July 15, 2018
EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Today we begin a series of readings from the letter to the Ephesians that will take us through the next seven weeks. Our reading for today – the opening thanksgiving – is an introduction to the whole letter and its themes, and so sets the tone for what we will be reading in the weeks to come. In the original Greek, this passage is one long sentence, clause upon clause upon clause, describing how God has blessed us and the implications of those blessings for our lives. Thank goodness, modern English translations break up this long sentence so it’s easier to understand. If you want a sense of what it’s like in the original, try reading the King James version, online or if you have that version of the bible at home, and see what you make of it!
The writer begins by praising God for blessing us with spiritual blessings. Biblical scholars debate whether Paul himself or a later follower wrote this letter, but one phrase that crops up repeatedly, both here and in the letters that are undoubtably by Paul, is the phrase “in Christ”. So, for our purposes today, I’ll just say Paul when I mean the author of this letter.
What does it mean to be “in Christ”? More than saying with Christ or through Christ, to be in Christ means to belong to Christ, to be part of Christ. By being united to Christ and joined to Christ, the believer comes to possess these spiritual blessings.
Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t talk about blessings in general, or “some” blessings. He talks about every spiritual blessing. God has given us everything God could give. It’s not some blessings for you, and other blessings for you, but every blessing for all believers.
Paul says that God has chosen the believers before the creation of the world. Blessing and choice go together. God has blessed us just as God has chosen us. The calling is not to receive or to do, but to be – to be holy and blameless before God in love. So, God’s spiritual blessings are not possessions, but attributes – holiness, blamelessness, and love. They are the foundations of a Christian character.
The next several verses speak of how these blessings were given.
- God destined us for adoption as children.
- We have redemption through the blood of Jesus.
- We have the forgiveness of our sins.
In other words, it is through the death of Jesus on the cross that God gives us adoption, redemption, and forgiveness. In just a few words, Paul summarizes the saving benefits of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
- Because we have been blessed,
- because we have been chosen.
- because we have received adoption, redemption, and forgiveness,
we have also received insight into the mystery of God’s will.
Notice again, Paul does not say “I” have received, but we have received. Elsewhere in his writings, Paul does talk about his role in helping reveal the mystery, or being a steward of the mystery, but ultimately this knowledge is available to everyone, not just a select few.
Here is another typical phrase, both of this letter and Paul’s other writings – God’s “mystery”. What is this mystery? It is God’s plan, once hidden and now revealed, to gather up all things into Christ. The great and central theme of this letter is unity, specifically unity between Jews and Gentiles. Jews and Gentiles alike are part of this mystery, this previously unknown plan now made known in Christ – not Gentiles without Jews or Jews in preference to Gentiles, but Jews and Gentiles alike and together being reconciled to God through Jesus.
Paul goes further: it is a plan for all created things, in heaven and on earth. God’s plan of salvation is cosmic in its scope. And the full unveiling of the mystery of God brings to light the purpose for which God created the church. It is part of God’s plan that, through the church, God’s eternal purpose may be made known – namely, to bring all things together under the headship of Christ. The church’s purpose is to serve God’s plan, which will be realized “in the fulness of time”. The church exists to serve God’s mission.
As part of his presentation of God’s plan, Paul emphasizes God’s will and the audience’s chosen status. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world”. God “destined us for adoption as his children”. We have been “destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will”. In other words, we have been chosen! This kind of language sometimes raises questions about God’s will and human free will. Does God choose who believes and who doesn’t, who is saved and who isn’t?
Paul’s point isn’t so much about the status of individuals, as it is to affirm that the salvation of Gentile Christians through Christ has been part of God’s plan from the very beginning of creation. Given the understanding of Jews as God’s chosen people, the status of Gentile believers was a huge controversy in the first century church, the subject of debate and even conflict between Peter and Paul. These verses are meant to assure Gentile Christians that they were part of God’s plan all along.
God’s plan to unite all things in Christ is the basis of the inheritance, both for “we” Jews and “you” Gentiles (remember Paul is writing as a Jewish convert to Christianity). It is an inheritance and promise of glory, of which the Spirit is a pledge, kind of like a down payment. The Holy Spirit conveys the resurrection life of Christ to believers. In doing so, the Spirit gives the assurance that the believers will rise in the likeness of the risen Christ. The Spirit is called the first fruits of the risen life, the seal and guarantee, the initial pledge of the inheritance of glory into which believers will be ushered. The Spirit makes the benefits of Christ’s saving work effective in the believers, and the Spirit enables them to receive and enjoy in advance the benefits of the age to come.
Upon their conversion and coming to faith, the Gentile converts were sealed – marked with the Holy Spirit – a reference to their baptism. Baptism initiates believers into the state of being “in Christ”, so that his death and resurrection become part of their spiritual experience. Baptism incorporates the believers into one body in Christ, held together by the Spirit.
Throughout this passage, like a refrain, come the words “to the praise of his glory”:
- “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (verse 6)
- “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (verse 12)
- “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (verse 14)
We have been blessed; we have been chosen; we have been given adoption, redemption and forgiveness; we have been given knowledge of God’s plan; we have been given an inheritance, and the end result is praise for God’s glory, praise for God’s grace, praise for God’s goodness. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.”
Well, there are consequences here for our understanding of ourselves as baptized Christians, our understanding of who we are as the whole people of God, our understanding of the baptismal mystery.
- We are chosen as much if not more than we choose. Certainly, we choose to accept Christ, and we say so at our baptism (or someone said it on our behalf until we could say it for ourselves). We choose to profess our faith. We choose to belong to the church. We do have responsibilities as baptized people, as people who present others for baptism, as people who promise to support and nurture all the baptized. But it is God who makes it possible for us to choose, possible for us to promise, and possible for us to keep our promises.
- As the baptized, baptizing community, we have insight into God’s will, which is reconciliation and unity for all people. The questions of the baptismal covenant spell out how we are to shape our lives to help bring about that unity and reconciliation – in worship, mutual forgiveness, evangelism, service to others, work for justice and peace, and care for creation. As a baptized and baptizing community, we are to be a sign of God’s will for unity and reconciliation. We are to be a model or microcosm for what it looks like when all created beings are united “in Christ”.
- The end must always, always be praise to God’s glory. When people look at us, they need to see God’s goodness and love. What are we showing them?
For Paul, the Christian life was sometimes an arduous business. He liked to compare it to an athletic contest, which required training, discipline, and perseverance. His greatest concern for his converts was that they reproduce in their lives the character of Christ marked by love, patience, gentleness, humility, and kindness. These things cannot be produced by rules and regulations, what Paul summed up as the Law. They must be the fruit of the Spirit within us.
Equally, though, for Paul, there were no limits to the transforming power of the risen Christ, implanted in believers’ hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s gospel is one of salvation by God’s grace. Look how many times he says it: God has chosen us; God has destined us; God has adopted us; God has forgiven us; God has lavished us with his grace. God has a plan, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in Christ. What a relief to know we don’t have to earn our salvation, in fact we can’t earn it. We don’t have to keep score of good deeds and bad deeds. Our salvation is a gift “freely bestowed on us” by one who loves us.
The overall purpose of the letter to the Ephesians is to set out Paul’s understanding of God’s plan for the unity and salvation of all created beings. In an age where we search for truth and reconciliation, an age of divisive politics, rising ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, and “fake news” as an excuse for avoiding personal responsibility, this gospel – this good news – is needed more than ever. Amen.