Continuing the Catholic Bible Study of the book of Ephesians
Chapter 3 of Ephesians strikes me as the high point from which the final chapters flow back into daily life – a less lofty place. I feel a kinship with St. Paul, who seems to find himself transported up into contemplative rapture, try as he might to take slow, careful steps up the mountain, leading his flock. (See the links at the end for all the steps we’ve taken so far up to this peak.)
St. Paul opens with a reminder of his sufferings – not a guilt trip, but the truth that he has paid dearly for the privilege of serving the Church. It’s a free gift that invites us to gratitude and reciprocity, like Christ’s own self-donation. He is the steward of God’s graces given him in revelation and dispensed through the Church in the exercise of his priestly office. Note the Church’s inclusion of Ephesians 2-3 on Epiphany Sunday, which links St. Paul’s Damascus Road encounter with Christ to the Magi’s first glimpse of Christ – both indications of God’s gift through the Jews to the whole world.
Referring to the mystery entrusted to the apostles, the Catechism – in a section sub-titled, “Why the liturgy?” – cites Ephesians 3:4 to connect the terms “plan,” “mystery of the Father’s will,” “plan of the mystery,” “economy of salvation,” “work of redemption,” and “Paschal mystery”. (See CCC 1066-1067) Sacrosanctum Concilium (about the importance of the liturgy) is cited in CCC 1067:
For it is in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, that “the work of our redemption is accomplished,” and it is through the liturgy especially that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others they mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. (SC 2)
God’s plan [See God's Plan for Your Life for more on this] is accomplished in such a different way from the plans of man! He accomplishes it himself, and gives access to it through His own suffering. He establishes an economy of participation and gift where man could conceive only economies of barter and bondage. He manifests and transmits the message, “I did it!” through His people. They – we – are burdened not with difficult duty, but with the impossible-to-discharge obligation of fully receiving and giving away the vast riches of Christ.
At the center of this upside-down, inside-out new economy of grace is the Church. “Through the liturgy Christ…continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.” (CCC 1069) The liturgy manifests the Church as “the visible sign of the communion in Christ between God and men.” (CCC 1071) This making visible of the mysterious work of God – heretofore operating ‘beneath the surface,’ in a veiled, or hidden way (Eph. 3:5, 3:9) – is the work, the leitourgos, of the Church, where “the priestly office of Jesus Christ” is exercised so that “full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.” (CCC 1070, citing SC 7). The ‘mystery’ is, in fact, that which a ‘sacrament’ makes known (CCC 774).
To whom is this resurrection power being made known? To the Gentiles, fellow heirs of the kingdom (Eph. 3:6); to us who, like Paul’s listeners, need continual strengthening of our faith; and to the very “principalities and powers” who thought their work was being accomplished while God sat twiddling His thumbs! (Eph. 3:10) Surprise – one of the things I love about God!
Recall The Plan (See You, to the Third Power for more on this): to unite all things to himself (Eph. 1:10). This wasn’t a post-sin fallback plan, but was God’s “eternal purpose, which he has realized in Christ.” (Eph. 3:11) It had begun to be fulfilled – God’s I AM fulfilled in Christ’s “and I AM” – before the beginning of time, or the creation of angels and man. Only the blind would imagine they could derail it – blind such as fallen angels and sinful man. Chapter 3 is really about making the blind see that the kingdom of God has come in the Lord Jesus Christ, who remains in His Church as visible proof of His victory over sin and death.
No wonder St. Paul next bows his knees before the Father in awe of the unsearchable, unspeakable reality God has taught him to proclaim! (Eph. 3:14) “Filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being love,” as expressed in the Lord’s Prayer (CCC 2778) have given him the “boldness and confidence of access to God through faith.” (Eph. 3:12) St. Paul is, having bowed in prayer, now immersed in prayer for us. The intensity of his experience of God’s strengthening of his “inner being with power through His Spirit” (CCC 2714) is placed into words transmitting (re-gifting!) that strength to each of us.
This letter was written to those who might transmit the gospel to Gentiles, and models an effective approach to this audience. St. Paul explains that the Church, far from being an exclusive new club, or a personality cult, is the manifestation of a power, a Person, who has broken through the power of sin and death to give believers new life, new hope. These Gentiles lived in a world of despair, where sin and death held sway, as so many do in our times. Next, he demonstrates that the Church is a resounding message to their captors (they lived in a world infested with “principalities and powers” known to be supernatural) that the chains were broken and the door was open to God’s treasury of wisdom, love, grace and power to be free. Amen!
Finally, (here comes the ‘third dimension’) St. Paul leads them up to that completely impossible possibility of being reborn as members of the heavenly family. More than rescue, more than release, he yearns for them to grow so “rooted and grounded in the love God offers to the entire human family (Eph. 3:15) that they become powerful themselves – not as new oppressors, but as Lovers, like Christ – able to overflow with that love into the hurting world.
The last few lines of his prayer seem to raise him up in to the heavenly realms, where praise of God just sings forth from all who surround His throne. My own heart soars on every reading of this passage, so I will simply close with it here to share that experience with you now. I am praying, with St. Paul:
…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Eph. 3: 16-20)
God bless you as we approach the Paschal mystery together, again, through the Church. After Easter (Don’t miss it: April 16, 2017!) I’ll continue with Ephesians, Chapter 4, in Condescending Love.