Love Alone is Credible

Vincent-Van-Gogh-Paintings-Undergrowth-with-Two-Figures

My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;  for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.

(Song of Songs 2:10-13; 8:6-7)

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. Kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we are created, and you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.

 

Our first reading is from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is an anthology of originally separate love poems.1 Together they form an unabashed celebration of passionate, intimate, and sensual love. This love fills one with ecstasy in its presence and heartbroken longing in its absence (Song 2:5; 5:8). The innocence and directness with which this love is expressed and experienced harkens to the idyllic early descriptions of the Garden of Eden, in which our forebears lived naked and unashamed, enjoying unfettered delight in sharing their sexuality and their very selves with one another. It stands as a par excellence depiction, merely by analogy of course, of the kind of open, warm, affirming, emotional, embracing, self-giving, liberating and creative love we are meant to share with others, with the entire creation, and even with God. Yet this experience of love, whether with a spouse, friends, family, or God, can often seem as elusive as the Garden of Eden itself. Studies suggest that the opposite experience, that of loneliness, is growing in America. Today about 20% of adults say they only have one person in their life with whom they can talk about personal concerns, while 25% say they have none.2  The social media trend, with all of its bane and blessing, attests to our innate hunger for connection, and possibly the way it continues to allude many of us. And even in the Church, where people intuitively sense it should be a place of love, often find emotional distance, harshness, rigidity, judgment, and rejection.

Our reading is excerpts from two of the poems in the Song of Songs.

The Lover calls to the Beloved, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” With eagerness and excitement, the invitation to share the passion of love is given. This enthusiasm is connected with a change in the seasons. “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone.” The harshness, cold, and rigor of winter is giving way to the tender warmth of spring. The sun is shining. Flowers are blossoming. Birds are singing. Fruit is bursting from the trees. Earth and air swell with color, light, fragrance, and sound—breathtaking beauty strangely forgotten in winter’s night. The world is changing, almost magically. Death is replaced by life; barrenness gives way to fertility; stagnancy overtaken by freshness; rigidity with grace, apathy by vigor; withering with flourishing, blossoming, growing, living, thriving—gradually, slowly, but in a way that suddenly overtakes you when it arrives. The invitation to love comes with the invitation to participate in the rebirth of everything living, to join in the song of the springtime of all creation.

As the beloved is invited to a sexual awakening, and as sexuality is a core aspect of being human, she is invited to awaken to the fullness of her aliveness. Like “the fair beauty of the earth, From the death of the winter arising,”3 she is beckoned from a flat-lined life of fear and apathy, so characteristic of our modern age, to the sometimes frightful experience of passionate emotions, enveloping feelings, vigorous energy vibrating through her body. Not merely a rigid, predictable, and mechanical show of so-called feeling, but the spontaneous warmth and fire of love radiating out from one’s core through the entire being. To love in this free and fully-alive way is to be truly human and is to recapture some of what we lost in our departure from the Garden of Eden.

This love, the love that banishes the coldness of winter, that brings with itself the rebirth and reawakening of life itself, is among the most powerful forces on earth. This love is as strong as death. In the way that nothing can stop the inevitability of death, so love has an irresistible and unshakable character to it. It is as tenacious as the grave. The force and energy of love is like a raging flame. This fire of passion has an intensity that cannot be quenched by even the strongest of flood waters. The love that makes the creation new takes over one’s entire being with a force beyond reckoning.

And because this love fills the heart of the Beloved, she asks the Lover: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” Seals in the ancient world were cast metal or carved stone that had a marking unique to the owner which would be pressed into soft clay or wax as a form of signature. These seals were often worn as rings, as an amulet on the arm, or around the neck on a cord. She asks to be the seal that hangs on his neck and rests on his heart, to be the seal on his arm, or finger. Because she has this heart-filling, life-enriching love for him, nothing would thrill her heart more than for this affection to be reciprocated—that thoughts of her would be continually on his heart, that thoughts of her would be like a signet ring–with him whatever task he sets his hand to. and with this kind of mutuality of love, no floods, no trial or difficulty could quench this flame.

Our second text is from the third chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. The context and setting is quite different. The sensual and erotic love of the Song of Songs gives way to the life of the Church together as a community of redemption. In this beautiful prayer, the author asks that the Church would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit and Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith.

That Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. Faith is both an important word for Christians and a challenging one for all members of the modern age. Since Descartes, doubt and even radical doubt has been a hallmark of Western culture. Whether from a scientific, anthropological, historical, or psychological perspective, it has become increasingly difficult for many people to believe the specific truth claims of Christianity. And if we are honest, sometimes belief is difficult for us as well. We, like the Psalmists, experience a profound ambiguity in our experience. Sometimes God’s absence is felt more keenly than God’s presence. Sometimes God’s inactivity is more apparent than God’s activity. Sometimes God’s detachment is more believable than God’s involvement. And sometimes we are at a total loss to understand and explain the broken shards of existence we perceive our lives to be. And the shrill clamor of Christian rhetoric, demanding a perfection and certainty of faith we fail to possess, and refusing to lend a sympathetic ear to our painful and conflicted experience, only serves to shame, alienate, and isolate us in a fearful retreat of either denial or despair.

The author of the letter to the Ephesians tells us that Christ dwells in the heart of the Christian community by faith, after having been rooted and grounded in love. The Greek text indicates that it is very likely we should understand this “rooting and grounding in love” to precede the indwelling of Christ by faith and that this “rooting and grounding” has ongoing effects. Literally it says, “That Christ would dwell in y’all’s hearts by faith, y’all having been and remaining rooted and grounded in love.” In other words, love precedes faith. And this love is not an individual experience. We are told that Christ will dwell in your (plural, all y’alls) hearts by faith. Furthermore, the verbs rooting and grounding are agricultural and architectural metaphors respectively. The church is pictured as a garden and a building, and particularly a building that will be filled with all the fullness of God. Earlier in chapter 2, the author makes clear this building is God’s temple itself. Love is the rooting and grounding of the Church—the garden-temple. This garden-temple is not unlike Israel’s temple which was full of agricultural imagery—lampstands that look like a grove of trees complete with carved buds, blossoms, and almonds; carvings of trees, flowers, gourds, and pomegranates adorning the walls—harkening back to the Garden of Eden itself, the first temple and dwelling of God’s presence.4 Love forms the roots and foundation of the garden-temple of the Church. And as a warm, open, self-giving love shapes the entire community’s life together, and as mutual affection graciously pervades the entirety of its shared existence, we become the temple where God is experienced in our midst. And we begin to taste a bit of the future restoration of all things, when God will make all things new, when the glory of the renewed earth surpasses even the glories of the Garden of Eden itself.

Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once said, “Love alone is credible…The Church’s formal authority, like Christ’s is ultimately credible only as the manifestation of the majestic glory of divine love.”5 The faith of the Church cannot be believed unless it is experienced and received initially and preeminently as love. Balthasar continues saying this love comes to humans “‘from outside…because love exists only between persons, a fact that every philosophy tends to forget. God, who is for us the Wholly-Other, appears only in the place of the other, in the ‘sacrament of our brother or sister.’”6 In an age when faith can seem increasingly difficult, we are reminded of the words of Jesus, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The Christian message becomes believable only as love. And perhaps this can function not only for “all people out there,” but also for  “all people in here”—for us.

Love alone is credible. Love alone has the ability to bestow faith. Love alone can be believed. Faith breathes its life in us through the “sacrament of our brother or sister” in the gracious and self-giving love we share.

In light of the ambiguities and complexities of our experience, in the midst of the pain of isolation, when we despair looking for any trace of God’s presence on a planet scorched with indifference, hatred, violence, and cruelty, experiencing the warmth and embrace of another person’s love awakens the ancient memory of a world that could be different than the one we see. Feeling the powerful aliveness of love bears in itself traces of that magic power which beckons “the fair beauty of the earth, from the death of the winter arising.” When the Christian community embodies this tender, affectionate, faithful, caring love, whether between spouses, friends, family, or strangers, we experience love’s sacramental power: faith and hope are kindled in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), and “whose voice calls into history from its end, saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new’, and from hearing this word of promise [we] acquire the freedom to renew life here and to change the face of the world.”7

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Originally the homily at the wedding of Christopher and Alie Fiorello

Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, “Undergrowth with Two Figures” (1890)

 


  1. Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 43-44. 

  2. Robin Marantz Henig, “The Science of Loneliness,” Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cusp/201408/the-science-loneliness. Retrieved on August 13, 2014. 

  3. From the hymn, “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609). Translated from Latin to English by Maurice F. Bell in The English Hymnal (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), number 624. 

  4. For more on the correspondence between the temple and the Garden of Eden see Gregory K. Beale. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004). 

  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 148. 

  6. Ibid, 150. 

  7. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 26. 

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Is John 6 about the Eucharist? (Why Greek Matters Part 18)

13_11_21_priscilla_04 John 6 is an often discussed passage related to the Eucharist, and one which Biblical literalists ironically often want to interpret metaphorically: Jesus is not talking about the Eucharist or any such thing, and certainly nothing remotely Catholic-ish. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood are simply a metaphor for believing in Jesus. However a strong case can be made for the contrary, as follows:

1) John 6 uses the same four roots to describe the act of blessing and giving the bread as the synoptic Gospels do at the last supper.1 A root is the most basic form of a word from which a host of other words are derived, for example, types, typed, typing, typist, typo, etc., all come from the root verb “type.” In Luke 22:19, Jesus:

takes — λαβὼν (labōn), from the verb λαμβάνω (lambanō)

blesses — εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistēsas), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō)

broke — ἔκλασεν (eklasen), from the verb κλάω (klaō)

gave — ἔδωκεν (edōken), from the verb δίδωμι (didōmi)

The verbs in Matthew and Mark are identical, except for they use εὐλογέω (eulogeō) εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō).

In John 6, we something surprisingly familiar. To make things easier to see, I’ve bolded below what is precisely identical to the above. In verse eleven, Jesus:

Took the bread — ἔλαβεν (elaben), from the verb λαμβάνω (lambanō)

blessed — εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistēsas), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō)

gave the bread — διέδωκεν (diedōken), which is derived from the verb δίδωμι (didōmi)

You might be wondering what happened to “broke.” In the following verse we read Jesus saying, “Gather up the fragments left over.” If you were to guess what root verb “fragments” comes from, I doubt you would be far off.

Fragments — κλάσμα (klasma), which is derived from the verb κλάω (klaō)

Verses eleven and twelve of John 6 contain the identical four verbal roots the Lukan account of the Last Supper has in describing Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. Since this is the case, it would like awaken a memory of that story in the mind of the hearers.

2) In v. 23, the day after Jesus fed the five thousand, a crowd of people return to the same location looking for Jesus. The place is called “where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” “Given thanks” is from the Greek εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō), from which we get the word “Eucharist.” It is notable that this is the element the author decides to drawn attention to, considering it is a seemingly superfluous detail. It wasn’t enough merely to say it was where they had eaten bread. And he doesn’t call it “the place where Jesus did a miracle.” It was where the Lord had “made eucharist.” Considering that the Gospel of John was written around 100 AD., and we have clear usage of this identical Greek word family referring to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the 100-110 AD timeframe2, it is very likely that the way the author inserts this word here is meant to conjure in the mind of the hearers a recollection of the Eucharist.

