Chosen By God
Read Ephesians 1:1-6.
Entertainer Garrison Keilor recalls the childhood pain of being chosen last for the baseball teams. The captains are down to their last grudging choices: a slow kid for catcher, someone to stick out in right field where nobody hits it. They choose the last ones two at a time—“you and you”—because it makes no difference. And the remaining kids—the scrubs , the excess—they deal for us as handicaps. “If I take him, then you gotta take him,” they say. Sometimes I go as high as sixth, usually lower. But just once I’d like Darrel to pick me first and say, “Him! I want him! The skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes. You, c’mon!” But I’ve never been chosen with much enthusiasm.
To be chosen, wanted, desired, loved, is a core desire, a longing, of the human heart. That’s why one of the highest moments of many people’s lives is that moment when their significant other either finally proposed or said yes to a marriage proposal. That’s also why relational betrayals: affairs, abandonment by parents, betrayal by ones we thought were friends do so much damage. It’s why they hurt so much. Without healing, those kinds of wounds stick with us for the rest of our lives.
But today, as we begin our journey through St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he introduces us to a God who choses us. Ephesians is generally considered to be the high point of Paul’s writing and theology. He wrote it when he was in prison in Rome, thinking back over his missionary journeys and his life journey, thinking about the men and women who had placed their faith in Christ and the churches that he had started. Because this letter doesn’t mention any specific church challenges as many of Paul’s other letters do, it is likely that this letter was actually intended to be circulated among all of the churches of Asia Minor, the capital and most influential city of which was the magnificent Ephesus. Ephesians has been called “the crown and climax of Pauline theology,” “the quintessence of Paulinism,” “the consummate and most comprehensive statement which even the New Testament contains of the meaning of the Christian religion,” the divinest composition of man.” John A. Mackay, once president of Princeton Theological Seminary, said that “Never was the reality of Revelation more obvious and the reflective powers of the Apostle’s mind more transfigured than in the great book which is known by the title, The Epistle to the Ephesians.”
But as Paul thinks back over his life and ministry from prison, introducing us to the God who has chosen us, he is writing not stale, intellectual theology. These are high thoughts, among the highest ever penned, but his theology is born from his own experience of being chosen, his own experience of the risen Christ and of the deep, deep love of God. Look at V. 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God …”
Let’s stop there for a minute. “Paul.” Even his name is evidence of the love of God. It wasn’t his given name. His ultra-conservative religious parents, living in the thriving metropolis and very culturally diverse city of Tarsus, had named him Saul, after the tallest and vainest to ever come from their Jewish tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, King Saul. They sent him to Jerusalem where he studied under the greatest of the Jewish rabbis, Gamaliel, and became a Pharisee. And as the Pharisees Jesus knew were among his biggest opponents, so in the beginning, he had been a violent opponent of Christ’s followers, even an accessory to the murder of those who followed Christ. But when Jesus literally knocked him off his horse and temporarily blinded him on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, and he placed his faith and trust in Christ, Christ changed his name to Paul. Unlike Saul, which led the mind back to the large, physically attractive and imposing, arrogant Saul, Paul means “small.” And yet, he was chosen to be an Apostle: the Apostle to the Gentiles. He hadn’t done anything to earn it. In fact, he had done everything not to deserve it.
Now, everything in the remainder of this book grows out of what Paul says in Vv. 1-2. In fact, in the original Greek language this letter was written in, Vv. 3-14 are one very long run on sentence. The punctuation has been added by the translators to help us read it because most people don’t have that much breath. But for Paul, it was all one long sentence as his heart overflowed with praise for the God who chose him, and who has chosen you. And the word Paul uses for blessing is a word we often translate as eulogy. We often think of a eulogy as something spoken about the deceased, but in reality, eulogy means praise, fine speaking, good words, or a blessing. It is someone speaking good words about another.
