Study on Ephesians 1:15-23
WCC Central Committee
August 28, 2002
Therefore, after hearing of the faithfulness shown among you to
the Lord Jesus and of the love toward all the saints, I, for my
part, never cease to give thanks for you. When mentioning you in
my prayers, I ask that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious
Father, give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you
may know him. I ask that he illumine the eyes of your hearts so
that you may become aware of the hope to which he is calling you,
what glorious riches are to be inherited among the saints, and how
exceedingly great is his power over us believers. For that mighty
strength is at work which God has exerted in the Messiah when He
has raised him from the dead. He has enthroned him at his right
hand in the heavens above every government and authority, power
and dominion and any title bestowed, not only in this age but also
in the age to come. He put everything under his feet and appointed
him, the head over all, to be head of the church. She is his body,
full of him who fills all things totally.
translation by Markus Barth, Anchor Bible Commentary
I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this passage
with you this morning. It’s a complex passage, full of big
ideas phrased in difficult grammar. I’m not going to give
you a scholarly exegesis. Rather, I’m going to reflect on
three themes which emerged for me as I’ve been praying with
this passage for the last few months. I want to talk about Christ’s
power over all other powers, about the prayer that God illumine
the eyes of our hearts, and about the comprehensiveness of the vision
which is revealed when we become aware of the hope to which God
is calling us.
Christ’s power above all other power
The first theme I want to speak about is God’s power, as
revealed through Christ’s resurrection. The passage contains
quite an impressive array of words about God’s power. Verse
19 alone contains four different Greek words for power, combined
with amplifying words like “greatness” and “overwhelming”.
Verse 20 evokes the Hebrew Bible imagery of “the right hand
of God”, an expression of God’s ability to accomplish
mighty deeds on earth. Rather than trying to separate these tightly
packed references apart, the message here seems to be about the
comprehensiveness and fullness of God’s power. The author
piles on words because ultimately words are inadequate.
The resurrection message is that God is still in power, even when
it seems like the powers and principalities of this world are gaining
in strength. The passage doesn’t say that those other dominions
and authorities don’t exist. But God’s power, poured
out through Christ in the resurrection, is above all these things.
There is no other power we need fear. Nothing in all creation can
separate us from the love of God.
It’s fairly easy to claim that God’s power is above
all destructive powers and authorities. But that isn’t the
only thing the passage says. It reminds us that Christ reigns over
every government and authority, power and dominion and any title
bestowed. This includes those powers and authorities which seek
good in the world. This includes even the church and all the authorities
and titles which have accumulated in the church. When we come before
the cross, we realize that these things have no power of their own.
Even the forces of good in this world are only good when they live
not for themselves but for Christ. Even our own Christian efforts
for faithfulness and righteousness only work for God’s kingdom
when we give over our own wills and our own desire for power, and
know finally that all power is God’s. There is a very favorite
Quaker quote which expresses this well. It talks, not about giving
up the will to sin, but of giving up the will to righteousness,
in order to find the source of true righteousness, which lies outside
our own will.
"Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running,
give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down
to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee
and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt
find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and
owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is
— Isaac Pennington, 1661
In the World Council, we like to think of ourselves as a powerful
organization, able to do many good works in the world. Many of us
come here as representatives of our churches because we hold positions
of power in the church. We are tempted to think we do all this with
our own strength, our own wisdom, our own power. But we don’t.
God’s power is above all pretentions of power, and our responsibility
is to discern what God is already doing and to pray to be used by
God. Christ reigns over the church and the world. The church must
not act in the world “in his name”, as if it is a proxy
for his power. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, "We have
this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this
extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."
Illumine the eyes of the heart
The second theme of the passage has to do with this work of discerning
the movement of God’s power in the world. How do we know that
God’s power reigns, over all other powers and authorities
in the church and the world? We don’t often see this with
our rational mind. There’s so much evidence to the contrary.
But when we see with the mind of Christ, we begin to glimpse a deeper
truth than the world’s truth. Paul prays in this passage that
God will illumine the eyes of our hearts. To me, this is the crux
of the passage, the center of Paul’s prayer for the church.
Illumine the eyes of the heart. This is perhaps analogous to the
circumcision of the heart in Romans 2:29. It is not really about
a physical experience, about literal eyes, but using body imagery
to express something which goes beyond the body, but which certainly
includes the body. Like the psalmist who says that all creation
has a new smell, we may indeed see with new eyes.
