Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 2, 2022
Ephesians 1:3-14 Commentary
Few Scripture passages are theologically weightier than this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In fact, in an earlier commentary on it, Scott Hoezee remembers once asking the congregation he served about how it would feel if he were from then to on base every sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14. He notes that while most would call it a huge mistake, it would not be, theologically speaking, a bad choice.
Colleagues have posted wonderful commentaries on this theologically meaty text on this site. They offer wonderful pastoral advice for either proclaiming all of Ephesians 1:3-14, or homing in on one theme that unites the diverse blessings that are God’s people’s in Christ Jesus.
Proclaimers who want to be faithful to the passage but to go in a slightly different direction might find ourselves drawn to its adoption imagery. After all, in verse 5 Paul praises the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for predestining us to be “adopted as [God’s] sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ – in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
New Testament scholar Susan Hylen notes that adoption was a familiar topic because it was relatively common in Paul’s day. Members of the upper classes would use it to gain an heir if they had no children of their own or if their children had died. Children and adults who were adopted generally gained in social status by becoming the member of a higher class family.
Hylen goes on to note that Paul’s contemporaries who were adopted shared their new siblings’ social and political connections. Their inheritance also often made them wealthy. In return, children who were adopted honored their parents by taking their name and being loyal to them.
Yet while I’d always thought of adoption imagery as some of the Scriptures’ most glorious, a dear friend has helped me to think about some of the pain that can come with being adopted. Those who proclaim and hear Ephesians 1’s treatment of adoption on this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2022, would benefit from the perspective of people who have been adopted.
Children who have been adopted may grieve the loss of a relationship with their birth parents. Some people who have been adopted even feel intrigued by what they might have had had they stayed with their birth parent, even if it may have been worse than what they have now. They may be left wondering a lot about those birth parents.
People who have been adopted also sometimes mourn the loss of cultural and family connections they could have experienced with their birth parents. They also sometimes feel like they must constantly fight to ensure that they both have and keep a place to call their own.
Those who focus on God’s adoption of God’s sons and daughters want to be aware of the grief it may awaken in some hearers. Its proclaimers may even want to spend time in conversation with their hearers who were adopted both about their adoption and the proclaimer’s message about God’s adoption of us.
Yet God’s adoption of God’s children is in many ways very different from human parents’ adoption of children. Satan, of course, didn’t voluntarily surrender those whom God graciously adopted. In fact, the evil one does everything in his power to keep Christians within his “family.” Blood needed to be shed to rip us out of his tenacious grasp and place us into the loving and gracious arms of the Lord.
While people who have been adopted may feel like they somehow weren’t good enough for their birth parents, it’s different for God’s adopted sons and daughters. By nature, we’re “good” enough for our natural Father Satan. We’re not, however, good enough for our adoptive Father, the God of heaven and earth. So God doesn’t adopt people because of who those people are. God adopts people strictly because of who God is. That’s a reason for ceaseless gratitude and praise.
The NIV does Ephesians 1’s proclaimers no favors when it fails to translate verse 4’s kathos (elsewhere translated as “just as”). After all, that adverb helps establish a parallel between verses 4 and 5, between God’s choice of us and God’s predestining us to be adopted. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Greek literally suggests that just as God chose us to be holy and blameless in God’s sight, so God also predestined us for adoption as God’s beloved sons and daughters.
God does all of that, says the apostle, “in love.” So God doesn’t adopt Jesus’ friends out of a sense of obligation or because God somehow feels guilty. God adopts people into God’s family for no other reason than God’s undying, unconditional love for us. God adopts us only because God so passionately loves us.
Because God so ardently loves us, God, according to the NIV translation, “predestined” (proorisas) us to be adopted as God’s children. Few words in the biblical lexicon stir up greater passion within and among members of God’s adopted family than “predestined” or “predestination.”
Ephesians 1’s proclaimers will want to filter their presentation through their own faith tradition’s understanding of God’s predestining. Yet we don’t want to lose sight of Paul’s emphasis on God’s gracious work in choosing to adopt us. God has the central and first place in every part of our salvation, including our adoption as God’s children.
