January 5, 2014 Ephesians 1: 3-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
Do you know what’s sad? I’ll tell you what’s sad: Being a baby strapped in a car seat. That’s sad. Modern car seats are nothing like your car’s seatbelts. They look more like the restraining apparatus that they have on roller coaster rides. The poor baby is only going to the grocery store, not tobogganing in the Alps. Nevertheless, she is strapped down, locked in, and virtually immobilized. Car seats make babies really mad; I can testify to that. No one likes to feel that restrained. No one wants to be strapped in so tight that you can barely move. Even if you’re a baby and you can’t move all that much by yourself anyway, you still hate your car seat.
But here’s the bizarre thing. Once the car starts moving, that discomfort and the obligatory screaming fit are forgotten. Somehow, when the car enters the stream of traffic, the restraints turn into caresses, and the baby miraculously falls asleep. Sitting in the house where all was safe and warm, that car seat was a device of the devil. But out on the Parkway where accidents happen every day, or skating up and down Pittsburgh hills in snow squalls, then that car seat somehow becomes a sleepy haven of bliss. Babies are strange creatures. They are a lot like us.
They are a lot like us because we don’t like to be restrained either. At least, we don’t like the idea of having our freedom curtailed in any way. We resist the notion that we have a locked-down destiny and that our choices –to the extent that we have any – are limited to lesser, inconsequential things. Baby, you can wave your arms and kick your feet and howl all you want, but you need to be strapped in for this ride, so get over it. We don’t like that.
Is that a misinterpretation of what the Letter to the Ephesians has to say about our destiny? And what is the nature of the restraints that we experience as a result of our election in Christ, our destiny in him, God’s choice that was made before the foundation of the world? This passage from Ephesians is challenging. Reading it is a bit like standing under a theological waterfall and being pounded by torrents of tumbling phrases. You can barely draw breath. The ideas are huge. The canvass for this painting of salvation is as big as the ever-expanding universe, and the picture itself is a vast as eternity. This is all a bit overwhelming when you’re not strapped in and ready for this ride.
But really, all you want to do is get to the grocery store and back. We tend to ponder lesser realities in our day to day existence. The freedom to choose our own breakfast cereal entertains us adequately. And it makes us cherish the notion of freedom and to idealize the concept so much that any kind of restraint or restriction on our freedom of choice is something that makes us want to howl, kick our feet, and wave our arms in protest. All right, all right, you can pick your own cereal, but when it comes to that bigger canvass on which salvation is depicted we need to talk in terms of destiny.
The bottom line issue is actually quite simple. Who’s driving this car? Really. Who’s driving the car? Are you actually going to attach a little steering wheel onto the car seat and let the baby drive the car? Do you want God to be an absentee parent when that automobile hits the road? Are you going to argue against the saving grace of a loving God who insists on strapping you in and taking the wheel?
Well, when you put it that way… How else could you put it? Isn’t that what this letter to the Christians in Ephesus is trying to say? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing…just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” This passage is chockfull of benevolent blessings, even though the author uses words that seem to chip away at our cherished freedom. The message from our God and Father is this: “Relax, I’m in charge.” Don’t you want a God who’s in charge, who is in the driver’s seat? Or do you still want to play with the toy steering wheel that’s attached to your car seat?
You know, freedom from is a lot different than freedom for. It’s a mistake to think that all real freedom is of the freedom from variety: freedom from restrictions, laws, or anything that restrains or limits your ability to make personal choices. What kind of freedom is it that makes baby car seats optional? Not the kind of freedom we should want. What kind of freedom is it that allows you to beat your wife, or purchase a semi-automatic weapon if you are a convicted felon, or drive on the left hand side of the road? Is freedom from sanity really freedom?
On the other hand, there is a freedom for that must happen within the blessing boundaries of relationships. Every man for himself is not freedom. It is chaos – babies driving down ice-covered hills without car seats kind of chaos, children living in a world torn up by sin, threatened by death, alienated from God kind of chaos; people whose life and salvation depend upon their ability to make the right choices and to live wholly righteous, self-propelled lives, with no real confidence in what the future holds kind of chaos. If that’s freedom, I’ll opt for my car seat.
And that is what the author of the Letter to the Ephesians has done. He has chosen to praise God for his car seat, his destiny. He has recognized – in a blinding flash of divine inspiration that resulted in that waterfall of theological words and phrases – he has realized that true freedom only exists in relationship with God who is trustworthy and true, who makes promises and who keeps them. The notion that we could be free from God’s intervention in our lives, and that this would be a good thing, is nonsensical. That would be like a baby wanting to be free from his mother’s loving care and protection. What kind of freedom would that be? Freedom from security? Freedom from love? Freedom to fail? Freedom to die?
Well, when you put it that way… How else could you put it? It’s a dangerous world out there and we’re not equipped to handle it. Of course, we want to try. Like a baby in a car seat, all we want to do is throw off all restraints. Then what? It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? Our reading from Ephesians points to a different understanding of the way the world works and the way that God relates to us. We have been chosen, adopted, saved, and cherished by God. Our present is secure, our future is assured. We are in Christ and that means we are safe. That means we are free to live in that loving relationship without fear. We are free of the danger of trying to live in the chaos of a life separated from God, a self-determined life, a self-justified life. Instead we live within the benevolent confines of God’s promise that makes us children of God, now and forever.
Baby, you can wave your arms and kick your feet and howl all you want, but you need to be strapped in for this ride, so get over it. But you know what? If you can catch the vision that the writer of Ephesians expressed, if you can stand under that waterfall and feel the blessings that are flowing all around you, if you allow the loving restraints of your salvation to hold you fast and keep you safe, then, before you know it, once that car gets going, those restraints will become caresses, and you will be able to rest in the promises of God. That’s real freedom. That’s your destiny.