool-headed town clerk. We know who the Ephesians are.”
And that is certainly who the Ephesians are when Paul arrives in town. But after hearing Paul’s preaching and joining his church, there’s also something more to who the Ephesians are, as chapter one reveals. And remembering that Biblical letters speak to all Christian churches, we also find out, as we review it, a bit about who we are.
First of all, they are “blessed,” verse 3 says – blessed in Christ by God. This is not the sort of blessing we mean when we say “Bless the Lord,” as in “Praise the Lord,” but rather the sort we mean when we say “count your blessings.” The Ephesians receiving this letter have something to count: they are blessed by God in Christ.
Second, they are “holy and blameless,” verse 4 says – and that would make them awfully special and unique, wouldn’t it? Not too many people can be considered totally holy and blameless, 2000 years ago or today.
As we read on, however, we see the origin of their holiness and blamelessness: they have been made holy and blameless by God, through Jesus Christ, not by their own doing. They have been adopted into holiness, brought in under the roof of holiness, whatever their background before. It is an act of grace, verse 6 continues, grace being a gift, like a king extending a pardon or amnesty. It doesn’t mean no crime has ever been committed, just that the ruler is now pronouncing you exempt from punishment, giving you a clean slate and fresh start. The Christians of Ephesus are holy and blameless because God has erased any past mistakes, and pronounced them holy and blameless. In short, verse 7 restates, they are forgiven.
But God’s giving does not stop there. In addition, verses nine and ten continue, the people have been let in on a mystery and a divine plan; God has given them insight into Christ. The content of this mystery? Well simply this: that Christ is the ruler over heaven and earth, and the one who makes us blameless before God. It’s not a mystery in the sense of “no one’s allowed to know”; in fact the more who know the better! But it is mysterious in terms of our not understanding entirely how it works. We can’t reduce it to our scientific understanding or a simple creed. It’s a little bigger than our comprehension; it’s mysterious. But it is no longer hidden, not from the Epehsians.
In Christ we have also received and inheritance, the letter-writer continues in verse 11. We have been claimed as God’s own, made part of the family, heirs, part of the will. So when God triumphs over death or sin or evil forces or hate, we are part of the victory; we are on the winning side. The “inheritance” mentioned here isn’t a particular thing like a piece of land or some gold, but that we’re considered part of God’s side. The old old promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” has come true.
And so we are praisers of God, you Ephesians and me, verse 12 goes on. God’s pleasure and joy in giving us these gifts are only completely fulfilled when we’re so utterly pleased with them that we break out spontaneously in joy and praise; God gives so much to us that praise happens. It’s like watching a child open the present you bought her; your joy is complete when you see the expression of joy on her face. When we are fully aware of God’s gifts, we are that child, overflowing automatically with praise.
You are also marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, verse 13 says, a reference to baptism. When you professed your faith you were dropped into the envelope of the people of God; when you were baptized the envelope was sealed – you’re in. Your inheritance is guaranteed.
And to your credit, the writer concludes, I also hear that you are faithful and loving; this has been your response. Who you are, then, you Ephesians, besides citizens of a leading city of the Roman Empire on the west coast of the province of Asia, is this: You are in Christ, so with all people in Christ everywhere, including Paris Presbyterian Church. . . you are blessed, you are declared holy and blameless by God’s act of grace, you are forgiven, you are God’s adopted children, you are privy to God’s mystery and plan, you are receivers of an inheritance, you are praisers of God, you are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and you are, in a worthy response, faithful and loving. This is who you are.
As we proceed through the letter to the Ephesus in coming weeks, we will see how we Christians came to be who we are, and what the writer hopes we will become. In the meantime, I think that we Christians here today can consider ourselves included in the prayer with which chapter 1 ends. So let’s hear the writer’s prayer for us; let us pray:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know God, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.” Amen.