God destined us for adoption as children of God through Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, there is not a stone in our cloister walk for the town of Ephesus, where the book of Ephesians was sent, but maybe there should be. The book of Ephesians is one of the older letters from the New Testament, written with an emphasis on Christian unity — an important founding principal of Kenilworth Union Church.
Christian unity became critical this year as we traveled to Guatemala on our mission trip, where youth from Kenilworth Union, a non-denominational Protestant church, partnered with an American missionary team from the Evangelical tradition and a Guatemalan missionary team from a Pentecostal church in Sumpango, Guatemala. Then, because Betty, the Pentecostal Guatemalan missionary, teaches English at a Catholic orphanage set up specifically to care for children living with HIV, we were also partnered with Catholic nuns.
It was global Christianity at its best. For our youth, it was a tangible introduction to Christian diversity, and despite our different ways of talking about and encountering God, it highlighted how God still yet calls us to a common mission to love those who God loves. Regardless of time or place, race or mother tongue, we are all adopted into God’s family.
This particular text from the book of Ephesians comes from the introduction. It is the longest sentence in the Bible. All eleven verses comprise one long sentence in Greek, with 206 words in total. Thankfully, it is quite short compared to the 44 hundred word sentence from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, and thankfully, in English today’s text is divided into 6 sentences, but it remains quite complex. So, let us encounter God as we hear this reading from scripture.
“Houston, we have a problem,” said astronaut Jim Lovel, after an oxygen tank exploded on the 1970 spacecraft Apollo 13. As the near-disaster unfolded, astronauts on their way to the moon, and NASA scientists on the ground, had to quickly abandon their lunar landing in favor of survival. In light of the explosion, the three man crew relocated to the smaller but undamaged Lunar Module, the vehicle that would have landed them on the moon, only to discover that they had yet another problem. Carbon dioxide.
The CO2 filter on the Lunar Module was only meant for two men for a day and a half, not three people for four days. The air quickly became unbreathable. You remember how the story goes. There were extra CO2 filters on the Command Module. But they take square filters. The filters on the Lunar Module, where the astronauts needed them, were round.
Here, in the film adaptation of the story, the drama builds as the air becomes more and more dense with carbon dioxide and the music swells. Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director finally says, “Well, I suggest you, gentlemen, invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rabidly.” It’s a great scene, beautifully written. Go back and watch it if you have the chance.
Because, that’s just what they do. They build a contraption that fits a square peg in a round hole. With duct tape, plastic bags, and the arm of a spacesuit. “The Mailbox” is what the astronauts ended up calling it — that square peg that fit in the round hole. And it saved their lives.
I say all this, not just because it was my favorite film for so many years, but also because I’m right in the middle of curriculum season — the time of year when I get to read and study in preparation for teaching in the Fall — and I have to say that teaching God’s story to young people is awfully similar to fitting a square peg in a round hole while floating precariously in outer space — it makes you wish you had more duct tape.
- First, there is this creation story that is foreign to our scientific-minded public school students.
- Then there is this improbably great flood that destroys the people and animals except the ones on Noah’s Ark — a flood that is terrible, yes, but great.
- Then, there is this laughable promise from God, even Abraham and Sarah laugh when they hear it. A son born to an old barren couple? Land given to wandering sojourners? Descendants that number the stars? Is this story a joke?
- Then, after blessings and sorrows unfold in equal number for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants,
there is this crazy unbelievable river crossing — just in the nick of time, as Pharaoh’s army approaches, Moses leads his people out of slavery through the Red Sea, and the waters close behind them just in time for Pharaoh’s army — horse and rider — to be thrown into the sea.
But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, those early stories seem to be preparing us for what comes next.
- A child wrapped in swaddling clothes.
- Wise men from the Far East traveling by starlight to bring frankincense.
- Shepherds startled by angels bringing good news of great joy.
- A wise man walking on water, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing those who touch even just the hem of his robe.
How are we to see ourselves in this wild story, without seeing it first hand? And, it doesn’t stop there, of course.
This story of ours is odd and mysterious and beyond. It doesn’t take much to realize that it isn’t just teenagers, but all of us, who are students of the world around us; part critical-thinker, part analytical deconstructionist, part cynic. Curmudgeon as we call it in the Lancaster family, that surly, disbelieving part of ourselves that dismisses miracles or overthinks the gospel.
Sometimes, fitting ourselves into this story is like fitting a round peg in a square hole. The culture is different. The language is different. The landscape is different. There are questions and surprises at every turn.
Somehow, this book, the Bible, isn’t quite the easy-to-read owner’s manual or instruction guide we thought it might be. There aren’t easy answers to global problems hidden inside it, and it encourages us to step out in hope or faith or courage again and again.
