All Saints Margaret Street | Sunday after Ascension Day – Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 May 2016

Sermon for Sunday after Ascension Day – Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 May 2016

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses 

Readings: Psalm 68.1-19; Isaiah44,1-8; Ephesians 4.7-16

The Letter to the Ephesians provides the epistle at Mass on Ascension Day but being sandwiched between the great storyteller Luke’s two accounts of the Ascension in Acts and the Gospel, it tends to slip by un-noticed.  So having another extract from it this evening, gives us an opportunity to pay it more attention to a letter which has had great influence on Christian theology, spirituality and worship.  Its vision of the Church universal and unity among Christians had given it fresh appeal in a more ecumenical age.  

Its contents can be divided into two main sections:

the first, (Chapters 1-3) is mostly doctrinal;

the second (Chapters 4-6) is exhortation and practical application.

There have long been questions about its authorship.  The address to Ephesus seems to have been added later, during the process of putting together the canon of the New Testament; so we we don’t know which church it was addressed to. Given its preference for referring to the whole Church rather than local ones, it may have been intended for a wider audience. 

In the 16th century, Erasmus, noting that the style of Ephesians is quite different from that of Paul’s other letters, suggested it might be by another author.  At present, about 80% of critical scholars believe that someone else, a disciple of Paul perhaps, was the author. (Adopting the name of a great man when writing was not regarded as improper in those days.)  The author may not have been Paul, bit has has been called the apostle’s supreme interpreter, his best disciple.

The Letter’s theme is God’s eternal purpose in establishing and bringing to completion the universal Church of Jesus Christ.

Though drawn from various backgrounds and nationalities, the members of this community have been called by God the Father, redeemed and forgiven through his Son, and incorporated into a fellowship that is sealed and directed by the divine indwelling Spirit.

By developing figures of the Church as the body of Christ, the building or temple of God, and the bride of Christ, it suggests the privilege and destiny of believers as well as their duties.

Our passage this evening, which rather freely adapts Psalm 68, contrasts Christ’s ascent far above all the heavens that he might fill all things, with his descent into the lowest depths; encompassing the whole cosmos, its height and depth. The Psalm speaks of the triumphant ascent of a king who receives gifts in tribute, but Ephesians redefines kingship and speaks of Christ bestowing gifts. 

Since Christ captured captivity on the cross, “he ascended” does not mean just what it says literally; it also means “he descended”, for his lifting up on high was at the same time his reaching down into the depths of suffering and death.  There is a clear echo here of St. John’s Gospel where Christ is lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.

The letter then goes on to speak of Christ filling the whole Church with gifts and powers:  The gifts that he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…

The crucified and exalted one is the source of the gifts of ministry.  Over the period the New Testament was written, there was a fluidity and development in the forms of ministry in the Church; an adaptation to new circumstances.  This does not mean that the Church’s ministry is simply a human invention; one with which we can dispense, but it does warn us against an ecclesiastical fundamentalism where forms of ministry are concerned.

In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks first of apostles and prophets, seen as the founding fathers of the first generation.  Teachers come next in the list, but in Ephesians they come later, after two new terms, evangelists and pastors.  These titles for church leaders are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, when we think of how widely they have been used since.  

Evangelist only occurs elsewhere in Acts 21.8 of Philip and in 2 Tim. 4.5 of Timothy, and it is not clear in either case that it means a specific office rather than a function.  The use of the term to designate a gospel writer or liturgical deacon only comes later..

Pastor or shepherd occurs only here in the New Testament as the title of an order of ministry, though related pastoral language, speaking of care and nurture of the faith in a local congregation, is found in Acts (20.28),1 Peter (5.1-4), and John (21.16.)  

The distinction between itinerant and resident church leaders, which seems to lie behind the terms apostle and prophet for the first generation, is maintained in the distinction between evangelist and pastor in the second:

  • evangelists are the missionary successors of the apostles,
  • just as pastors and teachers are the local successors of the prophets.

By the time of Ephesians, as we see in the Pastoral Epistles and in early Christian documents like 1 Clement and the letters of St. Ignatius,  other titles for local church leaders familiar to us: bishop/presbyter and deacon were becoming established. 

Teachers.  Paul only uses this title in 1 Corinthians.  In Acts (13.1) prophets and teachers are the titles of the leaders in Antioch, including Saul.  Teaching is also described as one of the chief functions of bishops or elders in the Pastoral Epistles.  It remains in ordinals today as one of the duties of a bishop and a priest.

It is unclear whether teachers are a separate category or should be taken closely with pastors.  The some to be formula is missing with this last item on the list, but it may have been dropped as an unnecessary and tedious repetition.

Then we hear why these ministries are given:

To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

The various types of leaders have been granted, not to enhance their own prestige or power, but to equip, serve and build up the whole community or, possibly, to equip the whole community to serve, and build itself up as Christ’s body).

The latter way of translating, rather than treating as separate and equal the three elements:

  • equip the saints,
  • the work of ministry
  • building up the body of Christ’s

merges the first two into one, so that it is then the whole community which is to do the work of ministry. The two understandings are not mutually exclusive, although the motivation of some who support this view was to distance Ephesians from what is seen as the institutionalized clericalism of a Deutero-Pauline ‘early catholicism.’

Until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  This is the ultimate goal of all ministry: the attainment of unity. 

This is not just an unformed unity of spirit but a doctrinal and organizational one. Had some particular disunity provoked this emphasis?  The following verse refers to deviant beliefs; although we can only guess at what they were.

The ministry of the Church is given because attaining unity in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God implies the need for progress in understanding and not simply holding fast to the tradition received.  So Ephesians may be an attempt to reconcile the traditions of an Asian Gentile Christianity which esteemed Paul and the teaching of a Jewish Christian community which revered John.    Unity, faith, knowledge and the Son of God are themes which dominate John’s Gospel and epistles and are also important for Paul.

With unity comes maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. In him is found the perfect humanity, the fulfillment of our human nature; the reversal of the fall of Adam.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and from and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.

Christ’s gift of ministries in the Church is intended to enable Christians to achieve a mature faith measured by the full stature of Christ himself.  This verse underlines that purpose by contrasting it with the opposites, the immaturity of infants, the bewildering variety of views, whether Christian or others, by which people are blown about, and various forms of deceit,  those who use the gospel as a money-making device with promises of prosperity and not unknown in our day either)

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Speaking the truth in love has been misused sometime by those who set themselves up as authorities – often in Christian groups which reject or have a low opinion of the ordered structures of church life – who would deny any hotline between God and popes or bishops, – to impose their own infallible views on others, especially those they see as deviant or not up to the mark.  Supposedly non-hierarchical churches are often those most vulnerable to clerical autocracy on the part of charismatic leaders, because they lack checks and balances.

But the truth to be spoken is that of Jesus Christ and it must always be spoken in love.

Now, let us end with some of Ephesian’s liturgical language:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do abundantly more than we can either ask or imagine, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.