“How does Paul announce the theme of his letter?” asks this week’s Thursday lesson in the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. The answer, it prompts, is found in Ephesians 1:9, 10, which reads: “Making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (ESV). To unite all things in him. Unity.
As a recent college graduate, I’m described by my family as full of “political notions.” Childhood friends and people I’ve known for years immediately play devil’s advocate when I state an opinion or share statistics, but not without first glancing at each other and tensing their shoulders. I’m told I’m part of an agenda. I have lengthy conversations with friends and colleagues about the current state of the world, how everyone on Facebook is arguing with each other, and how it’s hard to be honest—and feel safe—around family and church members. So, when I started reading this week’s lesson and noted how John McVay’s introduction is titled “How to Follow Jesus in Trying Times,” I rolled my eyes. I tried to remember that the book of Ephesians is a letter centered around unity, but I didn’t see how the words “unity” and “trying times” could pertain to the same Sabbath School lesson. “Trying times” can mean anything, from a serious circumstance (the pandemic, raging serial killers) to being offended by someone with opposing views, which happens outside and within the church.
In his introduction, McVay writes that “[Paul] seeks to reenlist [the Ephesians] in Christian faith, to reignite the fire of their devotion to Christ, and to resurrect the excitement of being part of God’s great enterprise in the world, the church.” I cringed at the word “enterprise,” but enterprise has two definitions, the first being a business or company, the second being a project or undertaking that requires some effort (thanks, Google Dictionary). The latter makes sense when understanding why Paul wrote his letter, but still: when I think of an undertaking, I think of a quest or a jungle adventure, something akin to Christopher Columbus or Indiana Jones, involving racism, sexism, and/or colonialism. It doesn’t help that the lesson explicitly states that Paul stays three years in Ephesus “with the intention of firmly founding Christianity there.” That statement raises the question for me, What’s the difference between lovingly sharing the truth of Christ and forcing the Bible onto people? And the latter is not a hyperbole. I attended and work at a public university, following my grade school and high school experience in Christian education. I enjoyed my time and feel as if those years were beneficial, but I know religious trauma is real, and I’ve seen the way it has hurt my friends. I’m often torn between standing up for Jesus (aka, rising up to his defense) and listening to friends rant about how the church treats them. Long story short, I am learning that the best way to stand up for Jesus is to kneel in the dirt and listen.
Despite the alarms sounding in my head, the readings resonated as I continued on. I love Jesus. I do. Before I graduated, I felt like I was trapped in a desert with little Christianity. There were spiritual values on campus, sure, but the people who sought me out were open paganists (but the nicest people ever). It strikes me that what they practiced was akin to the witchcraft Paul and his companions are dragged to the amphitheater for purportedly practicing. And, just as Ephesus’s city clerk points out that Paul, Gaius, and Aristarchus weren’t robbing the temple or blaspheming Artemis (Acts 19:21–20:1), my friends had a similar accepting attitude with me. Still, in spite of being surrounded by genuine and kind people, the absence of people who know Jesus the way I do was discouraging. I needed someone to encourage me and help reignite the fire of my devotion to Christ. I felt ashamed when, every Sabbath, church members took me aside and said, “You’re there to do the Lord’s work! I’m sure you’re such a bright light on your campus.” They had no idea. My concept of unity was thus shattered.
Fortunately, Sunday’s lesson focuses on Acts 19:13–20 and shares the story of seven traveling Jewish exorcists. What’s unique about these men is that their incantations incorporated the names both of Jesus and Paul: “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out” (19:13). One day, an evil spirit answered: “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (19:15). Word spreads around the city, and soon new Christian believers are publicly burning their sorcery scrolls—about fifty thousand drachmas worth, equivalent to fifty thousand days of work (19:17–19). It’s a bizarre turn of events, but it conveys a powerful reminder (and the book of Ephesians is all about reminders): there are two powers at war here on Earth.
Like most young adults, I have several critiques for the church. But if I choose to kneel and listen to my friends, I need to do the same for my enemies, or the people I don’t automatically consider “safe.” Friday’s lesson emphasizes that Ephesians is a discussion about power—witchcraft was the center of the Ephesians’ lives, but Jesus is stronger and should be the Power all our lives should center around. The lesson quotes Clinton E. Arnold, who wrote that the early believers in Ephesus needed instruction about “how to cope with the continuing influence and attacks of the sinister cosmic ‘powers.’” And it’s true, but not just in the discussion of witchcraft. Our biases within the church are evidence of another cosmic battle. We are quick to distrust or turn away from unity, but unity is at the heart of the Gospel.
I want everyone to experience the love and safety Jesus provides. But so do other followers of Christ. Paul calls for a people whose hearts and minds consist of love and compassion, a people who love Jesus with their whole hearts. Ephesians is a “Christ-saturated letter.” This week’s lesson challenged me to be Christ-saturated, too.
Brenna Taitano is a recent graduate and current staff member at Indiana University Kokomo.
Title image: Pieter Coecke van Aelst, “The Burning of the Books at Ephesus (detail),” wool and silk tapestry, c. 1529, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
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