Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 15, 2018
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary
Years ago when I was a pastor, I once asked my congregation what they would think if I announced one week that from then on, every single one of my sermons would be based on Ephesians 1. Most would chalk that up to a huge mistake! Yet if you look closely at Ephesians 1:1-14, you will see why that would not be, theologically speaking, a bad choice. Because as commentators point out, in a mere fourteen verses Paul manages to include every significant topic of Christian theology.
Let me cobble together for you the list. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine election. Redemption through Jesus’ blood. The baptismal seal of the Holy Spirit. Salvation by grace alone. The doctrines of creation and providence. Eschatology. Faith. Sanctification. The proclamation of the gospel. It’s all here. Of course, each topic could be fleshed out, but by the time you finished fleshing them out, what you would have would be close to a complete seminary curriculum.
But let me point out something even more remarkable. Throughout these verses–words that range over the height and breadth of all theology–we human beings are all-but completely passive. God is the chief actor and is the subject of every active verb. What’s more, those verbs are, in the original Greek, all in the past perfect tense, letting you know that these things are settled, done, accomplished once and for all.
And so we read that God blessed us, chose us, predestined us, has freely given grace to us, has lavished grace upon us, has made known the mystery of the gospel to us, has redeemed us. All those active verbs stand in contrast to the passive ones that involve us. We have received the blessings, we have been chosen and have been predestined; we have received the adoption and the grace. We were chosen, were included, were marked with a seal. The only active thing Paul attributes to us comes in verse 13 when Paul says we believed the gospel. We believed what we heard, and the rest then follows. But even that is not a terribly active thing, is it? In order to believe something, it has to be presented to you from the outside. So even at our most active level in Ephesians 1, we are still on the receiving-end of all that God alone is providing and presenting.
Clearly, when it comes to the love and the care and the salvation of our heavenly Father, we are getting caught up in something far larger than ourselves to which we contribute nothing! But there is a reason for that. From verse 3 to verse 14 a certain phrase crops up no less than nine times. Over and again Paul says that all this divine activity of choosing, predestining, lavishing, blessing, giving, and revealing happens in Christ. Repeatedly in verses 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, and twice in verse 13 Paul throws in the prepositional phrase “in Christ, in him, in the One, in whom.” Why is it that we human beings look so passive here, apparently pitching in nothing? Because all that we need and all that we have now received or will ever receive took place in Christ.
But what does that mean? It means that everything that was ever wrong with this world somehow got corrected in Jesus. It means that everything that was broken in life somehow got fixed in Jesus. It means that everything that ever ailed us somehow got healed in Jesus. In ways difficult to fathom, Christ Jesus now has within himself all the power, energy, and desire necessary to forgive sins, to defeat evil, and so make available the grace we need to have a loving relationship with our Creator God. Because he is the Son of the Father, Jesus can now deliver to us what we need to become children of that same Father.
It seems that in the theology of Paul, Christ Jesus has become more than just a person–he has almost become a kind of cosmic place, a spiritual location such that if you are “in Christ,” if you exist within the sphere of his influence, then you are all set. Christ has become a type of cosmic safe house in which your sins are put away and you yourself have been lavished with a redemption no one can steal.
This Savior is far more than the personalized Jesus who sometimes gets conveyed in contemporary music–the Jesus who walks and talks privately with you in the quiet of some garden where dew is still on the roses and such. This is not to deny that Jesus is our Friend and that he has a relationship with each one of us. But the Christ Jesus we get from Paul is so much grander. Christ is a sphere of influence, a cosmic situation and place where, if you are on the inside, you are immersed in all that is good.
So to sum up, the God who is the maker and sustainer of a creation beyond our ability to understand is your Father and my Father and our Father. But the awful nature of this God, and the vast universe he has made, doesn’t put me off, it draws me in. Because I know what my Father will do with all that power: he will care for his children. But this is so only because we all have an elder Brother named Jesus in whom we exist now. He took care of everything for us and he now exists as the source and resource of lavish blessings.
How different this is from the dog-eat-dog ethos of so much of life in this fallen world. Again and again we are told that to succeed, you have to work very hard, be a bit cut-throat, and demonstrate a willingness to put yourself forward come what may. You need to step on others, defeat them, and so prove your worth. So be ruthless in getting what you want and then be equally vigilant and ruthless to keep it. The people who already have what you want are not that eager to give it away. So to get it, you will have to be very clever indeed.
The gospel tells us that this very ethos, this way of looking at life, is a symptom of everything that is wrong with us. That way of going at life is not only not the solution, it is the problem! It may succeed in gaining the whole world but, as someone once said, what good is it if you gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?
As Christians we are supposed to learn not simply that we get saved by grace alone but also that as a result, that same grace sets the tone for the rest of life. All of our interactions with one another, all of the ways by which we view other people, the very shape of our existence is informed by not just the fact that we have a God who is our Father but also by how it came to be that we have the precious privilege of calling God Father. If we exist now in Christ, if we are dwelling inside Jesus, then our life is based on the precise opposite of anyone who claims that the base of life should be a ruthless pitting of people against each other.
The secret to the universe is that God’s fierce and fathomless power is exceeded only by his zestful enthusiasm for our lives. God poured into his Son the full wealth and strength that funds and supports the known universe and beyond. But the real secret to life is revealed in the fact of our completely passive posture in Ephesians 1. All you need to tap into God’s love, grace, and strength is a willingness to believe that what he says is true. And with no more than that child-like ability to trust your Father’s Word, the floodgates open as you are transported to live, both now and even forever more, in Christ.
William Sloane Coffin once noted that when we think about Jesus’ call to receive the kingdom like children, we often think only about the natural humility of kids. But, Coffin said, we should not underestimate the sweet idealism of children. It’s children, after all, who want to save the seals, save the whales, and save everybody else while they’re at it. It’s kids who set up lemonade stands and sell cookies so they can then turn their nickels and dimes over to this or that relief agency. It’s children who take home the little church-shaped piggy banks, fill them with copper coins, and then bring them back to the minister, really believing that those pennies will help make a new addition to the church a reality. It’s children who have a neighborhood walk around a school, holding up homemade signs calling for racial reconciliation and really believing that they are making a difference by taking to the sidewalk that way. And, of course, we encourage this in children. We buy the lemonade, compliment the delicious cookies, and stick our loose change into empty coffee cans. But then the day comes when we start to discourage in older children the very idealism we encourage in children below a certain age. Why do we do that? Would Jesus think that’s a good way to make a Christian child grow up?
Christian people who live in Christ know that everything we ever needed has been lavished on us freely and completely. We know and believe that since we live in that sphere of influence that is Christ Jesus, it is precisely simple acts of trust, quiet acts of kindness, a gentleness of spirit, and a willingness to witness to the gospel that can make all the difference in the world. One day, that grace will change the world.
Actually, it already has
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