3) In Jesus’ discourse in verse 26 and following, a clear Exodus motif emerges in which Jesus relates the manna the Israelites ate in the wilderness with the “bread from heaven.” In verse 32 he identifies himself as this “bread from heaven,” and later in verse 51 further specifies that this bread is his flesh. So far, this all accords with the Exodus story if you take Jesus’ flesh as a kind of metaphorical manna. However in verses 53-56, Jesus four times adds something that is not in the Exodus narrative at all — the notion of drinking blood. There was no drinking of blood in the Exodus, but now Jesus says in order to have life, they must not only eat his flesh but also drink his blood. This “is a very scandalous image for a Jew since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was forbidden by the law” (Lev 3:17; 17:14; Deut 12:23).3. It seems that there must be a reason for the insertion of a scandalous concept if the body=manna=faith/believing equation was sufficient. And this reason is likely that the text is referring not simply to faith, and not simply to the Exodus, but to the Eucharist, the reception of Jesus’ flesh and blood.

4) Furthermore, in verses 53-56, Jesus uniformly follows the synoptic order of “flesh” first, followed by “blood.” Flesh always precedes blood, just like in the synoptics, “body” always precedes “blood.” That John uses “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx) where the synoptics use “body,” (σῶμα, sōma) should not be a concern, because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a term for “body” as we commonly use the term. The term “flesh” was likely the Aramaic term which got translated variably into Greek as either “body” (σῶμα, sōma) or “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx).4

5) Additionally, the way Jesus uses the terms “flesh” and “blood” in parallel four times in a row in verses 53-56 seems almost poetic. In fact, it strongly resembles a significant feature of Hebrew poetry called “conventionalized coordinates.” Conventionalized coordinates are two words that originally formed a kind of stereotypical phrase (such as “orphan and widow,” “righteousness and justice,” or “heaven and earth”) and are subsequently broken up into two parallel poetic phrases:5

defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17; cf. Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18, 24:19, 27:19; Job 31:8; Ps. 94:6; 146:9; Ezek, 22:7)

May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. (Psalm 72:2; cf. Job 29:14; Ps. 72:1; 89:14; 97:2; 99:4; 106:3; Prov. 8:20; 21:3; Eccl. 3:16; Isa. 1:21, 27; 5:7; 9:7; etc.)

How majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps. 8:1 NRSV)

Eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood (John 6:53)

Eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:54)

my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink (John 6:55)

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:27)

Jesus’ use of “flesh” and “blood” in parallel seems very much like a “conventionalized coordinate,” which suggest a stereotypical use of the phrase “flesh and blood.” In the example of 1 Corinthians, we see Paul using the very phrase (body and blood), to explicitly refer to the Lord’s Supper. If this is the case, it is likely that the eating of Jesus’ flesh and drinking of his blood is meant to refer to the Eucharist.

6) In verse 54, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Here Jesus uses the Greek word “τρώγω” (trōgō). It literally means, “to bite or chew food,”6 or “gnaw, nibble, munch,” and specifically refers to the physical process of eating, not simply an abstract concept of nourishment.7 Every listed meaning and example in both leading lexicons for Biblical Greek (BDAG) and Classical Greek (LSJ) refer to literal eating and chewing. This is so much so that the BDAG entry comments on this verse that, “Jesus uses it [τρώγω/trōgō] to offset any tendencies to ‘spiritualize’ the concept so that nothing physical remains in it.”8 In other words, there is no known metaphorical use of “τρώγω” (trōgō) in any extant Ancient Greek literature. If we are to understand John 6 as a metaphorical eating (e.g., faith, or the like), it would be the only known example of such in the entire corpus of Ancient Greek literatureBecause this is highly implausible, it seems more likely that this text (like every other one in which τρώγω/trōgō appears) is referring to the actual physical process of eating, and we are meant to understand the “nibbling on Jesus’ flesh” as participation in the Eucharist.

In all, there is a relatively strong case to believe that we are meant to read John 6 as being about the Eucharist. Assertions that eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood are simply elaborate metaphors for “believing in Jesus” seem somewhat forced.  Considering the degree of controversy this teaching caused and the number of disciples Jesus lost because of it (John 6:60ff.), it seems largely unnecessary, and even reckless, unless he was actually talking about something more. Faith and believing in Jesus are certainly in view as a major theme of this chapter, but what kind of faith specifically is the author attempting to describe? Of course, it would be in appropriate to read later medieval and reformational controversies into this text. However, John 6 is clear biblical seed from which later Eucharistic theology comes to flower. And this development does not take 500 years. It can undeniably be seen in the decades that immediately follow the writing of the Gospel of John. To these writings we will turn in an upcoming post: “What Early Christians Believed About the Eucharist.”


  1. This is not to necessarily imply any literary relationship between John and the Synoptics. It is simply to argue that in this passage the author is using  ”eucharistic language” that was shared among early christians. Cf. also 1 Cor. 11:23-24 

  2. Didache 9.1-5, — “Now concerning the Eucharist, (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) give thanks as follows. First, concerning the cup: We give you thanks, our Father…” Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians 4.1 — “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood)” Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans 6.2 — “They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrneans 8.1. — “Only that Eucharist (εὐχαριστίᾳ, eucharistia) which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.” 

  3. Rodney A. Whitacre, John (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 168. 

  4. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 285. 

  5. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1985), 76. 

  6. BDAG, s.v. “τρώγω,” 1019. 

  7. Liddle and Scott, s.v. “τρώγω.” 

  8. BDAG, ibid. 

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What Kind of Prayer Was the Earliest Church Dedicated To? (Why Greek Matters Part 17)

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“They were  continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship,to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42 NASB

Acts 2:42 is a commonly used text to talk about the community dynamics and priorities of the Church at its absolute earliest moments, often as an ideal to be reached or restored. Here we pay particular attention to the final of the four aspects mentioned: what the NASB and NIV translate “prayer.” The difficulty here is two-fold: (1) the word “prayer” in Greek is actually plural and (2) it is prefixed by the definite article, which would commonly be translated as “the.”

So a more literal translation would be that “they were continually devoting themselves…to the prayers.” Of all the modern translations, only the NRSV and ESV capture both of these aspects.