One person put it this way, after reading scripture, “I think part of what it means for God to be ‘revealed’ is to keep us guessing, to come to terms with the idea that knowing God is also a form of not knowing God, of knowing that we cannot fully know, but only catch God in part — which is more than enough to keep us busy.”[i]
Maybe that is how this unbearably long sentence in Ephesians unfolds some truth to us. This Trinitarian blessing at the beginning of Ephesians, this blessing about God, comes to us not because we can fully understand it, but because it invites us again into the knowledge and mystery of God. It invites us into a new way of understanding ourselves and each other in relationship to this bigger story of God-with-us.
This text is a reorientation, telling us that we are adopted as Children of God. Verse 5 reads, “Just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love, God destined us for adoption as Children of God through Jesus Christ.”
We are adopted into this long story, a story that begins before the foundation of the world. Yes, this story feels foreign to us sometimes; but because we are adopted into it, we are welcome to grapple with the foreignness of it — knowing that no matter what, we still belong in it.
It is a story that becomes our story. It becomes our story at our baptism, or maybe even before that. It becomes our story again and again every time we encounter it. All of us are foreigners, outsiders, even those who seem to be the most insider of insiders is a foreigner to this story, and yet all of us are adopted into it, adopted into God’s family, loved, beloved, forgiven and marked by the Holy Spirit as legal recipients of God’s good inheritance.
It is in this way that — no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey — we do fit. Even if we are a square peg in a round hole, God adopts us, weaving us into this holy family. God has enough duct tape and bits of spacesuits handy to incorporate us into this story, and then some.
Being duct taped into this story is what makes it so radical — an inclusive story of God’s love for us — and it is also what makes it such a difficult story. This adoption is not just for us, for this group or that group, but for all, for the sake of God’s great love. A 5th century theologian put it this way: adoption is “the work of a really transcendent love.”[ii] It is a call to love those who God loves, not just because God suggests we should, but because now, we are all family.
- Sometimes we love those who God loves for just a few hours.
For example, I remember my first flight across the country — all by myself when I was 14. The woman I sat next to on the plane took me under her wing, talked me through the whole flight, helped me navigate my layover and sat with me as we ate lunch.
She was a Christian, I even still remember some of the theological concepts we discussed. But, more than that, I can still feel the sense that she saw me as part of her family. She reached out to love who God loves, not for her sake, but because God’s love for her caused her to care for someone else.
- Other times, we love those who God loves for just a few days.
For example, the Wednesday of our Mission Trip this year, Wednesday June 17, was Father’s Day in Guatemala. I wouldn’t have known, except that our site coordinator told me that it might be a tender day for our host missionary Betty, who lost her father suddenly that fall.
So, as I entered the orphanage where my team was working, I was thinking not only of Betty, but of the children I would be working with that day. The gravity of spending Father’s Day with dozens of orphans was not lost on us, dearly loved by each nun, but abandoned by so many others for so many reasons.
But it wasn’t until the end of the day that Father’s Day really began to take on meaning. I’m not sure if he called out “Mr. Chris” or “Mr. Johnson” or if we just heard his little feet pounding the pavement, but Carlos got our attention just as we were leaving for the day with a gift for Chris Johnson.
Carlos is a 7 or 8 year old orphan who had been living there since before he could remember. Chris Johnson (with the help of one of our graduates, Jamey Minturn) had the opportunity to teach English several days in a row to Carlos’ class, and in that time, Carlos learned that Chris was a father. The nuns said that Carlos had never really connected to anyone like this before, and so it was a surprise to them to see him so lit up about English and about getting to know someone.
In those short few days, Carlos saw that Chris was part of his family, part of this wider family, both of them fully adopted into God’s transcendent love. The gift Carlos gave Chris was a small box; on one side, there were a few drawings, on the other side, it said, in Spanish, Happy Father’s Day, love Carlos.
- And finally, sometimes, we get to love those who God loves from the very beginning, and they help us to see and know God.
For example, one family, in preparing their four-year-old son for the homecoming of a new baby, told him that this child would be a blessing from God. After the baby arrived, a friend was over visiting the family and noticed the four-year-old leave the room. The child went into the room where his new baby sister was sleeping and was heard saying to her, “Now, can you tell me what God looks like?”[iii]
No matter how old we are, God can speak in and through us. God names us and claims us as Children of God, adopted into God’s wild story of transcendent love. May we know this love, through one another, and through this sacred story that we can call our own. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Enns, Peter. The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. page 235.
[ii] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I Volume 13. From Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
[iii] Caldwell, Elizabeth. Making A Home For Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children. page 41.