August 2, 2015 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost
It was a Monday morning sometime after Easter. Phillip, Mark and I were sitting in the forum room for our weekly staff meeting and we started to talk about what we would preach this summer. For a number of summers now, we have departed from the lectionary in the summer choosing a theme or a particular book of the bible for the topic of our preaching.
In the summer we find ourselves in the season of Ordinary Time where the lectionary takes us through some of the big stories of the Old Testament and moves us through one of the gospels. It also typically takes us through one or two of the Epistles—the letters in the New Testament that follow the gospels and Acts.
This year, which is Year B in the lectionary, the gospel we read through is Mark—and we’ve been preaching from Mark in the early part of the summer. And this summer, the lectionary spends six weeks in the book of Ephesians. Neither Mark nor I preach much from the Epistles. In fact, neither one of us is particularly enamored with the Apostle Paul, who is considered the author of many of the Epistles. And precisely for those reasons we thought we would spend six weeks in Ephesians this summer. Our intention, you might say, is to wrestle a blessing out of this letter.
An advantage of the Epistles is they are generally short—Ephesians has a total of 155 verses—so it’s easy to read through the letter is one or two sittings. I encourage you to do that this summer. Pick up your bible, or download a copy on your electronic device, or print out the six small chapters and carry it with you to read on the bus or while you’re waiting for an appointment or whenever you have a few minutes. It makes the excerpts we get in the lectionary hold together so much better. You can see where the writer starts and where he’s headed. You’ll also pick up the language that gets repeated throughout the letter—adding to the writer’s emphasis. And you’ll probably notice, as I did, how many familiar religious phrases there are in this letter. Things like: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (2.8), “Christ is our peace” (2.14), “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2.19), “You are being rooted and grounded in love” (3.17) and one of my favorite blessings, “Now to the God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to this God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (3.20, 21).
Now, two disclaimers about this letter to the Ephesians from Paul. It probably wasn’t really to the Ephesians and it probably wasn’t really written by Paul. I’m sorry to let you down on both those counts. We’ll still call it the letter to the Ephesians but the earliest copies of this letter do not include the attribution “in Ephesus” in the first verse of chapter 1. Many scholars think this letter was meant to be circulated among a number of churches and not addressed to one particular congregation.
The second disclaimer about Ephesians is most scholars think the letter was not written by Paul but by an individual who followed Paul and kept his message about the Good News of Jesus Christ going after Paul’s death.
Because we don’t know precisely who the letter was written to and by whom, we’re not exactly sure what the context is for this letters—what the circumstance or the question or the disagreement was that this letter wanted to address.
This letter was probably written a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. People expected Jesus to return, sooner rather than later, and as the decades stretched on and there was no return, people began to wonder how they were supposed to live—now that what they thought was going to happen, didn’t seem to be happening. That may the context into which the writer pens this letter.
The letter has two major sections—the first, a theological foundation, setting the stage for the second part. The first part rehearses and celebrates what God has done in Christ on our behalf. And then the second section is a discussion of “because of what God has done, how then are we called to live?”
So here we are this morning in chapter 1 at the beginning of the theological foundations that the author sets out for us.
Ephesians begins with blessing and praise of God: Blessed be God who has blessed us in Christ and destined us for adoption as God’s children; God redeemed us through Christ and has given us an inheritance as God’s own people. That’s the cut and dried version of verses 3 through 14. But listen again to the exuberant language we find here: God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and chosen us in love to be adopted as God’s own children. Why? Because it is God’s good pleasure to do so. God has freely bestowed grace—glorious grace—on us in Christ, who is the Beloved. We are redeemed according to the riches of God’s grace that God has lavished on us. God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure. In Christ, we have an inheritance as God’s own people, and so we live a life of praise, giving glory to God for all this goodness.
As I read this passage again and again, I was taken by all the love and the grace and the pleasure of God it contains. Some Christian traditions frame talk about redemption with shameful and scolding words. Here, our redemption in Christ comes because of the rich grace of God that is lavished on us. Some Christian traditions emphasize the depth of our sinfulness and the debt we owe God. Here, it is God’s good pleasure to make us God’s own through adoption, freely bestowing grace upon grace upon grace.
That is something for us to take in and savor; to soak up this great love and lavish grace. To let ourselves take in that we, too, as God’s adopted children are the beloved of God.
More than just a letter, we might hear this set of verses as a hymn of praise, blessing God for all that God has done, praising God for the grace and blessing that fills our lives and for the inheritance that is ours because we are God’s children.
This is a joyful hymn, an invitation to praise and thanksgiving. “Blessed be God” begins this letter, a reminder “that the first movements of prayer [are] thanksgiving and praise directed to God.” And likewise worship in a Presbyterian Church begins with praising with God. In chapter 2 the writer of this letter says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2.8)
A theological hallmark of the Presbyterian tradition is the rhythm of grace and gratitude. God offers us grace and we respond with gratitude. Even in our prayer of confession each week we begin with a reminder of God’s grace, then we admit our failings, and then we are assured again of God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s a “grace sandwich” I heard a worship professor say one time. And we say “thank you,” we bless God in return. Professor of New Testament, Pheme Perkins, writes “The moments of asking, lament, or reaching out in the emptiness of despair, equally necessary to the life of prayer, make no sense without this framework” of beginning with “thanksgiving and blessing directed to God.”
This glorious inheritance we have been given as the adopted daughters and sons of God asks one thing of us in return—that we “live for the praise of God’s glory” (v12). The Westminster Cathechism says it this way: The chief end of human kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
But it’s not all “Jesus and me.” The language of this opening passage is collective. We hear “we and us.” And then a subtle shift in verse 13: “In you also.” Pastor Karen Chakoian notes “the constant plural pronouns remind us that this gift is not an individual blessing but always for the community of Christ.” And as we will see more clearly as we read farther into Ephesians, it is not just one group of people who make up the community of Christ, God intends to gather up all things—all people, all of creation—in the fullness of time.
We can—and should—soak up the grace and the love—savor our belovedness when we hear this letter. And remember this grace and belovedness is for all people. It is for us and it is for Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose. It is for African American teenagers at a swim party and Freddie Gray. It is for Walter Scott and Antonio Zambrano-Montes. It is for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. It is for Clementa Pinckley and his eight church members.
As we give thanks for God’s grace and love so freely bestowed, we know that God’s grace and love comes in the middle of suffering and injustice, in the middle of trouble and terror. Remember how God blessed Abraham, way back in Genesis? God said, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.2-3) And so I wonder today what it looks like for us to deeply take in our belovedness by God and then for our belovedness to be a source of blessing and healing and justice for others?
 I think this was said by Fred Holper.
 Karen Chakoian, “Ephesians 1.3-14 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 234.
 http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003828834/the-videos-that-changed-policing.html?contentCollection=U.S.&contentPlacement=9&module=most-popular-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=most-popular-videos-click, accessed 1 August 2015, graphic video footage of the arrest or murder of each of the named individuals.