Text: Ephesians 1:1-14
For the last few months, you’ve heard me talk about this season of Trinitytide as a time that focuses on our growth and sanctification in Christ. Two years ago, as I was driving the bishop to the airport on the day he installed me to be your rector, he recommended I preach through the book of Ephesians during one of the “ordinary time” seasons. You see, Ephesians is ideal for a season of growth and sanctification. There was no pressing moral or theological issue that had to be addressed in the Epistle. And unlike Romans, Ephesians is short enough to be read in less time than it takes to watch an episode of your favorite program on Netflix! Ephesians is Christianity 101, the spiritual and theological foundations of our faith. And we often need to be reminded of those foundations. The beloved hymn says “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” I don’t know about you, but that line rings true for me. As such, I am eager to get into this Epistle.
So, without further ado, please open your bibles to Ephesians 1, beginning at the 1st verse:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
One of the first things we notice when we read the Bible is that it is first-and-foremost God’s story. He is the central actor and character. When we get to the New Testament, we particularly focus on God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But the Bible is also the story of God’s people, the family he has created and called to belong to him, to follow him, and to be blessed by him.
St. Paul begins the Epistle by saying that he is an apostle “by the will of God.” The “family secret” of God’s will or choice is the focus of this first part of Ephesians. Notice also, that he refers to his audience as “the saints who are in Ephesus.” When St. Paul calls Christians “saints,” he’s speaking about that family God has made, whether they’re currently on earth fighting the good fight or whether they’ve entered their reward in heaven. The word “saint” means “one who has been set apart.” That is, a “saint” is one whom God has chosen to belong to him. If you have been united to Christ by faith and baptism, St. Paul would call you a saint. Let’s pick up in verse 3 to see how this idea of the “family secret” unfolds:
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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
Notice two key words that relate to God’s will in these verses: “chose” and “predestined.” There may be no greater cause of theological controversy than the debate between predestination and free will! From the get-go, St. Paul throws us into the weeds! The Greek word translated as “predestinated” means something that was decided beforehand or predetermined. The reason this becomes so controversial is that it brings up questions of whether we’re just robots before God, whether we have any choice in our walk with Christ at all. After all, if it was all predestined, why pray? Why evangelize? Why put any effort into our Christian life at all?
To answer those legitimate concerns, we want to look at a few other details from the passage. First, notice that verse 4 says that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” That is, God’s choice of us, his predestination of us is “in Christ.” In verse 5 it says that he “predestinated us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” When it comes to this doctrine of election, it speaks of God choosing us to be in his family. Just as my daughters didn’t choose to be born into our family, we ultimately don’t choose to be part of God’s family. No one becomes a Christian because he is smarter or wiser or better than anyone else. Earlier we heard our lector read, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” Every Christian is in the Church because God chose him or her. As we talked about in today’s Sunday School class, our Articles of Religion speak of that choice, that election, that predestination, as being “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.” That is, predestination is the family secret; it is a mark of God’s love for you that he chose you to be in his family. St. John Chrysostom puts it this way:
The one through whom he has blessed us is the one through whom he has elected us…. Christ chose us to have faith in him before we came into being, indeed even before the world was founded.
Also notice that this choice on God’s part doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Again, looking at verse 4: “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” He chose us so that he could change us. He chose us so that we would become new creatures, no longer walking arm-in-arm with the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but rather walking as holy and blameless before him. This is where each Christian does have a choice: now that we have been born again, enabled by the Holy Spirit to walk in obedience, we have the responsibility to obey the Lord, bringing him glory. Let’s pick up in verse 7:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth.
Again, we see God’s will front-and-center. In these verses Paul is referring to the big plan of redemption. By redeeming sinners through the blood of Christ, God would bless his creation and ultimately unite it to himself. Indeed, Christ’s blood is the means by which he lavishes the riches of his grace, his favor, upon us. 16th Century reformer, Lancelot Ridley, one of Thomas Cranmer’s “Six Preachers” at Canterbury Cathedral, puts it this way:
By Christ we are redeemed from the malediction of the law, from sin, death, hell, eternal damnation and from all captivity and thralldom of the devil, and by Christ are restored to the liberty of the Spirit of God.
God bringing us, by his will, into his family results in liberty instead of malediction (curse) and thralldom (slavery). Among the reasons we needed God to intervene, to choose us, to elect us, is because the curse and slavery were too great for us. We could not free ourselves, we needed Christ to free us. We’ll continue in verse 11:
In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Notice the tying together of our inheritance in Christ with God’s will in predestinating us to become part of his family. As the promised Messiah, our Lord Jesus is the King of Israel, the heir to David’s throne. As the Son of God and God the Son, our Lord Jesus is the king of all creation and heir of all things. Our union with Christ through faith and baptism means that we have a share in Christ’s inheritance. How do we know this is true? Because we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, ministering to us through God’s word and through the Sacraments, acting as a down payment for those promises. Whenever you hear God’s word, partake of the Lord’s Supper, or recall your baptism, you are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of your inheritance in Christ.
Notice also the “we” and “you” contrast in these verses: “…we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth…” This is another theme of Ephesians: the reconciliation of Jew (St. Paul’s we) and Gentile (St. Paul’s you). As we go through our series on Ephesians, you’ll see this pop up again and again, particularly three weeks from now. But for today’s passage it is tied to the idea of God’s choice. The main concept of God’s election or God’s choice in the Old Testament is God choosing the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to become God’s special chosen people. We have, for example, this remarkable passage from Deuteronomy 7:6-10:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is a God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.
Why did God pick the Israelites to be his chosen people? Not because they were the best. In fact, by many standards they were the worst. Rather he chose them out of his love for them and out of faithfulness to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the new covenant of Christ’s blood, that choice, that love, that faithfulness includes you also. The family has been expanded; you’ve been brought in, adopted as sons, rescued from slavery to the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. And God keeps his promises, he keeps his covenant.
You may have noticed, however, the bit toward the end of the Deuteronomy passage: God repaying those who hate him with destruction. Last week we talked about the Israelites’ stories being for our edification so that we wouldn’t follow their bad examples. In the verse that follows the strict warning in Deuteronomy 7, God says, “You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” Just because God chose us doesn’t mean we aren’t called to holiness. Rather, the opposite is true. If God has chosen you to be in his family, your life ought to reflect it! Commenting on the beginning of our Ephesians passage, St. Jerome writes:
It is asked how anyone can be saintly and unblemished in God’s sight…. we must reply that Paul does not say he chose us before the foundation of the world on account of our being saintly and unblemished. He chose us that we might become saintly and unblemished. That is, that we who were not formerly saintly and unblemished should subsequently be so.
This is why it’s so important that he’s given us the Holy Spirit. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit our hearts are softened to God’s word. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit we have become new creatures with new desires. And when the old desires pop up, when that living sacrifice tries to get up off of the altar, it is by the Holy Spirit that we are able to choose God’s ways rather than those of our flesh. When we do sin, the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of the sin and drives us to turn back to God in repentance. It is by the Spirit of God that we are set free so that we can be the chosen people, living as God’s family members, becoming more and more like Jesus as we await his final coming.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.