Charles Qualls: Redeemed, Forgiven, and Adopted

I’m going to confess something to you. And it may make you think less of me. For others of you, this may make you think more of me, you know, in a relatable sort of way.

Here goes. One of my Bucket List items is that I want to go out to Los Angeles and take all the tours. You know, I want to be a tourist. I want to stroll the Walk of Fame and see all of the star plaques in the sidewalk. I want to take a studio tour or two.

That’s probably not so bad yet, but here’s the rest. Among those I want to take is one where you get on some bus and go see the homes of the stars. You know, “On the left, we have David Niven’s house. Over here, Snoop Dogg rented this house for six years before it sold to Jane Seymour. Just down the street, this is where Marilyn Monroe used to live. Next to that lives Lady Gaga.” I want to take that tour, but you know what? If I do, I still won’t have known any of those people, will I? I will have seen where they used to live, but I won’t know them.

I wish I knew who the Christians at Ephesus really were. As the apostle Paul writes to them, the words are powerful that he uses to help them understand the sense of belonging we could find in Christ.

My wife and I had a chance to walk the streets of ancient Ephesus a few years ago. We spent the better part of a day there. We got to see where the Ephesians of Paul’s time lived and got a feel for how they lived. The ruins even betray a little of what their culture was like. They were an affluent people. Ephesus back then was a vital sea port. Which made it a relative cultural crossroads. There was much beauty and opportunity in a place like the Ephesus of Paul’s time.

Like most gatherings within the fledgling Christian movement, there would have been a scattering of Jews, but obviously there would have been a tremendous number of Gentiles as well. The culture was pluralistic, including the variety of spiritual beliefs and practices the people may have held. Getting Jew and Gentile on the same spiritual page in the name of Christ would not have been an easy task. Getting Christian pilgrims and pagan seekers, especially in a Hellenistic age of intellectual curiosity, into a shared practice of faith would have been a worthy challenge for Paul’s abilities.

This same apostle Paul will tell the Galatians in chapter 3 of his letter to them, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is the Paul who makes the case in our Ephesians scripture today that in Christ, all who come to God through him are adopted “and blessed… with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Yes, I wish I knew the ancient Ephesians and just what this news meant to them.

When they had heard the word of truth, and had accepted life in Christ because of that hearing, Paul seemed to see them - according to Dr. Thomas Slater - as a new ethno-religious community. A body of believers, we might call them, but one with an amazing inheritance of resources, hope, possibility and eternity at their disposal.

There was a catch. They were everything I’ve just said but had to be so despite their noticeable diversity. Just like the Church of today:

…People who aren’t the same age, don’t all think just alike, don’t always interpret culture and events quite the same.

…People who aren’t necessarily doing the same thing and don’t always believe just the same still trying to find unity of spirit and action.

…Brought together by their salvation in Jesus Christ, their hope because of that, and God’s calling upon their lives because of him.

Susan Hylen observes that the fact of human difference may no longer surprise us. In America today, despite the efforts of many to deny and to try to perpetuate outdated views, we are obviously quite a diverse country.

She reminds us that later in Chapter 2 of this same letter, the writer will say that in Christ, God “has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” That was no small feat, then and now. Still today, much less then, it won’t be easy. But with the recommended efforts of humility, gentleness, and patience it could be done.

That’s important, because what is at stake is God’s adoption of the Church, according to the apostle. According to some, adoption was not as uncommon in ancient days as we might think. Especially among wealthy or prominent households, adoption might be a means to having heirs. The Bible demonstrates that one measure of wealth was the number of children one had.

For some of us, we may think we are hearing something in this chapter of the Ephesian letter that makes us uncomfortable or at least uncertain. This notion that sounds like predestination may be settled comfortably within some of our traditions, but not so much within others.

As a reader of this letter, I could also wish I liked the English translations of it here today better than I do. I don’t envy the task the scholars had, but lost in all the talk here of adoption and especially of what is termed predestination or predetermination, is that is appears our free will remains happily intact. It is not “who” would be saved that Paul seems to speak of. It is that any who choose to follow God in Christ already have assurance of salvation taken care of - or predestined.

