Sermon; 8 Pentecost/Proper 10B; Ephesians 1:3-14
The gospel of Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended beginning. Almost every story we hear in Mark points to the Passion, the Cross, and, in some cases, the Resurrection. That said, I'm going to take a seven-week break from Mark and delve into Ephesians.
Ephesians is one of my favorite letters in the NT. Part of that is due to the letter's general tone. Bibles tend to include this letter with all of the other letters attributed to Paul, but the earliest manuscripts we have don't list Paul as the author. Nor do they have “to the Saints in Ephesus,” thereby throwing doubt as to whom the letter was written. One of my commentaries says that it was written by a disciple of Paul after his death, reminding us that his ministry continued on and giving us hope that our ministries will also carry on.
All that said, let's delve into this letter that may or may not have been written by Paul to a church that may or may not have been in Ephesus.
As we read through this letter over the next seven weeks you should note that it is constructed like a funnel. The author (whom I'll call Paul for simplicity's sake) begins with a vast cosmic view of God and our role in God's plan. That cosmic view slowly narrows as Paul writes about unification in Christ, the Church, our life in the Church, our life at home, and individual spirituality. This isn't a letter focused on individual Christian character; it's a letter that focuses on the universality of God and how Church and people play a part in that universality.
Today's lectionary text starts at the beginning of the letter. As I said, it's not clear who wrote it, or to whom it was written, so the RCL begins the lection at verse 3. Remember, Ephesians can be seen as a funnel that opens up with broad cosmological themes and works its way down to individual spiritual practices. Today we have the broad beginning, the wide opening of the funnel. And in this broad beginning we can also see the beginnings of trinitarian theology.
First, we see the omnipotence of God along with his eternal purpose of bringing humanity back into the fully reconciled embrace of the Godhead. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. In other words, God is Lord of all and we are recipients of his universal blessings.
Verses 4-6 are somewhat problematic because they deal with predestination. He chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world. He destined us for adoption as his children through Christ. He bestowed his grace upon us through the Beloved, Jesus Christ.
I'm not a big fan of predestination. For one thing, I don't believe God chooses some to be saved and some to be punished or neglected. For another, I think predestination beliefs allow people to a) not evangelize, b) develop a sense of privilege in a self-serving way, c) not bother with living upright and moral lives because they own a “get out of jail free” card, and d) create a theology of exclusion where they do not need to care about other people or even the planet.
On the other hand, I do believe God is omniscient, and thereby knows who will choose to follow him and who will not.
One way you could look at this is to look at me. Was I predestined to become the 28th Rector of St. John's? You could say, “Yes.” But you could also say that God simply knew how my life and the search process would play out. It's predestination as all-knowing. I prefer the all-knowing aspect.
So, moving on . . . we have been adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ. This adoption gives us a new beginning. Through Christ we have been redeemed and our sins forgiven. This new beginning goes all the way back to Israel's redemption from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and to the release of the Babylonian captives. The horror of the crucifixion, the blood of Christ, has become the new Exodus, the new release from sin and bondage. And it is through these acts that God, through Christ, fulfills his ultimate plan to gather up all things in heaven and earth unto himself.
The inheritance that was promised to Abraham and his children is now also promised to us through Christ. It was and is through Christ that the fulfillment of the eternal plan of salvation is accomplished for all people. Christ does not supersede, replace, or invalidate the original covenant with Abraham; but it is through Christ that the covenant is expanded. It is through Christ that we are adopted as children of God.
Before the foundation of the world, God had a plan to gather all people to him to be holy and blameless before him in love. For the Jews, that plan involved the covenant with Abraham. For Gentiles, that plan included our adoption through Christ. Through Christ all things in heaven and earth are gathered up.
And then, when we heard the word of truth, when we heard the good news of the gospel of Christ, we were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. John Chrysostom said of this sealing, “It is just as if someone might stamp his heirs plainly in advance; so God set us apart to believe and sealed us for the inheritance of future glory.” We have been marked in advance as heirs of God through Christ by the Holy Spirit.
When does this happen? For us it happens at our baptism. Whether we promise to become followers of Christ, or whether those promises are made on our behalf, it is at our baptism that we are formally adopted as children of God. And it is at our baptism that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own for ever.
This letter is addressed as much to us today as it was to the people of the early Church. It takes us on a journey through the cosmos and the eternal plan of God as Lord of the universe all the way down to our individual spirituality. And as we begin our journey, we are reminded that before the foundations of the world were lain, before creation itself, we were chosen by God to be holy and blameless in love. We were destined for adoption through Christ and redeemed through his blood and by his love. And we were marked as his own by the seal of the Holy Spirit.
Today we have entered the opening of the funnel. May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing on the name of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit.