by David Baer, July 16, 2017
Text: Ephesians 1:1-14
Almost a year ago, my family welcomed its newest member, a young, energetic beagle mix named Baxter. Baxter is exasperating in any number of ways. He likes to shred his bed, or his leash, or our kids’ toys. If you are careless about opening the door, he’ll bolt right through it and lead you on an exuberant chase across the neighborhood. When he’s excited, he sometimes rampages around the house in a loop, caroming off the walls, furniture, and people in his path. But for all that, he’s whip-smart, he’s a beautiful animal, and he gives us an excuse to see the other dog owners on our block. I’d never agree to give him up—he’s part of the family now.
When we adopted him last fall, it felt very similar to when we adopted our first dog, Scout. You don’t just carry an animal out of the shelter on a whim. We had to sign forms that said we understood that we were agreeing to take responsibility for the well-being of this animal, that we would provide food and medical care, an appropriate environment for him to live in, exercise to stimulate his mind and keep his body healthy. We had to say we understood that this responsibility extended for Baxter’s whole life, which could be another ten years or more. The shelter staff were serious about it, and so were we. We had only met Baxter that day, but we had talked for months about bringing a new dog into our home. Now there’s no guarantee that people won’t just sign the paper and take home a new pet that they’re not really prepared to care for. The idea is not to do the impossible and read the minds of people like us, or ferret out our true motives, but just to get us to think about what we’re doing, to underscore that this is a serious choice with real consequences for us and for our pet, to say, “Here is what this means. Is this what you want?” It should never be the case that someone who makes it says, “I was misinformed,” or “I didn’t know what I was doing.” This is a choice that has weight. But it’s all the more meaningful for that weight. Baxter is part of our family because we chose him.
Have you ever chosen someone else, whether of the four-legged or two-legged variety? Have you ever been chosen in this way? Marriage vows are a way of choosing someone. So is adopting a child. The husband of one of my colleagues made a choice last year, and swore an oath, to become an American citizen. These are all serious, sober choices, and that gives them real value. By choosing a nation, a spouse, a child, and accepting everything that comes with this commitment, we give shape to our identity. You’re now an American. You’re now Mary’s husband, or John’s father. And choosing other people (and even, somewhat, a nation) shapes their identity as well. And the power of these identity-shaping choices comes from our having made them freely, without being forced. Because I chose to marry my spouse, because I made a life-long commitment to this person of my own free will, it’s not a mask I wear or a role I’m putting on. No, a commitment like this says something genuine about who I am and who I intend to be.
This week and next I’ll be preaching on the first couple of chapters of the book of Ephesians. Here it’s all about a free choice. It’s not about our free choice, though, but God’s free choice. God freely chooses us, makes us part of God’s family, and blesses us. And that tells us something about who God is, and it certainly tells us something about who we are. We are the people God chooses, not because of how awesome we are or what we can do for God, but just because God is a gracious God of love who does all things well.
The thing about the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians is that it’s not a letter, it probably wasn’t written by Paul, and it wasn’t written for the Ephesians. Paul’s letters are very practical. He writes to churches mostly because there’s a problem that he wants to help solve. In Ephesians there are no practical problems, just a grand meditation on God’s grace and the unity of the family that grace gathers—the church. And that’s a good thing for us, because we can just as easily read “Dear Highlands” at the top of the letter, and it still works.
This essay-letter begins with a thanksgiving. And this thanksgiving is all about God’s choosing us. Now, there’s a kind of choosing that involves evaluating something or someone to see if it’s good enough. If you’re buying bananas, you might decide that these are too green, or these have too many brown spots. You’re looking for something that meets with your approval. That’s one kind of choosing.
But there’s another kind of choosing, the choosing of an artist who chooses what she creates. Think of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, staring intently at the block of stone that was going to become his famous sculpture of David. Michelangelo himself once said this: “the marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.”1 I don’t know if it’s true, because I’m not a sculptor, but what Michelangelo is saying is that if you’re a great artist, any material can take on any form you decide. It’s a matter of choosing what it will be. This is the kind of choosing that the author of Ephesians is talking about when he says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world….”
Before God began sculpting the earth, before God lit the stars and spun the galaxies across the universe, when everything was shapeless, unformed darkness, God chose us. God had a plan for shaping a beautiful creation, a creation that reflects the goodness and beauty of God, and we were meant to be part of it. We were always meant to be part of it, as we read here: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” God made a lasting, irrevocable commitment to you before you were born, to uphold you and care for you and to love you forever. Consider just how amazing this is… Before you were able to name God, before you were able to speak, before you had any concept of who God is, God said, “You will be my beloved child.” And so this relationship can’t possibly depend on your deserving it—how could your deserving be the basis of God’s choice, which happened before you existed? “You will be my beloved child…” This is not like choosing bananas. This is the choosing of the sculptor who decides what the marble is going to be.
God, Ephesians says, has shown us a glimpse of the master plan in Jesus, “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Our adoption as God’s children is part of something larger. God the creator—God the master artist—looked into the unformed world before it ever was and saw it joyfully alive and at peace with itself and with God. It’s not there yet. God’s people and God’s creation still struggle with illness and hurt. We’re often estranged from each other and from God. But in Jesus, Ephesians tells us, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” God is so passionately committed to us, to our wholeness, to our becoming what God saw from the start, that God came in the person of Jesus to lay down his life in order to restore us. If God is willing to do this, then what won’t God do to perfect and finish the whole creation according to the beautiful vision God has for it?
All of this is very heady and abstract. It feels like we’re looking out from a plane cruising at 30,000 feet above the earth. I told you that Ephesians was not so much about practical problems as it is about a grand vision of God’s grace, didn’t I? But here’s where it touches down. Here’s where becomes real. Our reading today ends by finally addressing us: “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”
In the early church, the Holy Spirit wasn’t a disembodied abstraction. It was a force that made people speak in tongues with messages of good news. It was a force that healed, that raised the dead, that called forth joy and trust in people who heard the message of Jesus. You could perceive what it did with your own eyes and ears. So here’s where our text today ends—it says that if you want assurance of what God the master artist is doing in the universe, look around you. Look at people whose lives have been reshaped and redirected by Jesus. Look at the everyday miracles God has done for you and for the people you know. Look in your own heart for the hope and transformation God has brought about in you. That’s the so-called “pledge of our inheritance,” a glimpse of what God is up to throughout the universe.
God chooses us, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. And God lives out that choice through generous sacrificial love—again, not because of who we are or what we do, but because God is steadfast and faithful. Lastly, God shows us what God is up to, most fully in Jesus, but also through the Holy Spirit at work in us and around us. God chooses us, and that choice determines God’s own unfolding story, but it also makes us who we are. We are part of God’s beautiful but yet unfinished handiwork, adopted children of God’s grace. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Columbia Quotations, 1996.