“This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people” (Ephesians 1:14).
I remember those summers as a kid when the public library would have their reading challenge. If you read ten books, twenty books, I can’t remember the number, you’d get a voucher for a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I’d check from the library as many of the chose-your-adventure books I could find on the shelves. I liked those because they reminded me of The Legend of Zelda video-game, which I would have played all day every day of the summer if my parents didn’t protect me from myself.
So I had to read those books instead of wasting my life on the Nintendo. But the good news was that at some point, after I returned a load of books, the library would give me that coupon, and I’d beg my parents to take me immediately to the Pizza Hut, where I’d redeem the slip of paper for that pan pizza and I’d feast with the pride of my accomplishment. My ticket to the mini-feast was that voucher, a promissory note I could exchange for pizza.
The coupon was a promise, a material promise—the paper in my hand meant I could have pizza in my hand if I showed up at Pizza Hut. The personal pan pizza was mine, already there for me—that’s what the promissory note from the library meant. All I had to do was redeem it.
Our passage from Ephesians centers us on redemption, on what it means to redeem. The author—let’s say Paul, even though the scholars tend to think that someone else wrote the letter, someone from Paul’s circle—anyhow, “Paul,” in our passage, talks about two different acts of redemption. First, in verse 7, Jesus has already made redemption possible: it’s an act in the past, in the past tense, Jesus has done it. Then, in verse 14, we’re on our way toward that redemption, we’ve been promised something that’s ours now, but we haven’t exchanged our voucher for it. The language in that verse, in verse 14, is that we’ve been given a pledge, a promissory note, for us to cash in, to exchange, to redeem.
I know it’s a bit lowbrow to think about a spiritual truth as lofty as redemption in terms of the pizza hut coupons I got from the public library as a kid, but I think it’s important to recognize that the language here in the passage is borrowed from the world of financial transactions—of security deposits and earnest money, of banks and inheritance. Paul’s using economic language, he’s pulling words from the financial practices of his day to talk about the mysteries of Jesus, the significance of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for us. Call it crassly secular, but a literal reading pays attention to the words on the page, the letters and phrases, and here the words involve us in money, even if that’s a bit tacky.
Paul is grasping into the everyday language of economic transactions for words, for familiar phrases, for metaphors, to describe a bewildering reality full of mystery. He grasps at familiar words to help make sense of the unfamiliar, to gain a sliver of understanding of the radically strange world of God’s life. He’s doing the best he can to make sense of the mysteries of God’s will, he says in verse 9, as revealed in Jesus, in what Jesus accomplishes for us, what Jesus does to our lives, now, here, today.
I think one thing about my story of the vouchers for pizza hut that doesn’t quite get at the same Paul is trying to talk about. I had to do something to earn my personal pan pizza. I had to read books. The library awarded me a voucher for reading a lot. That was the transaction, an exchange—to read enough to get a pizza. For Paul, we don’t do anything to receive the mysteries of God. We don’t have to earn our ticket for redemption. Forgiveness isn’t earned. Salvation isn’t an award. Instead, in Ephesians, Jesus does all of the transacting, he handles all of the exchanges, and he pass on to us the vouchers, a pledge is the word Paul uses, a guarantee of our inheritance, kind of like a security deposit.
I think the closest financial device we have today for what Paul is talking about here, in terms of the guarantee that Jesus gives us, this pledge of redemption, is something like a money order, a certified check, or a traveler’s check if those are around anymore. A money order is as good as the money it represents, you just have to go to the bank to access the cash. You give the teller the certified check, and they give you the money. That’s what Paul is saying about our salvation, our redemption—we already have it, Jesus has given it to us, we’re in possession of the money order. All we need to do is cash it.
All of that still sounds very abstract to me. Paul is quite interested in laying out the concepts, to get our heads around what Jesus has done—as a kind of cosmic argument, about the nature of things, the nature of our salvation, of our redemption. I understand what he’s saying, and I hope I’ve made his reasoning clear, but I have to confess that I don’t think I need the explanation. That’s not what keeps me up at night, those are not my theological concerns.
What matters to me is what difference any of this makes for our lives. I can understand one thing the explanation offers is assurance—that you don’t need to worry, that we don’t have to read those library books in order to make sure we get our ticket to salvation. You can rest assured that all of that has already been taken care of. You didn’t need to do anything, you don’t need to do anything—Jesus has handled all the transactions. Perhaps that’s the good news you needed to hear: the assurance of grace.
The important part for me is the invitation at the end of the passage, the way Paul points to our lives together as the place where redemption happens—that our belonging in God’s people is how redemption takes hold of our lives. Redemption happens in our belonging to God’s people. To organize our lives together is an act of redemption, to redeem the pledge we’ve received, to redeem what we’ve been promised, what we’ve already been given, which is life with God, life sustained by God.
We live towards redemption, Paul says in verse 14, as a direction for our lives—and that direction turns us to each other, here in the church, as God’s people, as we learn how to belong with God as we belong with each other. Here, with one another, God’s redemption takes up our lives, so that we may become a people who bear witness to the redemption of the world.
My only contribution here, in terms of what we’ve read from Ephesians, is that I’d say we should think about redemption on a much more mundane level—no need to get all lofty with our concepts, but let’s work out a lowbrow theology of redemption, a theology of redemption that is thoroughly invested in how we develop our sense of belonging to one another, the logistics of our acts of kindness and gentleness, our love and concern, our care for each other’s lives.
The mysteries of redemption are here, in our love, which is how we redeem God’s pledge to us, how we cash in on our inheritance.
The mystery of redemption is this: to know God’s love, to receive God’s love, to live our lives as witnesses of God’s love for the world. Our inheritance is love. Our redemption is love. God’s glory is love.