Some time ago, a church planter went to Turkey to plant churches, a bit of a risky business. But he was very successful. He would plant a church in one city, and then the local people would catch on to what he was doing and they would try to kill him, so he would move on to the next, and this system worked for quite a while.
He was, however, eventually caught, and taken to the capitol city. There was trial, an extended imprisonment, and we are not really sure what happened to him in the end…but unconfirmed reports say that he was beheaded.
Before he died, though, while he was still in prison, he met a young man who was a runaway slave — which, in Turkey at that time, meant the death penalty for the slave if he was caught. Anyway, the church planter led this runaway slave to Christ while he was in prison, and the young slave — now a Christian — decided to return to his master, who lived in one of the cities where the church planter had started a church.
Well, the church planter saw an opportunity to send a packet of letters back to his friends in Turkey. So, before he was executed, he wrote several letters and then passed them to the runaway slave to deliver.
And the only reason we know all this about that church planter is because we still have those letters. They are in our bible: Philemon (which was a letter to the runaway slave’s master, asking him to be merciful), Philippians (a letter to the church at Philippi, just across the border from Turkey), Colossians (a letter to the church at Colosse, a Turkish city), and Ephesians — a letter to the Turkish church in the city of Ephesus.
And you may have guessed by now that the church planter’s name was Paul. He lived two thousand years ago. He was ethnically a Jew, and as a young man he was an extremist who preached hate and terrorism against anyone who did not submit to his Jewish God. But then God himself got a hold of Paul, transformed him into a Christian, sent him off to plant churches in Turkey…and we know the rest of the story.
In this sermon series we will be reading through Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, a church in Turkey that he planted and pastored for three years. Back then, of course, that country was not called Turkey, it was actually known as Asia.
Which means Paul was the first church planter in Asia.
But anyway: as we are going to see, this letter to the Ephesians was not just to the Ephesians. The Ephesians were actually supposed to copy the letter and send it on to the next church in the next city, and so on, and so on. This letter was meant to be forwarded, like an email.
In fact, it could be that this letter that we know as “Ephesians” is actually a copy of an original letter sent to another city. Remember, Paul sent out a packet of letters all at once. Near the end of his letter to the Colossians — which was in the same packet — Paul tells them this: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” The Colossians were supposed to copy their letter and send it to Laodicea (another city in Asia), and the Laodiceans were supposed to copy their letter and send it to the Colossians. It is possible that the Laodiceans also sent a copy of their letter to Ephesus, and this is the copy we have.
And so it has come down to us, almost two thousand years later: Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, the first Asian Christians.
And we are going to see that Paul’s advice is every bit as relevant today as it was then. And that is because our Asian churches today still face the same issues as the Asian churches of that day.
So let’s get started:
 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God’s holy people in…[blank] —
— see, in the oldest copies we have of this letter, the place name is empty, which is what makes scholars think that originally this was a form letter, and the copyist was supposed to fill in the name of the next church, just like when you get a letter from the President of Nigeria, “Dear Ian, I have ten million dollars I want to give you…” (gasp! How does he know my name?). However, the later copies we have of this letter all say —
— to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace to us, brothers and sisters! That is a good start!
What does Paul say next?
 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Now, this is quite an outburst! Paul does not usually start his letters with a Hillsong, he is usually a little more calm and collected.
So, why? Why does he start with this shout?
Well, why do we usually shout?
To attract attention!
Paul wants his readers to focus on something right away.
Next question: what does we want them to focus on?
Well, one way to figure that out is to look and see if there is a concept that he emphasizes in this sentence. For instance, is there a word that he repeats?
…Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ…
Hmmm. And, by the way, in Greek, the original language, Paul repeats that word three times. A more literal translation would say this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
So with his very first sentence, Paul launches into a praise song all about blessings. Why? Because, as their former pastor, he knows that the Christians in Asia are struggling with this concept. They are asking, “What does it mean to be truly blessed by God? Does it mean wealth? Does it mean miraculous spiritual powers? What?”
We Christians in Asia today still have the same questions, don’t we? We all wonder, at some point, “What am I doing here? Why am I a Christian? Where are the benefits? Am I blessed or not?”
So, it’s a good thing we have this letter to answer those questions for us!
So, what are are these spiritual blessings in Christ that Paul is so excited about? Verse 4: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love  he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—  to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
First blessing: Christians have been chosen, adopted into God’s family!