So down in V. 4, his heart filled with praise, good words, Paul says that not only he but we were chosen by God before the foundation of the world was laid. What is Paul saying here? That before he brought the universe into existence, God knew that he would be redeeming his creation, including us, and that he was going to be doing that through Jesus, the Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the only begotten Son of God. That before the he brought the universe into existence, there was a betrayal, and a cross, in the heart and mind of God. He knew what he would need to do, and he was going to do it, and he was going to do it through Jesus Christ. So why did God create a world in which sin was a possibility? Because love is at the heart of God. In fact St. John describes God as pure, unadulterated, unending love when he says simply that “God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:8). God is at God’s core pure love. And love requires choice. If God created us without the possibility of choosing against him, we would not be capable of loving him, for love is a choice, a decision freely made. And our love is the only gift that we can offer to God.
Love requires a choice, and just a we may choose to love or to not love God, so God chose, before he ever created this world, to go ahead and make you, knowing that he would have to redeem you at great cost to himself. God has chosen you. But for what? Look back up at V. 1: “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus …” Who are these saints Paul is talking about. Sometimes we’ll refer to St. Paul or St. John or St. Peter; we’ll call the first apostles “saints;” and maybe some people today, people like Mother Teresa. Or when someone does something over the top nice for us, we’ll say “you’re a saint!” But we usually only mean it for that moment. Tomorrow we might call them a jerk. Who are these saints Paul is writing to? Anyone here married to a saint? I certainly am. Sometimes I think other people look at Becky and I and think “What was she thinking?” Here, believe it or not, he was calling the normal, average Joe, everyday Gentile Christian in Ephesus a “saint.” In fact, whenever Paul describes Christ’s followers, he calls them saints. Regardless of who they are. And believe me, they weren’t all Mother Teresa’s. They got caught up in petty disputes and power plays, they got caught up doing things and even believing things that followers of Christ should be doing and believing. For the most part, just like us, they seemed pretty un-saint-like. In Corinthians, you kind of get the feeling that Paul was pretty upset with some people. But Paul always refers to imperfect but genuine followers of Christ as saints. It has to do with what God has chosen us for. Look down at V. 5.
Before the world began, God had chosen, elected, predestined us for adoption as his children. When I was 6 years old and my brother was 4, my parents adopted our sister Sarah. She was less than 6 weeks old when she was placed with us, and less than a year old when she was adopted. She has known she was adopted from the beginning. We never tried to hide it from her. But we’re the only family she’s ever known. And in true sibling fashion, after my brother and I finished pummeling and tormenting each other, we’d gang up on her and torment her. We didn’t pummel her the way we did each other. Brothers don’t hit their sisters. They hit each other, but not their sister. But we did torment her ruthlessly. I would guess she was in high school when she made a comment about not really being a part of the family after I had given her a pretty good teasing. My reply was, “Sarah, mom and dad were stuck with Brad and I. They didn’t have a choice but to raise us the best they could and keep us from killing one another. But they chose you. Even when they were given an out, they chose you. Brad and I are a part of this family because Mom and Dad loved each other. You’re a part of this family because they love you.” You see, shortly after Sarah was placed with us, before the adoption was final, she went into a coma and almost died. It was discovered that she had hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid doesn’t drain down the spinal column the way it should, causing pressure to build up inside her skull. When the condition came to light, the agent overseeing the adoption asked my dad this question, “Do you still want her?” Mom and dad knew what was ahead. The risk. The major brain surgeries. The sleepless nights in a hospital with a teeny baby fighting for her life. The expense. All of it. “Do you still want her?” There was only one answer. “Of course we do.” Mom and dad were stuck with us, but they chose her.
And adoption carries with it great privilege. Paul identifies the privilege as “adoption AS SONS.” The word there includes both men and women. The most accurate reading would be “sons and daughters” or “children.” In Romans Paul says that as children of God, chosen and adopted by God, we are heirs of God. “… if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). The phrase Paul most often uses to describe this state of being adopted children of God is to say that we are “in Christ.”
