What are the marks of a true believer? How do we determine who’s in and who’s out? This debate was one of the first the church had to engage. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so believing Jews wondered how much of their law still applied. In particular, they wondered about circumcision because circumcision was the sign of someone’s inclusion in the people of God. If you wanted to know if someone was in or out, it was fairly easy, awkward maybe, but easy.
For Jews, there were two kinds of people in this world – Jews and the rest of the world, Gentiles. Naturally, Gentile converts to Christianity were the ones on trial, so to speak. They were the uncircumcised. There was no way, in other words, to mark their inclusion in God’s family, and since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah didn’t it make sense for Gentiles to be subject to the Jewish understanding of inclusion?
This debate is very much in the background of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. From where we stand in history, we might feel the temptation to see this debate as silly or elementary. Perhaps we even see the Jews of that era as prejudiced, backwards or close-minded. That perspective will definitely color how we read this letter, and actually present a bit of irony. Paul is writing a letter to encourage the church in Ephesus to find their security in God’s word of affirmation over them rather than what the world says about them. Therefore, we’re in danger of missing Paul’s message to us if we presume that our position in history makes us the enlightened insiders able to judge those “backward-thinking” Jews. We fall into the same trap they did back then.
The truth is we’re not that far removed from the debates of the first century. We still struggle with the same questions. We wonder who’s in and who’s out. We play elaborate games, making moves of judgment on others and feeling judged by others. Each of us has our own criteria for true believers, and each of us is aware of others’ criteria.
Do any of the following sound familiar? True believers get up early in the morning. That’s sufficient, but they probably also pray, too. True believers read lots of Scripture when they pray. Only reading a few verses would be slacking. True believers read books and write in journals. They sit in rooms alone, and speak bits of wisdom to truth-seekers in pithy phrases that don’t make any sense (probably because I’m not a true believer.).
Let’s get closer to home. Maybe true believers go to small churches. They have an aversion to program-driven churches because they want something that emerges more “organically.” True believers attend urban churches because of their aversion to the consumerism of the suburban church. Let’s get even closer to home. Who are the true believers here? Are they those who live in this neighborhood? Those with or without a theological degree? Who has more to offer? Who is more valuable? Whose opinion has more weight? Who needs to be voted off the island?
Paul listens to all these debates and finally says, “Enough!” All the time we spend squabbling over the scraps of others’ approval is time spent missing the fact that we have God’s approval. In Paul’s words we have been “blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
What are “spiritual blessings”? First and foremost we have received Christ himself. Because we have Christ, we have received forgiveness and redemption. Also, having received Christ, the Child of God, we have become God’s child, and as God’s child we have an inheritance. God has allowed us access to his life, so we have the blessing of communion with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We were once alienated from God, but now God has drawn us near to him.
Not only have we been granted access to God’s life, but we also have been made into God’s dwelling place. Because God is within us, we have the power of the One who raised Christ from the dead in us. Our habits that kept us alienated from God have been overcome by Christ’s victory over death.
God’s blessing includes knowledge of his will for the whole world. We have been made aware of God’s desire to unite all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’s authority. Though we might not know the particulars of how we’re going to get there, we have been let in on the future. Christ reigns over all and in all and will reign for all time.
That we’ve been blessed “in Christ” means we didn’t have a thing to do with any of this. All our debates about who’s more valuable and whose opinion has more weight are silly because they look to the wrong person for the standard of faithfulness. All our criteria fail before him. None of us is here because of some gleaming resume. You are here because God chose you before the foundation of the world, before you saw the light of day, took your first step, won your first game, received your first degree, or had your picture on the front page of the paper. God chose you because he loves you more than you can think or imagine.
That these blessings are “in the heavenly places” means God’s blessings on us are secure. It is in the heavenly places, Paul will say later, where Christ is seated, which means the victory he claimed over death is an undeniable reality there. Because we know God’s plan to unite heaven and earth, we know that the heavenly reality will one day become the earthly reality. We will see Jesus face to face, the One for whom are heart longs. We will be free from the trappings of our self-protecting, self-justifying, alienating tendencies. We won’t struggle anymore with confusing other’s approval for God’s approval. We will always remember that God made us, loves us and we are fulfilled in Him.
In the meantime, if it’s true that God has spoken his eternal ‘Yes’ over us. If we are God’s children, loved more than we can ever think or imagine, and it’s all confirmed because Christ is the authority over every authority – both real and imagined, and we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, then we need to act like it. We need to be about living the heavenly reality right now. We need to be about the unification of heaven and earth. If Christ is over all and in all in heaven, we need to welcome Christ into more and more places here.
Secure in what God has said about me, I can stop defining myself over and against others. Instead of working so hard to figure out why I am welcome here, I can now welcome others. But it’s not just a bland acceptance of everyone. We are about true unity here. We welcome others because we welcome Christ in them. We are convinced that people are truly themselves in Christ. So, we are eagerly searching, with each person here and in the world around us, for Christ in them. We no longer have to worry about how well we measure up in comparison with the others in this room. So now that that’s over with, sit with anyone in this room and listen for the ways Christ is made manifest in his or her life – the way the heavenly reality is breaking into this earthly reality. Sometimes that person is going to need you to go further than just listening and name those ways for them.
No one here is a threat to your place in Christ. That means you don’t have to protect it. You have been blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. You are a child of the King. Now that that’s settled, you can spend your time making sure others recognize that more fully in themselves.
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- January 4, 2010 / 4:47 pm