All of us were like orphans, stateless children, street kids: filthy, uneducated, rude, addicted, begging, stealing, vandalizing — and then the great Father of the Universe came walking down our street. And he was walking with his Son, the king. And as they went, the Father was talking to his Son and saying, “That one, that one is mine. And that one. And that one. I have had my eye on these kids since before they even existed, and now, Son, it is time for you to go and collect them, bring them in, sign the adoption papers, make them part of our family!”
And then, maybe, God’s Minister of Education, who was there, said, “Tuanku, are sure? Look how filthy and disgusting these kids are! If you touch them you’ll get a disease!”
But then God turned to him and said, “Hey! Don’t you talk about my children like that! These children are holy and blameless in my sight!”
Second blessing: Christians are holy and blameless in God’s sight! even though we are still, in many respects, filthy and disgusting.
Now, is God just playing some kind of mind-game, “pretending” that we are holy when we are not?
No. Christian holiness is real. But it is not “real” in a scientific sense. Our modern age is especially obsessed with science, with measuring and weighing things, and our general attitude is, “If I can’t see it, if I can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” So we Christians tend to look at ourselves — and others tend to look at us Christians — and say, “I don’t see very much holiness going on here, so how ‘real’ can it be?”
But in Paul’s thinking holiness begins as an identity. And in the Asian cultures of that time, identity came from relationship. In our modern culture, what you do defines who you are. But Paul’s thinking, who you are related to defines who you are.
Holiness begins with relationship. Christians have been chosen and adopted. Now we are related to God the Father. And God the Father has defined who we are. He says we are holy and blameless in his sight. Which is another way of saying, “I am not going to punish my children for all the filthy things they did before they were my children. In fact, I am not even going to punish them for the filthy things they still do now that they are my children!”
So Christian holiness is real, as real as our relationship with God. God is not “pretending”. He made our Christian holiness into a real thing the moment he signed the adoption papers.
Okay. So God is not pretending. But is he being unjust by simply ignoring the fact that we have stolen and vandalized other people’s property, destroyed people’s lives?
No. God has declared his children holy and blameless, free from the obligation to pay back all the damage we have done. But that does not mean that no one pays. Our Father is perfectly just. He makes sure that someone pays for all the damage that his children do.
Who does the paying?
Paul answers that question next:  In him — that is, in Christ — we have redemption through his blood.
It is the first-born Son of our Father who pays for our damage. This word here, “redemption”, literally mean “to be ransomed”. Just like when a child is kidnapped, and parents pay money to redeem their child from the kidnappers.
So to go back, now, to that dirty alleyway where our Father found us, we realize a little more detail about what happened.
Remember how the Father and the Son were walking together, and the Father was saying, “Son, go get that one, and that one, and that one.” Well, the Son went, and he was gathering these kids together — when suddenly a gangster showed up and said, “Hey, what are you doing? This is my territory, these kids belong to me! You want them, you pay for them!”
And the Son said, “Okay, name your price.”
And the gangster said, “The price is your blood. One drop to pay for each nasty thing these brats have done. One drop to pay for each graffiti mark on these walls. One drop for each piece of trash they dropped on these streets. You pay until this whole neighborhood has been restored back to the way it was.”
And the Son paid. Every drop.
Which is why God’s children now have, as Paul goes on, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace  that he lavished on us.
The riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us?
No kidding! We were carried away to safety, while Jesus stayed behind to pay for our sins with his life!
A phrase like “the riches of God’s grace” feels too weak to describe it.
So our third blessing is redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, the payment of our damages. Our Father is not unjust. Through his Son he has paid every last penny of what we owed.
And so, with all wisdom and understanding,  our Father made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,  to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
It is important for Christians, as God’s newly adopted children, to know that this was our Father’s plan. Otherwise we could be consumed with guilt, knowing that Jesus, our older brother, stayed behind to die a filthy shameful death while we got to go and take a warm shower, with a big fluffy towel at the end of it, and clean clothes, and a full meal. It is easy for us to look back and said, “Oh no! If I’d known that Jesus would have to pay I would have tried to do fewer bad things! Why didn’t God save us all earlier before we piled up so much filth?”
So to comfort us Asian Christians, Paul makes sure to say, “Don’t worry. This is how God planned it from before the beginning of creation. The Father and the Son worked together to make it happen, and they made it happen at just the right time.”
The fourth blessing, then, is the wisdom and understanding that comes from knowing the mystery of God’s will. In other words, God’s master plan has been revealed to us, and this revelation is meant to provide wisdom, understanding, and comfort for us as we struggle to figure out why we’re here!
So, what is God’s master plan, then? What is this mystery of God’s will?
To bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
All things in heaven and earth.
Now, if you have been a Christian for a while, this mystery does not seem very mysterious. We read this and think, “…yeah! Of course!”
