2/21/12

preacher's notes on ephesians 1:3-14

The following article was written to provide preachers with some suggestive options for a sermon that proclaims the message of Ephesians 1:3-14. If you were preaching a sermon on this text ... or listening to one ... where would you want the emphasis to fall? What is the Word from God from these verse for our time and place? for you at this point in your life?

Entering into the world of Ephesians can be challenging for a congregation at the best of times. Its language is ‘thick’. The first sentence of this Sunday's text is, in itself, a mouthful for the lector and surely an earful for a summer congregation more in the mood for a parable than for this densely worded phrasing. But the preacher will want to think twice before opting to preach on one of the other assigned texts for the day. Are there any in the congregation who struggle with shame, who know what it is to feel abandoned and of little worth? For that matter, does the congregation itself wrestle with despair when it faces the future? If so, this is a text well worth the challenge of hosting on behalf of the congregation that gathers to hear the Word on Sunday.

Perhaps the best way to invite the congregation into conversation with the author of Ephesians is to acknowledge the thick ‘accent’ spoken here. Encourage the church to open its heart to the powerful news that is carried in phrases like “blessed us in Christ”, “chose us in Christ”, “destined us for adoption as his children”, “his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us”.

Even a cursory reading of these lines reveals a letter that opens with superlatives. Paul piles one blessing upon another as if he thinks that the little church in Ephesus doesn’t believe him. One suspects that this is, indeed, the case. Paul is not the only preacher who knows that his congregation struggles to believe it is beloved by God. This silent despair may indeed be the larger problem faced by contemporary preachers of this passage. Not far beneath the veneer of apparently happy and satisfied consumers of the market economy pastors know that they will find many aching and troubled parishioners. A sermon on this opening passage in Ephesians may need to begin by setting Paul’s superlatives over against the unspoken messages of pain and desperation carried into the sanctuary by the congregation. When Paul says “blessed”, “chosen”, “adoption”, “grace” the congregation may not believe him because it has memorized the mantra of “fated”, “rejected”, “failure”, “shameful”, “guilty”. Giving voice to this silent unspoken truth may well be what is necessary if the congregation is to open its heart and soul to receive Paul’s surprising news.

A sermon that opens this text up may shift at times from Paul’s theological meditation to the language of narrative. The metaphors of “adoption” and “inheritance” may, for example, invite stories of families within the congregation that have grafted orphaned children into their family tree. The challenge for the preacher will be to keep such stories small enough that they serve the text rather than become the text for the day.

One way to ensure that the sermon stays close to the text is to pattern the narrative flow of the sermon after the logic of the passage. Paul’s language works in concentric circles, slowly moving forward in three progressions. The first two long sentences (vss. 3-8a) are thick with the language of “spiritual blessing” and “glorious grace”. This first third of the sermon can name how difficult it is for us, in spite of so many material blessings, to believe that we are beloved.

In the next sentence (vss. 8b-10) Paul moves out beyond the congregation to the world and universe. He dares to announce that in Christ we see God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The middle third of the sermon can take its lead from Paul, moving from a focus on ourselves to a focus on the world. As hard as it is to believe that we are beloved, it is even more difficult for us to trust that “all things” will be gathered up in Christ. We are easily tempted to believe that the earth is “going to hell in a handbasket”. A sermon that lingers here with Paul will notice that a church that takes this text to heart cannot give up hope in anyone or any neighborhood or any nation. Naming the people and places that we assume to be hopeless and, instead, including them in the plan of God revealed in Christ for “all things” will remind both preacher and congregation of the scandal of the gospel.

The final two sentences in the passage (vss. 11-14) hint at the kind of life that is to led by a people who know themselves to be adopted, graced and richly blessed with a massive inheritance of love. Paul says that this inheritance is a way of life. He says it twice to make sure that the church hears. He calls this way of life living to “the praise of his glory” (vss. 12 & 14). He says it is a journey “towards redemption as God’s own people” (vs. 14). The words “praise” and “glory” are easily domesticated in the church. The glory of God for Paul - a rabbi by training - is the “kabod”, the weight and gravitas of the presence of God. Paul imagines the Ephesians living as a people known not for their praise of human institutions or idols or ideas but for their joy in what Christ is doing to redeem aching souls and a suffering world. The sermon’s final move can be to imagine the shape of a congregation that is marked by its consistent focus on what God is doing in its midst and in the midst of a troubled earth. In this way the text’s shift from receiving blessing to being a blessing may be mirrored not only in the sermon but also in the congregation itself.

- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Word" Year B)

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