What are the implications for these translation choices? We can start by easily saying the verse is most likely not referring to prayer in general, as in, the early Christians were simply devoted to the concept, or even the practice, of prayer. This verse is telling us more than that. In all likelihood, it is referring to a collection of set “prayers” (the plural) that were well known (“the” prayers). The word “the,” in Greek, as well as in English, can oftenfunction to indicate something that is well known to people. For example, if I tell someone, “go get the shirts,” or “go get the car,” it is unnecessary for me to specify “the shirts we are wearing for the wedding tonight” or “our car,” because everyone involved in the communication knows what “the one(s)” is/are.1

That “the prayers” the early Christians were devoted to were set liturgical prayers is likely for at least three reasons:

1) liturgical prayers were common in Judaism, in both temple and synagogue worship

2) connection to the temple is made in Acts 2:46 and 3:1, where such liturgical prayers were made

3) In Luke 11:2-4 Jesus teaches his disciples a set prayer for them to use.2

I often hear reference to “getting back to the early church.” This often involves an idealistic notion of (1) worship with little to no set structure (2) completely bypassing the intervening 1900+ years of Church history and making a straight connect to the “early church.” In the process, we wind up baptizing as the “restoration of early church practice,” many styles, techniques, and modalities that undeniably bear the marks of our present culture and would seem utterly foreign to early Christians. What if the prayer and worship the Early Church was devoted to was a continuation of the liturgical prayers of the temple and synagogue, and later Christian adaptations of them? Is it possible that earlyChristian practice had a greater continuity with the Jewish liturgical tradition than contemporary free-church or charismatic traditions? Everything we know about Christian worship from the 2nd century indicates that this was likely the case. So could this mean that “restoring the practice of the early church” might look more like the churches who have maintained and developed that continuity of liturgical prayer and worship?

 

Picture is from a third century catacomb


  1. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 225. 

  2. Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 151-2. 

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The Simplicity of Your Devotion (Why Greek Matters Part 16)

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“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:3)

What does Paul mean in this passage by “simplicity?” We often understand words in contrast to their opposites. For example,

  • hot – cold
  • wet – dry
  • far – near

Think for a moment—what is the opposite of the word “simplicity?” The most immediately recognizable opposite for “simplicity” in English seems to be either “complexity” or “difficulty.” My thesaurus (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus) lists numerous synonyms for “complex:” involved, elaborate, perplexing, delicate, sensitive, requiring special care. The synonyms for simple include: undemanding, uninvolved, unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated, basic, elementary, child’s play, kid’s stuff, no sweat, a cinch, as easy as pie, a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free, effortless, easy.

When I look up “simplicity” in my dictionary (New Oxford English dictionary), there are three main senses:

  • being easy to understand – in contrast to “complexity”
  • being easy to do – in contrast to “difficulty”
  • being plain or natural – in contrast to “ornateness”

The aspect of “being easy to understand” plays a major role in the contemporary English usage of the word, as illustrated by an excerpt from the opening of the Wikipedia article on the term:

It usually relates to the burden which a thing puts on someone trying to explain or understand it. Something which is easy to understand or explain is simple, in contrast to something complicated.

Considering the predominance of “simplicity” being used in contrast to “complexity” or “difficulty” in contemporary English, with special reference to relative ease with which it is understood, how does this come to bear on the Biblical text we are looking at? If we assume for a moment, that this is the meaning of the term here, Paul is warning the believers in Corinth to be careful about over-complicating their devotion. His admonition thus is to keep things simple – keep it easy to understand and easy to do.

The main point of this article is: Words in the New Testament mean what they mean in Greek, not what they mean in English.

Allow me to illustrate. The word in 2 Cor. 11:3, often translated “simplicity,” is ἁπλότης (aplotēs). It is the noun form of an adjective ἁπλοῦς (aplous) whose opposite is διπλοῦς (diplous). In diplous you may recognize the prefix “di-” which makes its way into English in “carbon DIoxide,” also known as CO2 – a molecule with one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms (hence di-oxide). You also might know another word in English which is actually related to diplous. As a hint, “p” and “b” are “cousin” letters, so if you switch those and remove the vowels and the word ending (which flux a lot in language history), you get “dbl.” What English word is this? If you guessed “double” you would be correct. Because diplous actually means “double” or “two-fold.” Diplous, meaning double, is the opposite of aplous, because aplous literally means “single.”

In our given verse, the word “simplicity” works as a translation as long as we understand its opposite, not to be “complexity” as described earlier, but rather “duplicity (also related to the Greek diplous).” This is the usage we see uniformly reflected in all the occurrences of aplous and aplotēs the New Testament, which are listed below in their entirety. The person who is “simple” (aplous) is not “double-minded.” They don’t have a second ulterior motive. They don’t have split intentions, but rather are whole-hearted and sincere.

Matt. 6:22  - “ The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is single (aplous), your whole body will be full of light.

Rom. 12:8 – if one is the giver, [let them give] in singleness (aplotēs)…

Eph. 6:5   Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singularity (aplotēsof heart, as you obey Christ;

Col. 3:22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but in singleness (aplotēs) of heart, fearing the Lord.

2Cor. 1:12   – Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly singularity/sincerity (aplotēs), not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God—and all the more toward you.

2Cor. 8:2 – for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of singleness/sincerity (aplotēs) on their part.

2Cor. 9:11 You will be enriched in every way for your great singleness/sincerity (aplotēs), which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;

2Cor. 9:13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the singleness/singularity (aplotēs) of your sharing with them and with all others,

In this verse we are dealing with, that the author intends aplotēs to be in contrast to duplicity of allegiance, motive, or intention rather than someone making their devotional practices or theology too complicated is confirmed by the surrounding context:

11:2 - for I promised you in marriage to one husband (note the emphasis on “one”)

to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ (note the emphasis on purity)

11:3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning (was the problem with Eve and the Serpent an issue of “complexity” or that she was lead away from single-hearted obedience to God?)

