In these verses in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, two major themes are put forth for our pondering: first, “the heavenly places,” with their “surpassing (or) immeasurable riches”; and second, the relationship between “faith” and “works” in light of the gift of salvation. A deeper understanding of both of these themes, which we can also refer to as realities of the Christian’s life and being, will give us a good foundation as we move further into the letter and encounter Paul’s teachings concerning the nuts and bolts of our daily life here on earth, as individuals and as members of Christ’s body, the Church.
Verses 6 and 7 begin a bit earlier: But God, being rich in mercy…..and continue, raised us up with Him (Christ), and seated us with Him in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
There are several ways to begin to understand “the heavenly places,” and those ways overlap one another in a marvelous way. First, this expression brings to mind the “ascending/descending” imagery which we encounter in many places throughout the Old Testament. It connotes a kind of straining towards the reality of heaven on the part of God’s people, a desire to be in some kind of contact with the dwelling place of the One God, originally inspired by the initiating, descending movement of God toward human beings. The great prophet Moses was seen to have ascended, in a mystical and material way, to bring down to earth the tablets of the Law; he was the human intermediary of God’s greatest early revelations to human beings, being the chosen one to become God’s very friend, speaking with Him “face to face” (Exodus 33:8-11). Genesis 28:10-15 and Proverbs 30:4 are Scriptures with which all Christians should be very familiar; these are powerful examples which we can cite, containing ascending/descending imagery.
Further along in the history of God’s people came another great prophet, Isaiah. In chapters 53 through 55 we are brought along, as it were, to a place of intimacy with God in His descending movements, through prophetic passages brim full of promises of an actual possibility of personal friendship with the Lord which had seemed before this time to have been limited to a few people who served as God’s mouthpieces as He spoke from the heavenlies. Isaiah 54:13, And all your sons will be taught of the Lord…remained a mysterious verse among the many until…until a conversation took place in the middle of the night which St.John recorded for posterity: Jesus answered (Nicodemus) and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand…?…If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life….He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all (John 3:10-15, 31). Now, in Christ, has come a person set apart. The ascending and descending imagery in the teaching of Jesus is meant clearly to set Him apart, over-and-above Moses in the revelation of God the Father to His people: When therefore the people saw the sign (of the multiplication of the loaves) which He had performed, they said, “This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world….Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness….” Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down (descends) out of heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:31-33).
The beautiful Scripture above from John 6 points to a reality in which we are meant to live our lives as Christians, and that is the entire sacramental liturgy of the Catholic Church, the true gift of power readily, objectively accessible to the Body of Christ, the people of God, since those sacraments’ worshipful institution beginning in the earliest days of the Church. Here is where the power of Christ in the Holy Spirit–heaven itself–descends upon us and where we are given the power to ascend, every time we participate in the sacramental gifts and liturgies of the Church. A close reading of CCC 1087-1090 and CCC 1104-1109 introduces us to The Paschal Mystery in the Church’s Sacraments, described in CCC 1113 and following, and helps us understand how real is our ongoing contact with heaven in the celebrations of the seven sacraments upon which our eternal life together is established.
Another way to understand the heavenly places imagery is the most obvious one, assumed already in the ascending/descending imagery, and that is the fact that heaven is a real place where God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Person of the Holy Spirit whose mission is loving outreach from eternity, angels, archangels and all the company of heaven dwell. Matthew 6:10, John 14:1-3, I Corinthians 15:16-58, and the CCC 1023 are places to look, all underscoring this reality toward which we look with lively hope.
And the last way I’ll mention to begin to understand the heavenly places is recognizing the Kingdom of God-as-relationship. Luke 15:21-24 gives us a glimpse of our heavenly Father drawing us into personal participation in this kind of heavenly existence, even now. Our astonishing relationship with God even now endows upon us “immeasurable riches,” such as that which we see described in Ephesians 3:20, and these riches are also made real in the fruits and gifts of the Spirit described concisely in the CCC 1831 and 1832. The picture of being “seated with Him” is part of this wonderful reality and can be glimpsed again in Revelation 3:20-21.
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The theme of faith and works and their relationship is a very rich and deep teaching which I’ll begin to unpack now, and continue in next week’s post: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (v.10). One implication worth pondering as we read this verse is “that God has a unique plan and vocation for each of His sons and daughters” (PSW, p. 66). This is truly exciting to consider, and has been a central part of the Church’s teachings from the very beginning. I suggest that it would be well to ponder the prophetic promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as we prepare to plumb this teaching about our believing and our consequent acting, as it is presented by St. Paul in this letter.