Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 6, 2019
Ephesians 3:1-12 Commentary
Most of Jesus’ followers can name their favorite attributes of God. Loving. Gracious. Holy. Almighty. Faithful. The list could go on and on. However, it would be interesting to try to calculate just how many people favor the characteristic of God that is “generosity.”
In the light of the Scriptures’ emphasis on it, I sometimes wonder why I personally don’t more often think of and treasure God’s extraordinary generosity. It may be because God has been so generous with me that I can’t keep track of all of it. My own failure to treasure God’s generosity may also arise from my natural assumption that I’ve somehow earned everything I have – or received it from other people.
On this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2019, we note that Paul invites us to consider, among other things, God’s startling generosity. Among the many themes that those who proclaim Ephesians 3 might explore is its repetition of the word “give” as well as synonyms for it. The God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ has, the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday points out, revealed himself to be a very generous God.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 3 will want to take a quick peak at Ephesians 2’s ending. Paul, after all, begins verse 1 by noting that “For this reason …” He seems to be referring to his claim in Ephesians 2:22 that God is building God’s people into a home in which God can graciously live among God’s people.
In the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday Paul then goes on to proclaim how God is graciously linking Jews and gentiles together to make up this home for himself.
The apostle almost immediately speaks of “the administration of God’s grace that was given to” him (2). He’s talking about how God has given him a kind of stewardship of God’s amazing and generous grace. Paul admits that God has made him such a steward of that grace so that the apostle can reveal to the gentiles what they’d previously not known: God’s grace given to the whole creation through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
While he doesn’t use the word “give” or an obvious synonym for it in verses 4 and 5, Paul also at least alludes to God’s generosity when he speaks there about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” He announces, in other words, that what God allowed to remain hidden from Paul’s ancestors God has now generously given to the apostle and other followers of Jesus: the message that gentiles are together with Jews heirs of God’s generous promises in Jesus Christ.
Paul goes on to note in verse 7 that God has “given” him the gift of God’s grace that is sharing that great news with the whole world. This grace, he adds in verse 8, has been “given” him.” So the apostle admits that he hasn’t somehow been able to figure out this great mystery on his own. God has, instead, been generous not only with him in giving him the hope of the gospel, but also with the Jews and gentiles to whom he proclaims it.
Of course, students of the Scriptures will note, with Sarah Heinrich, that many of Ephesians 3’s verbs that refer to God’s great generosity are passive. The apostle repeatedly refers, after all, to what was given. Yet Paul’s message is unmistakable: God is the One who has graciously given what Paul has received … and much, much more.
Yet those who proclaim Ephesians 3:1-12 may also want to explore the other things Paul describes in it that God has graciously given. God hasn’t just generously shared with God’s adopted sons and daughters the understanding of the mystery of Christ. Paul at least implies that God has also generously given us the high privilege of joining the apostle in making know God’s wisdom “to the rulers and authorities” (10).
On top of that, Paul adds in verse 12, God has generously given God’s beloved children the “freedom and confidence” to “approach God.” God’s people with whom God has been so very generous don’t have to be afraid to draw near to God in faith and prayer. God has generously made us God’s own adopted children and, thus, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters.
While the message of God’s extreme generosity with God’s people is always an appropriate one, it may seldom be more appropriate than on the first Sunday of the new year. Ephesians 3’s message of God’s giving and giving and then even more giving sets, after all, an appropriate tone for God’s beloved children throughout the entire coming year.
It, after all, reminds Jesus’ followers that we aren’t self-made men and women. While many of us are talented and gifted people who seem to have made great lives for ourselves, Ephesians 3 at least implies that anything we have been, are and ever will be is the result of God’s extreme generosity with us. From the nights of sleep that strengthen us, to the food that nourishes us, to the friends and family members that love us, to the work that stimulates us, every good thing we have and enjoy is a gift of our generous God.
That, in turn, allows us to remember that while we’re naturally stingy if not selfish people, God has created and is recreating us to be more and more like himself. More and more, in other words, among other things, generous. So as the Spirit helps us to grow in 2019 in our generosity, especially with our neighbors who are materially needy and in other ways marginalized, we grow in Christlikeness.
A scene in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath reveals the human ability to be both generous and stingy at nearly the same time. That paradox reveals the fundamental difference between people and God’s generosity.
In it Al is standing hulking over a griddle in a Midwest diner, and Mae is working its counter where two truckers sit for pie and coffee when a migrant dad and two barefoot boys walk in.
The dad approaches Mae. “Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma’am?”
Mae balks. “This ain’t a grocery store. We got bread to make san’widges.” “I know ma’am,” says the man. “But we’re hungry” and “there ain’t nothing for quite a piece they say.” Mae is still balking. “If I sell you bread we’re going to run out. Why’nt you buy a san’widge. We got nice san’widges. Hamburgs.”
“We can’t afford san’widges,” says the man. “We got to make a dime do all of us.” Mae resists. “You can’t get no loaf of bread for a dime,” she says. “We only got fifteen-cent loafs.” From behind her Al growls, “God Almighty, Mae, give ’em bread.” She protests: “We’ll run out ‘fore the bread truck comes.” “Run out then, goddamn it,” says Al, and looks sullenly down at the potato salad he’s mixing.
Mae opens a drawer, pulls out a loaf of bread, and says, “This here is a fifteen-cent loaf.” The man “answered with inflexible humility, ‘Won’t you — can’t you see your way to cut off ten cents worth’?” Al said snarlingly, “Goddamn it, Mae, give ’em the loaf.”
The man reaches into his pocket for a dime and a penny comes out with it. He then notices the two boys in front of the candy case. They stare into the case “not with craving, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.”
The dad is about to drop the penny back into the pouch when he sees his boys. He turns to Mae. “How much is them sticks of peppermint candy?” he asks. “Is them penny candy, ma’am?” The boys had stopped breathing as Mae answers. “No,” she says. “Them’s not penny candy. Them’s two for a penny.” The dad says OK, and he and the boys walk out of the diner and to their 1926 Nash, the boys holding their candy down rigidly at their sides, not even daring to look at them.
In the diner, Bill, one of the truckers wheels around toward Mae. “Them wasn’t two-for-a-cent candy,” he says. “What’s that to you,” says Mae. The truckers each place a coin on the counter and turn to leave. Mae calls at them, “Hey! Wait a minute! You got change comin’.” “You go to hell,” says Bill, and slams the screen door.
Mae goes to where the truckers had been sitting. She had expected their usual tip. But each man had left her a half-dollar. “Truck drivers,” says Mae reverently, as she fingers the coins. “Truck drivers,” and right “after them shitheels” took all my bread.
As this scene of lovely and unexpected generosity closes, however, Al’s busying himself with rigging slot machine number three so it won’t pay off to the next customer who comes through the door.
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