Comments and Observations
In the last two years the Revised Common Lectionary has taken us to this very text two other times, both around Christmas, that festive time in the world’s and the church’s calendar. Now we’re in Ordinary Time. Here in the United States we’ve just enjoyed the hoopla of the Fourth of July, but in the church we’re done with major festivals for a while. We’re just waiting patiently for the return of our Lord. Or to change the image, we’re plodding along in ordinary time, wilting under the hot summer sun, on a long pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Even as God provided physically for Israel on their long journey, so he makes provision for our journey with “every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
I’m well aware that Paul says these spiritual blessings are “in the heavenly realms,” which might suggest blessings too heavenly to be of any earthly value. While acknowledging the difficulty of that phrase, I want to suggest that these spiritual blessings in heavenly realms are exactly what we need to survive and succeed in our journey through the wilderness under the hot summer sun. These blessings are a mid-summer picker upper, a reason to celebrate in Ordinary Time. Indeed, that’s how Paul introduces these blessings. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” A quick review of these blessings will provide us with grace for the journey; they remind us that from beginning to end the Christian life is all about God’s grace in Christ.
Our journey began, says Paul, when God in his grace “choose us in Christ before the creation of the world….” We can speculate about the doctrine of unconditional election, but Paul presents it as a simple blessing. God is the one who put our feet upon the path. Without his grace, we would never have begun the journey to the Promised Land. We would still be back in Egypt, enslaved to the forces of evil and utterly unable to go anywhere. God did this without any regard to our merit. Quite apart from the issue of the relationship between time and eternity, that’s the sense of “before the creation of the world.” Before we had done anything either good or bad (as Paul puts it in Romans 9:11), God chose us.
God chose us “to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Even though we may look like everyone else and may still sin like everyone else, we are special in the eyes of God. Like Frodo and his fellow Hobbits in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or, more profanely, like Jake and Elwood in the classic movie, “The Blues Brothers,” we are “on a mission from God.” Our lives from the very beginning have a purpose and a destination. We’re on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the land of our own holiness. Life is not first of all about attaining our happiness, but about arriving at the holiness for which God has chosen us in Christ. Are you one of “the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus” (verse 1)? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….”
Paul gets more specific about the way grace has shaped our lives in the next blessing he describes. “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ….” Part of the debate around election centers on the purpose of election. Is election unto service or unto salvation? Horrified by the notion that God might unilaterally decide who will be saved, many Christians opt for election unto service. There are good biblical reasons to maintain that interpretation. After all, Israel’s election was designed to serve the larger world, to make God known to the nations. Further, service is the necessary result of salvation. In my tradition, the Christian life is summarized in the Sin, Salvation, and Service format of the Heidelberg Catechism. So, of course, we are elected to serve.
But that is not all Paul says here. He insists that God predestined us to be adopted– not just as servants, not just as missionaries to the nations, but as children of God. The word “predestined” is prohoridzo in the Greek, which means literally to “pre-horizon.” The horizon is the circle around us as far as we can see. To predestine means to “draw a circle around someone ahead of time.” I think of how professional sports teams conduct their annual draft of college players. Each team has a long list of potential players who might fit their roster. In some high level meeting, they draw circles around the names of players they want on their team. They predestine them to become Lions or Tigers or Bears (oh my!).
Of course, the predestination of players is always based on something in those players—their college records, their physical abilities, their character. It will be a conditional predestination. But God’s election and predestination is not based on anything in us. According to Paul it is based solely on something in God. “In love he predestined us….” The word there is agape, which is another word for grace. It was a totally unearned, undeserved love that drew a circle around us and drew us into God’s forever family.
Why on earth, why in heaven’s name would God do a thing like that? We could go into great detail about determinism and free will, as I did in my previous pieces on this text on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website. But I’ll focus now on just two things. First, Paul says that God did this “according to his pleasure and will.” The Greek is eudokian, which conveys not sheer determination, but supreme delight. However we try to explain this blessing, we must remember that it gave God great delight to do it. And it cost him dearly to accomplish his electing and predestining purpose. He chose and predestined us “in Christ.” God sacrificed his Son to make us his sons and daughters.
That points, in the second place, to the fact that Paul calls this doctrine a great “blessing.” And it is, because it assures us that we can never fall out of God’s love as we journey through the wilderness. The journey did not begin with our choice. Our status with God does not depend on our decision. We are loved in Christ so completely that nothing can separate us from God’s love. What a comfort that is as we slog along under the hot summer sun! Let’s help our congregants move beyond theological questions to pure doxology. “Praise be….”
The third blessing for the journey is “redemption.” The Greek word there refers to the ancient Greco-Roman practice of freeing a slave or prisoner by paying a ransom. Paul is saying that in Christ, indeed, through his blood, we have been set free from some sort of bondage. The big question is, from what sort of bondage? Not understanding that has discouraged many a Christian as they trudge through the wilderness. Does redemption mean that our outward circumstances are changed, that we move, like Israel, from Egypt to Canaan? Does it mean that we are set free from the terrible situations caused by sin? Ultimately, yes. We are promised Shalom in the Promised Land, after all. But that’s not the heart of redemption. So, does redemption have to do with being set free from the power of sin? Does it change our internal lives, our attitudes, emotions and thoughts? Ultimately, yes. We are promised holiness, someday. Indeed, we have been chosen to holiness. But that’s not the heart of redemption either.
