Marcion was a terrible antisemite; this second-century theologian believed that the Christian Scriptures should contain only certain Pauline writings and the Gospel of Luke. Absolutely nothing would be utilized from the Hebrew Bible, which Marcion believed was inspired by the evil destroyer God YHWH; Jesus was sent as a God of love to overthrow this demiurge so any references to the Tanakh would have to be removed from Paul and Luke’s works. With that said, Marcion wrote prolifically and we know that the Pauline epistle often referred to as “Ephesians” was thought by Marcion to have been written for the Laodiceans. The earliest manuscripts do not contain the phrase en Epheso (in Ephesus). It’s important to be honest from the start; studying Scripture means admitting what we don’t know.
It also means making decisions, so despite the arguments set forth by various scholars to the contrary, I affirm the consensus view. The epistle was written by Paul while he was imprisoned; it bears striking resemblances to the Colossians epistle, in terms of both shared language and thematic emphases; Paul stresses the relationship between Christ’s blood and the redemption of humanity, as well as develops doctrines of faith and grace, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology. The structure of the letter is significant as well, mainly because it appears to reveal liturgical elements which inform our understanding of early Christian worship. To facilitate clear communication, I will refer to the epistle as Ephesians with the reader understanding that, as explained above, decisions have been made based upon informed assumptions.
I spent the weekend playing Julius Caesar. This morning I had to turn to God, which presents an interesting dichotomy. Caesar is about the power of humans who believe they have been made divine, the New Testament is about the power of God being made human. I’m a method actor, in that from call until curtain, I like to be called my character name and I basically stay in character. I’m not strident or stringent about it, but when I’m on stage I am not myself. I am my interpretation of that character. When I am in the pulpit, I try to get as far away from acting as I can; I am most myself in worship. Quite a jump after just a few hours of sleep.
This morning was a truly joyous service, primarily because it was about as casual a service as we’ve had; our incredible music director is on a well-deserved vacation, and the replacement is a beloved and insanely talented local pianist. Sadly, our office manager has been ill so it was left to me to format the bulletin, and even using a Word template I messed it up. The service began with me laughing at myself and making corrections, and instead of the usual organ-based service, we sang in full voice to the piano. We took extra time at the passing of the peace, which already is regularly and famously long. We saw faces we have not seen before, faces we have not seen in a long time, and the faces we look forward to seeing every week. Our prayers of the people were intimate and filled with the Spirit. And I preached on the floor, holding the Bible, and referencing basic notes included in the bulletin. I give you all of this detail because I had only basic tentpoles for the sermon. I called upon the Paraclete, the Advocate, to be our guide. What follows are words inspired by the reflections I offered in service.
Paul never knew the historical Jesus. He was a Pharisee who saw Christ as the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and as the agent through whom the salvation of all could be achieved. Whereas traditional Judaism traced identity via bloodlines, Paul believed that Jesus’ blood brought everyone to God via faith. It is often said that Paul was a blood atonement theologian; that is correct only if we remove any vestiges of Augustine, Anselm, and Luther. Augustine is responsible for our notion of original sin, specifically that it is passed through the sex act. Anselm used the ideals of feudalism to picture God as one owed a great debt by humanity, a debt that humans are unable to pay because of its vastness. According to Anselm, only God can pay it, but if humans have no role it will not be efficacious. Therefore, God becomes human in Jesus Christ and through his blood pays the debt owed by humans. Through faith in his resurrection, we humans can benefit from God’s grace in both this world and the next. Luther added notions that were perfected by the Puritans, evident in the near obsession that many Evangelicals have with sex, abortion, and the gayz.
In Ephesians, Paul presents himself as an apostle because of God’s will; this whole will thing is important to him. Remember, Paul had no claim to authority within the established Church. Unlike Peter, Paul did not know Jesus. Unlike James, Paul was not related to Jesus. Peter and James started as disciples–mathetai–essentially students who learned at the feet of the master. Apostle literally translates as “one sent out.” Apostles sow the seeds and then move on to the next town, shaking dust (the ancient world equivalent to flipping the bird) off their feet at those who do not offer hospitality. Paul talks about the will of God, perhaps because as a Pharisee he would believe that the age of the prophets ended in 400 BCE. Whatever the reason, Paul believes that God is moving people through Jesus Christ.
I am usually wary of and wearied by Paul, but in the selected passage for this week he sets forth some really important ideas. First, he offers a systematic theology for how the Abrahamic faith is open to non-Jews. Regrettably, this has terrible ramifications for the Jewish people, something we should not, but sadly must pass over now with lament. For me as a follower of Jesus, it is a transformational moment in history. Second, Paul cuts through legalism with a radical emphasis on faith; this is not to say that rules aren’t important, but the best of religion seems to emerge when we throw out what keeps people from meaningful relationships with God. Third, a meaningful relationship with God can only come about when we are in relationship with one another. Christ is the head of the Church, Paul says, and believers are the body. As Maria Portokolos says, “The man may be the head, but the woman, she is the neck.” Jesus as the head helps us to see clearly, to hear fully, to think compassionately. As the body, we must direct these thoughts and visions in the direction where Christ’s love is most needed.
Julius Caesar, for all his faults, believed in the community called Rome. And it cost him his life. Same thing with Jesus, although it should be perfectly clear who I bat for irl. But one cannot understand the kingdom of God unless one understands that it is a direct answer to the kingdom of Caesar. The tragedy is that so much of the American Church looks like it has Caesar sitting on the throne of Jesus. We who follow the gospel are the only ones who can change that, and the best place to start is with ourselves. Amen.
*This is the first entry in a five-week series.