God didn’t just send God’s Son. God also lovingly chose and predestined God’s dearly beloved people to be part of God’s universal family. God, in fact, didn’t somehow choose to adopt us at the “spur of the moment.” Somewhere in eternity, God chose to make us part of God’s family.
God did all of this, the apostle goes on to insist, “through Jesus Christ.” God’s only natural Son’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension are, in other words, the means by which God graciously adopted all the rest of God’s children. Without our Elder Brother’s saving work, we’d still be children of the evil one who gladly both make ourselves and remain God’s enemies.
God lovingly decided beforehand to make us part of God’s family “in accordance with his pleasure and good will.” This echoes Paul’s emphasis on God’s adoption of God’s sons and daughters “in love” (4b). It pleased God to make us part of God’s family. Christians’ adoption was, in other words, what God desired.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s focus on God’s adoption of us may want to highlight a couple of more aspects of it. Paul consistently emphasizes God’s role in God’s adopted children’s salvation. In fact, all but one of the nouns and verbs that are in the singular form in Ephesians 1:3-14 refer to God.
Paul’s repeated use of the plural form of “you” as well as “we” reminds us that God graciously chooses to adopt the whole community of God’s dearly beloved people. So while God adopts us as individuals, God immediately makes us members of the beloved community. Christians’ worship services and community ministries are, then, in a sense, family reunions.
This affects the way Christians look at and treat each other across our churches’ aisle, various ministry teams and, yes, even across all the other chasms that so often divide God’s dearly beloved children. That person who doesn’t agree with us about wearing masks and getting vaccinated against COVID isn’t first of all (if ever) a mouth-breathing Neanderthal or elite snob. He or she is our adopted brother or sister in Christ. Those people who don’t share our perspective on climate change and its causes aren’t first of all (if ever) anti-science ignoramuses or namby-pamby snowflakes. They’re fellow members of God’s adopted family.
What’s more, Paul adds in verse 6, God adopts God’s children “to the praise of his glorious grace.” This mysterious phrase at least suggests that God adopts God’s sons and daughters not only for the sake of our well-being, but also for God’s glory. As a result, those whom God graciously adopts devote our lives to giving our neighbors glimpses of God’s glory in the ways we act, talk, and even think.
All of this helps make Ephesians 1:3-14 a wonderful place to begin the year of our Lord, 2022. What’s more, should the Lord tarry yet another year for all of us, it will also be a wonderful place to end the year of our Lord, 2022. In fact, Ephesians 1 will be a wonderful place to be throughout the year of our Lord, 2022.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is, after all, from start to finish as well as everywhere in between all about God, just like 2022 will be. There is, of course, plenty of work for God’s adopted sons and daughters to do to love both God and our neighbors during the course of the coming year. But God’s dearly beloved people do all of it in the sure knowledge that we are part of God’s family and, as a result, God’s good and loving purposes.
Adam and Eve* adopted Rachel and Leah* shortly before Rachel’s age would make her ineligible to remain in her home country’s foster care system. They helped rescue them from an uncertain future that had elements of danger. Adam and Eve provided them with a loving and nurturing home, and surrounded them with loving siblings and a caring community.
Yet as Rachel and Leah grew older, they in some ways rejected Adam and Eve. The trauma of their childhood as well as issues with which many children who are adopted struggle became almost too much for them. While Rachel and Leah maintain some contact with Adam and Eve, their relationship isn’t as close as I imagine Adam and Eve had dreamed and hoped.
There is always risk in parenting children. Adopting children may heighten some of those dangers. After all, the pain and grief of children who are adopted is very real and can linger for a long time. Children sometimes in varying degrees reject their adoptive parents.
Might Ephesians 1’s proclaimers say something similar about God’s adoption of God’s beloved sons and daughters? God takes huge risks in adopting us. God’s children whom God has adopted don’t always live for God’s glory. Yet God so passionately loves God’s people that God continues to risk adopting us from the evil one’s family anyway.
*not their real names
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