Grace Presbyterian Church
July 11, 2021, Pentecost 7B
One Great Big Run-On Acclamation
It was a chart-topping song back in 1981, and then it became a ubiquitous presence at almost any kind of celebration, particularly the kind that followed big emotional sports triumphs. You’ve heard it:
[singing] Celebrate good times, come on! …let’s celebrate…Celebrate good times, come on!…There’s a party goin’ right here…a celebration to last throughout the year…
Even forty years later, that song still manages to show up after a big win of whatever kind, and why not? It’s an absolutely infectious song (in the good way we speak of songs being “infectious”) and there’s really nothing about it to give offense; it’s just fun.
While the song isn’t terribly specific about what it’s celebrating (other than the pretty general “good times” of that opening), our scripture reading for today carries a pretty celebratory tone itself but with something quite specific to celebrate.
As we jump into a series of readings from the book of Ephesians that will take us through July and August, a little stage-setting is in order. While the book claims Paul’s name at its opening and has often been attributed to that apostle, it is incredibly unlikely that Paul himself actually wrote this book. For one thing, its apparent time of writing, based on content and context, would have been well after Paul was dead; for another, it is inconceivable that Paul himself would have written such a generic and impersonal letter to the church at Ephesus, which he loved dearly as described in Acts (a feeling that was most definitely reciprocated). For that matter, the designation of Ephesus isn’t even on most of the earliest manuscripts, so that part is doubtful also.
The far more likely case is that a follower or student or assistant of Paul’s, some years later, compiled a compendium of Paul’s teaching as the apostle’s posthumous influence began to wane, possibly sending it as a circular letter (one meant to be passed around from church to church, likely including Ephesus), and putting Paul’s name on it to indicate its authority, an unfortunate but not-uncommon practice of the time. Imagine an old follower or associate of John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, say, taking up pen to write a faux-editorial with his or her mentor’s name on it as a kind of letter to America in its current troubled times. Something similar is going on here.
That said, the theme of this opening statement is one that Paul did indeed turn to in his own writings: the idea of adoption. Especially in the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, Paul did speak of adoption as how we know ourselves to be children of God:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba!’ Father!,
it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ…
From this Pauline starting point, our adoption or being chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world,” our Ephesians author pours forth quite a flood of acclamation of God for this gift; for the redemption and forgiveness that comes to us in this gift; for the mystery of God being revealed in this adoption; for the inheritance that is ours in this adoption (shades of the Romans reading above); for the hope in which we live because of all of this.
The fun part for those who try to read this in the Greek is that our author has done all of this in one sentence. It’s true; everything in today’s reading is one sentence in the Greek, all linked together with linking participles piled one on top of the other. Be grateful for the work of biblical translators, friends (especially the grammar-sticklers among you).
Still, though, that seems like part of the charm of this passage. We do this, really, when we get all excited about something we’re trying to describe. “And then we saw…and it was so cool and it was amazing and then this happened and then…and then…” We do run on when we get excited; it’s nice to imagine our author here being so caught up in the joys of this adoption that the words just pour forth in the rush of joy. It’s fair, after all, to be excited about being gathered up and taken in by God.
The other challenging part of this passage is its apparent audience. Most of Paul’s writings were directed at churches somewhat split between those who had come to follow Christ from a Jewish background and those from Gentile backgrounds. By the time of this letter, however, the audience seems to be mostly Gentile. The author, on the other hand, is apparently of Jewish background if verse 2 is any indication. Yet God’s adoption was not limited to one group or the other; all of them – Jew and Gentile alike – were caught up in God’s choosing. God is not choosy; God will not be pinned down to choosing one or the other; God chooses everybody. How human beings respond to that choice may be all over the map, but God chooses everybody.
While trying to get this sermon going this week, after a wonderful week away last week and oh, yes, a tropical storm passing near our area, I came across a news item that feels relevant here. A sweeping survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute between 2013 and 2019 found that, among other things; the percentage of the population identifying as “none” (including atheists, agnostics, and those who might claim some sort of religious belief but no affiliation) had declined slightly; the percentage of white folks claiming some variety of evangelical affiliation had declined a lot; and the percentage of white folks claiming some mainline Protestant affiliation – mostly Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) among others – had…risen a little bit. (For the record, this tracks with this denomination’s own findings that after years of decline the membership of PC(USA) had leveled off from that decline and, in the last reporting period, had taken a slight uptick.)
One doesn’t want to get too giddy about freshly reported surveys like this, but I think there’s something to this result that resonates with the exuberant celebration of this Ephesians passage. After years of membership decline and sometimes even derision from other precincts of Christianity, the churches of the so-called mainline (a terrible name for a religious affiliation) found themselves pressed to be, frankly, more welcoming. Churches of those denominations that couldn’t get away from the somewhat exclusive or elitist bearing of, say, the 1950s found themselves shrunken dramatically or closed altogether. Welcoming all much more broadly, taking to heart the sense of generous adoption marked in today’s reading, became a survival mechanism if nothing else. Maybe that survival mechanism works.
Before the pandemic shut things down, we were working on learning and singing a short song as a sign of welcome near the beginning of our services. It goes simply,
God welcomes all, strangers and friends;
God’s love is strong and it never ends.
(We’re gonna get back to singing that as soon as safely possible, I promise that.)
It does seem that recognizing the graciousness, the unmerited favor of God’s adoption of us, would compel us to be in turn welcoming of all of those who are part of that generous act of adoption, even if they don’t realize it yet.
Maybe Kool and the Gang had it right. There is a party goin’ on ‘round here, a celebration to last throughout the years. Come on and celebrate.
For the generousness of God choosing us, Thanks be to God.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #839, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!”
 Jack Jenkins, “White mainline Protestants outnumber white evangelicals, while ‘nones’ shrink,” Religion News Service https://religionnews.com/2021/07/08/survey-white-mainline-protestants-outnumber-white-evangelicals/ (accessed 7/8/21).
 “God Welcomes All,” text by John L. Bell, music South African, transcribed John L. Bell. Copyright 2008 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.) All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A