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 God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace that God freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Christ, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s good pleasure that God set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today’s passage is incredibly dense. Written as one long sentence in Greek, perhaps the longest known sentence in all of ancient Greek, Paul fills the page with more words than our ears can comfortably hear. It is as if Paul is so captivated with adoration and praise that he forgets to take a breath. His letter to the early church in Ephesus is a quintessential example of Paul’s theology—everything begins with the gospel story, which then informs the church’s story and how we are to live. Paul does not begin with rules about household codes but instead begins with this beautiful poem in the style of the Jewish saga of salvation through a Christian lens.
It is difficult to separate the praises and adoration of God from the blessings Paul bestows upon the readers. As I read and re-read this passage in preparation for this morning, I tried to highlight the parts that speak about God and the parts that speak about humanity, but I found that difficult. Each sentence connects the two. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”
It is meant to be a lavish outpouring of affection, yet Paul’s words have disturbed followers of Christ for hundreds of years. Paul says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world.” Theologians call this doctrine predestination and it has been cause for discomfort, struggle, and schism throughout the church’s history. A misunderstanding of Paul’s theology leads to problematic ends where humans have no free will or God seems to be an arbitrary tyrant and enemy of human freedom. If God chooses some as the elect, then John Calvin wondered, doesn’t that also mean that God chooses some to not receive salvation? To not be adopted into the Beloved? John Wesley was so disturbed by the idea he said it “overturns God’s justice, mercy, and truth. Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil.” I think Paul would have been devastated to hear his words bring about such fear and anger.
The poem of praise that had Paul so excited he could hardly stop to take a breath is not a diatribe about who is “in” or “out” of the kingdom of God. It’s wonderment at the incomprehensible vastness of God’s love that encompasses eternity past, present, and future. Paul exalts the work of the triune God—the Father’s eternal plan, Son’s implementation, and the Spirit’s guarantee that the plan will reach completion. He does this through the Jewish literary form of a barakah, a blessing. This blessing flows from God, who is worthy of all our praise. Paul uses this adoration and worship of God as a launching pad from which to encourage the believers of the blessings God has poured out upon them.
As a Jew, Paul would have been very comfortable with the idea of God choosing a certain group of people for God’s self. As Deuteronomy 7:6-8 says, “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession ... because the Lord loved you.” This has always been the story of the Jewish people, but now Paul claims it as the story of everyone. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to hear. For the Jewish followers of Christ, their identity was being shattered and remade. When you have spent your whole life believing that you are chosen above everyone else, it is not so easy to immediately welcome others. Even if you know that God’s ability to love and choose is not finite, the temptation greedily holds on to your special status is still incredibly powerful.
These blessing must have been even harder for the early Gentile believers to truly believe. They must have heard every excuse for why they were not really the ones chosen from the beginning of time. After all, Paul had told the Romans that they were grafted on to the tree. God may have chosen some people from before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless, but surely it couldn’t be them. It is as if Paul knows what they are thinking, so he goes out of his way to pile blessings upon them—adoption, redemption, the forgiveness of sins. They are no late-inning substitution, they have been a magnificent part of God’s plan from the very beginning.
Perhaps it is a blessing that you do not believe about yourself. Can you feel Paul’s unabashed exuberance as he showers you with the truth—that God set his affection on you before the creation of the world. You are part of God’s eternal purposes. And not just some “royal you” that includes everyone, but specifically you. God destined for you to be God’s adopted child, simply out of God’s good pleasure and grace. Do you truly believe that?
I think that someone who sometimes struggled to believe this message was America’s favorite Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers. There’s a wonderful new documentary out about his life called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” with many scenes from the show that captured the life of children for nearly 5 decades. Within Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, there was a fantasy land with puppets and a striped tiger named Daniel. Those who knew and loved Fred said that Daniel represented who Fred really was inside. In one episode, Daniel tiger speaks to his friend Lady Aberlin about mistakes. He wonders if he is a mistake.
He sings a sad song, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake. I’m not like anyone else I know. When I’m asleep, or even awake, sometimes I get to thinking that I’m just a fake.”Lady Aberlin looks right at him with love in her eyes and sings, “I think you are just fine as you are. I really must tell you I do like the person that you are becoming. When you are sleeping, when you are waking, you are my friend, it’s really true. I like you.”They begin to sing a duet, and at first, I expected the tiger to sing along with her. I expected a show for children to resolve problems quickly. But instead, he continues to sing his sad song. Even though she tries to tell him that he is loved just as he is, his worries and doubts still ring loud and clear.
I wonder if this is how the early Christians felt when they first heard Paul’s letter. In the back of their minds, the tapes played over and over, telling themselves “He’s not talking about me. God couldn’t possibly love me as much as God loves others. I’ve messed up too many times. I’ll never be good enough. I’m the second choice, but I guess it’s better than nothing.” Where we hear rejection, failure, shame, and guilt, Paul goes above and beyond to tell us that God lavishes grace upon us.
Paul’s message grows and becomes bigger than just us. God has a plan for the fullness of time—that all things in Heaven and on Earth will be gathered up in Christ. Nothing and no one will be lost. There is no lost cause or place without hope in God’s creation.
I think Paul begins his letter here because if we truly believe this, it has the power to change everything. Who would you be if you believed, with every fiber of your being, that God is delighted in you? Not in what you produce or what you do, but in who you are. How would you read the news if you believed that God has a plan for all of this? That Christ is gathering up all things in him? How would you vote? How would you treat the new family that moves into your town?
With lives covered in and defined by grace, we set our hope on Christ, that we might live for the praise of his glory. The world is so desperately in need of people who know they are loved, for we cannot give something we do not possess. When we know that we are loved, our ability to love others is magnified. The world needs people who know that God chose them, not above or instead of others, but as recipients of a gift, from a giver whose supply knows no limits.
When we believe that we are loved, we are then able to see others as equally loved. This blessing can also be a challenge. The same love of God that comforts the afflicted afflicts the comfortable. The magnificent truth that God loves you also means that God loves those that you hate. When Christ gathers up all things in him, that will include those who have wronged, hurt, and betrayed you. To truly believe that God is so in love with you, with your neighbor, and with your enemy will change the world.
When Daniel Tiger’s sad song ends and Lady Aberlin looks him in the eye and says, “you are the tiger I love most in the whole entire universe.” And finally, Daniel says, “thank you, I love you too.” Perhaps we still have something left to learn from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Perhaps we still need to hear Paul’s words over and over until they finally rewrite the tapes in our heads. People of God, you are so loved by the God who has adopted you into the Beloved. May you go out and live, believing that you are God’s dearly beloved and turn back in praise to the God who loves you.