Adopted by God
Back around A.D. (or C.E.) fifty-something, Paul arrived in Ephesus and began spreading the good news. He got the Jesus movement going and helped the folks there form a church over the course of about two years, then he went on to stir things up in other places. But not to long after he left Paul got word that the people with new hearts for Christ were back to their old habits, so he did what Paul is famous for doing—he wrote them a letter to get them back on track.
He starts his letter to the Ephesians by reminding them who they are. That they have been chosen and adopted by God. They have been redeemed by Christ. And they are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
Just on the face of it, those words should sound good to our 21st Century ears. That God has adopted us and redeemed us through Christ and has marked us with the seal of the Holy Spirit. Adopted, redeemed and sealed. In other words, we are claimed, we are forgiven and we belong.
But as good as it sounds to us today, let’s try to understand just how powerful those words would have been to the Ephesians back in the day.
Let’s go back a couple of thousand years and imagine that we are in Ephesus, maybe about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re on the coast of the Agean Sea around the area we call western Turkey today.
Ephesus was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the temple of Diana. They had a pretty big theater. Not like the colusseum big, but it was respectable. They had a huge market place called the Agora that was as big as two football fields side by side. It was the ancient equivalent to the mall of America. So this was no two-bit town with one stoplight and a convenience store.
It was to this world that Paul was writing. A world very different from ours.
We live in a society where babies are precious and valued and loved. It is true that occasionally you hear of babies being abandoned in this country, but as a society, we value children so much that we’ve even created places for people who choose to abandon their babies to do so safely. But in the time that Paul was writing to the Ephesians, infanticide was a fairly common practice. We know from the accounts of historians like Josephus and Clement that people would regularly take babies that were unwanted and leave them outside the gates and leave their fate up to…well, to fate. The babies would either die or a kind soul would take pity on them and take them in or, most likely, they would be picked up by slave traders and groomed to sold when they reached a certain age. It was a culture where child abandonment was not a criminal act…just a part of life. So it was to people living in this abandonment culture that Paul assures that we have been destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ. They were not abandoned, but claimed and wanted. Think about how that sounded to a society where people were disposable.
Ephesus was one of the largest slave markets in the empire. In many accounts, it is referred to as the world capital of slave trade. So it was to a congregation who existed in a place where people were bought and sold on regular basis that Paul writes to about a redeemer. A redeemer was someone who paid another’s debt and released them from slavery. A redeemer was one who liberates. Paul was reminding the Ephesians that their lives had been paid for by Jesus Christ. They had the ultimate redeemer. They were free from the bonds of sin.
Remember in the movie Gladiator how Russell Crowe’s Maximus character had SPQR tattooed on his arm? That marked him as a Roman soldier. Soldiers were tattooed in that time period. Captives and slaves were branded—often with the personal seal of their owner.
Paul is writing to this kind of culture—a culture in which people are branded with a seal to show who owns them, who has purchased them, and to whom they belong. Paul is saying, “Do you realize that when you came to believe, you received God’s seal upon your life?” That seal says that are not the property of any person, but that you belong to God.
To a world where lives were bought and sold and children were regularly abandoned, how wonderful must Paul’s words have been? It may be hard for we post-modern, 21st century Christians to understand. Or is it?
Arkansas is number one in elder hunger. How have we let that happen? Have we just abandoned the oldest and wisest among us? And this congregation has given money to Lucy’s Place, an organization that takes in homeless teens who have been kicked out of their parent’s homes for coming out as gay or lesbian or trans. Are we not also a culture of abandonment?
The greater Little Rock area is certainly not the slave trade capitol of the world, but it’s seen its share of human trafficking. And more than its share of people who have been oppressed and marginalized. And yet another black church burned down under suspicious circumstances last night, like it’s 1965 instead of 2015. Could it be that we too, like the Ephesians, are people with new hearts and old habits?
And though no one forces a brand or a tattoo on us these days, what lengths do we go to in order to prove to the world and to ourselves that we belong? The right clique, the right college, the right career, the right criminal gang? We, too, need to hear that we do indeed belong.
There’s an old gospel hymn that begins, “In times like these, we need a Savior.” Has there ever been a time in history when that did not resonate with people on the earth? Has there ever been a time when Christians didn’t need to be reminded who we are? That we have been claimed and adopted by God through Jesus Christ. That we belong—sealed by the Spirit.
May we be people who remember who we are—claimed, forgiven and included—so that we might remind others that they are, too.