I remember my sixth grade English teacher. She was young, blonde, and quite beautiful. All the boys in 6th grade had a major crush on her. That’s not why I remember her, though. I remember her for sentence diagramming. Sentence diagramming is pretty much a lost art these days and has gone the way of all flesh along with times tables, phonics, and memory work.
She made us diagram sentences in 6th grade English. Subjects on the left, predicates on the right. Take a sentence and dissect it the same way you pull a frog apart in biology class. Word by word, phrase by phrase. Every word and phrase has a purpose and a relationship to the others. And when you’re done diagramming, you have this odd looking page full of lines and words going off in all directions. Hardly the stuff from which poetry is made. And yet if you step back, and squint you eyes at that diagram, you see how wonderfully language works, how all the words are pulling their weight and doing their work in just the right way.
I would like to find he and thank her. I’d like to thank her for all those sentence diagrams, all those reams of paper with crazy lines. They helped to ensure that my subjects usually agreed with my predicates, and my modifiers didn’t dangle and my infinitives didn’t split (at least unintentionally), and I hardly ever use a preposition to end a sentence with.
And then I encountered St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the single sentence that’s today’s text. I wonder what she would think of it. The translators spared you, but Paul’s original Greek is a big run-on sentence that would cross the eyes of any sharp-penciled English teacher. On and on the sentence spills, running on from one verb to the next, from one Person of the Trinity to the next. The Father’s good and gracious will to save. The Son’s redeeming blood. The Spirit’s sealing mark. A verbal river, like the river of the water of life in the Revelation, flowing from the throne and the Lamb down through the middle of the heavenly city and on to you.
Grammatically, it may not be a thing of beauty. But the beauty of all this verbal run-on is that it defies our attempts to organize it. And that’s how salvation should be, don’t you think? Messy. Untidy. Not the sort of thing you can reduce to a sentence diagram or four spiritual laws and say, “Ah hah, now I understand how God works.” But you can’t. Now we can only know in part; we have but an inkling of how good and gracious God is in Jesus.
We have this tendency for taking over the management of things from God. Organize Him. Help Him keep His desk and files tidy. It’s our inborn desire to be gods in place of God, something we inherited from old Adam and Eve who wanted to be wise in the ways of the world. We’re ever tempted to take charge, to tidy up God’s messiness and make His ways a bit more presentable, if not fashionable and marketable, to a world that admires straight lines and polished surfaces. And when things seem to be terribly out of control and not according to our program, we’re tempted to try and fix things, as through we were the ones saving the world. We get busy, running here and there with beepers beeping and cell phones chirping some silly tune and blood pressure rising, reveling in our own necessity, if not our popularity. God must surely be pleased He has us on the job. Where would He be without us?
From such tyranny, Paul would rescue us. He was on ice in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the Ephesian congregation. There wasn’t much Paul could do in prison except read and write and pray. There aren’t many verbs available to you from a prison cell. But the joy of this text is that from beginning to end, from first to last, from alpha to omega, God does all the big verbs – the ones that count, the ones that save us. He does them from all eternity, from before the slab of this world’s foundation was laid, so that by the time they get around to us in our time and place, they’re already in a past and completed tense. It’s all a done deal in Jesus, just as He said in His dying breath on the cross. “It is finished.” And it is – finished – before we can even get started.
Look at how Paul’s sentence begins. “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Before we even part our lips to bless God, He has already blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing there is. Before we can utter a predicate of prayer or sing a syllable of praise, everything’s already ours in Jesus. At least ten times in this sentence Paul says “in Him” or “in Christ” to remind us that’s where the action was, is, and always will be: in Christ. That’s where we look for the verbs to going on, not in ourselves. In Christ.
In Christ we are blessed. In Him we are chosen, chosen in God’s chosen Son. In Him we are destined for adoption as God’s children, beloved in the Beloved Son. In Him we are redeemed by His blood, our sins forgiven in the Lamb who was slain from the foundations of the world. It’s all in Christ and not in ourselves, and that’s the best news a sinner could possibly hear.
In our selves, we are dead. “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, there dwells no good thing,” Paul wrote to the Romans. Nothing good comes from within us. From within come murder, adultery, slander, gossip, theft, lies, and everything that dehumanizes us, degrades our humanity. And so we won’t be roaming around in our insides looking for something salvageable. Not in our hearts, nor in our heads, not in our feelings. Only in Christ. Leave Him out of the picture, and you have nothing. The whole sentence of salvation collapses on itself. It’s just you and your miserable life waiting to die.
But listen. In Christ you were chosen by the Father, chosen before the foundations of the world. Before you were even a twinkle in our own father’s eye, your Father in heaven chose His Son and in Him, He chose us to be holy and blameless before Him. Outside of Christ we are sinful, unholy, guilty. That is our lot in Adam. And should you doubt that for even a moment, take a quick look in the mirror of the Law. Just a commandment or two ought to show you – those little blasphemies, the way we dishonor father, mother, authority, our loose regard for life, our even looser regard for sex and marriage, our petty thefts and lies and deceits, our restless, greedy hearts that always want more and more. And that’s how you are, outside of Christ.