But for the original Asian Christians, this would have been a very bold statement, for a couple of reasons. And in order to explain this properly I’ll need to give you some background:
Okay. So, when Paul started planting churches in Asia, his first converts were Jewish people, Paul’s own people. They would usually form the core team of the church plant. Then, soon afterward, Gentiles — non-Jewish pagans — would join the church, and they would quickly out-number the original Jewish core.
Now this, quite naturally, created tension: racial tension, cultural tension. Because every race, every culture makes certain assumptions about what life is supposed to look like, right? And the real fun always begins when you mix those assumptions together.
So the Jews operated with one set of assumptions. The Gentiles operated with another set. Through this letter, Paul is going to break them both down and give them a new set of assumptions about what life is supposed to look like.
The Jewish assumption was, “We are God’s chosen people, and we are quite good at following God’s law. You Gentiles are welcome to join, of course, as long as you behave, and as long as you remember that you are second class Christians.”
The Gentile assumption was, “Demons are scary. Evil spirits are everywhere! They run the world! And we are happy to be second class Christians as long as we get to learn some really powerful magic to protect us.”
So when Paul says, “God’s plan is to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth,” he is telling the Jewish Christians, “Actually, God’s plan is to bring unity and equality between all people, Jews and Gentiles!” And he is telling the Gentile Christians, “Actually, don’t need magic la! God’s plan is to bring every spiritual power in heaven and on earth under the control of Christ.”
So, for the Asian Christians of that day — the Jews and the Gentiles — this was a challenging statement.
Anyway, Paul the pastor knows that the Christians in Asia are struggling with these issues, and he wants to both correct and encourage them. So he starts to dig a little deeper.
First, he acknowledges that the Jews really were the first people chosen by God:
 In him — in Christ — we — the Jews — were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
So Paul is saying, “Yes, some of us Jews were the first to become Christians. But…we don’t actually get any credit for that, because we were adopted by Jesus according to God’s plan, just like everyone else!”
Second, he talks to the Gentile Christians, to confirm that they are not second class Christians:
 And you also — you Gentiles also — were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,  who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
So Paul is saying, “Don’t worry! You Gentile Christians are just as chosen as your Jewish brothers and sisters. How do we know? Because when you believed, God marked you with the Holy Spirit. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit is guaranteed to receive a full inheritance from God on Judgement Day.”
And here Paul has just revealed the fifth blessing in the heavenly realms that Christians receive in Christ: the Holy Spirit. And the the Holy Spirit is like the seal for all the other blessings. The Holy Spirit is like God’s signature at the bottom of the covenant contract: “I hereby declare that this person is an adopted child of God, holy and blameless in the Father’s sight, purchased by the blood of Christ, and guaranteed to receive all the wisdom and understanding required to participate in God’s plan for the universe.” — signed, Holy Spirit.
And this is where we will pause until next week. It is awkward, I know, because really this part is just Paul’s introduction. He is just beginning to dig into the issues faced by the Asian churches.
But this introduction is the foundation for the rest of the letter. So it will be important for us to pause here and let the Holy Spirit seal these concepts within us. Then we will be better prepared to understand what he says next.
So: what is the one main concept here that Paul wants the Christians of Asia to believe?
He wants us to believe — to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt! — that Christians already have every spiritual blessing in Christ. Adoption. Holiness. Forgiveness. A place in God’s plan. The Holy Spirit.
But the next question is: why does Paul want Christians to believe this? Is he just conducting a theological lecture here, an FYI?
No. Paul wants to offer real solutions to real problems.
So what are the problems he is trying to resolve, and how does this concept solve those problems?
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
So let’s work backwards, from bottom to top, and see if we can figure out how to apply these blessings to our own problems.
Paul essentially ended his introduction by saying, “God’s plan is to bring all things in heaven and on earth into unity under Christ’s rule.”
So we know that unity was a problem for the Asian churches of that day.
What were the sources of their disunity?
Well, on one hand there were Jewish Christians who had a very deep heritage in the faith. They knew God’s law, they knew God’s theology, they knew God’s ethics, they were almost born knowing how to be good Christians. So they tended to treat newcomers as if they were lesser somehow.
On the other hand there were Gentile Christians who knew almost nothing about the faith. All they knew was that Jesus and Paul and the other Apostles were the most powerful wonder-working magicians they had ever known, and they wanted to benefit from that power. So they tended to treat non-wonder working Christians as if they were lesser somehow.
So the Jewish Christians were strongly focused on theology and how to live an ethical Christian life, while Gentile Christians were strongly focused on what they could do to bring God’s power to bear on their lives.