The eyes of the heart — I see this as a poetic way of describing
our God-given, created connection to God through the Light of Christ,
the image of God in humanity. The eyes of the heart, when illumined
by the Holy Spirit, can become the eyes of Christ. To discern the
mind of Christ is to see with eyes which see the whole, not with
our own fragmented vision.
What do we see? “the hope to which he is calling you”,
hope for all creation, the hope of unity and reconciliation which
is the essence of the gospel. We see the role of the church in God’s
plan, and know that we are called to participate in the hope of
creation. Our faith is not for our own benefit, but that we might
participate with God in the hope of the world.
To understand the significance of Christ’s reign, we must
be filled with his light, en-light-ened by his light. We stand under
his power in order to understand. This is the work of the Holy Spirit,
not our own work. We recognize moments of unique perspective, in
which we see beyond ourselves and are aware of God’s view.
For me, the Special Commission process was marked by these moments.
To be sure, it was also marked by moments of discouragement. But
as the Commission labored together over three years, I felt that
we glimpsed the mind of Christ; we began to see with the eyes of
our hearts illumined by Christ’s self-giving love. We began
to be more concerned with the wellbeing of the “other side”
than with promoting our own position. Perhaps the most poignant
moment of all for me was a comment made to me at the very end of
the final Special Commission meeting. This Orthodox man said to
me “I feel I am not the same as I was three years ago when
we started. I have changed in a very positive way. I am no longer
so certain of my own position. This is a good thing.” He was
not saying to me that he was confused in his own faith, uncertain
of his own experience. He was saying that he had caught a glimpse
of the mind of Christ, and seen that the faith and experience of
those who are different from himself are just as precious as his
own. He had seen through illumined eyes of the heart, and knew the
fruits of that vision.
Comprehensiveness of the vision
So what are the characteristics of that vision, of the glimpses
we get when we see through illumined eyes of the heart? The most
fundamental characteristic which I see in this passage is the comprehensiveness
of the vision. “Full of him who fills all things totally.”
The concept of fullness at the end of the passage is hard to translate
into grammatical sense. Like the use of “power” earlier,
there is the sense of heaping on words, to try to express in words
what is really inexpressible. Our tendency is to conceive of Christ
in too narrow terms. This passage pushes us to broaden our faith
beyond that which we can know by human means. For that reason, this
passage is read in some leccionaries on Ascension Day.
I spent this summer in Kenya, visiting Kenyan Quakers. There, I
heard from youth their vision for a holistic Christian message of
evangelism and social justice together. “Love and faithfulness
meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” There
is emerging a comprehensive vision of the deepest yearnings of God
for the world and therefore the comprehensive concerns of the church.
There is a new understanding of power in the church, as servant
leadership. This passage echoes what I heard in Kenya by pointing
us toward the comprehensiveness of God’s power over all, holding
all our disparate hopes in a single vision of hope for the world.
The body of Christ imagery is expansive, beyond whatever definition
of the church might spring from our own experience of the church.
The passage emphasizes the comprehensiveness of it all. It can only
be grasped by illumined eyes. As a form of Pentecost, such enlightenment
is a collective experience, not an individual one. We need each
other, in order to approach the light and mind of Christ. Today
we will be engaging with the Program Committee report. As we do
so, let us remember that Christ’s power is above even our
power in the World Council of Churches. Let us pray for God to illumine
the eyes of our hearts, that we can see ourselves and the world
through the eyes of the Risen One who sees and knows and loves and
redeems all in a universal hope.
Lord, I, like Paul, pray for the church, that you would send us
your Spirit. Illumine the eyes of our hearts, so that we might be
ever more aware of the hope to which you are calling us. We are
grateful that your vision is not limited, as ours is, and that you
empower us to see through your eyes, with your fullness and power,
and thereby to be your faithful servants. Make our hearts humble
and contrite. Let us not confuse our pretensions of power and authority
with your true power, which is over all, pouring out for the sake
of all. Mould us to your will and make us willing instruments of
your comprehensive plan for all creation. Today, as we discern your
particular will for this moment in the life of the World Council
of Churches, make us mindful of our limitations and open to the
perspectives and experiences of others, so that together we might
approach your holy mind and faithfully perceive your gracious invitation
to the kingdom today.
© 2002 Eden Grace
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