Chosen from the Beginning

Sunday, September 11, 2022
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Ephesians 1;1-14

Erica and I have been doing a lot of little projects to make our new house feel like ours since we moved in a few months ago. We’ve done things like paint walls, hang our pictures, change door locks and knobs, and replace toilet seats. These aren’t complicated projects. I’ve painted plenty of walls. Doorknobs only have a few parts and a couple screws, so how can that go wrong? And how hard can it be to replace a toilet seat? Well, the other day I found out. I opened the box, pulled the little bag of plastic bolts and nuts out, along with the toilet seat. I threw the box with the instructions aside and went to work. The old seat came off, no problem. Then I tightened those new bolts down like they should never move again. I grabbed the toilet seat to lock it in place and realized that maybe throwing that box aside BEFORE reading the instructions on it was a bad idea. The bolts go through the caps on the seat. So I needed to undo the very confident torquing I did on those bolts that were never supposed to move again.

It turns out beginnings matter. In this case, I thought I was starting at the beginning, but I missed a step or two along the way.

Beginnings matter as a church. We’re in the beginning of many things here at Augustana this fall. A new school year, a new program year. A relatively new pastor among you, and one yet to come later this year. It feels like new beginnings are all around. At the same time, we also acknowledge that we aren’t just restarting things that we’ve known; because we’ve been changed by what we’ve experienced over the last few years. We’re in a season where we’re asking new questions about who we are and how we walk in faith together. My sense is that we’re going to notice new people in our midst and also notice that some who have been here in the past aren’t anymore. It’s up to all of us as a community to determine how we’re going to enter into this new season and how we’ll welcome new people and perhaps reach out to those who we haven’t seen in a while.

Beginnings matter in our faith. This year we’re starting our journey together by digging into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You might wonder, “why Ephesians?” It’s not the beginning of the Bible or the gospels. You’d be right. Chronologically, it’s no where near the beginning of anything in Scripture. But the way that Ephesians begins reminds us of where God begins with us. We are chose from the beginning. We are marked with the Holy Spirit – from the beginning. We are called to be in on God’s abundant, gracious, love-filled plan – from the beginning. And after all that we’ve been through in the last couple of years, pandemic and political upheaval, racial reckoning, and all the rest, as we regather it’s good to ground our lives and our faith in what has been good and right and true from the very beginning.

The Church in Ephesus was near the beginning of the early church. It wasn’t grand. The book of Acts tells us that it was started by Paul’s missionary companion Apollos in about 52AD, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and maybe a few years after the first churches started. It might seem like a long time, but it took almost 20 years for those early followers of Jesus to really understand what God had invited them into from the beginning.

Apollos was a faithful disciple, but you could say he didn’t set the world on fire with his preaching. After a couple of years in Ephesus, there were 12 members of this little church. About this time, Paul passed through Ephesus and made a stop at the church to encourage this little group of believers and do some teaching. In his time there, he guided them to receive the Holy Spirit, and encouraged them in their ministry to one another. They were strengthened in faith, and undoubtedly the church grew in number during his time there.

Several years later, this letter was written in Paul’s name to continue to encourage God’s people to live in the richness of God’s blessing and the power of God’s love. Unlike all the other letters in the New Testament, it is not written in response to a specific conflict or problem in a particular church. It simply paints rich and vibrant images of what God’s beloved community is capable of when people live in the grace of God and the power of love for others.

Now it’s possible that somewhere along the line, the church had become a bit static, struggling to see new possibilities for God’s grace to reach new people; or they got too comfortable being their little faithful group that they lost the message that God’s goodness is to be shared widely and without distinction. Perhaps the fervor of faith had faded after years of being together. Maybe they forgot where they began or rather where God began with them. These scenarios may not be the last time something like that happened in a church.

Whatever the reason, this letter offers us the same encouragement, the same promise, and the same vision for God’s love and power to be active in us today. I don’t know about you, but I need this kind of reminder of who God is, of who I am, and who God calls the church to be in Christ. And I suspect you do too, especially after all we’ve experienced in the last few years.

Based on what I know about myself and what I’ve observed in others, collectively the conditions have not been easy for us to be our best selves. It seems that the growing divisions and widening chasm between how different groups think and feel about their lives and the world are driven by a sense of scarcity or fear. And I don’t know about you, but when I feel that way, I don’t tend to think very clearly or see things as they really are. Mole hills become mountains, and minor distractions become the dominant focus.

For others, the overwhelming amount of crisis and chaos in the world has them checking out of caring about much of anything else but oneself, or people turn inward, starving themselves of community and support. In either case, our worlds get pretty small. Eugene Peterson says it this way, “Sin shrinks our imaginations.” If we begin to live, to relate to others, and base our faith in scarcity and fear or apathy and isolation, it’s a little like starting a project in the middle of the process; at some point you’re going to realize there were earlier steps that got missed that could set you on a healthier, more whole path.

That’s not God’s desire or intention for us. Beginnings matter. And when the world isn’t as it once was, or our lives aren’t as they once were, as people of faith it’s good to go take a step back and look to the beginning, to our beginning with God before moving forward. It’s never too late to reassess, and to seek a different way. It’s at the beginning that we see that we are never alone, and more than that, that God has already chosen us to be part of an amazing, gracious, and life-giving plan. Before we could even do anything, this is what God had in mind for us. You were chosen from the beginning. You were destined for adoption as God’s children through Christ. Not because there was something wrong, but because it is God’s delight and pleasure to be in relationship with us. God’s delight is contagious and filled with ridiculous generosity.  A generosity that is so lavish, God gives us another chance when we do miss those steps, when we do try to go it alone. In Christ, Paul tells us, we have redemption – a restart, a rebirth, into God’s forgiveness and gracious will. Again, not because God tolerates our mistakes, but because God delights in us from the beginning.

This is where we begin the year, in God’s delight for us who are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. What do we do with such a gift? We delight in it. We receive it with joy. We give God thanks and praise. And then we take this new beginning that God gives with such love and delight; and we live like this gift has changed us. Not because the world is different or the circumstances that surround us are somehow magically better, but because we have been changed by the blessing of divine love and lavish grace we’ve received. To quote the late Queen Elizabeth, “There are long periods when life seems a small, dull round, a petty business with no point, and then suddenly we are caught up in some great event which gives us a glimpse of the solid, durable foundations of existence.” We stand on those foundations in Christ every day, even when life seems dull or more often, overwhelming. It’s on this vast foundation, that there’s no need to fear, no space for scarcity. There’s no need to go it alone, or hoard what has been given. We’ve been given a power because of God’s abundant blessings in our lives. It’s a power that was planted in you from the very beginning, a power we share collectively. It’s a power that expands our imagination to God-sized proportions and denies the limits sin so often seeks to put on us. All this because God chose you from the beginning. Amen.

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