11:4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus…a different spirit…a different gospel (notice the emphasis – there is ONE Jesus, ONE spirit, ONE gospel)

In all, Paul is not admonishing the Corinthians against being led into an “over-complicated” Christianity, or one that is “difficult to understand.” His concern is not even remotely to make sure they stay focused on a version of Christianity that is, to use our thesaurus list from above: “undemanding, uninvolved, unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated, basic, elementary, child’s play, kid’s stuff, no sweat, a cinch, as easy as pie, a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free, effortless, easy;” and avoid that which is “involved, elaborate, perplexing, delicate, sensitive, requiring special care.” His concern is not with complexity creeping into the Church, but something much more serious: duplicity. They were being led to stray from their single-minded devotion and allegiance to Christ and the Gospel.

Let’s face it—the world in which we live is filled with remarkable diversity and complexity. There are so many questions, in so many different fields of knowledge, to which there are no clear-cut answers, where people have been searching, exploring, debating, discovering, and experimenting for centuries. And no less when it comes to the Christian faith, or matters of the Bible. So much ink has been spilled over nearly every possible topic, that one can only conclude that it is all “unexacting, straightforward, uncomplicated,” by screening out everything that disagrees with one’s own position and by making the presumption of unfettered arrogance that one has undiluted and direct access to absolute truth. The testimony of the saints throughout history, and the admonition of our Lord that “the way is narrow and difficult,” should preclude the notion that Christianity, and no less the interpretation and understanding of Christian revelation, is “a cakewalk, a breeze, a snap, painless, trouble-free.” The apostle Paul himself, who potentially had the most direct access to divine revelation of any human, said even with his revelation, we only “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).

This does not require we see ourselves lost in a quagmire of confusion or that to know anything with confidence is hopelessly beyond the realm of possibility. It does, however, require us to cultivate the central Christian virtue of humility in our pursuit and communication of truth in an ongoing openness to discovering the richness and multidimensionality of our faith.* The claims we make are not nearly so one-sided, clear and obvious as we would like to confess. Our world, our beliefs, and our lives are filled with ambiguity that require us to acknowledge them as such if we are to speak with any kind of authenticity and credibility in a culture that unquestionably sees them in this manner. The shrill and harsh tones that so often encumber Christian speech need to be tempered with a humility that listens deeply to and a grace that sympathizes profoundly with the diversity of people, ideas and experiences one encounters. Unless we can see and feel the ambiguity and complexity of our world’s experience within our own selves and within our own experience, we will have nothing to say to them. And it is in this context of authentic engagement with an uncertain and often perplexing world, riddled with suffering, conflict, confusion, and strife, that we reaffirm the singularity of our devotion to the world’s true Lord, who alone will lead the entire cosmos to the time when all wrongs will be made right, and all hurts will be healed.

 

* This specific form of humility is often referred to as epistemic humility – humility regarding what we know and what we can know.

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The Myth of Matthew 18: What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say

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In Evangelical circles we’ve heard so much about Matthew 18, that you simply need to reference the chapter and many people know you are talking specifically about verses fifteen through seventeen. People talk about the “Matthew 18 Process” and ask others “have you done ‘Matthew 18?’” I have even heard people refer to others as a “Matthew 18 person” or not, depending on whether they “follow Matthew 18.”  There seems to be such an established idea about what this passage is about that no explanation is necessary.

At present there is a “Myth of Matthew 18.” A seemingly clear understanding exists regarding what this passage says and how it is applied. One variation goes roughly like this:

1) If you have any kind of conflict or disagreement with someone (including if you believe you have been significantly mistreated or abused by this person), you are only to go directly to that person by yourself and deal with it. You are not to talk to anyone else about the situation because that would be gossip. To get third party advice, counsel, or perspective would be a sin. This procedure especially applies when the person you are in conflict with is a leader over you in the church. It doesn’t matter how intimidating the person is or if you feel you have been repeatedly mistreated. That is a sign of your own personal weakness and unwillingness to follow biblical protocol.

2) If the person you talk to doesn’t agree that they did anything wrong, and if by this time they haven’t convinced you that they were right all along, you go up the chain of command in your church or organization and appeal to successively higher leaders. You continue to remain silent to anyone else about it except the direct chain of command over you and that individual.

3) Eventually you reach the top of the chain (whether it is an individual or a committee) who adjudicates a decision concerning who is right and wrong in the situation.

However, when I actually sat down and read Matthew 18:15-17, I was shocked by what it said and what it did not say. In the Evangelical tradition, we pride ourselves in preaching and teaching from the Bible and not “extra-biblical” revelation. Yet how much of the popular teaching on Matthew 18 actually comes from Matthew 18 itself? Let’s break it down phrase by phrase and see for ourselves:

If your brother or sister sins [against you]*

What it says: a brother or sister is someone of relatively equal status in the community. This is describing how to deal with peers.**

What it does not say: A leader, an elder, a pastor, or any other person of clearly superior rank.

Go and reprove them

What it says: reprove/correct/convict (from the Greek verb ἐλέγχω) the person who sinned. Tell them with no uncertainty that they sinned. There is no question as to whether the person sinned or not.

What it does not say: seek understanding or clarity about what the person did and find out whether they really did anything wrong. Discover that you were actually the one who was wrong.

[Reprove them] between you and that one alone

What it says: The adjective “alone” solely describes the meeting between the person who sinned and the one reproving. This “alone” is in contrast to the one or two witnesses that come along for the next meeting. The point is to not bring along the entire entourage which could potentially constitute a pressure group to intimidate the sinner.

What it doesn’t say: Only talk about the situation with the individual involved. Don’t talk to anyone else about what happened. Don’t ask your friends or family for advice into the situation. Anything else is gossiping and sin.

If that one listens you have gained your brother or sister

What it says: There is only one positive outcome of the meeting: the sinner repents for the sin they committed. They are like the straying sheep of Matthew 18:12-14, who has been brought back. Repentance precedes reconciliation.

What it doesn’t say: That another positive outcome would be if the one reproving listens to the so-called sinner and is won over to their side. That it is possible for reconciliation to happen without the repentance of the one reproved.