Paul ends our questions when he says that redemption is all about “the forgiveness of sins.” It’s not centrally about release from the external situations of our lives, or about release from our own inner self. It’s about the forgiveness of our sins. What happens when our sins are forgiven? The Greek word here is instructive, because it means “to cancel, remit, or pardon, as with a loan or debt.” When God forgives, he cancels our obligation. We don’t have to keep his law in order to be saved. When God forgives, he cancels our guilt. We are guilty, but our feelings can’t jeopardize our salvation and we ought to live with a clear conscience. And he cancels our punishment. What a relief as we stagger along, stumbling and falling, grumbling and questioning! None of our sins will keep us from arriving at our appointed destination. “Praise be….”
That brings us to the next blessing. As we wander through the wilderness we often feel lost. Sometimes life seems like a trackless waste and we wonder if we’re going the right way. What is God’s will for this part of the journey? Should I marry or not? Should I become a plumber or a preacher? Should I buy an Accord or a Lexus? Which church should I join? What a blessing it is that God has “made known to us the mystery of his will… which he purposed in Christ….” In the fragmentation and frustration of our experience in this world, where it so often seems as though everything is out of control or ruled by a madman, what a blessing it is to know that God has a plan.
And what a blessing it is to know what the plan is. No, Paul is not talking about God’s plan for the little details of our lives, though the Bible contains multiple directions for the journey. Paul focuses here on the big picture of God’s plan, which “according to his good pleasure he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment….” Each phrase in that complex sentence is filled with encouragement for the journey. This plan is something God is delighted to do. Christ is at the center of it. God is managing history to make this happen. And it will come to fulfillment in God’s good time. So even if we don’t know exactly what God wants in the various phases of our journey, we do know what God is up to overall. He will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” “Praise be….”
But that’s big picture stuff. What about my own little life? I know I’m chosen. I know I’m a child of God. But we’ve all heard stories about adopted children whose personality disorders and behavior problems are so severe that their adoptions are terminated. And how many fairy tales feature step children who are poorly treated by their step parents. How can I be sure that my journey will end happily? Well, says Paul, “In Christ we were also chosen….” The Greek there is eklerothemen, which means not only “chosen,” but also “made an heir.” As God’s adopted children, we are heirs to a fortune. We are not poor urchins scratching our way through the world, barely eking out a living. Even if that is our physical lot in life, we have this spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. We are heirs to a fortune beyond our wildest dreams. Paul doesn’t elaborate on what our inheritance is, though elsewhere he talks about “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (II Corinthians 4:17) “Praise be….”
Finally, Paul gives his guarantee that the journey will turn out well. What he guarantees in not a promise, but a presence. “Having believed, you were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” As believers, we are indwelt by the Spirit that Jesus promised. Then, alluding to the commercial and legal worlds, Paul uses an interesting Greek world, esphragisthete. It means that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives guarantees that we are the genuine article, marks us as the possession of God, and protects us from tampering or harm.
How do we know we have the Spirit? Our faith in Christ is the sign; “having believed, you were marked with a seal….” And that seal is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.” There is no way on God’s green earth that we will be disappointed at the end of our pilgrimage. The presence of the Spirit is a down payment, a first installment of the full inheritance we will one day receive. We will finish the journey intact. We cannot lose any of the spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms that so profoundly shape the journey. “Praise be….”
There’s our mid-summer picker upper. I would end a sermon on this text with three brief words of counsel, each one a “don’t.” God has lavished all these things upon us in his grace. So, don’t take the credit when life is blessed. We have all these blessings only in Christ. So, don’t take your eyes off Jesus as you trudge along. And all of these blessings are designed to bring praise to the glory of God. Three times, at the end of each major section (verses 6, 12, 14), Paul reminds us that we are so blessed “to the praise of his glorious grace.” So, don’t hog the glory. It’s not about us; it’s about God. “Praise be….”
In contrast to the image of life as a pilgrimage drenched with blessing, Cormac McCarthy paints a picture of a blasted life in his haunting novel, The Road. In a world that has been devastated by a nuclear disaster, a father and his son shuffle along a road that is ankle deep in ash. The landscape is grey and barren. There is nothing to eat or drink, except what they stumble upon. They live in constant terror of the radiation scarred cannibals who prowl the roads looking for prey. The man and his boy are on pilgrimage to the West Coast where the father believes there might be some outpost of civilization. When they finally arrive after “many dangers, toils, and snares,” they are disappointed to find that the Promised Land is ruined too. But just as the book is about to close in utter hopelessness, the boy is mysteriously handed over to apparently normal survivors. Apart from that surprising and enigmatic ending, The Road is a desolate picture of life as a hopeless journey through a blasted world. Its popularity suggests that the picture resonates with the way life feels for many 21st century people or with their fears about the way life could become in the rest of this century.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2015
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary