In our bewildered, pandemic, pre-election world, we look for words of inspiration, encouragement, and guidance. There are no better ones than those of Sacred Scripture.
In these weeks our Church read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The priests of our Archeparchy focused on this brief text during their clergy retreat last week that I was privileged to lead. In this edition of this biweekly article, which is slowly becoming a tradition, let me give you a recap of what we reflected upon and lived through during the retreat.
Brothers and sisters, I recommend you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this week and focus particularly on its first half — Chapters 1-3. They give a very specific picture of the riches humanity receives from Christ. You will find words about God's good will, His blessing, and generosity. Read the first chapters carefully. See how many times the words ‘blessing’, ‘good will’, ‘glory’, and ‘redemption’ are used.
To understand the context, we should know more about Ephesus. In the first century AD, when Paul was preaching there, it was probably the second biggest city in the Roman Empire with about 250,000 residents. The city was on the East-West trade route, the Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, there was a sports stadium for 25,000 people, and the city attracted many pilgrims and tourists. Try to think of it comparing Ephesus to Philadelphia — a modern prosperous city with inhabitants from all walks of life.
After a first short visit, Saint Paul returned and spent two years in Ephesus building up there one of the first Christian communities. Christians — both Jews and Gentiles — were few in number. It is important to realize that these first century local Churches were about the size of our parish communities — a few dozen, or maybe a few hundred members. The surrounding culture was pagan, the religious practices were cultic – some bowed to one god, some to another, some to a third. The Roman Empire mirrored our present globalized world with its capacity to trade and communicate across great distances if not yet instantaneously.
Although Roman civilization had many positive innovations and characteristics, particularly in the field of law, in the end it was a brutal world with slavery, the sexual subjection of women, and a death penalty by crucifixion, as was in the case of our Lord or the apostles Peter and Andrew, and by beheading, as in the case of our author, who at the time of writing was imprisoned awaiting trial.
The Gospel of non-violence that the tireless apostle Paul announced was in sharp contrast to the prevailing culture. He and the first Christians preached and lived the Gospel at a great price. They were a countercultural, marginalized minority, and poor in infrastructure but rich in mutual charity. It was their love in the name of Jesus that year after year, decade after decade, converted the Empire and its peoples to faith in Christ.
For us today it is important to hear and embrace the encouragement we find in the first three chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians. The Kingdom of God is not somewhere far off, but it has its presence among us, in our mutual love which reflects the boundless love of God. The Gospel is much greater than a law or rules; it is grace, bounty, blessing, and the gift of eternal life.
The second chapter of Ephesians emphasizes the unity of all people — Gentiles and Jews — who live in Christ, who are unified by one faith, who are one in the Messiah (Eph 2,11-18), regardless of their sex, ethnic origin or social status. ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all’, repeats Paul in Chapter 4. (Eph 4, 5-6). Try to replace ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ with Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Ukrainian and English speakers, black and white… or whatever divides us to make it sound real. Paul calls us to unity. In a divided world, in our segmented and antagonistic society, the fundamental Christian call to unity expressed by Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians is truly Good News.
The role of women was particularly important. Women embraced the teaching of Jesus and His followers because the dignity of all people was recognized. Paul enjoins the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5, 25). Pause and think about this: husbands are to love their wives as the Son of God loves His Church. In this section, which is read at the Byzantine crowning ceremony at Holy Matrimony, Paul extolls the unity of man and woman.
For the modern Christian communities which are few in numbers, the enthusiasm of the Apostle for the modest Church of Ephesus underlines that the Kingdom is not measured by numbers. For committed Christians who feel isolated and discouraged in an increasingly secular and often antagonistic world, Paul’s desire, energy, and capacity to communicate from a prison in Rome to his brothers and sisters in Asia Minor demonstrates that we can live a full, spiritual, missionary life, even in the worst of circumstances!
I encourage you to read the Epistle to the Ephesians because it is most relevant to our times. The Lord had Paul write not only across geographical distance but also through the centuries. We need his encouragement, peace, and joy, especially in times of global pandemic and quarantine, when we may feel lonely and dispersed.
Paul was not a preacher of comfort or convenience, yet he expressed the great joy and true essence of Christianity. The Gospel is not just a proposal of a lifestyle or temporary betterment – it is a radical offer for the dead to live! We were dead before our encounter with Christ because we breathed the air around us, and we lived according to the impulses of the flesh. ‘You used to be dead because of your offenses and sins’, says Paul (Eph 2,1). But now we can live. Now we know who we are — the sons and daughters of the Father. In Christ we are not alone. As human beings, we have an anthropological need to be at home, a deep existential need to know that we are not lost in this world. In Ephesians, we are assured that we are at home with God. “So, then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2.19)
Take a healthy drink of the riches of the Gospel which are outlined in the first three chapters of Ephesians, then delve into the responsibilities of the Christian communities and each and every one of us explained in Chapters 4-6.
If you have never read the Letter to Ephesians, you are missing out. Every Christian, every Ukrainian Catholic should know and rejoice in this relatively short but most life-giving text.
I look forward to asking you about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the next time we meet.