That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?
What’s even more amazing is that in the original Greek, all that I just read was one sentence. Its as though Paul is just so overcome here that the words just spill out of his mouth and tumble over one another in the process. In this opening page of his letter to the Ephesus, he is so excited about the meaning of Christ Jesus that there is no stopping his outpouring of words.
I hope you have times when you become so excited about some happening that words pour out in a torrent, hardly giving you time to breathe. Children often do it. Adults occasionally. I would like to think that none of you have totally suppressed the excitable child in your nature. I wish for you occasions when you are capable of letting loose a joyful torrent of words.
But as is frequently the case when a small child rushes up and blurts out her news in an excited tumble, what she is saying often gets lost in the excitement. The same is true here with Paul.
So I’m going to do something I rarely do. I’m going to reread the passage for you, but as it is written in Eugene Peterson’s adaptation The Message.
“How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.
7-10Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
11-12It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.
13-14It’s in Christ that you, found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.”
Well, that’s at least a little more understandable I think. Basically, God has given us this amazing gift, merely because God loves us. We didn’t do anything for the gift and it’s not a gift we can ever pay back.
God has chosen us to be holy and blameless in love. Not only that but we were chosen before we even existed, in fact before anything existed. God chose you to be holy and blameless in love and to be adopted as a child of God. It is kind of like being born into really privileged circumstances – you’ve got it all on a plate. It doesn’t mean you can’t mess it up, but it means that you’ve really got the odds stacked in your favor from the word “go.” Some people in that situation do go broke but you probably have to try harder to make a mess of it if you start from a position of advantage. So too for us. God chose us and destined us for every good thing and so the odds are in our favor and you’ll have to work pretty hard at it if you want to miss out.
“In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness, according to the riches of grace lavished on us.” It’s a great word “lavished”, I like it, and especially when you couple it with the word grace. A great definition for grace is extravagantly generous love. So we have God’s extravagantly generous love lavished on us. In that extravagantly generous love we have redemption and forgiveness for sins. God’s extravagant love for us is willing to overlook anything and everything in our pasts. If we will let it go, so will God.
In fact the passage focuses so exclusively on all the great things that God has done, that God is actually the subject of every verb in it. God is the doer of every action that is mentioned in this reading. We don’t do anything in this account. This is not one of those readings where I can get up and say the bible says we should be doing this and we shouldn’t be doing that. In this passage it doesn’t say that we should be doing anything, it just praises God for all the things that God has done and is doing for us.
It can actually be a bit hard for us to take. We live in a do-it-yourself society. We don’t like to have to depend on someone else to do anything for us, especially if it is all one way and they don’t need anything from us.
Because of that, a number of people are very uncomfortable receiving gifts. They say “You shouldn’t have done that,” or “It’s too much” and actually make the giver feel bad about the giving. We take the joy out of the action and instead turn it into something shameful. Something we should have known better than to try to do. We have trouble just saying thank you and enjoying the gift. If we do take the gift, we want to give something in return – even the debt as it were.
The only trouble is here with God there is no evening of the debt. We can never really pay God back for what we have been given. There is no ‘setting things square’ between us and God.
We think there is though, don’t we? We think if I only come to church, or serve on a committee, or cook for fellowship hour then God and I will be even. I will have done what is needed. But it doesn’t work like that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t come to church or serve or feed your fellow parishioners. I’m just saying that it isn’t an obligation for what God has given you. Your actions should be free gifts, not payments. Because when we begin to do that, we get dangerously close to denying our dependence upon God’s grace. We can’t possibly be good enough to save ourselves, but we don’t have to. God already did.
So where do we go from here? God has saved us. God loves us and frees us. Great, but what do we do? If we can’t pay God back how do we respond to these wildly extravagant gifts?
With gratitude and joy.
We run across David a lot in the Old Testament – slaying giants, watching sheep, leading people to war. We even find him as the author of a number of the psalms, including number 23. Still, I have to say that this is my favorite passage of his. My favorite image.
Here is this stately king, someone who has lead wars and run the nation. And he is so excited about the ark finally arriving at his city that he runs down and dances in front of it in his loincloth. You see, for the Jews the Ark of the Covenant was the presence of God. Where that ark was, God was. And so we have the most powerful man in the city dancing with joy in the street in his underwear because he is excited to have the Lord come. It’s a wonderful image. One we should all strive for.
We have been given so much. All we have to do is accept it. Yet, because I’m who I am, I have to ask why. Why on earth would God do so much for us before we were ever even created?
Well, have you ever given a gift and known that your gift will be appreciated and enjoyed for days, months, years? Have you ever danced with a baby, or sung, or played silly games and been rewarded with a bright, beaming smile? Have you ever spent time with a dog just for the dog’s sake and been given that look of pure doggy love and devotion?
Those experiences are the closest I can get to understanding why God showers us with love and grace. God doesn’t want flattery or promises. God wants a bubbly grin and a kicking of legs in delight as we enjoy simply being together in love.
I think Frederich Buechner sums up this passage even more simply. He says, “The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
And that is why Paul is so excited. That is why his faith just overflows. God loves us and saves us. All there is for us to do is to be grateful.