In Him – Ephesians 1:3-14
Three and a bit weeks ago we were in Alice Springs. Darwin had been declared a hotspot, so we’d abandoned our plans to go there, and we were booking flights back to the ACT. South Australia had closed its border to the Northern Territory (they were probably still allowing transit passengers, but it sounded forbidding) and we did not want to fly through Sydney, so we booked flights via Melbourne – who were calling Alice an orange zone when I booked, but a red zone when we got on the flight. We had dutifully done our Victorian Travel Permits, but when we got off the plane every passenger was met by officials in hazmat suits who made us redo the form. It was with real relief that we boarded the next flight and I have never been so glad, stepping off the plane, to feel crisp cold Canberra air on my face. It was very good to be back ‘in the ACT’.
There are different ways we use the concept of ‘in’ – where we are located, who we are related to and our sense of well-being. Geographically we are – and are very grateful to be – in Canberra, and in Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the world, in this amazing and mysterious universe. We are in families and in relationships. We also speak of being ‘in’ certain occupations; in the public service, for example, or in teaching or in a trade or in ministry – or even in school or in college. And finally we use ‘in’ to describe our welfare; in love or in pain, in good health or bad health, in peace or in distress or danger.
All these ‘ins’ give us some perspective on what it means, in Ephesians chapter one, to be ‘in Christ’. As I mentioned in this week’s Sunday to Sunday (if you don’t get our mid-week email and would like to, please contact Cecelia in the office!) over the next six weeks we will be exploring what Ephesians says to us, as a church, about how to live as the church, as God’s renewed human community.
And in this first chapter the writer of Ephesians – possibly Paul or someone writing in the style of Paul – impresses upon us that, as saints, those who are following Jesus, those who are faithful in Jesus Christ, we are ‘in Christ’, we are connected to God through Christ, we are blessed ‘in Christ’, our state of being is ‘being in Christ’. ‘In Christ’ and close variants (‘through Christ’ or ‘in him’) are used ten times in these verses.
And impresses upon us that this is good! Perhaps what expresses this more than anything is the way in which this passage is constructed. It is one long sentence in the original Greek from verse 3 to verse 14! I considered asking Doug to read it all without taking a breath (but I took pity on him) to give us a sense of the energy, the exuberance, the effort of the writer trying to plumb the depths and touch the heights, test the length and experience the breadth of what it means to be ‘in Christ’. As Professor of New Testament, Brian Peterson says, “This is the grammar of worship more than it is the grammar of logical argument….”
Peterson goes on to identify three ‘ins’ in verse three.
Firstly, the writer blesses God who has blessed us ‘in Christ’. God has blessed us ‘in Christ’ because God’s love for us and God’s saving activity is made visible, is made knowable, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. It is ‘in Christ’ that God chose us before the foundation of the world (verse 4). It is ‘though Christ’ that God destined us for adoption as God’s children (verse 5). It is ‘in the Beloved’ that God freely bestows on us divine and glorious grace (verse 6) and it is ‘in Christ’ that we have obtained an inheritance. In a community dealing with the challenging and sometimes messy reality of different ethnic identities, of different faith journeys, of different cultures, the writer makes it unmistakably clear is that this inheritance is given equally – this adoption welcomes unreservedly – those who came first, Jews, and those came later, Gentiles; and that this was God’s intention from the beginning of time. In him, in Christ, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we are all embraced as God’s children.
I read this week a story told by the famous US preacher Fred Craddock about being on holidays in Tennessee. He was in a restaurant, having dinner with his wife, and old man came over and started to ask them where they were from and whether they were enjoying their holiday and, finally, the old man asked what they did for a living and Fred spied a chance to get rid of him and said – “I’m a preacher.”
But it wasn’t to be. “A preacher? That’s great. Let me tell you a story about a preacher!” and the man sat down at their table, but as he told his story Fred’s annoyance was transformed to profound humility. The old man explained he had grown up being called a ‘bastard’ – never knowing who his father was – and that one day a new preacher had come to town and, despite never having gone to church, he decided to go. The preacher was good, so he kept coming back, but, so ashamed of who he was, he would sneak in after the service started and leave before it ended. But one Sunday he got caught up in the sermon and left it too late and the aisles were filling. As he was trying to get to the door a hand landed on his shoulder. He turned to see the preacher, a tall man, looking down and asking, “What’s your name, boy? Whose son are you?” He felt like he was dying. Everything he tried to avoid was now here. But before he could speak, the preacher said, “I know who you are. I know who your family is. There’s a distinct family resemblance. Why, you’re the son, you’re the son, you’re the son of God!”
