The readings for this week will be Ephesians 1:3-8a (taken from OT 15B) and Luke 24:44-49 (from Easter 3B). If you read the listing of scripture readings in the April newsletter, you’ll notice that Ephesians is not what I planned for this week’s epistle reading. In the meantime, I’ve planned readings into the summer and found myself using selections from 1 John then. And if you listened to the scripture reading last Sunday, you’ll notice that the Luke reading repeats the second half of what was read last week. Its inclusion last week was unintentional, but it’s true that this is the second half of what Luke intends to be a unified story. What do you think, should I have the first part of the story (vv. 36-43) read again this week?

Where are we?

I didn’t exactly pick Ephesians out of a hat; this becomes the first of three readings from that letter. The letter is written in Paul’s name, although many scholars (myself included) doubt that the apostle wrote it himself. The practice of signing someone else’s name to your writing, known as pseudepigraphy, was common in the ancient world and remains more common than we realize today. Ephesians is written in Paul’s tradition, claims his authority in a later generation, but just doesn’t sound quite like him.

Scholars (those who decide that Paul didn’t write it) think Ephesians was written between 80 and 100 CE. Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), housed an important temple of Artemis. According to Acts, Paul’s work in Ephesus sparked a riot by the silversmiths there, who felt their trade (making statues of Artemis) threatened by the Christian teaching.

This reading is the beginning of the thanksgiving section, which your ancient rhetoric teacher would have taught you is a standard building block of these letters (akin to asking about the weather and hoping the family is well). Paul’s thanksgivings, and those in his tradition, usually wax theological about what God has done in Christ and so in the lives of those to whom he writes. There’s rich stuff in this dense, run-on sentence.

In Luke, it’s still Easter Day, and not just because I broke this reading up over two weeks. Cleopas and his walking companion have returned to the eleven. Jesus has arrived, showed off his scars, and eaten some fish to demonstrate that it really is him. Now he moves on to the second half of the encounter, namely explaining scripture and commissioning the disciples.

What’s going on here?

The Ephesians thanksgiving focuses on the great and powerful plan of God that has been played out in calling the church to faith and union with Christ. This plan was set “before the world was made” and came to fruition only recently in the death (and resurrection) of Christ and the church’s coming to faith. The idea that God had a plan all along is very true to Paul’s influence; however, there is no recitation of the salvation history as it leads through the Jewish patriarchs, to Jesus, and then becomes available to the Gentiles. This version of the divine plan, all foreknowledge and decree, is much more Greek than Jewish.

The idea that God would plan from the beginning to make Gentiles – religious outsiders – into children of God sets up the big theme of the book, namely how to live out that identity. That this identity is a gift of grace echoes a major theme throughout Paul’s writings.

The Luke passage, taking last week and this week together, recapitulates the content but not the order of the Emmaus story. Jesus has arrived and revealed himself by eating with his disciples. Now he explains scripture, which he had already done on the road with Cleopas and the other disciple. Here, unlike in the Emmaus story, Jesus sends the people out as witnesses to what they have seen.

The Scriptures at this time would have consisted of our Old Testament, although in the Jewish arrangement of Law-Prophets-Writings. All four gospels insist (in different ways) that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was foretold in the Jewish scriptures. Jesus’ claim that it “is written” doesn’t point to any direct quote from the Old Testament, but it follows the claim that all this “must” happen – it’s necessary for God’s story to work out properly. (I believe one of the Niebuhrs, talking about original sin, used the phrase, “Inevitable but not necessary.” Something of that distinction is at work here.)

The preaching of forgiveness in Jesus’ name, beginning in Jerusalem, anticipates the plot structure of the book of Acts, which moves from Jerusalem to Rome.

“You are witnesses of these things” (v. 48). Literally, “You are martyrs,” you are sent to testify.

The disciples are sent to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Compare this to Matthew’s active-verb “Great Commission.”

So what?

Bruce Epperly reflects on the grace in Jesus’ instructions to “go and wait.” Whereas our temptation is often to rush into some kind of action, the best action is rooted in a contemplative understanding of what God is doing in the world, in waiting for the Spirit.

Because we’re starting three weeks of readings from this “divine plan” thanksgiving in Ephesians, there’s a question about predestination in here. Our Reformed heritage has been run through the mud on this issue too often. For starters, it’s not even particularly distinctive of the actual thought that founded our tradition: Calvin’s ideas about God’s eternal choice are not much different from Luther’s, Augustine’s, or those of the author of Ephesians. And the audience of this doctrine matters, because it’s not addressed here (or by Calvin) to those outside the church. It’s a doctrine for the church, to be reassured of God’s unending love and to give thanks for God’s mysterious grace. It’s about being joyously surprised that the story has worked out in the way that it did – a testament to the skill of the Author who crafted it. So one direction I could go is toward the complementary idea in Luke that all of scripture has been pointing toward this event, that the life of the church is built upon God’s providence. My challenge would be to do that without sticking my predestinarian foot in my mouth.

I do find a lot of comfort in the idea that there is in fact a plan, that life unfolds in ways that God continually turns to goodness, grace, and reconciliation. Both Luke and Ephesians get at this plan, which has run through all the history of creation. And then I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ instruction to wait. Not to stagnate, but to wait. I think we often rush around, keeping busy (at work or at home), trying new ways to entertain people (in church or in business), because we’re scared that if we stop moving we’ll never start again. In the church, we race through readings and prayers, we carefully organize music to cover the silence of a prayer or an offering, we fill our liturgy with words, all because we’re scared of stopping. When I ask a worship leader to lead silence, I have to indicate a time frame about twice as long as what I’m actually looking for, because quiet is scary.

Quiet is scary because we’re not sure how to wait. Quiet is scary because it feels too much like quitting, or at least like falling asleep. It feels like stagnating. But what if we’re not just being quiet because we were told to? What if we’re being quiet because we’re waiting for something wonderful? It’s not the flat silence of boredom, it’s the taut silence of a surprise party about to begin. It’s the pause of breath before we begin singing. It’s the attentive listening for what God is about to do, because God indeed has something up the divine sleeve.