Epistles, Part 8: P.S. There’s Always More
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 26, 2018
Hi friends, two weeks ago we looked at questions of authorship: which letters in the New Testament did the historical Paul actually write and which ones were likely written by a later follower of his? Last week, we looked at two characteristics that often help us distinguish between a letter of the historical Paul (an undisputed letter) and a letter composed by one of his followers (a disputed letter). While I’ll continue preaching on Ephesians for another week or two, today I’m going to wrap up our newsletter series on the epistles. In a similar vein to last week’s post, I want to compare an undisputed letter (1 Corinthians) to a disputed letter (Ephesians) as a way of showing how early Christian ideas about God and Christ grew and developed over time; they didn’t just drop whole cloth out of heaven.
I said last week that in an undisputed letter of Paul, which is to say in one of the older letters written by Paul himself, we frequently find Paul addressing very specific concerns. This is true of 1 Corinthians, a church with a great deal of potential but also a great deal of troublesome habits. One of the issues plaguing the Corinthian church was internal divisions. There were two kinds of division: socio-economic and spiritual.
First, the socio-economic. In the earliest Christian communities, it’s likely that communion, or the Lord’s Supper, involved a full meal, a kind of ritualized dinner party. Some of the Corinthian Christians were more well off than others, so when it came time for the Lord’s Supper, the wealthier Christians started partying and eating all the best food and drink before the less wealthy ones arrived (1 Cor. 11:17-34). This meant that the Church wasn’t unified: it was split into rich and poor. Imagine if we all came to communion in the order of how big our paychecks were!
The second kind of division was spiritual, particularly in regard to spiritual gifts. It appears that in Corinth, speaking in tongues was regarded as a sign of God’s special favor. Those who could speak in tongues got a little puffed up with themselves and looked down on others (1 Cor. 12-14).
How does Paul address these divisions? Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are one in Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. […] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 26)
This is where Paul makes his famous analogy of the body: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. […] If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12:15-17)
The important thing to keep in mind here is that Paul is using the image of the Body of Christ as a way of instructing a specific community to be united. Hands need feet; ears need eyes; the nose isn’t more important than the toes. What is important to Paul is that the community change their attitude and behavior; the emphasis on the oneness of Christ’s body serves to strengthen that exhortation.
Now, let’s fast forward a decade or two to Ephesians. In the two short passages from Ephesians below, notice that the church is described as Christ’s body, just as it was in 1 Corinthians. However, the image of the body of Christ is now expanded and put to different use:
[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22-23)
…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 knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in the building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16)
Notice anything different? While the image of the church as Christ’s body is still of central importance, and while the contexts of both passages emphasize the importance of unity in love (1 Cor. 13, Eph. 4:15-16), in Ephesians the image of Christ’s body has expanded to emphasize Christ as the head of the body. Furthermore, in Ephesians, Christ is not only the head of his body, which is the church, but Christ is now also referred to as the “head over all things for the church” which God has put under Christ’s feet.
Let’s highlight again the specific similarities and differences. Both 1 Corinthians and Ephesians employ the image of the Church as Christ’s body, and both use that image to emphasize a kind of oneness. In 1 Corinthians, however, this unity is local and specific to a community riven by socio-economic and spiritual divisions. Ephesians, however, emphasizes a cosmic unity in which Christ is the head not only of his body the church, but of all things. 1 Corinthians lacks both the emphasis on Christ as the head of the body and Christ as the head of “all things.”
What we see, then, is that this passage from Ephesians retains the tradition of 1 Corinthians that refers to the church as Christ’s body, but that this central idea has grown and gained
additional emphasis. By the time we reach Ephesians, the image of the Church as Christ’s body serves not primarily to exhort a specific community to practice unity, but to emphasize the exaltation of Christ: the Church is Christ’s body, and Christ is the head. However, Christ is also the head over all things which have been put under his feet. Since we know already that the church is Christ’s body, and that therefore the feet are also part of Christ’s body, Ephesians also subtly emphasizes the exaltation of the Church: Christ is the head, the Church is the body, and all other things are under Christ’s feet.
Why does any of this matter?
This matters because too often Christians talk as though God is done speaking to us. What I am trying to demonstrate is that what’s clear from the New Testament itself is that the Church’s knowledge of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, grows and develops over time. As we’ve seen in the transition from the undisputed letters of the historical Paul like 1 Corinthians to the next generation of Christian leaders in Ephesians, old images gain new significance. Local problems spark cosmic reflections. In short, there’s always more to be said.
Because God is a mystery and cannot be known fully, we can never ‘finish’ reflecting on His presence with us. Our reflections are always incomplete. And yet because God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, God has made himself profoundly known and knowable. Therefore, we should expect that no matter how new our reflections on God are, they are always somehow recognizable. The letter to the Ephesians riffs on and expands the wisdom of letters like 1 Corinthians. The wisdom of Ephesians, however innovative, is therefore both new and recognizable as a ‘Pauline’ take on Christ.
With God, there is always more to know. Yet every innovation and development of a theological idea will also be somehow familiar to us if it is true; the Holy Spirit prompts us to ‘recognize’ Jesus in it. Hopefully, our own spiritual journeys are marked by ever-renewing encounters with the Truth of Who God is, encounters in which the Holy Spirit comes to us as fresh and familiar. Hopefully, like the first folks to hear the letter to the Ephesians, we have occasion to say, “Wow, I never thought about it that way before—but that makes sense. That fits with what I know to be true of God.”
P.S. Thanks for reading.