Note: Scripture quotations in this article are from the NRSV.
Planning the Series
Ephesians illustrates both the density and exuberance of Paul’s theological vision. For these and other reasons, creating a six-week series on the letter can feel a bit daunting. Therefore, a month and a half before the series began we brainstormed one evening with anyone in the congregation interested in joining us. They arrived having read through the letter or at least the one-page summary we made available that outlined its movements and major themes.
Our goal was not merely a liturgy that quoted passages throughout the service. Instead we sought to find ways in which our worship embodied the message of Ephesians. It’s the difference between reciting the text and inhabiting the text. If the letter were ice cream, we would not settle for describing it; we would want to taste it.
Accomplishing this was a tall order. Before we discussed the various parts of the liturgy, we sought to ensure that each of the fifteen people gathered that evening felt free to offer any suggestion that came to mind. For that evening at least, we weren’t going to evaluate ideas, just generate them. After all, sometimes a half-baked idea can spark associations in the minds of others that lead to other ideas with a lot going for them.
Call to Worship/Processional
My colleague David Banga and our intern, Nick Baas, then sorted through the pages of newsprint filled with ideas generated that night. Our goal was neither to use all of them nor even to use as many as possible. Including something novel at every point in the service would serve only to make the congregation self-conscious, detracting from the object of our worship.
Instead we determined to focus on developing those parts of the service that best lent themselves to the letter’s message. The other parts of the liturgy would draw on themes if not specific text from Ephesians as well, but they would be conducted in ways familiar to the congregation.
Given the way the body of the letter opens—with those unwieldy sentences of unrestrained doxology—we decided that the service’s own opening ought to stand out. Following the prelude, we turned the first fifteen verses into a responsive reading which served as a Call to Worship (see p. 21). These verses are not so much a reading as a wave that sweeps us up and carries us to glory. Having two readers helped give the reading momentum and energy as well as highlight the repetitions within the text.
We wanted the response to these words to be festive. So in addition to breaking into song, we created what could either be called a low-church processional or high-church parade. We had about ten children gather at the back of the sanctuary with our pastors, the Scripture reader, and the person offering the intercessory prayer. As the congregation began to sing the first hymn, they processed in. The children waved colored ribbons and the worship leaders, wearing matching stoles, carried up the Bible, the bread, the pitcher, and the chalice and placed them in their respective places at the pulpit and table.
(see cover of this issue and p. 22)
With any liturgical installation, our goal is to create something that helps to give the words spoken and sung in worship a fuller hearing rather than trumpeting its own particular message. The triangular hangings of the installation simply represent the reality of the gospel breaking in. The bricks, on other hand, strive to simultaneously evoke the two architectural metaphors Paul utilizes in the letter’s second chapter. They are, first of all, intended to resemble ruins after a demolition. In this case, the ruins are the “dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile that the cross, which stands at the center, has broken down.
However, the glow of the candles within the brick structure suggests a secondary meaning. Christ is making the people once divided, says Paul, into one. He describes Christ as the cornerstone and the reconciled people as being built upon him to become “a holy temple in the Lord” (2:20-21). So in addition to evoking the ruins of the dividing wall, the lit candles in the bricks help to evoke a sense of sacred space, of a temple.
I receive emails with remarkable regularity from foreign widows on their deathbeds wanting to leave millions to me or our church. The similarity between the emails, rather than increasing my optimism that we’re going to meet budget, raises red flags. It’s a little too good to be true. However, lots of people have been taken for lots of money through scams like this. The reason: we tend to believe what we want to believe.
I imagine that for some people in Ephesus and Asia Minor, Paul’s letter raised red flags. It sounds too good to be true. Are they to think that the Israelites’ God has written them into the will?
But Paul has grounds for such a claim. What we have witnessed in Jesus Christ is not a God interested in merely protecting particular tribal interests but in redressing what threatens everything—corruption and death. “All things, things in heaven and things on earth,” writes the apostle, are gathered up into Christ and his victory.
This explains why Paul declares that the end of all this is “the praise of his glory.” This is not some obligation we meet in exchange for salvation. This is the inevitable response of those who discover the great mercy of God.
“And Can It Be That I Should Gain” CH 347, PsH 267, TH 455, WR 366
“How Firm a Foundation” CH 408, PH 361, PsH 500, TH 94, WR 411
Call to Worship
R = Reader, C = Congregation
R1: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
R2: who has blessed us
R1&2: in Christ
R1: with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
R2: just as he chose us
R1&2: in Christ
R2: before the foundation of the world
C: to be holy and blameless before him in love.
R1: He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
C: according to the good pleasure of his will,
R2: to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
R1&2: In him
R1: we have redemption through his blood,
R2: the forgiveness of our trespasses,
C: according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
R1: With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,
C: according to his good pleasure that he set forth
R1&2: in Christ
C: as a plan for the fullness of time,
R1: to gather up all things
R1&2: in him,
R2: things in heaven
R1: and things on earth.
