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 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. 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 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. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Last New Years Eve, of 2019, Dexter and I were at a friend’s house. We sat near their Christmas tree, lingering in the cozy light, sipping something bubbly and talking about the coming year. More specifically, we talked about all we were hoping to do in the coming year. Plans to get involved with that campaign in an important election year. Plans to start a new exercise regimen. Plans to go on that trip we had been putting off. It was the usual end-of-the-winter-holidays feeling, and we were preparing to lay aside the sweatpants of holiday leisure for working clothes as we entered into 2020, a year we felt sure was going to be all about the plans we had made.
Well, as we all know, I really should have just invested in more sweatpants. As we enter this new year, 2021, I feel none of that “let’s get ready to get back at it” energy as we leave the holiday season. Because as we knew would be the case, even with the hope of a vaccine starting to make its way to frontline health workers and the most vulnerable, not much about our daily lives will change significantly as we enter this new year. Some of us are still at home. Some of us still have the same essential work jobs to go to every week, donning our masks as usual. We continue to be in a holding pattern which resists the usual new year pull to get moving in new directions. And that has me wondering: maybe there’s an opportunity for us here.
Maybe there’s an opportunity to not jump into a new year by doing, but to instead ground ourselves in being. Because that’s precisely what this passage from Ephesians invites us to linger on this first Sunday of 2021. This text is a celebration of who God is and who God has created us to be. And I believe it speaks to us in this moment with counter-cultural messages of hope, particularly the hope that comes with reminding us that we are made to be members of a beloved community.
The first word of hope is that, though we may feel more isolated and alone than we ever have in our lives at this moment in time, what we hear in this song celebrating God’s lavish love for humanity is that we are always a we. Most of this passage is addressed not to an individual, but to a people, to the plural “y’all”, to a community. Who we are is not just bound up with God’s own grace, but with that grace lived out and experienced in the family of God. Eleven times in this passage, we hear some version of a word for community, whether it is “us”, “we” or “our”. This is a gift to us as we enter another year where the task of imagining life ahead can be so overwhelming. Yes, you are called by God, one of God’s own, and you are called as a member of a grand, messy family. You are knit into community from the very start of our being. Whatever this year holds for you, God has already planned to surround you with God’s presence through God’s people, so you won’t need to cry or laugh or rage or process or engage with any of it on your own. We are always an “us” in the eyes of our God.
The second word of hope is that God purposely chose us to be a community of saints who come from all over, who are diverse in the ways we relate to God, who have all kinds of varied lived experiences. The writer of Ephesians speaks of some “who were the first to set our hope on Christ…” but then speaks of “you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation…” In this way, the writer names the reality that people have come together to follow Jesus at different times and using different paths. The church in Ephesus was made up of Jews and Gentiles who were trying to figure out how to be one body of Christ in the midst of profound cultural differences and very different communal and personal histories. But our text says that God adopted all of them, purposefully choosing people from all over the cultural and experiential spectrum to be a part of God’s family.
This is good news for a community of faith like ours, who in so many ways have been scattered all over the place in the course of this pandemic. We have been blessed to continue connecting on Zoom in fellowship and worship, and yet I would wager that not one of us is the same person now that we were when lockdown began in March. And it might be hard for us to even verbalize the changes, the scars of trauma we have experienced in our souls, perhaps the areas of new and unexpected growth that has been nurtured in this strange season. As I heard someone say, we have all been in the same storm, but we have all been in different boats, and those boats have shaped us in ways we may not fully understand for quite some time. Some have lived through the stress, anxiety and exhaustion of reinventing how to do their work from home. Families have been either kept painfully apart or squished into new stressful proximity, stretching and stressing relationships at the seams. We may feel scattered in the paths we have walked this last year, but the good news is that God has adopted all of us, intentionally chosen us, with a deep knowledge of where we would walk that precedes the foundations of the earth. And it is God’s good pleasure, our text says, “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Not a single frayed strand of our lives is unknown to God, not even the wild strands of 2020 living, and it is God’s delight to continually weave us all together as we learn to be community not seeking to go back to normal, but transformed by the Holy Spirit in new and unprecedented times.
And finally, the third word of hope is that we can have confidence in God to do this seemingly impossible task of weaving the untamed strands of our lives together in the tapestry of beloved community that sustains us, because God has already brought the diverse worlds of heaven and earth together in a person, God with flesh on, Jesus Christ. We are told that this mystery has been made known to us, and I don’t think it is because we understand it, but rather because we have seen the mystery lived out in the person of Jesus. More than 10 times in this text, the writer reminds us that all this weaving together and lavishing of grace and gifting us with every spiritual blessing we need happens in or through Christ, the one who has come to us, the one who has walked before us, and the one who is present with us in the community of faith through the initial deposit of our inheritance, the Holy Spirit. The work of taking our scattered lives and frayed journeys and making them into something beautiful may seem impossible, but it is the work God has already done for us in Jesus. This is who we are. Beloved children adopted into a beautiful, messy family, held together by Christ.
There are some little rituals of communal worship I didn’t know I would miss until the lockdown began. When we worship in our physical building at LPC, the first thing we always try to make happen for each person who comes through the door is saying hello, asking their name if we don’t know them already, and then offering them a name tag for the day. And anyone and everyone who walks through the door can sign up that very day for a special name tag to be made for them the following week, waiting for them in printed lettering the next time they join us for worship. That entry way ritual is how I like to think of this passage. We are entering the door of this new year together, and this passage is inviting us to speak our true name: beloved child of God, named as God’s own, joyfully adopted and welcomed from wherever we came that morning to be a part of the beautiful community that awaits us inside. And instead of rushing through the sanctuary doors right away, we are invited to make ourselves a name tag to remind us and everyone around us of who we really are. We are loved. We are not alone. Every single strand of our lives is welcome here. And in Christ, we have every spiritual blessing we need for the journey that lies ahead. In 2021 and always, may we wear those name tags with joy. Amen.