Message Delivered on July 12, 2015
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 “Redeemed”
Whenever I think of redemption, my mind wanders back to the days of Holden Red Stamps, S&H Green Stamps and Gold Bell Gift Stamps, reward programs offered by gas stations, department and grocery stores. I remember shopping at Rogers Department Store on Wednesdays because it was “double stamp day.” I always wondered, if the redeemed prizes were free, why did you have to pay sales tax on the items? — Not free!
Today’s text from the Apostle Paul, written to the Christian church at Ephesus, gives us one of the longest continuous sentences in ancient Greek literature. Ephesians 1:3-14 is one complete sentence from the lofty viewpoint (“heavenly places”) the epistle writer reveals in what he has glimpsed–the vision of God’s purpose and plan for the church and for all who become his “adopted children” through the work of Christ, to be “holy and blameless.” In love, Paul says, “We are all chosen by God in Christ.” Our adoption rests wholly upon God’s “good pleasure.” God’s “glorious grace” is the only official stamp on our adoption papers and no value added tax has been added! Verses 7-10 enumerate three of God’s great gifts now made available to us through Christ. First is the redemption we have received from the sacrifice of Christ’s own blood. Second, forgiveness, so that no guilt, no past events may stand between us and our full acceptance as adopted children of God. Third, God bestows on us ” wisdom and insight” through which we can finally glimpse “the mystery of God’s will.” The unifying plan of God continues to inform the final thoughts of this text. In verses 13-14, the writer turns to Gentile believers and notes that “You also” are a part of that select group, full members of the inheritance (Predestined). Through Christ, Jew and Gentile have been brought together to form a seamless unity, an undifferentiated family in God’s grace.
Phyllis Trible, a Christian author has written about a book she authored called Texts of Terror, in which she examines the most awful texts in the Old Testament. They are the accounts we wish would disappear from Scripture: the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the book of Judges. The little girl loses her life because of her foolish father’s promise. Mark’s gospel has its own text of terror. The story of John’s beheading is gruesome. It reminds me of the beheadings in the Middle East today. The events leading up to John’s death are hard to believe; they are like reading a soap opera. King Herod divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. Oh, yea, there’s more: Herodias was also the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers, so when he married Herodias, he was marrying his sister-in-law and his niece at the same time–a clear violation of Old Testament law. John the Baptist publicly denounced the marriage, angering both Herodias and Herod. At least, Herod had a conscience. He did not want to kill John. He respected and feared John because he was a righteous and holy man.
Sadly, Herod chose cowardice over courage. Rather than stand up for what he believed, he gave in to the selfish obsession of his wife. John was beheaded and the head presented on a platter to his wife’s daughter, who presented it to her resentful mother, fulfilling her wish.
Where is the hope in this story? It is a story where evil triumphs over good. True, the righteous man loses his life, and the weak and vengeful people get away with murder, making this a sordid tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death. The name of Jesus is never even mentioned. But this account comes right after Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. Jesus tells them how to embody God’s love in the world. He even tells them to expect opposition and trouble. All they need to do is take the gospel to people and trust that God will do the rest.
There is often danger when you tell the truth, especially to those in power. The story of John’s death reminds us that being a follower of Jesus does not guarantee success in this life, but might even bring some suffering. This story is also about the delusions of the powerful. Herod is afraid. He fears that Jesus is John raised from the dead. Since Herod had John killed, he thinks that John has returned to get him in the form of Jesus. Another soap opera plot in the making. Can dead men come back to harm those who use their power for evil
One of the things that kept Ghandi, Prime Minister of India, going against overwhelming odds was the conviction not just that love would conquer but that evil would defeat itself. Ghandi said, “When I despair, I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. Think of it. Always.”
Oscar Romero, was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador because the church hierarchy thought he was a safe and conservative scholar. He surprised them by becoming a champion for the poor and spoke out against the oppressive government forces. He won the love of the people he served and the hatred of those in power. He was murdered during a mass and he became the unstoppable spiritual force in the hearts of the Salvadoran people–and a symbol of freedom and justice around the world–at a price.
God’s work is risky. When you speak the truth to the powerful, there may be a bitter price to be paid, but God’s plan cannot be stopped. Being faithful to God is not easy. John lived for the truth and died for it. When I was eight years old, the Sunday school gave me a Bible, which my mother wrote in: “Always be truthful to yourself and others.” This was Polonias’ advice to his son in a Shakespeare play. God’s truth permeated even Shakespeare’s works!
Jesus lived for the truth, the truth that sets us free, and died that we might be set free from sin, forgiven and promised to be heirs of the Kingdom of God by virtue of our faith inspired by the Holy Spirit. John Calvin summarized this theology as “guilt, grace and gratitude.” We are guilty of sin, set free by the grace of God through Jesus’ death on the cross. Our response is to serve the Lord as a sign of our gratitude. We have been saved, redeemed, like those stamp books we used to cash in for prizes. The greatest difference is that salvation, redemption from sin, is free–no tax or cover charge. Jesus’ saving death accomplished for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
One of the Presbyterian theological bugaboos is predestination, described in Ephesians in today’s reading. I explained to a realtor in N. Carolina who questioned me about Calvin and his interpretation on the phone: Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit inspires us to faith in Jesus Christ, who died to set us free from sin that we might spend eternity in heaven with God. We believe we are chosen by God to be heirs of the Kingdom and profess our faith in baptism as we pray for the Holy Spirit to be with us always–always renewing our faith and preparing us to be redeemed servants of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Redemption is the free gift of God–no strings attached. Amen.