IN CHRIST. It is a phrase that Paul uses over and over again to describe the position, the state of being of those who place their faith in Christ. In Romans he tells us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (8:1), that the Holy Spirit sets us free from bondage to sin and death in Christ (8:2), that believers everywhere form one body in Christ (12:5). In Corinthians that even though we die a physical death, we live on in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22), that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). In Galatians that we have freedom in Christ (2:4), that we are justified before God in Christ (2:16), that in Christ we are children of God (3:26). Here in Ephesians, he uses the phrase 10 times in the first 14 verses to hammer home the reality that all who place their faith in Christ take part in all that Christ has done and all that Christ is.
As believers in Christ, his life becomes our life, his death becomes our death, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection. Over and over again Paul describes us as being in Christ. And Christ being in us. In Colossians he says that Christ in us is the hope of glory (1:27). In Galatians he says that he will keep working until Christ is formed in us (4:19). Our position in Christ and Christ in us. Those are two sides of the same coin. You see, when we place our faith in Christ, from God’s perspective our identity becomes so wrapped up in Christ and his in us that when God looks at us he sees Christ. Authentic believers, true followers of Christ, live and breathe IN CHRIST. The old is gone and the new has come.
According to archaeologists, many of the nameless slabs in the catacombs of Rome have on them the inscription “in Christo,” in Christ. Many of them also have the words “in pace,” in peace. In Christ … in peace, a testimony to the newness Christ brings and the transforming work that he does in our lives.
Paul’s favorite salutation is, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” He uses it here. Our position in Christ is a work of grace. It is not something we can earn. We are the recipients of God’s unearned, undeserved favor. To understand grace is to live in humility, because it requires me to recognize that I have not earned God’s approval. I have done nothing to earn my position in Christ. It is God’s gift to me. It is a gift of grace.
Now, look back up at V. 3. As God’s child in Christ you are “blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” Paul understood that there is both a physical reality of which we can see and feel much, although we know that we cannot, with the naked eye, see the very basic sub-atomic levels of physical reality. And there is also a spiritual reality that is just as real that we cannot see. Paul wants us to understand that our position “in Christ” carries with it very real blessings and a very real position in the spiritual realm that we don’t always see in the physical realm. In fact, in Ephesians 2, which we’ll be looking at in the coming weeks, he says that we are “seated with him “with Christ” in the heavenly places.” So right now you are a citizen of the kingdom of God in the heavenly places, and right now you are seated there with Christ, in Christ, even as you are physically seated here in this sanctuary right now. But we aren’t always aware of the spiritual reality. That’s why in Romans Paul says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). In other words, creation is eagerly waiting for what is really real to be revealed.
And with that gift of grace comes the gift of peace. Shalom. Wholeness. Well-being. In Christ, God has brought us to wholeness. This isn’t always a physical reality. As long as we are in this world, we will face trial and tribulation, illness and injury. Our lives are filled with sin but in Christ they are marked by forgiveness. Ephesians is a challenging letter because Paul is challenging us to see not just with physical eyes but with spiritual eyes the reality and security of our position “in Christ.” Not to deny what we see with our physical eyes. Not to deny our pain and our struggle. But to realize that more is going on that we can see, touch, taste, and hear.
Reese Witherspoon, one of the most successful actresses in the world, had this to say about herself: I don’t watch any movie I’m in. It’s horrifying. I’ll just focus on something stupid like, “I hate my laugh. Why did I smile?” Sometimes I look at myself and think, “Dude, I have the biggest, goofiest smile on earth.”
When she really wants to feel bad, she’ll Google herself. She says, “Only in very dark moments, moments of pure self-loathing, do I type my name into Google. You never read anything positive; you always go straight to where they say something nasty about you. You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re tired, you’re worthless, you don’t have a career anymore. It’s just an affirmation of every horrible feeling about yourself.” By pretty much everyone’s account, she is one of the most beautiful and talented actresses in Hollywood. One of the ones chosen first. An A-lister. And yet when she views herself through her own eyes, she doesn’t like what she sees. I want every one of us to leave here knowing something today: you are loved more deeply than you could ever imagine. You’re life and eternal well-being matter enough that before the world itself was brought into being, God chose to save you. You have been chosen. Not last, but first. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us pray.