If that one does not listen, take along with you an additional one or two, in order that by the mouth of two or three witness, every matter might be established.

What it does say: A second meeting is held in which the sinner is once again urged to repent. This time two or three witnesses are present who are able to testify whether they repented or not.

What it doesn’t say: When the conflict isn’t resolved, one is to appeal successively up a chain of command until you reach the highest individual in a church or organization. The additional “one or two” are not leaders over the person who sinned.

And if that one does not listen to them, speak with the church, and if that one  does not listen to the church, let that one be to you like a Gentile or tax collector

What it says: If the sinner refuses to listen to two or three, then the last step before excommunication*** is for the entire church to confront him or her at once. They are given a third opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. If they do not repent then, they are excommunicated.

What it doesn’t say: After going up the chain of command fails, one should take a final appeal up to a committee who will adjudicate the matter and decide who is wrong.

In summary, the text of Matthew 18:15-17 says nothing about:

-how one deals with leaders

-how one deals with conflict in general

-prohibiting receiving third-party counsel in challenging situations

-defining gossip

-appealing successively up a chain-of-command

-a process to adjudicate the validity of your claims

What I hope this shows, is much of the “Myth of Matthew 18,” does not actually come from the text of Matthew 18:15-17, but is a fanciful embellishment of the text. Matthew 18 is a process for extending three offers of repentance and forgiveness to an individual who clearly has committed a serious sin before excommunicating them from the community. It is NOT a catch-all process for handling any conflict, disagreement, or misunderstanding in the church. Does this mean one cannot glean helpful ideas or principles from this passage and apply them to other situations? Of course not. But it does mean to assert that this passage describes a biblical command regarding all these other forms of conflict is to ADD to what the Bible is saying. Unfortunately, regardless of whether they are intended this way or not, these additions to the text often function to protect people in power, despite their misuses of it, while isolating and debilitating the weak and vulnerable. Of all places, the Church should be one where the powerless and vulnerable are defended and fought for. We can move further in this direction by ceasing to invoke Matthew 18 in situations where it is inappropriate.

 

*The textual evidence for the phrase “against you” is fairly disputed, and is not found in the earliest manuscripts. It was likely not part of the original manuscripts, and thus removing Matthew 18 further from a kind of “conflict resolution” procedure.

**Some might say that since “we are all brothers and sisters in Christ,” that this passage would equally apply to peers and leaders. This may be the case. Or it may be an insertion of Pauline thought, or much later democratic/egalitarian thought. Regardless of any way we may all be “one in Christ,” the New Testament continues to teach that there are leaders and hierarchy within the Church. It would not be appropriate to immediately collapse this distinction. In terms of personhood, value, loving and caring for one another, we are all equal. In terms of the practical dimensions of church structure and functioning, there is a hierarchy (while of course hierarchy can be construed in many different ways that are not all strictly authoritarian). Matthew 18 would more clearly fall into the later category, so it seems appropriate to maintain a distinction between leaders and peers.

*** I admit the word “excommunication” is somewhat difficult. My use here denotes a specific and clear demarcation that one is not a full member of the community (let them be like a Gentile…), but does not imply any dimension of “shunning” which can be associated with (but is not inherent to) the word “excommunication.” Specifically in the Jewish context, the Gentiles were not “shunned.” The phenomenon of the “God-fearers” is an example of Gentiles who were  welcome to participate in synagogue worship, but were clearly not a part of the “Jewish” community in a strict sense.

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Wounded Love, Hope, and the Holy Eucharist

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This post was originally a homily given at the wedding of two very good friends of mine. The readings that proceed the homily are Genesis 2:4-9, 15-24; Ephesians 5:1-2, 21-33; and John 15:9-17.

 

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people. Kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we are created, and you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.

The central vocation of every Christian, in every state of life, is to become people entirely characterized by love. Yet what is this love meant to be like? And what are some of the potential challenges involved in attempting to live this kind of love? The Christian call to love is derived from and modeled on the historical and on-going divine revelation. Our three texts today give us insight into the quality of God’s own love that forms the basis for this central vocation.

In our first reading from Genesis 2, we see the first marriage, which is an overflow of God’s initial creative activity. Here we can observe three themes emerging. First, God demonstrates the willingness to exit God’s own space, and enter into the world of another. In order to fashion humanity, God exits heaven and comes to earth’s ground. God condescends to the plane of the creature in order to bring humans into existence. Second, God enters into a self-giving identification with the other. God does not create humans without first giving the gift of God’s very own self. We read that God breathes into the human’s nostrils the breath, or the spirit of life. Only through the gift of God’s very self, God’s own Spirit of life, are humans endowed with the ability to participate in the joy and mystery of living. Third, God’s creative love gives birth to further creativity. As God forms the initial humans, they in turn form a loving relationship, which gives birth, quite literally, to further new life.

In our second reading, from Ephesians 5, the author calls us to be imitators of God—to follow in the way of love exemplified by Jesus toward his bride, the Church. As in the first reading, we see a similar three themes emerge. First, Jesus exits his own space to enter our world. He draws near to us, becoming incarnate as one of us, susceptible to the ravages of sin, suffering, and death. He so to speak, “leaves his Father to be joined to his wife.” Second, he enters into a self-giving identification with us. Twice we hear “he gave himself up for us.” He gave an entire and undivided self-offering of himself to us and for us, even to death and beyond. Jesus nourishes and tenderly cares for the Church. Quite literally, he “warms” her with the tenderness and warmth of his own open-hearted affection. Third, this creative love gives birth to further creativity. Out of Jesus’ compassionate self-giving, God brings into existence the Church, which the author explains in the first, second, and fourth chapters of the same book, is a dynamic, growing organism which is meant to fill the entire cosmos with the same creative life and power that raised Jesus from the dead.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us his new command, his new summary of the law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Our love for one another is meant to take its shape from the pattern of Christ’s love. When taken together with its larger context, we see the same three themes as dimensions of Jesus’ love. First, Jesus comes down from the Father, exiting his own space, in order to enter into the world of another. Second, Jesus lays down his life for his friends as the definitive act of self-giving love. Third, the love of Jesus creates the environment in which further creativity springs: the disciples are chosen to bear fruit—much fruit—fruit that will last. They will become a creative source of life and flourishing for those whom they touch. And since Jesus gave this talk the evening of the Last Supper, there is a Eucharistic framework in place. Jesus institutes the Holy Eucharist as a perpetual reminder of the kind of love the Holy Trinity has offered us to receive, as well as to give.