Paul makes the case here that our choice to join in and to follow is still completely ours. It is just that a long time ago, God acted to make a way for grace in Jesus Christ available for any of us, if we were to so choose.

This is an important section of Paul’s letter that celebrates the blessings that we might elect to receive if we follow Christ. It brought welcomed news that we 21st century Christians may tend to take for granted. Especially for those who may have been exiled or displaced at that time, and certainly who were living as Roman citizens in a vast empire against their choice, this might have sounded like good news.

Maybe you’ve felt exiled at some point in your life. Or maybe something challenging has moved into your life and made you feel as though the way you had known was now being “occupied” by an invading circumstance.

We may struggle to understand, much less relate to, all the specific dynamics of life at Ephesus back then. We might not grasp fully what it was like for any citizen, much less Christ-followers, 2,000 years ago within the Roman Empire.

But I would imagine you’ve had times when you may not have felt quite at-home in your life for a stretch. Perhaps you even felt like you had been picked up and set down in the middle of someone else’s life.

…Medical issues like the Pandemic which we have been enduring over the last year, or a challenging diagnosis, an accident or the like - they can all remind us of how quickly life can change.

…Cultural upheaval and widespread disagreement, especially in a social media age, can make us feel alone or frustrated at times.

…Loss or fear, change and instability can make us feel uncertain for a while.

It was into a season of life just like that which the apostle Paul spoke these words of belonging and inclusion. This was good news that he wanted to offer to the believers at Ephesus. For when they had heard the word of truth, and decided to believe, they belonged. God had made provision for them and for us, too. They were adopted for a family and inheritance. They belonged to a holy lineage in Christ that we can still belong to today. This had to have at least been interesting, curious news to some. Welcomed and relieving news to others who may have at least been open to believing.

Perhaps you’ve heard this story. During the terrible days of the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II, an eight-year-old boy was found sobbing amid the smoking ruins of a burned-out building. The boy was asked where his father was. “He’s overseas in the service,” the child answered. “What about your mother, brothers, sisters?” “I don’t have any,” was the boy’s reply. “They have all been killed.” “Any relatives, grandparents, anybody?” The boy responded negatively. The rescuer then stooped down nearer to the child’s face and asked, “Son, who are you?” Sobbing convulsively, the boy said with a quivering voice, “Mister, I ain’t nobody’s nothing.”

Seasons of life can make us feel that way. Disappointments in others, or in dreams that just never came true can make us feel that we don’t really belong. Perhaps we come to a conclusion like the little boy did as we reflect on the accumulation of our life. We may not always know where we fit in. Paul’s good news is that we do belong to God as adopted and provided-for children in Christ.

The good news doesn’t end there though. We also can belong to each other, which is why our spiritual fellowships or churches are so vital to the Christian life. If we find the right fit within a local church, we can find companions for the journey. We can be companions for others, lending to each other the resources that the Spirit leads us to share.

Listen to one last dimension we have been given in Christ. Paul said here,

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made know 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.

God will redeem and forgive. God will renew and transform us. Just as we don’t get to hold onto our best moment, our worst moment will not be our last, and it won’t be left to define us. God in Christ has already done that.

Unlike the poor little boy in the story, we are far from nobody even if life can tempt us to feel that way at times. But people this beloved and included are part of God’s hope for creation now, not just in eternity. God has included us in the unfolding drama that continues from scriptural times until now.

I may wonder what life was like in ancient Ephesus, but one thing I can know from this is that I share life in Christ with them. I don’t know about you, but I find that compelling. I find that somehow comforting. Today’s cultural differences, which can divide us so and end up testing our very faith, are not all that unlike some of the diversity Paul would have known among the Ephesians.

These are timeless promises. They are written to a humanity that advances in so many measurable ways, but a humanity that yearns to connect with a divine power, and maybe even with others who have chosen to be people of faith.

God will include and lead us. Through the presence of the Spirit, God will guide us. The Divine will recognize us as family, perhaps sometimes just when we need inclusion the most. May we go and do likewise. May we model and challenge one another toward the very best for which these riches were intended. For we have also heard the word of truth.