“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 he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoptions as his children through Jesus Christ...” (Ephesians 1:1-5a)
Tom Morris sent me this comic last week. It pokes fun at the expression “Going to hell in a handbasket” and this is how the comic writer imagines it. Clearly, the expression doesn’t lend itself well to a visual interpretation, but we all know what it means. To say, “The World is going to hell in a handbasket” means that things are deteriorating rapidly... we are on a slippery slope and headed for destruction.
It’s an expression that is used a lot to describe our present-day situation both nationally and internationally. Someone might use the expression in reference to the deep political and racial divide our nation is presently experiencing. Or it could be used to speak of the problem of gun violence in the country ‒ 154 mass shooting so far in 2018... the last major one being the killing of several journalists in newspaper office in Annapolis. Or it might be used more literally in reference to the problem of global warming – a problem that is leading to the melting of the polar ice caps at a rate much faster than scientists first expected! (Two weeks ago, we had one of the hottest days on record internationally. We broke temperature records all around the world that day in late June.) So, people are living with a deep sense of dis-ease that all is not right and feeling helpless, individually anyway, to change things.
“Going to hell in a handbasket” is not an expression used by ancient Greeks back in the 1st century BCE but the same fatalistic feeling was alive and well in the culture. Life under Roman rule was oppressive and at times even brutal. And when evil, tragedy and hardship begin to pile up in people’s lives, they often begin to speak of powers above and beyond themselves conspiring against them. The Greeks gods were many, but it just took one of them to be angry with you to make life miserable. So, the people spoke of destiny and fate in a way that suggested there was nothing that could be done about it... Que sera sera. The Greeks visited an oracle at Delphi named Pythia (the priestess of Apollo) who would tell them their fate but once delivered, there was precious little one could do about it.
And against this fatalistic culture stood the little congregation in Ephesus. They believed in Jesus Christ, trusted in his teachings and strived to serve him faithfully, but they too struggled under the burden of Roman rule and felt vulnerable in the face of life’s threatening forces. To this congregation came a letter addressed “To the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Whether the letter is actually from Paul or one of his followers is still in question, but we do know the intent of the letter is to shore up and strengthen the church of Christ in daunting times. And the contents of this letter are some of the most hopeful and inspiring words found anywhere in the New Testament. It is a resounding song of hope meant to lift the hearts and embolden the spirits of the congregation called to proclaim and live out the gospel in word and deed.
The first thing the writer does is to remind us of who we are. We are children of God because God chose us and blessed us. Now, our tendency is to think that our relationship with God is a matter of our choosing God. We decided to follow Jesus, and we announced that decision back in our early teens when we confirmed our faith. No, no, no! The author reminds us that long before we ever chose God, God had already chosen us. How long before? “Before the foundations of the world”! That’s right ‒ you have been part of God’s grand plan before world was ever formed. That means you aren’t some incidental aspect of the plan – some add-on... you’ve been woven into the very fabric of it from the start... you belong, you’re integral, you are irreplaceable. And as part of the divine plan you are made holy and blameless before God. “He chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
It’s hard to get our heads around such a lofty vision of our place in God’s plan, isn’t it? In fact, there’s something about being Presbyterian that resists the notion of holy and blameless before God. We Presbyterians are always quick to point to our sinfulness and shortcomings as human beings. Holy and blameless? How can that be?
Soren Kierkegaard tells the story that helps explain how this could be so. It’s about a woman who was asked to make a new tablecloth for the communion table in the sanctuary. The old one was worn and faded so the minister asked a lady in the congregation if she’d take on the task. He knew she was a gifted seamstress and embroiderer, would she make the church a new one? She was reluctant: “I sew clothes for my kids and myself, but I don’t think I can make something suitable for the house of God!” He encouraged her to do her best and sent her off with the task. Well, time went by and nothing appeared, so he asked her how it is coming along. She said, “Well, I started something, but I didn’t like my embroidery work, so I tore it out and started over... I don’t know if I can do this.” He encouraged her to continue. Finally, months later she came in with it, apologizing all the way down the aisle. “I’m not really happy with this, there’s a corner that isn’t quite right, maybe I should take it back.” The minister took it from her and laid it on the communion table. The sun poured in from the stain glass window and showered the tablecloth with color and they both stood back in silence and looked at it. Finally, the woman said, “It’s more perfect than I made it!” And the minister said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! In the light of God’s love our humble offerings are made holy.”
So, the author affirms that God has not only chosen us but also made us blameless in Christ. And now he moves on to reveal God’s plan for the whole world. He announces that God’s predestined purpose is to gather all things up, all things in heaven and on earth so that they may be united. God’s love is not reserved only for us, rather God’s love extends to all creation... and the plan of God for the fullness of time is to unite all things in heaven and on earth. Now, if it’s hard for us to trust that we are God’s Beloved, how much harder it is to trust that all things will be gathered up in Christ? It is an astounding revelation. And if we take this text to heart, it means we cannot give up hope in anyone, or in any neighborhood or in any nation. This is my Father’s world – all of it and God’s deep desire to gather it all up in his reconciling love.
This week I saw on Facebook a video of Pope Francis taking questions at an outdoor event in Rome. People were invited to ask questions of the pope, and one young boy named Emanuele got up to ask his question. It was a question that was so troublesome to him that he couldn’t bring himself to ask it in public; so he started to cry at the microphone. The pope invited him to come up and whisper the question into his ear, which he did. His question had to do with his father who had recently died and was an atheist. His question was would he see his father in heaven. The pope says that Emanuele’s father will go to heaven because God has the heart of a father and because God would have been pleased that Emanuele’s father allowed his four children to be baptized even though he was not a believer.
So, the pope’s response is faithful to what the author of Ephesians proclaims here in chapter 1... that God’s love is not reserved for believers only, rather it is lavished upon all creation. And it is God’s desire that all should be united in him in heaven and in earth. We should not minimize the power of God’s love to redeem and reconcile and renew. Indeed, the good news is that God’s love is practically irresistible.
And how do we know that all this is true? Because God has “marked us with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Our baptism is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us... and if we forget everything else we should never forget that we have been baptized into Christ... made one with Christ. Remember your baptism! Even if you were too young to remember much surrounding your baptism, remember that you were baptized and that those who loved you most were there to see you did receive it.
We make much of graduation in this country – we mark not just graduation from university but from high school, from middle school, from public school and even from preschool! If we celebrated our baptism as fervently as graduation maybe its significance would not be lost to us.
So I’ve included a reaffirmation of baptism liturgy to follow the sermon today. We’ll reaffirm our vows, and then as you leave you’ll find the baptismal font at the back of the chapel. I invite you to dip your fingers into the baptismal waters and remember how much you are loved by God. God’s love surrounds us like the water surround this planet of ours... and no matter where we go or what we encounter in life, God’s everlasting love is with us to sustain us, reconcile us and new us.