SEPTEMBER 30th, 2018 PASTOR DON PIEPER
“Mail From Jail” Ephesians 1:1-11; 12-23
“GOD'S MYSTERIOUS PLAN”
Confined to house arrest, chained to a Roman guard, Paul dictates letters to churches far and wide across the Roman empire. We read Colossians, now we turn to Ephesians, and I must admit, I'm so excited. It's probably my favorite letter, although Romans and Corinthians are right in there as well.
But Ephesians is so rich, and Paul's love for this church goes so deep. He was there for three years - longer than any other church he planted. Located on the southwestern shore of Asia, Ephesus is due east of Athens from across the Aegean Sea, and in Paul's day, by far the more prominent city. It was such a blend of peoples and cultures....and religions. As in our day, there was a tendency to blend practices and teachings from that blend. Paul's letters to the Colossians and Ephesians are no simple greetings – but corrections and clarifications about the identity and mission of Christ.
When I was in seminary, I read a commentary in which Ephesians was referred to as “Paul's mysterious letter”. What, you may inquire, is a mysterious letter? Well..., Calvin got one once....
Calvin : Look, Hobbes, I got a mysterious letter! The return address is a skull with x-ed out
eyes! It was a local postmark, though. So I must know the person.
Hobbes: Oh Boy, intrigue!
Calvin: But who would send me an anonymous letter like this?
Hobbes: Maybe a Girl!
Calvin: GAAA!! Doesn't the post office screen anything?!
Hobbes: I'll get you some gloves! (It's..., p. 135)
Calvin is such a cool cucumber, isn't he? So, that's not the kind of mysterious letter we're talkin' about. Paul's letter is not anonymous, for one thing. He makes it quite clear who the author of the letter is: “This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus...” (Eph 1:1)
I'm sorry to say but there's no skull with x-ed out eyes, either. But make no mistake, Ephesians is a mysterious letter. At least it has a number of mystery elements. For one thing, no church since the one in Jerusalem was more clearly launched by a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit than the one in Ephesus. Remember that? We read about it back in May. Luke, Paul's traveling buddy, writes:
“Paul traveled through the interior regions (of Asia) until he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' he asked them.
'No,' they replied. 'We haven't even heard that there is a Holy Spirit...' Then, when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in other languages and prophesied. (Acts 19:1-2, 6-7)
Sounds pretty mysterious to me! There's also the mystery surrounding the letter's authorship. Some scholars have questioned whether Paul is the author since the literary syntax of the letter is different than Paul's other letters. Those questions have lent the letter a modern mystery bent.
I must say, though, to question the letter's authorship because of a shift in literary style is a pretty weak argument. The shift could be explained in a number of other ways, such as the fact that Paul dictated his letters, and we know that the person doing the scribe work was ever changing. Paul could well also deliberately change the style based on the purpose and audience of the letter. (Romans!)
The letter is also mysterious in its unusual parallel to Colossians. Many themes are found in both: “God chose you to be the holy people he loves.” (Colossians 3:12) And, “Even before He made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy...” (Ephesians 1:4) There's a lot of that...
But of all its mysterious qualities the one which is by far the most profound, timeless, and elo-quent, is that of Paul revisiting the Colossian theme of God's mysterious plan. “This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to His people.”
And to the Ephesians: “God has now revealed to us His mysterious will regarding Christ – which is to fulfill His own good plan.” (Ephesians 1:9) That plan, as Paul unpacks it, has a number of facets to it. The first is the simple, good news that God has a plan! When life feels out of control, one begins to wonder. After all, our own plans are not always.....so good...or end so well...
[DVD clip from Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail; ]
In contrast to our plans, God has a good plan: “God decided in advance to adopt us into His own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what He wanted to do and it gave Him great pleasure!” (Ephesians 1:5) So God's mysterious plan is mysterious in part because God decided in advance – even before he made the world – to adopt you. God sure has had his eye on you!
I love how Paul articulates that. It's not that Jesus was forced to go to the cross or that the Father reluctantly let him go. Christ humbled himself and laid himself out for and to you – with great pleasure – so eager is God in his great love for you to adopt you as his very own, and draw you close!
