One notable feature of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians is its concern with power. The apostle writes about the power of earthly authorities, the power of Jesus Christ, the power of Christ within us and the power of "the wicked spiritual elements in heavenly places."
Ephesians is written in the most lavish language of any of Paul's letters. Sentences run on and on, an effusive prayer consumes much of the first part of the letter and the descriptions are rich and evocative.
Paul presents us with a most exalted view of Christ and the Church. Whereas in other letters, when Paul talks about the Church, he is usually referring to the local worship community, here he always talks about the universal Church, the mystical Body of Christ.
In other letters, especially Philippians and 2 Corinthians, he talks about redemption through weakness – the weakness of the suffering Christ and the weakness of the Church and its members. Here, there is little of that.
Gustav Dore's engraving depicts the riot of the Ephesian silversmiths (Acts 19) upset that their faith and their incomes were undermined by St. Paul's preaching of one God.
The letter to the Ephesians is being read at daily Mass this month, from Oct. 16 through the 30th. Now is a good time to go off for 20 minutes or so and read the letter to the Ephesians aloud in one sitting. Doing that will help you to appreciate the message of the letter and to feel the power of the language it uses.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is very concerned with power. Ephesus was a place of power during the first century – a centre of Roman imperial influence and a religious centre. It was here that the silversmiths who made idols, mainly of the Greek goddess Artemis, rioted because of Paul's teaching.
Likely the Christian community there – as in most places in those early years – felt itself to be tiny, inconsequential and powerless. The real power lay in the hands of the Roman authorities and the pagan gods.
But Paul inspires those Christians with a different message. He proclaims "the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe" (1:19). He proclaims that God raised Christ "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come" (1:21).
The Christians might feel themselves to be marginal players, but despite appearances there is more power in them through Baptism than there was in their former way of life. In that former way, they followed "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience" (2:2).
But now, St. Paul prays that God "will lay out all the riches of his glory to give you strength and power, through his Spirit, in your inner being" (3:16).
The Christian community appears weak. But in fact it is fighting a battle of cosmic importance.
It is a war "against the leaders, against the authorities, against the powers that rule the world in this dark time, against the wicked spiritual elements in the heavenly places" (6:12). This battle is fought by the Church – "a holy temple in the Lord," "a dwelling place of God in the Spirit," the spouse of Christ.
The Church must be united in order to fight this battle. "There is one body and one Spirit," Paul writes, "one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all" (4:4, 5-6).
Its members must avoid "unfruitful works of darkness" – everything from fornication to silly talk. They should "address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart" (5:19).
These Christian warriors wear a special type of armour. They gird their loins with truth, put on a breastplate of righteousness, wear shoes that are the Gospel of peace, hold up the shield of faith, wear the helmet of salvation and carry the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (6:13-17).
This is a different type of battle because it aims to build a different type of community. This battle will not be won overnight. But over time, with the aid of the Spirit, a different world will gently be nurtured.
Indeed, the plan of salvation encompasses more than this world. It is "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10).
The lavish language of Ephesians is appropriate. It points us toward something beautiful, a beautiful power that does not oppress but sets us free in our inner being. Through the battle and in the fullness of time, Christ's community will peacefully overthrow the powers of the world and "the powers of the air." We will gently be ushered into the realm of peace and truth and salvation.