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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2004 Eden Grace

Study on Ephesians 1:15-23

WCC Central Committee
Geneva, Switzerland
August 28, 2002

Ephesians 1:15-23

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 its portion."
— 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.

Closing prayer

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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