Meg Peery McLaughlin
Do I Have to Believe That? Predestination
January 8, 2023
Ephesians 1: 3-12
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world
to be holy and blameless before him in love.
5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
according to the good pleasure of his will,6
to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.
With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,
having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I want to start with a story, from an essay written by Devin Kirk called “Not my Bones, Not my Blood.” Devin writes:
I am sort of technically Jewish by blood but have almost never been to temple and my husband Chad was raised Southern Methodist. Harry, who is 4, is adopted. We put him in the Jewish Community Center’s daycare because it was down the street from our apartment and because they gave us two rolls of challah bread when we took the tour. A few months in, I broke the news to Harry: “You know we aren’t Jewish.” Without hesitating, he replied “But I am,” giving me a look that was equally perplexed and pitying, clearly disappointed to learn his own Daddy was not one of God’s chosen people. Actually, neither of his daddies were.
Harry’s class had a COVID exposure, so we had to go to Walgreens for a test. Harry’s at that stage where he rapidly oscillates between autonomy and limp dependence so I absentmindedly lifted him into the car instead of letting him climb in the backseat, which he prefers to do himself lately. Along the way, I bumped him against the inside of the car door. He let out one of those primal screams that four-year-olds specialize in when they have reached their limit and run out of words. Despite my profuse apologies, he was not letting it go. At my rope’s end, I muttered “Man, you’re breaking my heart.” “I want to break your heart,” he shot back. “I’m stomping it into a million pieces.”
We arrived for the test and were greeted by the pharmacist with her long q-tip: and Harry and I instinctively pulled ourselves together the way families do when they want to keep family matters in the family — him stoic with wet eyes, me nervously grinning. Harry insisted that he would swipe his nostrils five times on each side by himself. I sealed the sample neatly in the plastic bag and slid it through the metal drawer. She told us to have a good rest of our day, and we started to pull away. Harry had caught his breath by now and it must have suddenly sunk in that he had been stomping on his Daddy’s heart just a few moments before.
“I want to put your heart back together!” he wailed. I pulled into a parking spot. It was pouring rain now and the car was fogged up with feelings. I told him it was okay, that I loved him more than anything, that I was sorry for hurting him and would never do that on purpose, and I knew he was angry and didn’t mean what he said. He told me he still felt hurt.
“I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bump your arm against the door.” “No,” he stopped me, “I hurt in the other part of my body.” “Your feelings? Is that where you hurt?” I asked, unsure exactly what he meant. “Yes, not my bones and not my blood.”
The apostle Paul—or more likely someone writing in his good name—
in the letter to the Ephesians declares to the church that
God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.
That is an astonishing claim if you let it simmer for a minute.
God predetermined, intentionally and long ago chose
to adopt, to claim us—us—you, even me—
as God’s very own family, own very child,
for no reason other than God’s own joy.
The Greek word “Paul” uses in this verse is Huiothesea. Huios is the common Greek word for an adult son. Thesia is like ‘installation’ – all of which makes it sound like a piece of software. But it’s the placement of a son in his proper place.
I want to tread quite tenderly here, for adoption can bring up quite complex feelings.
Peel back a layer and there are stories of infertility, questions about birth parents that may never have answers, the (holy) right of a woman to choose, adoptions whose beginnings or endings are not full of fuzzy warm feelings.
I will say one of the most sacred moments of my life was standing in a courtroom
as a witness when the judge declared that Harry Thomas belonged to Devin Kirk and Chad Idol, though he was not of their blood or bone.
In front of a kind judge in a black robe, I stood as a witness to their love of that boy,
though Devin and Chad could not know if that boy would turn out healthy or kind,
whether he’d like music or math, how he’d vote or who he’d grown up to be.
I am 100% sure that I felt it was sacred because I love my friends.
But if there could be extra percentages,
I’d say I felt that way because I’m a Presbyterian.
For that scene is the purest glimpse of the doctrine we’re examining today.
Let me just first say what predestination is not.
It is not the belief that we live our lives as puppets,
that every moment of our lives is predetermined before it happens.
As if our actions are not our own responsibility,
as if our stories were a prewritten script.
New elders and deacons will be ordained in worship today.
When Laura Aycock was born,
was it written that she’d be doing this her junior year of high school?
A decade ago, did God know that Mike Edmiston would eventually be kneeling for the laying on of hands?
Does God already know what griefs these new deacons will hold with us,
what decisions these elders will make?
I don’t think these are questions this doctrine seeks to answer—not at all.
Now, yes, absolutely,
God is within every moment of our lives,
God brings meaning to every circumstance of our lives,
and God redeems every brokenness in our lives.
But God does not predetermine every step of our lives .
In the Protestant Reformation, theologian John Calvin
understood that every part of all of us is overcome by sinfulness,
but that grace shows up and saves us from ourselves.
And whatever salvation we know, in this life or the next,
comes only and exclusively from God’s abundant grace.
Grace that comes to us not because we do anything to deserve it,
but because God loves us so much, God just can’t help him/herself.
Calvin believed he was crafting a doctrine of comfort in the midst of great anxiety.
I think he was right about that.
If my salvation ultimately belongs in the hands of God who can be trusted,
then I am free. I’m not in control, and I don’t have to worry about me or anyone else.
I can simply live in grateful response to this amazing love,
live by shining that love back into the world.
But that’s just where Calvin ran into a significant problem.
He couldn’t help but notice that some people kept acting in ways that suggested
they were not aware of God’s grace in their lives.
Karl Barth once wrote:
Reality which does not become truth for us obviously cannot affect us.
It will necessarily remain unattested on our side—a word which has no answer,
a light which has no reflection. Unrecognized, the love of God in Jesus Christ cannot awake in us a response of love .
Calvin couldn’t deal with it. So he doubled down.
Unfortunately, the only way he could continue to hold that high view of grace
was to conclude that if someone did not believe in God,
or did not live in a way that reflected God,
well, then, that had to be rooted in God’s will, as well.
This resulted in what some called double predestination, wherein Calvin said:
“God in his sovereignty and for the glory of his justice,
passed over some people,
and in condemnation of their sin ordained them to eternal death. ”
But the thing is, a life of faith always requires embracing things
we do not fully understand.
And with all due respect to Calvin,
forced reconciliation of what doesn’t make sense
is not faithful reconciliation.
Forced reconciliation takes things — or ideas — or people —
that cannot hold the same space together
and warps one of them until it fits the other .
Go back to our scripture for a moment. Listen:
God has made known to us the mystery of his will,
a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
Even 4-year olds who scream about stomping hearts into a million pieces,
or grown-up adults who do the same thing in their own brutal way.
And if you notice all the verb tenses in that passage,
they’re all past tense, God has already done in this in Jesus Christ:
has blessed, has chosen, has destined,
has adopted, has redeemed, has forgiven,
has gathered up all. It’s done, friends . It’s already done. So, Breathe.
Friends, if I understand the text,
if I understand anything at all,
God is a loving parent
our loving parent
who chooses us, loves us, delights in us,
and there is no power anywhere that can ever change that,
not for you or anyone else.
This is the first sermon in our series, Do I have to believe that?
Seemed like a good start to the new year to reflect on this faith we share.
And it’s no mistake we started with predestination.
Do you have to believe it?
Did you hear anything I just said?
No, you don’t.
God’s love of you isn’t based on what you believe,
it never has been, it never will be.
God’s grace is way bigger than that.
But I pray that every bone in our body
and every drop of blood coursing through our veins
will be awake, wide awake, to the love of God
so that we would live for the praise of God’s glory.
May it be so.
May it be.