Paul calls himself an apostle of Jesus (Apostle means "to send out"). It’s probably easier for us to think of the job title Ambassador, someone sent out by a government to be its representative, someone with the authority and power behind him of the government who sent him, a man with a mission!
And Paul, the Ambassador from Jesus brings a message to those who read or listen to this letter, one which begins with this wonderful phrase
"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Two words which seem to be at the very heart of our worship and Christian experience - "Grace" and "Peace" - but what do they actually mean, in the context that Paul uses them?
I looked in the dictionary for a definition of "Grace" and it turned up among others "elegance and beauty of movement" and "a pleasing or charming quality".
What’s that got to do with Christianity? Well, if you’re looking at the way Christians live their lives then there’s something here that maybe should apply to us all. There should be an attractiveness about a Christian and the life we lead, a beauty which makes others not only sit up and notice but want to know more about. Yes, there should be a "pleasing or charming quality" about a Christian. A grumpy, miserable or short-tempered individual is not a good advert!
I was also reminded that the Queen has "grace and favour" apartments which she gives mainly to the minor Royals – a free gift, graciously given to a favoured person.
In Greek mythology the Three Graces were givers of charm and beauty.
But to a Christian, Grace must always mean more than this and at its simplest it is a gift, one that is impossible to earn or deserve but is freely and graciously given. This is the Grace of God which Paul brings to the people, God’s love and mercy freely given and shown to a people who can never hope to deserve it – and that of course brings Paul’s words bang up to date, as it has been throughout all generations.
No man or woman, however good they might be in human terms can ever match up to the perfection of God, or deserve all that God would give us – but that’s the wonder of Grace; it’s not what we can do, it’s what God freely offers!
So what about Peace, which Paul also brings by way of blessing from God? Well, my dictionary starts of by defining peace as "the state existing during the absence of war", "an absence of violence" or "a state of harmony between people.."
We might also add that peace is what we find in the countryside, a quietness away from the noise of everyday life. But you could look at these definitions and say that most of them are actually a bit negative – they’re simply the absence of something bad; be it violence, war, noise or the bustle and stress of everyday existence.
What is the peace that comes to us from God? Well, for that we have to go back to the Hebrew word Shalom, because in the Bible peace is not the absence of trouble or strife, it is concerned with all that is good in a person’s life, a wish for wholeness and that has nothing to do with external circumstances.
You could be a millionaire with a beautiful house, a stable full of expensive cars and the yacht in the Med and still lack peace. On the other hand you could be living in abject squalor in a refugee camp somewhere, with barely enough to eat to keep you from starvation and yet be at peace.
Just as there is a mystery around the word "Grace" because it is such an amazing concept to get to grips with, so it is with the peace that comes from knowing God and doing his will. When we are in that state, then there is a contentment that comes which can overcome the inconveniences of life, be they ill health, unemployment, lack of money or whatever.
Shalom can mean just "Hello!" But there’s more in the word than that. At its root it is a desire for more than just a day without trouble, it is wishing for a person all that is good for their life, all that will enable them to be at peace and contentment with themselves and with God, whatever happens through the day. In a sense it’s a very modern concept which comes to us from across the centuries.
We hear the word "holistic" used quite a bit. I heard a doctor talk about taking a holistic approach to treatment the other day. It means looking at the whole body, rather than concentrating on a part. That’s what shalom means, and that’s what the Bible means when it talks about the peace that comes from God.
So Paul wishes his readers knowledge of the grace and peace of God, and then goes on to remind them that God has so blessed their lives in every way, and why? Because he has, to quote Paul, adopted us into his family.
In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons 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.
We can only begin to understand this idea of adoption if we go back in time to when Paul was writing his letter, because family life was a lot different in areas where Roman law prevailed than it is now. We are used to stories in our papers of unruly teenagers running amok, or even young children becoming out of control where the parents seem to have lost the ability, if they ever had it, to offer a child the loving support as well as the freedom to develop into what we might think of as a normal upstanding member of society.
Well, things were a little different under Roman rule. Then, a family was under what was called patria potestas – the father’s power! A father had absolute power over his children as long as he and they lived – he could order his children to be imprisoned, whipped, chained up and made to work as a slave on his estate and in the last resort even killed, and all quite legally!
Even if a son grew up to be a local magistrate or politician, he was still under the authority of his father. He couldn’t own anything in his own name, and any inheritance that he got would belong to his father until his father’s death.
Within that system, however authoritarian we might think it, there was also an established tradition of adoption and this was taken very seriously, particularly if a family line was about to be lost. There was an established ritual between the real father and the adopting father, culminating in an appearance before the local magistrate to plead the case for adoption.Only then was the process complete.
And the result of this adoption process? I think it’s interesting from a Christian point of view, because the adopted child now had all the legal rights of a legitimate child in the new family, and lost all rights in their old family. In the eyes of the law they were a new person, completely free of any debts or obligations connected with their old life.
Do you see how that fits in with the Christian message? When we become a Christian we put behind us the old life and begin again. At one time we were subject to the power of sin, now we are subject to the love of God. When God adopts us into his family then he also wipes out the past that we’d rather not talk about, and enables us to start again. This is the new life which Jesus called people to, life in the kingdom of God, life as brothers and sisters of a heavenly Father, with all the blessings that come with that new status.
In him we 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 hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having 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.
Paul covers quite a lot of ground in the opening words of his letter, but there did seem to be a common thread running through these verses as I was looking at them. We’ve looked at some of the blessings which God grants, including that wonderful picture of our adoption into God’s family. But we know from our own experience and that of the world around us that family life is not always harmonious; there are times when arguments and disagreements take place.
What might not have been obvious when the passage was read was that Paul was actually talking about the way that God had opened the way up for the whole world to know his Salvation. Paul tells his readers that it all started with the Jews, as God chose them to be the first to know his love and will. But then, through Jesus the Gentiles were brought into the family as they believed and put their trust in him. And now, says Paul we’re all part of that same united and enlarged family.
The sad thing of course is that throughout their history the Jews were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. They believed so strongly that it would be through the Jewish nation that God’s chosen one would appear, and yet when Jesus came into the world so few of them actually recognised him then, or indeed now.
Jesus chose a small number of people and entrusted them with the task of spreading the Gospel message of Good News. It could all have gone wrong, but Jesus had enough faith in those who he sent out as his Ambassadors to know that they would not let him down, and so it was that the message of truth found its way to Samaritan and Greek and to the whole world. It was the message about God’s Grace and Peace which Paul was reminding his readers about. And the Gentiles, says Paul not only believed but were given God’s seal of approval, the Holy Spirit, who was a guarantor of the blessings to come. The actual word that Paul uses means a deposit – a deposit guaranteeing that at a future date the full experience of God’s blessings will be obtained.
And that’s the hope of the Christian. We have experienced God’s precious Grace in bringing us into His family, adopting us as sons and daughters with all the benefits that go along with that honour. We know his Peace in our lives, that peace which gives us contentment whatever the world tries to throw at us, and we know that we are part of a worldwide family that includes people from all races and cultures. A family that has a promised inheritance, of which we have been given just a foretaste, as the Holy Spirit, working in our lives enables us to understand more and more about the love, grace, peace and joy which is ours by right as sons and daughters of a heavenly father.
Let me finish by reading again some verses from our reading but from The
Message translation, which brings these words to life!
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He's the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son......