“Sealed” Colchester Federated Church, July 15, 2018, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Over the next few Sundays we’ll be hearing some sermons on The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians so it’s good to begin with some historical context to better understand the content.  For starters, there’s debate among New Testament scholars as to whether Paul wrote this letter or not.  It may have been written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome near the end of his life.  Or it may have been written by a Jewish-Christian admirer of Paul who wanted to apply Paul’s theology to what was happening in that person’s time in their own church.  Over all, establishing who wrote the letter and when is difficult.  Because most of Paul’s letters were written to respond to specific situations that were happening in churches.  Whereas Ephesians is much more general.

That’s why some scholars have even said that it makes more sense to think of Ephesians as a sermon rather than a letter.  Because the text is divided into two parts—theological teachings and ethical exhortations.  Which is often how sermons go, right?  We contemplate the text and the theological implications and end with “so what?” questions.  How do we take our beliefs out into the world?  How do we put our Christian faith into action?  To answer some of those questions, Ephesians was used by theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin in developing their own theologies about the Church.  So The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians is a text that has been and can be used to establish the vision and mission of the Church in all times and in all places.[1]

Chapter 1 begins by speaking about the blessings of God and God’s blessings for the Church.  It’s a wonderful passage to remind us that we are beloved children of God.  We are named and claimed by God and intended to be the people that God is calling us to be.  This whole passage can remind us of the famous line in The Westminster Catechism, “What is the chief purpose of people?  To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”  It’s a reminder that God has blessed us with the gift of life itself.  With this life, we can glorify and enjoy our God.  This is truly a blessing.

Because Paul (yes, we’ll go with the hypothesis that Paul wrote this text at the end of his ministry while imprisoned in Rome) tells us that we are destined for adoption by God: “To the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”[2]  God’s grace is freely given.  We’ve been adopted.  And Paul even writes, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”[3]  The previously hidden plan of God encompasses all of creation.  That’s good news all around.

God’s grace is poured out for all people.  That’s why some folks look to a passage like this as a sign of God’s universal blessing.  Since it’s an expansive view of God’s compassion, of God gathering up all things in heaven and on earth.  As Peter would say in the Book of Acts Chapter 10 when wondering about the full acceptance of Gentiles into the Jesus Movement (which would eventually become the Christian Church, of course): “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”[4]  Ephesians Chapter 1 presents this amazing, inclusive view of God blessing the Church and adopting us as God’s own.

Paul’s words can make us remember that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s grace.  It’s there already and that was the plan all along.  In the New Testament, Paul uses the word “grace” 101 times.  It’s pretty clear that grace is a central idea in Paul’s theology.[5]  Perhaps it’s because Paul experienced God’s grace in such a profound way when he had a religious experience of the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus and saw the light.  Turning from one of the biggest persecutors of the Jesus Movement to its biggest advocate in the blink of an eye is certainly a grace-filled moment that stayed with Paul forever.  Paul’s experience of God’s grace helped him to understand our mysterious God and share that understanding with all of us.  Paul’s experience of God’s grace led to a transformed life.  Perhaps Paul is making sure in Ephesians that we understand that we are sealed as God’s beloved children because of grace we cannot possibly earn.  If anyone understood that reality, it was Paul.

Knowing that we have been sealed as God’s beloved children because of grace we can’t do anything to earn, well, that can fundamentally change our lives and the world.  We can accept the unearned grace and live with gratitude.  We can extend mercy because we’ve received mercy.  A favorite definition of grace comes from writer Francis Spufford who writes that, “Grace is forgiveness we can’t earn.”[6]  In knowing that we are forgiven, it helps us to be forgiving.  So God extends the blessing of grace and we can receive the blessing.  When grace gets into our hearts and shapes our lives, that’s when transformation happens.

Here’s an example of saying yes to God’s grace freely given.  The hymn “Amazing Grace” is one of the best known and most loved hymns in Christianity.  It’s John Newton’s autobiographical hymn that reflects his conversion from a slave trader to an Anglican priest to an abolitionist.  (We can read about his life through The Abolition Project among many other sources.)  When John Newton was just 11 he went to sea with his father.  He became pressed into naval service, given no choice in the matter to serve in England’s navy.  Newton tried to desert though eventually became part of the crew of a slave ship bound for the West Indies.  He got to Sierra Leone and became the servant of an abusive slave trader and then got rescued and was coming back to England when a storm kicked up and the ship was in danger of sinking.  John Newton prayed to God for deliverance from the storm, and that experience began his conversion to Christianity.  Later on, he was aboard a ship bound for the West Indies again and was ill with a fever, praying to God for mercy.  He recovered and claimed that being healed from the fever was the turning point of his life.

Except he continued to participate in the slave trade and even was the captain of two different slave ships.  John Newton later admitted that he was ruthless.  There were revolts on board the ships and he would use lethal force to stop them.  Slaves were tortured because he ordered them to be.  He eventually stopped being involved in the slave trade in 1754 not because he had a change of heart, but because he suffered a stroke.  So he applied to become an Anglican priest and was accepted 7 years later.  (One can imagine that the Church of England may have had some reservations about his previous occupation.)

Once John Newton was a priest serving a congregation, he began to deeply regret his involvement in the slave trade.  He collaborated with William Cowper to produce a volume of hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”  John Newton went on to serve another church in London and there he interacted with people who were influential in English society.  Among them was William Wilberforce who served in Parliament and was contemplating leaving politics for the ministry.  John Newton encouraged him to stay in Parliament serving God right there.  Wilberforce ended up spending his life working for the abolition of slavery as a politician.  To atone for his sins and support the cause, John Newton wrote an influential pamphlet called “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade” where he detailed the horrors of the enterprise and his own involvement.  During the last years of his life, he did all that he could to support the cause of abolition.  The Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies) was passed right before he died.[7]

Sharing John Newton’s story in some detail shows us that receiving grace from God can change our lives and the world, though the change may be gradual.  God’s amazing grace may take some time to sink into our hearts.  Realizing that we are blessed and beloved isn’t going to look the same for every person.  For some of us, God’s grace is an epiphany.  It’s an a-ha moment!  It’s an experience like Paul getting blinded on the Road to Damascus after a life-altering encounter with the Risen Christ.  For others of us, God’s grace is experienced gradually.  God getting us through a potential shipwreck or an illness and it dawning on us that God couldn’t possibly intend for some of God’s beloved children to be treated as less than human.  In receiving God’s mercy, he began a long process of showing mercy to others.  That was John Newton’s story.  It took time for the seal of God’s grace to affect his heart and soul.  And once it did, transformation happened.

Friends, we too are named and claimed as God’s beloved children.
We too are adopted according to the good pleasure of God’s will.
We too are extended God’s grace, freely given.
Where do we go from here?  That’s up to us, with God’s help and guidance.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jennifer K. Berenson, Introduction to “The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition, 2052-2053 New Testament.
[2] Ephesians 1:6, NRSV.
[3] Ephesians 1:10.
[4] Acts 10:34.
[5] Martin E. Marty, “Grace,” in Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, Eds., New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, 225-226.
[6] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, 164.
[7] John Newton (1725-1807) The Former Slaver & Preacher, The Abolition Project, http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_35.html