Our modern Asian churches are divided in exactly the same way, aren’t they?
Okay then, disunity could be a problem for them, and it can be a problem for us.
What is Paul’s solution?
Well, this is where we go right back up to the top, where Paul started: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. And then Paul went on to describe those blessings.
Now, how does this concept of blessings solve disunity?
This is how it works:
Disunity happens when we start to put our hope in the wrong kind of blessings, when we start to think that we earned those blessings somehow.
For instance, being able to study the bible deeply and teach it is a blessing. It requires a certain set of gifts: the love of reading, and study, the love of history and language, things like that. The division comes in when those who have these gifts forget that God has not given everyone the same gifts. We start to think, “I have figured out all this theology stuff, why haven’t you? Wow, I must be a better kind of Christian than you are.” Divisive thinking, right?
Or: being able to talk easily with strangers is a blessing. It is a gift from God. But the division comes in when those who have that gift start saying, “Hey, yesterday I talked to ten people about Jesus. You didn’t talk to anybody? Wow, I must be a better kind of Christian than you are.” Divisive thinking.
And this happens to all of us. Think of something that you are good at, something that God has gifted you with. Now, be honest: most likely, at some point in our lives, we have forgotten that this is a gift from outside, that God has given us these gifts “for the praise of his glory,” a phrase that Paul repeats here several times, for good reason. We often start to think that our gifts are central to our identity. We all tend to think that what we do defines who we are, and then we start to be proud of that. This produces division.
But Paul corrects that by telling us that who we are related to defines who we are.
Later on he will talk about how we all have different gifts, different blessings from our Father. But right here at the beginning of his letter he wants us to know that, underneath all those different surface blessings, we all share in the same core blessings. We all share in the same core identity: we are the adopted children of God. Everything else is extra. Bonus. Wonderful gifts from our Father, but not central to who we are.
For instance, a great theologian can get Alzheimers, and then he will no longer be a great theologian. But he is still a son of God.
A great evangelist might lose her powers of speech, and then she will no longer be a great evangelist. But she is still a daughter of God.
Paul is calling all of us to put down our ideas of who we are, what makes us special, what makes us “blessed”. Maybe you understand the Gospel really well! Maybe you’re still confused about all this. Maybe you have a clear idea about where God is leading your life! Maybe you feel lost, and afraid. It doesn’t matter. We can deal with those things later.
For now, all we need to know is this: if you have heard the good news that Jesus has purchased you, and adopted you, and if you believe that this makes sense, that this is true — then you have the Holy Spirit. You have an equal status right now with every other Christian who has ever lived.
So what does this mean for us, here, in Kuala Lumpur, in the 21st Century?
What are we supposed to do in response to what God has done for us?
Well, brothers and sisters, God has a plan for our church in this city. He has already brought together quite a diverse bunch: different races, different cultures, different religious backgrounds. Which means that division is a real danger for us.
And this danger is going to become greater. Because look: our city is full of people who have some serious issues. Which means that as we minister here our church is going to fill up with people who have some serious issues. People who live with physical handicaps, mental handicaps, emotional handicaps. People who struggle with various sexual dysfunctions. People who struggle to escape from various kinds of addiction.
The temptation will be strong for us to think that we are somehow better because we are perhaps further down the road of faith. It is okay to be further down the road of faith! But we need to be careful to remember that, if that is true, it is only because God planned it that way. We must remember that the mature child of God is not any more valuable or gifted than the new-born child of God. We must remember that at any time the mature child of God could be struck with some illness and become like a new-born again — and this too, would be according to our Father’s plan.
So this is what we are called to do today. After our worship, as we chat with one another — and especially when there is tension, like when we both reach for the last piece of cake — we need to be thinking, “This brother, this sister, is adopted just like me. Holy and blameless in God’s sight just like me. Purchased by the blood of Christ just like me. Sealed with the Holy Spirit just like me. Part of God’s plan just like me.”
Let’s do that.
In closing: Paul is telling us that who we are does not come from what we do. Instead, who we are comes from who we are related to. We are related to God now! and that is the foundation of our identity.
But being related to God also means being related to everyone God is related to…
Uh oh. That is where the problem comes in, right? Because I am happy to be related to God — but I’m not so sure I want to be related to all of you.
Well, that is what the rest of Paul’s letter is about: teaching us how to be related to one another. Teaching us how to be the Church, Christ’s body, Christ’s bride. She is a very stylish girl. But sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. And that is what the rest of Ephesians is about.
So make sure to come back for that.