Fiftenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 15, 2012 – St. John’s
With our second reading today, we begin a continuous reading of the Epistle to the Ephesians, and so a word or two about this letter is in order. But before that, I want to suggest to you again, and especially to those who may be in the habit of meditating on the Scriptural readings before or after Mass, that you read through the whole letter at one setting. Too often we know a book of the Bible only through the snippets that are read out at Mass and thus run the danger of missing a grasp of the whole, of failing to see how a particular passage contributes to the whole message and in turn is illumined by the larger context. It shouldn’t take you twenty minutes to read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians, and it’s more than worth the time and effort.
The great majority of scholars do not believe that this letter was written by St. Paul himself. The strongest argument against Pauline authorship is the language of the letter. It’s not only that many words are found in Ephesians that aren’t used in the undisputed letters of St. Paul. It’s also that it is not written in the crisp, no-nonsense style familiar to us from the other letters, such as those to the Galatians and the Romans or those to the Corinthians. The style of Ephesians is more meditative and discursive, with prepositional phrase following prepositional phrase, as if the author were reluctant for any sentence to come to an end. (In fact, all that we heard today is a single sentence in the Greek text!) If Galatians reads more like a series of thunderclaps, Ephesians reads like the rolling waves of the sea.
On the other hand, the scholars do not doubt that the letter came from within a tradition established, formed, and inspired by St. Paul, and that it can be read as a kind of summary of his thought and as a sustained reflection on St. Paul’s chief and history-shaping ministry, that of extending the reach and the influence of what God has done in Christ beyond the world of Judaism into the larger cultural world of the Roman Empire. One scholar even suggested that the letter was written as a kind of introduction to a collection of St. Paul’s letters. One catches this meaning when we see Paul at times, as at the end of today’s reading, using the first person plural to refer to the tradition within which he and other Jews had been given to recognize the Messiah and then uses the second person plural to refer to Gentiles who have been brought to share the blessings Christ brought first to the Jews. A contemporary scholar (Dunn) says that “Ephesians was an attempt to formulate Paul’s legacy… for the second-generation Christians and to give this synthesis of his heritage a fitting liturgical setting for use in church-gatherings, to provide matter for meditation and worship as well as for instruction.”
Those blessings are described in today’s reading. A simple list is already impressive: spiritual blessings; election; adoption; redemption by Christ’s blood; the forgiveness of transgressions; knowledge of God’s final plan for humanity; being sealed with the promised Holy Spirit–“as profound a meditation on the blessing and purpose of God as we will find anywhere in the Bible” (Dunn). Any one of these blessings deserves extended reflection to accomplish what Newman called the “realizing of sacred privileges.” For Newman this was a process, which could last a whole lifetime, of passing from a merely notional assent to what the Gospel and the Creed announce to a real assent, that is, a personal experience and awareness of the graces in which we Christians stand. These graces become real to us, are discovered to describe the reality of our relationship with God and, even more, of God’s relationship with us. For the author of this letter, those blessings–election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, knowledge, heartfelt love–describe what God has given us. They are God’s blessings, and that’s why our first word of response has always to be gratitude; but the blessings don’t float somewhere above us: they change us, move us from the distance of sin into the embrace of God, and they are meant to change us more and more the more we discover their reality within ourselves and make them part of our self-awareness, our personal appreciation of what is ours–of what we have become–by the gift of God.
There aren’t many New Testament books that would serve as well in this process of moving from a merely notional to a real apprehension of God’s grace. Here the very style that I mentioned earlier has a role. This Epistle is serene–an adjective that does not fit many of Paul’s letters, and if one gave the time to it, one might find oneself carried on one of the waves that flow through this Epistle toward a fuller appreciation of the inheritance promised us, already partially given through Christ and in his Holy Spirit, and awaiting completion in God’s Kingdom.