R1&2: In Christ
R2: we have also obtained an inheritance
R1: having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things
C: according to his counsel and will,
R1: so that we,
R2: who were the first to set our hope on Christ,
R1: might live for the praise of his glory
R2: for the praise of his glory
C: for the praise of his glory
R1&2: in him.
R1: When you had heard the word of truth,
R2: the gospel of your salvation,
R1: and had believed
R1&2: in him,
R1: you also were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;
R2: this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people,
R1: to the praise of his glory
R2: to the praise of his glory
C: to the praise of his glory. Amen.
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 1:1-14
By Mark Roeda, from www.theopensourcebook.com, reprinted under creative commons license
Blessed be you, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for blessing us with every spiritual blessing, for adopting us and making us heirs of heaven’s abundance.
You know those parts of us that still believe we are left orphaned and unwanted. You know those parts of us that remain restless and anxious. You know the thoughts that give us sleepless nights. You know the desires that make our days frantic.
Forgive us these things.
Show us again your mercy. Show us again your Son.
May the mercy displayed in his death and resurrection make its way into every resistant part of us so that, in our lives, you might be praised. In Jesus’ name, amen.
In the second half of chapter 1, Paul declares that the same megaton power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him “above all rule and authority” has been made available to “those who believe.” This is not just some bit of information he’s passing along that we might find interesting. He prays that God will enlighten “the eyes of [our] heart” to this power.
Philosopher Peter Rollins tells a joke in which a man suffers from the delusion that he is not human but corn feed. He sees a therapist about the problem. After years of visits, the man is finally convinced of his humanity. Things remain uneventful until, months later, the man bursts into the therapist’s office, out of breath.
“What’s the matter?” asks the therapist.
“You’ve got to help me. Some new people have moved in next door, and they have chickens!”
“Wait a second. I thought you were cured.”
“Oh, I am. You know I’m not corn feed. I know I’m not corn feed. But do the chickens?”
To have “the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened” is to know this power in a way that has our inner chickens convinced. It doesn’t simply inform our thinking on the therapist’s couch but in our engagement with the world. When confronted by fear, resentment, and selfish desire, we learn to die to ourselves and trust in that power to bring about resurrection and new life.
“Be Thou My Vision” CH 562, PH 339, SWM 161, TH 642, WR 502
“May the Mind of Christ My Savior” CH 568, PsH 291, SFL 72, SWM 211, TWH 644, WR 464
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 1:15-23
God of power and might, we share Paul’s thanksgiving for the power you put to work in Christ when you raised him from the dead and seated him at your right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.
God of mercy and grace, we confess the ways in which we still take orders from those lesser rulers and authorities.
Forgive our willing enslavement to powers with no rightful claim on us. Forgive our submission to the status quo, the bottom line, the daily grind. Forgive the ways in which these false gods have shaped our imaginations and drained our spirits.
By your mercy and power, enlighten the eyes of our heart. Give us vision to see all things as under your rule. Resurrect courage and compassion in us that we might bear witness to your reign. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“How can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The lack of a satisfactory answer to this question has led some to abandon belief in God. Often overlooked, however, is the underlying hostility within the question. It implies that God should allow bad things to happen to some people. It presumes that there are those who deserve to lose their jobs to downsizing, their houses to fire, or their children to cystic fibrosis. And if they don’t deserve God’s love, they don’t deserve ours.
In other words, believing that this is how God operates requires us to erect “dividing walls of hostility.” We draw lines between us and them in ways that prove we deserve every good thing we receive and they deserve all the tragedy they endure.
Jesus throws out this whole conception of God. There is only one dividing line that matters—the whole of humanity stands on one side and God on the other. The story of the crucifixion is one in which everyone either allows or insists that bad things happen to the one good person. Rather than reinforcing this dividing line, however, Christ destroys it. Good things happen to bad people. Glorious things.
“O Praise the Gracious Power” PH 471, SNC 35
“In Christ There Is No East or West” CH 428, PH 440, PsH 540, WR 600, 603
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 2:11-22
Christ is our peace. He came proclaiming peace to those who are far off and those who are near.
This proclamation has reached our ears but we confess it has not settled into our hearts. Anxiety and fear haunt our frenzied days and our restless nights. We numb ourselves with mindless activities and shallow pleasures.
Forgive us, O Lord.
Christ is our peace. In his flesh, through his blood, he has taken those divided by hostility and made them one.
Forgive us for not seeking peace in Christ but in our divisions. We draw dividing lines between “us” and “them” and believe our salvation lies here, on this side of those lines.
Forgive us, O Lord.
Christ is our peace. Open us and fill us with this peace.
For your mercy we pray. Amen.
Nick Spencer, author of Darwin and God, demonstrates that being Christian in Victorian England amounted to much the same as being British. Darwin shared with his fellow Brits a high regard for good manners and rationality. But such things seemed increasingly at odds with what he observed in the natural world. If there was a God, the cruelty and death so pervasive in the struggle for survival suggested he was no gentleman.
