Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ephesians 1:1-14

“Chosen By Love Lavished”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Election

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ~ Cleveland, Ohio

Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

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The question that our seeker presents to us today is, “Does God really have a plan for each of our lives?”  It’s a good question, as most good Christian folks talk quite openly about God’s plan for their lives, even if they don’t have a clue as to what God’s intentions are for their life.  I’ve heard it most recently in a kind of perverse reverse notion.  When someone has a near-miss accident, or they have recovered from a serious illness, I’ve heard them say, “Well, I guess God isn’t finished with me yet!”  Which is to say, God’s plan for their lives hasn’t been “fulfilled” or accomplished yet.

When we talk about God’s plan, ultimately we’re referring to election, predestination and the how’s and why’s of eternal salvation.  Talk about some of the most controversial and convoluted theological doctrines around!  And our scripture text today warrants just such a discussion!  The phrases are striking in their assumptions about God’s plan for our lives:

“Just as [God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blamesless…” (vs. 4)

         “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…” (vs. 5)

         “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will… as a plan for the fullness of time…” (vss. 8-9)

         “…having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things…” (vs. 11)

         “In [Christ] you also… were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit…” (vs. 13)

The passage for today is literally saturated with implications about God’s plan for our lives.  The question is, how carved into stone are those plans and do we have any choice in how they are fulfilled?

Now, I am no expert on the doctrines of election and predestination, and I’ll tell you up front I don’t think that is what this text, or other scripture passages like it, had in mind nor is it what is intended by God.  But, to give it its fair shake, we ought to at least give an overview of what these tenets are.  Predestination is, simply, the idea that all events have been willed by God and that God willed eternal damnation for some people and salvation for others.  For some, this plays out in “conditional election” which is the belief that God chooses, for eternal salvation, those whom God foresees will have faith.  Thus, conditional election emphasizes humanity’s free will and God’s all-knowing nature.  God just knows us so well that God knows who will and will not choose the right path.

John Calvin

For others, this plays out in “unconditional election,” or the idea that God chooses whomever God wants to receive salvation, based solely on the divine will and independent of human action.  The 16th century Swiss reformer, John Calvin, is most closely associated with this latter doctrine.  In both versions of the doctrine, God remains fully in charge and there is little humans can do to change the course of their history.  God’s identity remains all-knowing, all-powerful, and unchanging.

In thinking of election and predestination, I think of my very first trip to Disneyland when I was nine years old.  I loved the Southern California theme park, and remember all the emotions of being in an amusement park for the very first time.  One of the rides that intrigued me the most was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  I wondered what happened when you got into that car and went into the dark interior of the building for the “wild” journey you were to take with Mr. Toad, a character based on the children’s book, “The Wind In The Willows.”  I hopped on with my brother, Pat, and we took off.  And while the ride was certainly fun and unpredictable, I was pretty devastated to realize that, no matter how “wild” the “ride” was, it was the same ride every time and for every person who took it.  The jalopies where on tracks, as almost all such rides are, and no matter how often you took the ride, it was the very same path.  In fact, if it wasn’t the same ride, it meant that something had gone wrong in a pretty horrible sort of way!

For me, this is the feeling that doctrines of election and predestination elicit from me, whether it’s conditional or unconditional election.  Essentially God has built a “track” for us to follow upon, and it may lead to heaven or it may lead to hell, but it’s going there no matter what I say, do, believe, think, or care.  God’s in charge, get over it.

Is this really the only way to understand God’s plan for us, or to interpret texts like this one in Ephesians?  Look more closely, however.  If we examine carefully the entire passage, we also get hints that there is something more fluid, more open and inviting than the single “track” of predestination:

“Blessed be God… who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing…” (vs. 3)

         “According to the good pleasure of [God’s] will” (vs. 5)

         “… to the praise of his glorious grace that [God] freely bestowed on us in the Beloved…” (vs. 6)

         “In [Christ] we have redemption… according to the riches of [God’s] grace that he lavished on us…” (vss. 7-8)

         “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of [Christ’s] glory…” (vs. 12)

There is a theology, termed “Process Theology,” most intensely explored by Alfred Lord Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and John Cobb, but also expressed in a contemporary theologian I read extensively as a seminary student, Dr. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki.  Process theology believes first and foremost that the greatest power the divine has is God’s persuasive power.  God is neither a distant creator God (like the theists believed) nor a coercive enforcer God (like the Calvinists believed), but an intimately present and persuasive divine force in our lives.  There is a relational character to the divine which allows God to experience both our joy and our suffering.  God, therefore, exercises a relational power and not unilateral control and actively is working tirelessly to lead us to liberation, redemption, and salvation.

In thinking about God in this way, an intimately connected and ultimately inviting and persuasive way I recall a mystery I read, about the same age that I was visiting Disneyland, by the famed romance and mystery novelist, Phyllis A. Whitney.  In her teen mystery book, “Mystery On The Isle Of Skye,” (1) a young girl, an orphan, named Cathy MacLeod who has been brought up by her beloved grandmother, who is now gravely ill, is flying to visit relatives in Scotland, from whence the MacLeod’s first came.  On the trip Cathy carries a special box with her from her grandmother.  It is filled with fascinating “surprises” and clues that she must open in the course of her trip.  She, and two relatives about her own age, are drawn into a search for the answers to a series of mysteries connected to the surprised in the box.  She learns about her family history, her own abilities and gifts, and gains a new sense of purpose and strength for her life from following the “path” that her grandmother invited her to follow.  Cathy did not have to do anything her grandmother, through the box of treasures, had offered to her, but she chose to do so, and found herself on a truly wild ride!

This, to me, is much more like the God I encounter throughout scripture, and most especially in Jesus Christ.  God is like the beloved grandmother who knows all too well that we must make this journey our own journey, and can follow no one else’s path.  God has set in our lives clues as to how to live life most fully, abundantly, and gracefully.  Like the grandmother, the treasure box handed to each of us is given with great love and deep understanding of our own unique nature.  Unlike

Love and the Pilgrim, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, 1896-7. Tate Gallery

the grandmother, God is able to place literally an endless number of clues, absolutely everywhere we could possibly wander, never leaving us “clueless” and never leading us down a dead-end street.  And also, unlike the book, we have one who so intensely, completely, and faithfully trusted in the “clues and surprises” of God that he willingly gave his life over to trusting God and seeking God’s ways that he became “The Way.”  This is none other than Jesus Christ, who the earliest Christians called “The Way.”  Jesus as “the way” did not mean that there was only one path to follow, a metal track upon which our “jalopies” must stay hooked upon or we would fall into eternal damnation, but a way of being in this world that eagerly sought out the invitation, the yearnings, the persuasions of the very author of life so that the actual path we take become filled with meaning, hope, possibility, and promise.

What if our salvation is fulfilled when we follow our own distinctive path, one that is not planned, but lavished with love by a God who knows not the choices we made, make, and will make, but who simply loves us unconditionally whatever step we take, wherever the road may lead us, no matter how far nor how wide we shall wander.  This God, who has gifted each and every one of us with our own treasure box full of surprises and clues, is persuading us even now to open up the clues, and take a risk, to believe in this love ancient and yet brand new, so that we will, indeed, know that same love that Jesus Christ encountered, lived, and loved.


(1) Phyllis A. Whitney, Mystery On the Isle Of Skye, Copyright 1955

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