Love: whether we speak of husband and wife, parent and child, friendship, or any other possible configuration, all Christian love is meant to take on these traits demonstrated by the divine love. First, we abandon the fear of leaving our own space and entering into another’s world—seeing things through their eyes and from within their world—taking their experience and perspective seriously. Refusing to stay at a distance, but willing to come close—seeing, listening, touching. Second, not only does Christian love draw near, it gives of the self. It refuses to keep the heart reserved, staid, closed, and cold, but opens wide the warmth of the affections to the other. It identifies with the story and suffering of the other, feeling their pain as one’s own, weeping with those who weep. It lays down one’s life in an irrevocable gift of the entirety of one’s being. Third, love creates and fosters the conditions in which the life of the other can flourish and thrive. Through the gift of ourselves, we enable the nascent yet budding creative life of others to timidly emerge as the tremendous gift they are to the world.

It doesn’t take much to realize that this kind of love is hard. It is very difficult even to begin loving in this self-giving, open, warm, and affectionate way, but perhaps, it is even more difficult to continue loving in this manner. Laying down your life is a place of extreme vulnerability, where we open ourselves to unspeakable pain. It is where we expose ourselves to the deepest betrayal. It is when we offer what is most valuable and precious, what touches our deepest passions and highest joys. It’s where we risk losing everything. It’s where we experience the horrifying reality of crucifixion.

It is where we endure the most painful injuries and those most difficult to overcome — that threaten to have us withdraw into a shell of unapproachability where everything is safe and sterile, unstirred, unsullied, unmoved, unbroken—insulated from life’s deepest pain. The warmth of our affection repressed beneath mountains of unexpressed grief, our self-giving suffocated by an encasement of fear, our love diseased by protective isolation. Here no betrayal will touch us again, here love will never more be scorned. Yet we remain infinitely far from what our deepest and truest heart longs for. And having lost the ability and even the will to love, we have lost the burning center of what it means to be human.

C.S. Lewis put it this way:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

The pain of wounded love runs so deep that to recover from this veritable death would seem like nothing short of a miracle. A resurrection in fact: a rebirth of what is beautiful, good, and true, a resurgence of that singular treasure that outshines all others: a life poured out in love, fully given in a vulnerable self offering that is able to touch the vulnerable and suffering places in others, and in doing so, to gift others with the freedom to come out of their own unapproachability – to believe they too can share in the rebirth that Christ now shares with everything living.

Christians throughout history have believed that this type of miracle is precisely what happens when we celebrate the Eucharist. St. Ignatius of Antioch, around 100 AD called the Eucharist, “the medicine of immortality” and an “antidote against death.” Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life, and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Holy Eucharist receive in themselves the power of life over death. Through the Eucharist we begin to experience, to taste, even now, the restoration of all things, the new creation of heaven and earth, that fully awaits us in the future.

Jesus in the Eucharist himself exemplifies this three-fold pattern of love we saw in today’s readings. First, as we invoke the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, Jesus exits his own space and comes into ours. He draws incredibly close to us. Heaven and Earth touch. Jesus is made known to us, just as he was to the disciples—in the breaking of bread. Second, as the priest elevates the Host and breaks it, we see that the Jesus present with us, is ever and always a broken Jesus, a crucified Jesus, one who has given himself to us in an act of compassionate identification with our own suffering. He is tenderly with us, suffering with us, in all our experiences of pain, betrayal and wounded love. The Eucharist stands as Christ’s perpetual offering of himself to us in love. Third, as we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we receive into ourselves the grace and healing to arise amidst our pain, wounds, apprehensions, and fears to love others the way Christ loved us—to embody individually and together, the kind of affectionate, self-giving, vulnerable, and can we even say, Eucharistic, love to those in our lives. Whether they are spouses, friends, parents, children, strangers, as the Body of Christ, we become the extension of the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist to them all, as we embody Christ’s Eucharistic pattern and lay down our lives for them in love.

Despite the painful experiences of the past, having received Christ himself, we look forward with hope. By the grace of Christ’s living presence, we have confidence we will be able to give and receive the vulnerable, self-giving love we know is the fulfillment of our human vocation as well as our deepest and truest longings. When we receive the Eucharist, we experience

“the Spirit of the new creation in fellowship with the risen Christ [and] already experience here and now something of the ‘life given’ to the mortal, sick and repressed body. If hope looks forward to the final spring-time of the whole creation, then in the Spirit, the quickening of one’s own body is already experienced even now.” The spring of life begins to flow in us again. We get up out of our sadness and apathy. We begin to flower and become fruitful. An undreamt-of love for life awakens in us, driving out the infection of resignation, and healing painful remembrances. We go to meet life expecting the rebirth of everything that lives, and with this expectation, we experience our own rebirth, and the rebirth we share with everything else.” (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Ephesians 4 and the Americanization of Christianity (Why Greek Matters Part 15)

Does being American (or the citizen of any modern democracy) influence how one interprets the Scripture? Can one’s commitment to democracy affect how we even translate the biblical texts? Let’s consider one text, Ephesians 4:11-12. It names certain types of ministry leadership in the Body of Christ and then describes their purpose. Here is the text as translated in the KJV, under the reign of King James, pre-democracy of course:

(11) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; (12) for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…

Now for the same passage in the New King James Version, translated some 350 years later:

(11) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, (12) for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…

Besides the addition of “himself” at the beginning of verse eleven, did you notice the removal of the comma in verse twelve? This significantly changes the meaning of the text pertaining to the purpose of the listed ministry leaders. In the KJV—and many other older translations such as Webster (1833),  Young (1862), the Geneva Bible (1599), Douay-Rheims (1582)—verse twelve contains a list of three independent items which are functions of the ministry leaders of verse eleven. These leaders are given:

1) for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
2) for the work of ministry/service
3) for the edifying of the body of Christ

When you remove the comma, the first two items in the list actually become one function—the leaders are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. I have heard some describe this to mean that church leaders are simply in place to equip the common people so they can do the real ministry. In other words, the leaders don’t do the ministry, the people do the ministry.

