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Proper 15B 2nd Reading

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The first thing to say about this passage is to include verse 21. The lectionary (probably wisely) omits the “family code” section from Ephesians (imagine all the bad sermons avoided by this move!) but unwisely ends this pericope before verse 21. The grammatical structure strongly suggests that verse 21 belongs with the verses immediately preceding it, as well as setting up the family code section that follows – it is one of those transitionary clauses that belongs to what goes before and what comes after.

In our passage, there are a series of commands, the last one being “be filled with the Spirit in the following ways.” That command is followed by a series of participles, expanding on the idea of “being filled.” The last in the series of participles is verse 21: “and by submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ” (my translation).

Here is an outline of the passage. The words in bold are imperatives, the underlined words are participles. (Imperatives are verbs that give a command, these are the main verbs in the passage; participles are verbal adjectives – in this case I’d say these participles are adverbial and should be classified as “instrumental participles” or “participles of means.” So, the command is given, then the participles tell us “how” or “by what means” to accomplish the command.)[1]

Eph. 5:15-21 (my translation, using the CEB as a base English text):

So be careful! to live your life wisely, not foolishly,

by taking advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times.

Because of this, don't be ignorant!, but understand! the Lord's will.

Don't get drunk! on wine, which produces depravity.

Instead, be filled! with the Spirit in the following ways:

by speaking to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs;

by singing and by making music to the Lord in your hearts;

by giving thanks always to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;

and by submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ.

This passage, especially when outlined as above, makes for some easy and straightforward preaching. If I were preaching this, I’d probably focus on verses 18-21.

Verse 18 begins with the command, “Don’t get drunk on wine….” (Teetotalers will be disappointed that Paul[2] failed to write simply “don’t drink wine” when he had the chance.) It is interesting to note that one of the pagan gods worshiped in Asia Minor at the time was Dionysus, the god of wine. Paul seems to be drawing a direct contrast between pagan and Christian worship and worshipful living.

The worship of Dionysus (also known, as Bacchus, his Roman name) “was characterized by ecstatic frenzy,”[3] and also has some interesting parallels to Christian worship. Devotees of Dionysus would eat raw meat from live animals and drink wine. Everett Ferguson notes, “Since Dionysus was believed to appear in animal form and to be present in the wine, eating the flesh from a living animal and drinking wine could be understood as incorporating the god and his power within.”[4] The parallel to Eucharist is clear (though, importantly, the Christian ritual meal was vegetarian). Paul seems to be picking up the theme of ritual and worship in this passage.

Yet Paul makes a strong contrast between worship of Dionysus and Christian worship. When we worship, he commands us: “don’t get drunk on wine” like others do in pagan worship. We aren’t looking for an ecstatic kind of worship or experience. We are looking to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Our expression of religion, when we worship together and when we are going about our lives (wisely, not foolishly), will come by speaking to each other, speaking scripture, hymns, spiritual poetry, words, and songs. By singing and making music. By thanksgiving – which certainly means giving thanks to God for our blessings and may hint at sharing Eucharist together. And our religion will be made known when we submit to each other – mutual submission all around, no class, ethnic, or gender distinctions. The point is, our lives and our worship should be markedly different than the pagan worship, devotion, and excitement we are used to.

An implication of all that is that we could look at how our worship mirrors or counters cultural expressions verses historic Christian practices. Are we worshiping God, being filled with the Spirit (in the ways Paul writes) or are we seeking to please people with something like a concert, expressions of nationalism, a form of “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism,”[5] an excitement reminiscent of sporting events, etc? Eugene Peterson sees these themes paying out in Ephesians 5 and writes:

with worship the danger is commodification, being debased into a commodity for consumers who are shopping for the best buy in God or the latest in spiritual fashions. But the moment that God or the things of God are packaged and then advertised as programs or principles or satisfaction, we are depersonalized, diminishing our capacity to love. There is not much chance of growing to the measure of the stature of Christ in a place of worship that markets goods and services stamped with a God logo.[6]

We could use this list of participles, in verses 19-21, as a way to realign our worship and our living with the way of the Spirit and begin to make some real change in our devotional lives, in our expectations, and in our corporate worship.

So, I see worship and living a life of faith spoken of in the New Testament passage this week. I hope and pray that, whether we preach from this passage or merely read it aloud to our congregations, that we will be filled with the Spirit as spiritual words are spoken in our midst.

[As a side note, in the verses that follow, wives are never directly commanded to submit to their husbands (it is indirect, using the participle in v. 21). Paul goes off on that theme, but always under the authority (so to speak) of the imperative “be filled with the holy spirit…by submitting to each other.” That command and the instrumental participle “by submitting to each other” is given to all people, wives and husbands. The “wives to husbands” part is one example. But the “each other” of verse 21 includes husbands. So it could equally be said, “husband submit to your wife” and “friend submit to your friend,” etc. By the way, the next imperative used in Eph. 5 is in verse 25 where husbands are commanded to love their wives, a rather radical imperative in Paul’s day.]

[1] “The participle can indicate the means by which the action of the finite verb occurs (means).” Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us, second edition, p. 143. Also “The instrumental participle indicates the means by which the action of the main verb is accomplished.” David Alan Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek, p, 123. One could also argue that these participles carry the command nature of the head verb, the imperative, and so these participles are acting as commands themselves. But I think that the instrumental use is more likely, especially based on the structure and context of the whole pericope.)

[2] Or whoever wrote the book we call Ephesians

[3] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition, (Eerdmans: 2003), 162

[4] ibid, 261.

[5] This is a phrase from Walter Brueggemann. Tim Suttle (a contributor here on APA) writes about that phrase several places, including in a blog post titled “Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Theses Revisited: A Clarification from Brueggemann Himself”

[6] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, Kindle location 2508.

Matt Rundio

Pastor, Scottsville Church of the Nazarene

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