The old man said to Fred Craddock, “You know, mister. Those words changed my life”. And he said goodbye and left. A waitress came over, “Do you know who that was?” she said to Fred and his wife. “No” they replied. “That was Ben Hooper, the two-term governor of Tennessee.” A man whose trajectory, whose life was changed, by discovering that he was unreservedly welcome in the family of God.
Secondly, we are blessed ‘in’ spiritual blessings. (This is still in verse three, but you might miss it as the NRSV here uses ‘with’.) God has given us, as members of the church, every possible good gift – spiritual gift; love, joy, peace, patience… and forgiveness, acceptance, hope. Not because of anything any of us do to deserve it – this was planned before the world was made! God bestows grace freely on us (verse 6). God lavishes on us the riches of grace – redemption and forgiveness (verse 7 and 8) and does this purely for God’s good pleasure and will. And does this because these are the characteristics of the renewed world that God is making. The Holy Spirit is a promise to us that in the ‘fullness of time’ all creation will be healed and whole.
We are blessed in Christ, we are blessed in now and future blessings and, finally, still in verse three, we are blessed ‘in the heavenly places.’ But what does this phrase mean?
It’s a phrase that appears only five times in the New Testament – all in Ephesians. Unlike more recent ways of imagining spiritual geography, in the first century demonic forces were not pictured as being subterranean, but as being ‘in the air’ where, people feared, they might come between them and God. (We will see this again in Ephesians 6:12.) It is a terrifying thought really that there is a barrier between us and God, but what being blessed ‘in the heavenly places’ means is that this barrier is gone. It has been taken away forever. We, in the church, can always be confident of our access to God’s mercy and grace.
This might sound like an outdated notion, but I had a conversation with a person – not very long ago – from a non-Anglo background who explained that people who wished her ill had paid a magic worker in her home country to work evil spirits against her, and the impact of this in her life was real. And so we spoke together about the power of the spiritual reality – that she was a Christian, that nothing could come between her and God. As I’ve reflected on that conversation, however, I have thought of other situations, when people shame others or speak ill of others, or we grow up without receiving the love we need, or our relationships are emotionally and psychologically and spiritually abusive, and it takes a range of beneficial, life-giving steps to move on from that place, but that part of our healing is knowing that nothing comes between us and God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love for us.
A few years ago, my parents went to Europe and the story my mother returns to – again and again – is the story of the burial of the Hapsburg family – namely that of Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Her husband became the heir of the Emperor of Austria after assassination of his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and acceded to the throne in 1916. Some of you have also, no doubt, been there and know the story. How, in 1989, as part of the funeral proceedings, when the procession reached the door of the Imperial Crypt at the Capuchin Church, the Herald knocked.
And, inside, the monk responsible for the crypt asked, “Who requests entry?” and the Herald responded with “Zita, Her Majesty the Empress and Queen…” and proceeded to read all her royal titles. I won’t – there are around 14 of them – but finished with “Infanta of Spain, Princess of Portugal and of Parma”. The monk inside then said, “We don’t know her.”
A second time the Herald knocked and this time, when asked, “Who requests entry?” more simply said, “Zita, Her Majesty the Empress and Queen.” Again the answer was, “We don’t know her.”
The third time the herald knocked. “Who requests entry?” asked the monk.
“Zita,” was the reply, “a mortal sinner, saved by grace.”
“Come in,” was the response.
We are invited in. We hear the invitation to, “Come in,” because ‘in Christ’ we are now God’s family. We hear the invitation to, “Come in,” because ‘in Christ’ God’s longs to lavish us with blessings for here and now and what will be. We hear the invitation to, “Come in,” because ‘in Christ’ we know we unfettered, unrestricted access to the love and grace and mercy of God. This is our identity, our experience, our reality. We are ‘in Christ’. We are found in God’s love.