Ephesians 1:3-14 (NRSV)
3 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,
4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight
9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 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, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 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; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
When I was fourteen, my father died.
I had spent the better part of a month cutting grass and doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to earn enough money to buy a putter (nothing serious, I’m not that good of a golfer) in the hopes of bettering my set of clubs. We were walking through the sporting goods section of K-Mart and I was on the aisle next to my father looking through the selection of mid-range, low priced clubs. I found the one I was looking for and walked around the corner at the exact moment that my father collapsed into a shelving unit and fell onto the floor.
I’ve told this story many times and I feel it necessary to add this little tidbit. My first thought, believe it or not, was, “But it was on sale.” That said, I froze. I had no idea what to do. My mother started screaming, one of the store employees called a code blue over the intercom, and everything after that was a blur. By the grace of God, off-duty paramedics were walking through the store, heard the code over the speaker, and started trying to resuscitate my father while an ambulance was dispatched. For nearly five minutes, they struggled to keep my father breathing, his face a pale shade of icy blue for lack of oxygen.
Fortunately, the paramedics arrived, and the hospital was less than half a mile from the store. In the time it took to get him to the hospital however, my father coded five times and was pronounced dead at least twice. The doctors were able to stabilize him in the emergency room and he would go on to have several difficult years of sorting through medications for his cardiac arrest and a few close calls with heart attacks followed by having stints inserted, but the dead man walked.
My father was dead, but he came back. The word dead means plainly that you are no longer living and for a brief time, my father wasn’t. But he was not clinically dead, once and for all. Everything stopped for the briefest of moments and then the system rebooted so to speak, and my father was back among the living. Which brings us to the idea of words and their meaning.
I think one of the great difficulties of expressing the Christian faith is that of language. We have this vernacular, this way of speaking that only we know about and the culture outside our doors are usually left in the dark when it comes to understanding it. I also think that some of these terms and ideas have become a part of our way of speaking without our understanding of what they mean.
For instance, I once asked a man what he thought salvation was. He said it was when Jesus saved you from your sins. Remember when Bill Clinton asked us to think about what the word is is? We’re kind of doing that here, so what do we mean by those words?
- Who is Jesus in this case? A first-century Jewish preacher? A revolutionary? A rabble-rouser?
- What do we mean by saved? Were we in some danger we were unaware of? What are we saved from? To what extent? Is it just a get-outta-hell-free ticket?
- What is a sin? Is it just the bad stuff your parents and grandparents told you not to do? Is it something we as a group of people decided on with a moral vision in mind?
When we address the question of the gospel we must be careful not to leave ourselves in the position of cleaning up a verbal mess when we’re done. Now, I understand that our way of describing faith is a kind of shorthand used among believers, but what happens when we go several generations — and I believe we may have — where we forget what our shorthand means. Usually what happens is that we have an emotional experience—a moment where we feel something happen within us at church service or in a moment of crisis, but we don’t know what to do with it after the fact other than speaking in the new church language we learn and behaving a different way and we don’t know how to really, truly describe what has happened to us.
What we need are translation and re-education.
Defining the gospel in our language
John Wesley wrote, If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, — the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: The former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature. Wesley goes on to say, The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things. So, what are we talking about when we say justification? What is this new birth? In the text above, we are reading a brief explanation of these very ideas, answering the questions that define justification and new birth.
Scholars love to argue about things. In fact, I think they might get paid by the word for disagreeing with others of their kind. One thing that is largely agreed on, however, is the idea that this letter we call Ephesians was a circular letter, one that was passed around from church to church, most likely sent to the churches in the area called Asia Minor or what we call today, modern Turkey. The letter was written to a Gentile audience with the intent of reminding Gentile readers that though were previously alienated or separated from God and his people, Israel, they have been made one through the work of Jesus — one with God and with God’s people because of what Jesus did in his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. The letter is intended to be an encouragement to the believers by telling them about God’s plan for them and encouraging them to live into their part of that plan, a universal plan that redeems all of the Created order, the whole of the cosmos.,
One of the things that the writer of Ephesians wants us to know is that whether we are Jew or Gentile, God chose to make a way for us to be connected to Him. It wasn’t an accident or a mistake or a cosmic do-over because of Adam. God chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. I think this verse, verse four, is the lynchpin for the entire passage through verse fourteen. Let’s take that apart in pieces and unpack that so we get the meaning behind the words. We were chosen, that is intentionally picked, not accidentally found. God made a decision, one that happened according to the writer of Ephesians before He began the process of creation to make certain that there would be a way for men to have a relationship with God.
According to Ephesians, this way was in Christ, meaning that this relationship takes place by our understanding the relationship that Jesus had with God while on earth. Essentially, Jesus’ relationship with God is a blueprint for how we can understand and relate to God, an imitation of Jesus life to use the words of Thomas a’Kempis. To say we are in Christ is to say we are living and being in the manner of Jesus as he was and lived on earth. Verses seven and eight say, In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. In other words, Jesus willingness to offer himself in a sacrificial way shows us the path to a new life (the new birth) and in this new life, we find ourselves set right again as we recognize the brokenness within us and change the direction of life, reorienting ourselves toward the life and way of Jesus. This realizing our broken nature and changing our direction is essentially what Wesley regards as justification, where we, through the Holy Spirit, can see our current circumstance and respond to the offer of change that God makes to us.
We are also called in this passage to be holy and blameless as we live this out. This is a tall order and one that can only be truly experienced by the leading and power of the Holy Spirit. John Wesley referred to it as the doctrine of Christian Perfection and by that he meant that as we get closer to God we become more holy (that is set apart from the broken nature and attitudes of the world so that we may be useful in God’s Kingdom) and blameless (meaning that before both God and the people around us we are obviously living lives that are set apart). Grace, for Wesley, was not only pardon from sin, but the power to live a new life… His very definition of a Christian was one who had “the love of God shed abroad in their heart by the Holy Spirit.”
I believe the starting point for all of this is God’s starting point, love. It is in love that He created all of existence. It is in love that He called the Hebrew children to be His people. It is in love that He sent Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the one anointed to do the will and work of God for salvation, which is literally what Jesus Hebrew name, Yeshua, means. When asked by a lawyer in Luke chapter ten, What must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds by saying, What is written in the law? What do you read there? The lawyer answers Jesus saying, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells him something very interesting when you remember that the original question was how do I inherit eternal life. Jesus says, You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. The restoration of our relationship to God—our salvation—started with God loving us, even when we didn’t see ourselves as lovable. It continues with our loving God and each other in response. So, the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything is undoubtedly, unequivocally, unabashedly love God, love each other.
 Wesley, John. “The New Birth, Sermon 45”, The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons Indexed by Number, Title and Scriptural Reference (Cedar Eden Books: Saranac Lake, 2014), Kindle Loc. 11556
 Wesley, John. “Salvation By Faith, Sermon 1”, The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons Indexed by Number, Title and Scriptural Reference (Cedar Eden Books: Saranac Lake, 2014), Kindle Loc. 478
 Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.381
 Powell, Mark A. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 333
 Ehrman, 381-382
 Powell, 333
 Powell, 324
 Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (Louisville: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 9
 Paraphrased from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Pan Books, 1979