But in Christ, you are holy, wrapped in His holiness. You are blameless in His obedience. The shame of your nakedness is clothed with the robe of Jesus righteousness. That’s how God sees you in Christ. Holy, blameless in His sight. So it’s as though there were two of you, though there’s really only one. There’s you as you are in yourself – a sinner. And then there’s you as you are in Christ – a saint.
In Christ we are destined for adoption. It’s our destiny. Everyone is looking for his or her destiny. It’s in Christ. We have a certain future in Christ, a future that even gives meaning to the present, including our present sufferings. The adoption papers have been filled out and filed. Signed, sealed, delivered. You’re in, adopted, a family member. God chose you. Not because we are so lovable and adoptable, as though God were looking for a pet poodle from the pound. “He’s so cute, I think I’ll take that one.” No, it’s the “good pleasure of His will” to adopt wretched, damned sinners in Christ. God does the outrageous and unthinkable: He adopts us “while we were yet sinners.” He doesn’t say, “Be good, and I’ll adopt you.” He says, “You’re mine. I’ve adopted you. Now live like my child, because that’s who you are.” He calls us His own children, and loves us to death in the death of His beloved Child Jesus, who says to us, “You call my Father your Father and say, ‘Our Father.’”
In Christ we have redemption. We are a purchased people, bought with a price, “not with gold or silver.” You’re not a piece of merchandise sitting on a shelf. The currency is Christ’s holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. You have forgiveness by His blood, a redemptive river that flows from the wounded side of your Savior to you in the Word and the Font and the Chalice. Your cup runneth over. Though our sins may be many and great, redemption’s flood runs greater still, wider and deeper than the worst and deepest of sins.
You are in on a great mystery. The big secret. What’s on God’s mind. In Christ the mystery of God’s will, hidden for the ages, is revealed, made known in the fullness of time, when “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law.” The Triune conspiracy is revealed to the world, to bring together and sum up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ, literally to “recapitulate” everything and bring it all to its final purpose in Christ.
Sometimes we say, “It just doesn’t add up.” We look at this world in all its confusion. It just doesn’t add up. Can God make good out of a sin-filled, terrorized world? Can God make good out of your life, broken though it may be? The cancers, the divorces, the failures – it just doesn’t add up to much of a victorious life, does it? But listen. From the cross of Christ comes the resounding answer: “Yes.” “It is finished.” God was in Christ recapitulating and reconciling the world to Himself. It all adds up in Christ. It all totals out. His assets exceed the world’s liabilities. Those arms that extended on the cross embraced all in His death.
In His humanity, Jesus embraces our humanity. He was baptized as a sinner among sinners. He was made sin for us. He is the Sinner for us all, embodying the sin of the world. He died our death; He is the death of us all. “Christ died for all; therefore all died.” Lifted up in death on the cross, He draws all to Himself. He is every sin and every sinner in one Man. And in the darkness of His death, once and for all, the mystery of God’s good and gracious will to save is made known. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Now if Paul’s sentence simply ended there, and didn’t run on a bit further, all of this might be written off as idle abstraction, suitable perhaps for some deep religious discussion over a Starbuck’s latte or some graduate school term paper in world religions. But the God who gave His Son to become flesh and blood to die and rise isn’t content with abstractions. This sentence of salvation runs on to each one of you, crashing and splashing down on you in the “Word of truth” you’ve heard and believed, the Word of forgiveness spoken to you, the Word of Baptism poured out on you. You are marked by the Spirit, branded with the sign of the holy cross, marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” You are marked men and women.
God’s put a deposit , a down payment, on your life. That’s what your Baptism is – a down payment with the promise of more to come. Eternal life now in Christ, resurrection to life yet to come. It’s all yours now by faith in Jesus, and then there’s even more to come at the coming of Jesus.
When your sin and conscience trouble you and leave you no peace in which to lie down and sleep; when the devil whispers doubt that you can’t possibly be God’s chosen, destined, redeemed, forgiven; when the world measures you and declares you a loser by its standards of winning; then you can say with all the boldness and confidence of a child of God, “Loser I may be, but I am baptized. I have the Father’s Word, the Son’s blood, the Spirit’s mark. I’m an adopted child of God, and nothing, not even my sin, can take take that away, thanks be to Jesus.”
And at the end of the day, and the end of all your days, whether you close your eyes in the death of sleep or in the sleep of death, you may go to sleep in good cheer as one of the Lord’s, chosen, destined, loved, redeemed, forgiven in Christ – all to the praise of His glorious grace.
In the Name of Jesus,