Ephesians 1:3–14

[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his
glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (vs.
5–6)

The movie Superman Returns is the latest summer blockbuster featuring
visual pyrotechnics, sound effects and the super powerful feats of glory
against tyranny and forces of evil. The story of Superman—Clark Kent,
if you haven’t figured it out already—begins with his being discovered
in a field on a Midwestern farm by a rural couple who were unable to
have children of their own and saw this super baby as a gift from God.
Superman joins the rather impressive list of superheroes and other
famous people, both real and legendary, who have all been touched by a
common situation: adoption.

For instance, there is Batman (remember him from last year’s
blockbuster movie?) He was orphaned as a young boy when his parents
were killed by thieves.

How many of you remember Tarzan? He was orphaned when his parents
were lost in a plane crash in the jungle. A community of apes took him
in.

Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie? Both characters had no
connection to their families of origin, and although they never found
them, they both left the communities in which they had been placed for
“a better life.”

And then there’s Moses, from the Bible—who also had a blockbuster
animated film made about him several years ago—but is more widely
known as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. He was abandoned as
an infant by his loving Hebrew mother so that he could survive; found
and raised by the daughter of Pharaoh, the Egyptian king who enslaved
his people.

All had been cut off from their birth parents and families of origin.
All had to overcome deep seated feelings of abandonment in order to
discover eventually how extraordinarily gifted they were, and their true
calling in life.

In today’s first scripture reading, St. Paul is writing to first
century Christians who must have felt much the same, and his letter to
the Ephesians addresses their situation of feeling left behind,
abandoned. This passage of scripture has been called the most detailed of
the New Testament descriptions of our being blessed by God who
“assimilated us” into Christ. In the Greek language in which it was
written, these verses are one long sentence—the longest in the New
Testament! In this sentence, broken up in the English into several
sentences so that it will read better, Paul expresses in a nutshell a
summary of his entire teachings. Indeed, it took the great Reformer
John Calvin three, two-hour sermons just to get through the first six
verses. I will get through them this morning in about 15 minutes!

Hear once again the words Paul uses to express God’s initiative
towards us:

…has blessed us in Christ…has destined us for adoption as
his children…has freely bestowed grace upon us…has lavished
on us the riches of his grace…has made known to us the mystery of
his will…has obtained for us an inheritance in Christ…has
marked us with the seal of the Holy Spirit…has given us a pledge
of our inheritance as God’s own people.

Wow!

This is the powerful language of adoption, which freely speaks of
blessings and inheritances and grace. To be adopted is to receive the
supreme gift of being chosen. Remember when you were chosen for
something?

  • The exhilaration of being chosen—at last—to play with the older kids at the neighborhood pickup football game.
  • The joy of being asked to go to the prom
  • The relief when you saw the letter from Princeton University saying, “We are please to inform you that…”
  • The ecstasy of reading in last week’s mail that “You may have already won…” (No, that’s really a false hope—you weren’t really chosen!)

When you are chosen for any reason, you are called to become
something greater than you were before.

In Christian theology, the divine calling of a people by God is known
by the word election. Unfortunately, for all its benefits, this word
also carries some negative baggage in our modern political hearing.
Besides the fact that we are in the Nation’s Capital, where many of our
residents had to get elected somewhere else for the privilege of living
here, most of us when we think of an election think also of the word
“merit.” That is, you should get elected if you deserve to be elected;
it’s all up to you to convince some people that you merit their
admiration enough to get their vote, whereas your no-good opponents
deserve to be sent back to that hole from which they came! That’s
election. And when the early Reformed theologians developed a
then-happy theology of God electing us with the doctrine of
predestination, then some really unhappy conclusions were later drawn
about some human beings being predestined to heaven in the afterlife,
while others were predestined to languish in an eternal hell. Now, it
would be easy to dismiss election and predestination altogether, as some
anti-calvinist humor has done, such as this 19th century humorous saying
about predestination and eternal damnation:

You can but you can’t,
You will but you won’t,
You’re damned if you do,
And you’ll be damned if you don’t.

But in the New Testament, election and predestination have nothing to
do with merit, or how good and deserving we are of God’s grace. It has
nothing to do with making assumptions about the eternal destiny of those
who do not believe as we do. Rather, those doctrines are always spoken
of in terms of gratitude and grace, as in today’s epistle lesson. Paul
is writing to a community in Ephesus that feels abandoned by the “real”
Christians in the Holy Land; they are suffering persecution for their
belief in Jesus, and they need to know that God has not written them off
as a second-class group of believers. “What does God really think about
us?” they cry. Paul’s answer to them: God has blessed you, God has
chosen you, and God has predestined you for adoption as God’s very own
children. Now, that’s biblical election. To be elected, to be chosen,
is one of the most powerful forces for good in our world.

I know this personally…my oldest son is adopted. The joy that this
has brought him and our entire family is indescribable. Ours is a happy
and loving relationship, but what if it weren’t? What, if for any
reason, he were to announce one day that “I don’t want to be in this
family anymore, and I refuse my inheritance as the oldest son. In fact,
I no longer even believe in my father!” Would that make any difference
in the way I see him? Would that abrogate the adoption? No! He will
always be my son, no matter what, and nothing—nothing—could make me
not love him as my very own.

The point is this: for him to be called “my own son,” and for him to
call me “my father” has made all the difference in our lives. There is
a power in being chosen, in being called to something greater than you
were before.

There’s a very touching passage in the late African American
Christian spiritual writer Howard Thurman’s autobiography With Head and
Heart
, in which this poet, preacher, educator, mystic and interpreter of
the civil rights movement reflects on his education at Morehouse College
in the 1920’s, under the instruction of one of his mentors, Professor
John Hope.

Dr. Hope always addressed us as “young gentlemen.” What this term
of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against
the backdrop of the South of the 1920’s. We were black men in Atlanta
during a period when the State of Georgia was infamous for its racial
brutality. Lynchings, burnings, unspeakable cruelties were the
fundamentals of existence for black people. Our physical lives were of
little value. Any encounter with a white person was inherently
dangerous and frequently fatal. Those of us who managed to remain
physically whole found our lives defined in less than human terms.

Our manhood, and that of our fathers, was denied on all levels by
white society. No matter what his age, whether he was in his burgeoning
twenties or full of years, the black man was never referred to as
“mister,” or even by his surname. No. To the end of his days, he had
to absorb the indignity of being called “boy,” or “nigger,” or “uncle.”
No wonder then that every time Dr. Hope addressed us as “young
gentlemen,” the seeds of self-worth and confidence, long dormant, began
to germinate and sprout…

Dr. Hope and (Dean) Archer…were pioneers in
education: they undergirded the will to manhood for generations of young
black men, tapping out the timeless rhythm of “Yes,” which countered all
the negatives beating in upon him from the hostile environment by which
we were surrounded.

There were many seasoned men who were also inspiring teachers,
touching us at a place in ourselves beyond all our faults and all our
virtues. They placed over our heads a crown that for the rest of our
lives we would be trying to grow tall enough to wear.
(pp. 36,
39–41; italics mine.)

What you are called matters very, very much. God has called us his
children, God’s own family. I’m looking right now at my family members.
We are all adopted in Christ as children of God, and that adoption has
nothing to do with bloodlines or biology. This family is not limited by
gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation, or nationality. You are
all my brothers and sisters. We may have family fights sometimes—such
as the one raging right now in my own church, the Episcopal Church—but
we can never get rid of each other. God will not give up on members of
his family. Why do we?