Does this sound familiar? Does this not sound like democracy—of the people, by the people, for the people? The playing field is level—the power returns to the people—the leaders aren’t the real ministers–the people are! Unfortunately, I have all too many times heard this verse used to legitimate grumbling by lay people who were not “released” into their “rightful” ministry by “controlling” leadership. In less severe situations, it serves to reinforce a concept of “Christianity” where I have the power and control, and others do not, or at least should not.

But what is the rationale for adding this comma, such that many modern translations now include it (NRSV, NIV, ESV, NASB)?

The larger question is: are the three items listed all functions of the apostles, prophets, etc., or is the first the function of the leaders, which they perform so the laity can carry out the second and third? Some arguments are commonly advanced to support the “democratic” view:

1) There is a change of preposition in Greek from the first phrase to the second — the word translated “for” in “for the equipping” is Greek πρός (pros) and in the second and third phrase it is εἰς (eis). This seems to be putting too much weight on a tiny word like a preposition. Prepositions are notoriously flexible in Greek (as in many languages). In common speech we often alternate our prepositions without huge meaning entailed.

2) Verse seven says, “all have been given grace,” and this is taken as “grace for service.” Therefore, it would seem, the ministry in verse twelve is done by all. However, in verses seven and following, it is important to trace the use of “gift” and “giving” language. Grace is indeed “given” to all according to the “gift” of Christ. Verse eight begins with “therefore” and intends to further explain this “grace” and “gift.” In Christ’s ascension to power, he has given gifts to people. Verse eleven makes clear that these “gifts” are the four types of ministry leadership: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. The grace being described specifically in verse seven is grace that flows to the Church through its ordained leadership. While certainly all believers receive grace directly from God, this is not what is in view in the present passage.

In support of the reading with the comma, I would argue:

1) The word translated “equipping,” (καταρτισμός, katartismos), means “completion.” The english word “equipping” sounds like it needs another word to complement it, as in “equipping for what??” However, the Greek word does not need any complement and the phrase “equipping/completion of the saints” stands on its own.

2) It is likely that the work of “service/ministry” (διακονία, diakonia), simply refers to the ministry of the ministers already listed. This word does not appear any other time in Ephesians, but the related word “servant/minister” (διάκονος, diakonos) does twice. Once it occurs in 3:7 where Paul is describing himself, incidentally joined with the words “gift,” “grace,” and “give,” significant words in this passage as well (see the second “democratic” view argument above). The other time is in 6:21, to speak of Tychikos, who seems to have some definitive ministry role. This usage is also paralleled in Colossians (1:7, 23, 25; 4:7, 17). Thus, diakonia, probably here refers to the work done by specifically set apart ministers.

3) The phenomenon of stacking up phrases in lists, often using differing prepositions, is a common stylistic feature of this author. We see this in Ephesians 1:3, 5, 6, 20-21; 2:6; and 6:12. But most significant are verses thirteen and fourteen of the present chapter, the verses immediately following the text we have been looking at:

until we all reach unity in the faith
and in the knowledge of the Son of God
and become mature,
attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants,
tossed back and forth by the waves,
and blown here and there by every wind of teaching
and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

To therefore see

for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
for the work of ministry/service
for the edifying of the body of Christ

as yet another list of items in parallel seems entirely consistent with the stylistic patterns of writing in this letter.

4) As we saw earlier, the author’s point from verse seven onwards is Christ’s gift of ministry leaders as a source of grace for the Body of Christ. Verses 11-14 form one sentence in Greek. If we understood the phrase “for the work of ministry” to mean the ministry of all, then it might seem that the rest of the sentence (12-14) flows out of this ministry of all. But it would be more consistent, since the author’s point seems to be describing the leaders Christ is giving, to not change the focus mid-sentence to something different. Rather verses 11-14, along with 7-10 all focus on Christ’s gift of ministry leaders.

All in all, it seems reasonable to believe that “the work of ministry” in this passage is not the ministry democratically given to all believers, but simply the ministry of the leaders. Does this mean lay people have no ministry? Of course not. But we should be cautious not to read our commitments to certain forms of governance (especially ones that give power and significance to ourselves!) into the text. Unfortunately, the punctuation in most modern translations of the Bible make this extremely difficult in this text.

Beyond the caution of allowing our political persuasions to taint our understanding of Christianity, we stand perhaps to see a central point of this passage: the leadership Christ ordained and established in the Church is a primary source of grace for the Body of Christ. History—never mind history, our own experience—has shown that leaders can often be abusive and hurtful to the people Christ cherishes. Being open to receive grace from other leaders once one has these experiences can be extremely difficult—and reasonably so. It can perhaps be easy to develop a negative view of leadership in general—they are almost like a necessary evil—and certainly never to be trusted.

But what if we were to have a vision that the grace of Christ flows through leaders when they, despite their many shortcomings, are full of love, compassion, humility, and gentleness! Spiritual and leadership abuse is real, the pain is deep, and it is never to be treated lightly. But to retreat into an impenetrable enclave of independence and invulnerability is worse still. This is perhaps all the more reason to cultivate in ourselves and in others the kind of leadership qualities that can be a fountain of grace to many. And wherever we find this fountain, let us do all in our power to celebrate, support, and in time, to trust those leaders who are truly serving and edifying the Body of Christ.

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