Pentecost 9B: The Surpassing Beauty of Us

The readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       2 Kings 4:42–44

Psalm                    Psalm 145:10–18

New Testament      Ephesians 3:14–21

Gospel                   John 6:1–21

My focus in these reflections is on the prayer contained in the reading from Ephesians.

The greatest tragedy of our time is that, nationally and globally, we have failed to think in terms of “us.” If we had been pulling together for the past 40 or so years that we have known of the destructive force of climate change, we would have lived less wastefully and saved the lives of millions of people and billions of animals. If we had pulled together for the past two years, we would be done with the pandemic and laughing in each other’s arms without endangering risk, and there would be no delta variant.

We have failed those tests. But there is hope that we can turn things around. In their book, The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney amply document how the United States recovered from the downward spiral of selfishness and the destruction of community spawned by the robber baron days of the late nineteenth century to enjoy the great benefits of the days of the “Greatest Generation,” the winning of a war, the overcoming of the Great Depression, the defeat of polio, and many, many other benefits. Since the late 1960s we have gone in reverse as liberals have “turned on” to drugs and self indulgence, and conservatives have championed free enterprise and personal freedom at the expense of all else. But all we have to do is rediscover and rededicate ourselves to more “us” and less “me” in our lifestyles and public policies. Do this and we will thrive.

How we get from the seeming default human mode of “me,” to the sublime of “us,” is the subject of the prayer of Ephesians. Be it the apostle Paul himself, or someone a generation or two later who ministers to the believers of the urban centers of western Asia Minor, the prayer he has for believers is heartfelt. He gets down on his knees.

The first thing he emphasizes is that he or she is praying to the Pater of all the patria as it says in Greek. That is, this God the author addresses, is the Father of all fatherlands. Later he will invoke glory to “all generations,” which again draws our attention to the universal. All gens – all kinship groups of all generations of kinship groups forever.

Again, the prayer uses the plural all the way through. You all may be strengthened as Christ is dwelling in you all, etc.

The author uses a vocabulary of words and concepts from both the very particular tradition of Judaism, and those of Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. “Whether we are Jews or gentiles, we all have one common aim in life—to find our true meaning and purpose.” So the author prays that the Christians of Roman Asia might find power and strength with the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwelling within them. He prays that they might come to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” These are words used by Stoic philosophers—the wisest men of the times—and also by magical texts and esoteric Gnostic Christians. In other words, all sorts of people used the same language for their quest for ultimate meaning and fulfillment.

And then the author says all of this fulfillment is in knowing the love of Christ. In fact, all of Ephesians overflows with love language. Love is what God is all about (see 1:4–6; 2:4; 5:2, 25; 6:23); and when Christ dwells in us in the church, it binds each individual with all others (1:15; 5:28; 6:24).

The prayer ends with a doxology—a yearning for glory “in the church and in Christ Jesus (3:21).” Ephesians doesn’t see Christ and the church as separate things. They have permeated each other to form a new thing. Christ is in us and so Christ’s love is in us. If we miss this point the Book of Ephesians, and indeed the entire Bible is distorted. Christ becomes a new victor—a new Lord—in a triumphalistic way. We can think then that we Christians have the answers and everyone else is wrong. We are here to save the world, but what the world is here for we haven’t the foggiest idea. That sort of “us vs. them thinking lingers on in passages such as 4:17–22; 5:5–8, 11–12. But this prayer makes it clear: it is the “love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge,” and fills us with the fullness of God.

We as a nation and as a world have, so far, miserably failed the tests of climate change and pandemic. But we can get back on the right track when “us” becomes more than “me.” Keeping individual rights and liberties dear, but thinking more and more of the common good—thinking more and more of love—will save us.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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