According to Spencer, despite being a prolific journal keeper, Darwin never brings the cross to bear on his many reflections regarding religion and the natural world. That’s tragic. The cross, rather than obscuring the nature of nature, exposes it. As the mob chanting below Pilate’s balcony illustrates, when threatened, we will kill to survive. Yet that is not all that we see. The cross also demands we not reduce everything to survival of the fittest. After all, the one who hangs upon it gave up his life willingly. He demonstrates a commitment to something greater than survival, stronger than death. As a result, the cross not only exposes the nature of nature but also brings us into something greater—the vastness of glory and mercy.
Paul’s prayer is that what forms us is not the struggle to survive but “the breadth and length and height and depth” of that glory and mercy.
“O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” CH 352, TH 535, WR 398
“How Great Is Your Love” by Mark Altrogge, Integrity’s Praise! Music
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 3:14-20
Heavenly Father, Paul’s prayer for us is that we might know the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge.
Another week has passed and we wonder whether this knowledge was available to us and we missed it. Did we get so caught up in our busyness that we overlooked it? Were our own agendas like blinders to this greater reality? Did it even occur to us that such a love was open to us?
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Another week is about to begin. Already our calendars have begun to fill up. Just thinking about it causes our breathing to tighten. But in this moment we commit ourselves to share Paul’s desire. Make us alert and hopeful. May Christ dwell in our hearts through faith so that our lives might be rooted and grounded in love.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.
In Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler earnestly expresses to his wife April his intention to live in Paris and “really feel things.” But those plans keep getting delayed. Finally, disillusioned and a bit drunk, April confesses to her neighbor, “For years I thought we’ve shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don’t know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? So stupid. To put all your hopes in a promise that was never made.”
Paul declares that we are to become something “wonderful in the world.” We are to grow “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Unlike April, Paul knows exactly how—through our participation in and commitment to the church. Christ will supply gifts to people to perform various roles that will help to get us there—pastors, teachers, evangelists, and others.
This vision of the church is, to say the least, a bit at odds with the church we see throughout history and have personally experienced. Expecting the church to help us discover our fullest humanity may seem as “pathetic” and “stupid” as April’s expectations of Frank and their marriage.
I don’t think we can reconcile this vision of the church with the church as expressed over time and across the world. However, that’s not the challenge of this text. This text challenges us to reconcile this vision of the church with our particular church, the one whose community you are a part of. We do that by ensuring that our focus remains on Christ “who is the head,” utilizing our gifts, and “[bearing] with one another in love.”
“Friends in Faith” SNC 135
“The Church’s One Foundation” CH 410, PH 442, PsH 502, TH 347, WR 544
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 4:17-5:2
Lord God, Paul describes the life of sin as futile, like fumbling in the dark, like having a heart as hard and unfeeling as rock.
That is not the way we learned Christ. For surely we have heard about him and were taught in him. The truth is in Jesus.
We have been taught to put away our former self, to set it at the curb with the rest of the trash. We have been called to put on a new self, the self we were created for.
Forgive us, O Lord.
The old self hangs in our closet. We pull it out now and again and try to convince ourselves it still fits, it still works.
Forgive us, O Lord, when we flip off the light switch and choose to fumble in the dark, when we ignore that pain in our chest as we allow our hearts to harden.
Forgive us, O Lord.
Bring us into the light and truth. Restore to us a heart of flesh. Clothe us in forgiveness and grace, righteousness and holiness. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Let’s begin by recognizing that these verses “have a history.” Over the centuries men have, for example, quoted, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and left bruises. Tragically, men have used a passage that ultimately subverts imperial patriarchy—albeit subtly—to reinforce it. Among other things, it ignores the fact that in the preceding sentence, Paul unites us all in the task of “submitting” to the other—not as doormats but out of “reverence for Christ.”
Many have argued that Paul’s decision to instruct husbands to “love” rather than “submit” is an implicit endorsement of male headship. For the sake of argument, let’s allow that. What difference does it make in practical terms? In keeping with how Paul presents them, what does “Christ-revering submission” look like that “Christ-like love” does not, and vice versa? As Rev. Tim Keller points out, there is nothing here that justifies particular gender roles. Maybe the most we can say is that Paul presumes that men and women are different, and that being a husband differs from being a wife. How those differences get played out varies from marriage to marriage.
C.S. Lewis (as he is wont to do) offers a helpful metaphor. When dancing by oneself, one can move freely. When dancing with a partner, one must dance in response to another. One steps forward, the other back. Marriage is an ever-evolving dance with a partner in which one learns to move in response to the movements of the other.
“Spirit of the Living God” PH 424, WR 492
“Lord, Make Us Servants” PH 374, SNC 204
Prayer of Confession Based on Ephesians 5:21
Lord God, to Adam you declared that it was not good that he be alone. Neither Adam nor we, his descendants, live well when isolated.
We need one another.
Yet, O Lord, how to live with one another? It is our need for one another that makes it so difficult. We seek one another’s approval. We sulk over one another’s inattention. We stew over one another’s criticism. We withhold forgiveness for one another’s failures.
It is not good for us to be alone, but, at times, it seems we will have it no other way.
Through your abundant mercy, fill us to overflowing with the love that unites us with Christ so that we might submit ourselves to one another out of reverence for him. Grant that we might love others as he loved us. In Jesus’ name, amen.