Sermon on Ephesians 4.1-16 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

‘I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.’

Those who think that this letter to the Ephesians was actually written by St Paul will point to the beginning of that sentence and say that the mention of being a prisoner dates it towards the very end of his life, when just before his execution, under the Emperor Nero, the great apostle was a prisoner in Rome.

Those who are unsure that St Paul did write it will point to the length of the sentence and say that it is very strange that at the very end of his life the apostle suddenly became longwinded and, unlike in any of his earlier letters, started writing in very long sentences.

Make what you will of these sorts of arguments (there are many more, and more complicated ones); perhaps it doesn’t really matter. The traditional Christian understanding of Scripture – whether the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament – is that the writing is inspired. Much of it, including some of the greatest bits – most of the psalms and the Book of Job, for example – are anonymous. The wisdom and the truth reside in what is written, not in the identity of the author. This isn’t as alien to our more modern ways of thinking as we might sometimes think. Only in cinema are you likely to come across, ‘Tolstoy’s War and Peace’, or ‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’; usually, even if we care about the author, it is the creation that counts.

Holy Scripture is the work of many voices – many known, but many not. But we trust in it all being inspired – ‘God breathed’ – even if we can’t always say who is responsible for a particular bit. Bearing in mind its age, that isn’t at all surprising either!

There is one obvious exception though. Christians do put Jesus Christ at the centre. His life, example and teaching are seen as the most vital, in all senses of that word. Importantly, we see the entirety of His being as the heart of the matter.

Which brings me back to the letter to the Ephesians and the long sentence I began with. The more important question is not, ‘did St Paul write this?’ but ‘what wisdom does this contain about Jesus Christ and how can that inspire our lives?’

One of the reasons that many theologians have been divided as to whether St Paul actually wrote this letter concerns the way that it comes at themes which were central in Paul’s other letters, and which will be familiar to all of you, but gives them a twist. Once again you can see how that could be taken as St Paul, late in life, rethinking or reframing is earlier ideas, or as someone else taking those ideas and doing something slightly different with them.

Are we saved? Are we reconciled to God? By the faith we have in Jesus, or by what we do? That is the central question at the heart of the Reformation, which splintered the Church in Western Europe in the sixteenth century.

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians – who might have been St Paul – shifts the perspective slightly by flirting with the idea that it is God’s faithfulness which is decisive. He shifts the responsibility upwards, if you like, liberating the people he was writing to, and us, from a false dichotomy which has haunted the church to destruction and tortured those who fear they will be doomed, or at least deemed worthless, because they lack faith or are too flawed as human beings.

In this letter both faith and ethics are gifts initiated by a God who is, over and over again, described as kind and loving and, through Christ, the reconciler and bringer of peace. Seen in this light, the whole of this section of Ephesians can be seen as an inspiring summons to lead a Christ-guided love, shaped by that vision of a God, a loving parent.

‘I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.’

Our context might be very different from that of the letter’s original audience, but the letter still speaks eloquently of the difference being part of the church can make, but in a way which does not set us above, or condemn, those outside or beyond the walls. It is a very compelling and attractive vision of the beauty of a community modelled on a loving God and is well worth celebrating and seeking to embrace and nurture.

As the letter goes on, hopefully, you will notice that the peace that we share every Sunday echoes the vision expressed here for what it involves to be a Christian.

‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’

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