Having established that, Paul writes: “And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ – everything in heaven and on earth.” (Eph 1:10)
Well, that's certainly good news! But on the other hand – isn't that kinda cheatin'? You know, giving things away? It's like all those intellectuals out there – and yes, you know who you are – those bookworms in our midst, folks who like to curl up to a good book, and get all caught up in the intrigue and mystery of the story – but not before opening the book to the final pages to see how it all ends...!
You know who you are? I'm married to one of you book-wormy types! Isn't that what Paul is doing here? Yeah, well, actually it is! And I'm actually totally alright with that. He's saying that by choosing to follow Jesus we follow the one who's ultimately going to be in charge – fully in charge.
Not only that but look at what kind of person will ultimately be running the place: “He's to be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice...for all eternity.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
God's plan? He's putting Jesus in charge – up there as well as done here – at just the right time!
But that's not all! “Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for He chose us in advance...” (Ephesians 1:11)
There's that bit about being chosen again – and chosen in advance! I sometimes wonder, tho', if God's eyesight isn't so good. I mean think about some of the yo-yo's he's chosen over the years: a coward, a thief, a murderer, an adulterer, a traitor, and so on and so on. Paul even points to it in these letters: “You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world... All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature.” (Ephesians 2:2-3)
And yet, he chose us. Obviously not because of what awesome people we are, that's clear. Something else compelled him, but before spelling that out, Paul adds this: “And he makes everything work out according to his plan.” (Ephesians 1:11) Uh-oh, he's opening up the end of the book again!
It reminds me of Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist. Do you know it? It's the story of boy who is left as a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage where he is raised in an abusive environment in London's inner city. Eventually he manages to escape and winds up being taken in by a street urchin and his Sugardaddy overlord, Finney, who enlists orphans as his army of pick-pockets. Oliver has more than one brush with the law and with death before being discovered by a kind, affluent couple from the burbs. The story ends with Oliver being adopted as their lawful son.
In a sense that's our story and Paul is pointing to the final chapter. Life may throw you a few hurdles, you may find yourself in a situation you wish you could escape, you may feel like you're proverbial pockets have been picked, but in the end, Paul says, you'll be welcomed home, chosen by the head of the household to be his adopted son or daughter, and heir to the estate.
But there's more! Paul continues with this: “God's purpose was ...to identify you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago.” (Ephesians 1:13) We wondered a moment ago what compelled God to choose the likes of us – His deep desire to claim you and you him...!
Not only that but Paul makes it clear here that part of God's plan from long ago was to give you the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by which Jesus healed the lame and raised the dead, the same Spirit by which the prophets of old prophesied about ways God would make good on His promises. For “The Spirit is God's guarantee that He will give us the inheritance He promised and that He has purchased us to be His own people.” (Ephesians 1:14)
Remember, Paul is writing to this community of believers who, when he laid his hands on them, were powerfully filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues and prophesied, proving that God was making good on his promises and that Christ's kingdom was breaking loose among and thru them.
God is still making good on those promises – even now... Some of my favorite moments in ministry here have been moments at Alpha retreats or Sunday worship in which folks experienced a life-changing encounter with God as they were filled with his Spirit, of old lies being exposed and truth bringing freedom, of a guest having his ears healed, another of his back being straightened, of a women healed of lupus, of Josh's health miraculously restored, of a quarreling couple reconciled, but most of all – of person after person, including myself, having our world rocked as God shared his love for me!
That reality would prompt one more facet of God's mysterious plan: “God did this so we would praise and glorify him.” (Ephesians 1:14) When we do we get caught up in a holy dance that has also been going from long ago – that of the Father glorifying the son, who delights in the Spirit, who points to the Father by glorifying the Son, and around and around this cosmic circle of loving fellowship goes.
As it always has and always will. And we are called, no chosen, to get all caught up in it our selves, because in doing so, in seeking out God and experiencing his love for us we come to sense the very purpose for which we live and breathe and have meaning. So it is that Paul moves from sharing God's mysterious plan to praying over his friends that they may get it – really get it - how much they're loved! That's my longing for you as well. So as we did with his Colossian prayer I'd like to pray his Ephesian prayer over you now. If you would close your eyes..., relax, and receive...