by Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is his great letter to the Church, and hence to all of us. It does not appear to be a response to problems that Paul felt a need to correct. Some scholars consider it to be a theological treatise covering certain themes of theology that Paul felt were important. Some hold that this may have been a text for the newly baptized members of the community. Whatever his purpose may have been, Paul gives a wonderful view of the Christian mystery and its impact on the believers’ lives. Its vision is essential in allowing Paul’s teaching to change our lives.
A. Ephesians 1:3-14
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. 5 He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 which he lavished upon us. 9 For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians starts off with a hymn about the preeminence of Jesus Christ. As do many of the Psalms and the Benedictus of St. Zechariah (Luke 1:68), it begins by proclaiming God as blessed. The reason God is so obviously blessed is that he has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing — which is the preeminence of Christ.
Among these blessings is our transformation into God’s children. Another is our redemption, which is the forgiveness of sins. However, as is always true of Paul, this redemption comes through the shedding of Christ’s blood, a free gift which was bestowed only at the high cost of Jesus’ death on the Cross.
While this mystery of God’s will was made known in wisdom and insight, it is received by those who hear the word of truth — which is this gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ — and believe in it, and are sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Information: Being “sealed with the Holy Spirit” refers to the effect of the Holy Spirit on the soul when it is received in Baptism and Confirmation.
B. Ephesians 2:13-22
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
This section of Ephesians addresses the hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles are those who were far off, divided from Jews by a “dividing wall of hostility.” Mere human efforts could not overcome the differences which separated Jews and Gentiles on strong, irreconcilable religious principles. However, Jesus’ death on the Cross, when he shed his blood and died in the flesh, was able to abolish the “law of commandments and ordinances.” This law kept Jews from certain forms of association with Gentiles and led them to consider Gentiles as morally and spiritually inferior. On the other hand, Gentiles could easily consider Jews to be disloyal to the government, because they would not take part in the local military (the soldiers had to pay homage to pagan deities) or government (Jews were exempt from taxes that supported not only the government but the local temples).
Paul’s point is that Jesus Christ is the one capable of breaking down these barriers by shedding his blood and dying on the Cross. His death on the Cross put salvation on a completely different basis than either Judaism or paganism. The Law was abolished by his death; faith in him, not the Law, unites sinners to him. Diverse peoples with irreconcilable religions could be reconciled with God, and thereby end their hostility. In fact, through the Cross they are brought into one body, the Church. In the context of that reconciliation, Christ could evangelize (the Greek word translated as “preach” is the verb “evangelize”) both to the Gentiles, who were far away, and to the Jews, who were closer (2:17).
Information: Another aspect of 2:16-17 connects Christ’s death on the cross with Jewish ideas of sacrifice. The word Qorban, a common Jewish term for a sacrifice which Jesus mentions in Mark 7:11, comes from the root meaning “bring near.” A sacrifice is something which the human brings near to the altar and it is something by which a human is drawn nearer to God. The claim that Christ’s Cross and preaching brings the Gentiles “near” may well be an underlying idea in Paul’s mind.
This was even possible because the reconciliation he effected between God and sinful humanity gave the converted believers access to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christ’s death effected an interpersonal communion with God, who, as the Trinity revealed by Jesus Christ, is also interpersonal at the same time he is one God.
This reconciliation makes Christians into members of a single household of God. This house has the prophets and apostles as its foundation, and Jesus Christ as its cornerstone (2:20). This household is a temple in which God, the only true God, dwells and is adored. This image of the temple also brings out the importance of communion with God, since the temple was the place to meet God.
Information: The image of this spiritual temple is connected with the Temple in Jerusalem. The temple itself was built on top of a hill, the “Temple Mount.” When Herod the Great began rebuilding the temple around 19 B.C., he first constructed an outer retaining wall around the hill, thereby squaring it off. This is the modern “Wailing Wall,” or “Western Wall,” as Jews prefer to call it. The foundations of this wall are precisely cut ashlar-style blocks, weighing twenty to sixty tons each. These would be a symbol of the prophets and the apostles. In the center of the wall are two enormous blocks, weighing about 450 tons. Herod had them placed there to absorb the shock of the periodic earthquakes in the region. They saved the wall from collapse many times — the way Jesus Christ, the “keystone,” keeps the Church from collapsing.
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