In Christ

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Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament.  They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”  
About a decade ago, on my way to a national gathering of pastors, my connecting flight took me through Raleigh, North Carolina.
I had about 90 minutes before the next leg of my journey, so I walked down to the departure gate just to make sure things were in order.
That’s when I saw the sign.  At the check-in counter there was a prominent notice that said, “Ask about our upgrades to first class.”  I thought, Wow.  That sure would be nice.  I grabbed a bite to eat, read a few pages from a book, then came back about 45 minutes later.  There sat my friend Steve, a fellow pastor who had reservations on the very same flight.  He said, “Hey, guess what?  I’m flying first class the rest of the way…for free.”
“You’re kidding!” I said.  “How did you pull that off?”  “Well,” said Steve.  “Do you see that sign over there – the one that says, ‘Ask about our upgrades to first class’?  I asked.  I just got the last seat available.”
Now I want you to know that I was truly happy for my 6’4” friend.  But as I shoehorned myself into my spacious and elegant coach seat, and looked around and noticed that every single seat in our section of the plane was occupied, I had to wonder:  Why didn’t any of these people ask about the upgrade to first class? 
For that matter, why didn’t I ask?
To tell you the truth, I think I assumed that the sign just had to be for somebody else.  How nice it was to be flying with an airline that upgrades people as an act of grace.  But I chose not to ask.  Such grace couldn’t be for me.  How tragic it would be to go through life knowing that a God of grace rules the cosmos – but to convince ourselves that feasting on such grace is only for others.
Today we arrive at verse six of the first chapter of Ephesians, where Paul makes it clear that God’s grace is the centerpiece of his actions on our behalf: “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” 
Grace is the Bible’s one-word description of something that takes many words to explain.  Grace means that God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s forgiveness cannot be earned.  They cannot be deserved.  They can only be received. 

In the words of Bible commentator Klyne Snodgrass, “Grace is the Judge of the universe asking criminals to sit down to a meal in his home.”

This idea, however, goes so strongly against the grain of human instinct that virtually every religion on earth turns out to be a set of spiritual self-improvement strategies.  God will favor us if we are good, or if we perform, or if we love God first. 

But the New Testament turns all that on its head.  According to Jesus, God loves us.  Period.   And right now he’s making the offer of a lifetime.  Deal or No Deal:  You can be in a transforming relationship with God in which he provides all the power, all the meaning, and all the resources – if you will abandon all your efforts to win God over according to some kind of performance plan.
That’s grace.
Notice God’s delivery system for this extraordinary gift: “…which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” 
Bible students have long noticed Paul’s affection for the phrase “in Christ” (or equivalents like “in him,” “in the Lord,” or here, “in the One”).  It appears a remarkable 83 times in his letters, including 27 times in Ephesians alone. 
What does it mean?
If you have thrown in your lot with Christ, then you have a dual citizenship.  You live in a particular community, state, and nation.  But you also live in him.  Knowing Jesus is like living in another country even while you live in your same old house on your same old street. 

Every time you are in Starbucks you are also “in Christ” – and that should make a difference regarding how you place your order, how you relate to the barista, and how you demonstrate God’s reality to the next person in line.

But the meaning of Paul’s phrase plunges even deeper than that.  Living “in Christ” can be described as a state of being.  Think of the ways that our thoughts, actions, and emotions are often dominated by other states of perception. 
Imagine what it’s like, for instance, to be “in debt.”  Your financial condition feels like a burden you lug around wherever you go.  Every purchase, every decision, every choice of this dinner entrée over that one is shaded by the realization that it will be hard to open your next VISA bill.  Your debt has become a part of your life, and it goes to bed with you every night when you try to fall asleep. 
Then there’s being “in pain.”  It’s easy to take mobility for granted – right up to the moment we suffer a back injury.  That’s when we realize that our back is indispensable for getting dressed, reaching for a box of cereal, getting into the car, and picking up a child.  Everything hurts.  All the time.  Or how about a toothache?  A painful tooth goes with us to work, to the movies, and to a summer cookout.  Being in pain means our attention is continually diverted to that source of agony.
How about being “in love”?  Life is beautiful.  Every problem feels solvable.  Hope abounds.  Tomorrow will be better than today, and the next day will be better still.  Being in love is the fountain of youth and the elixir of happiness.
But of course it doesn’t last.
Being “in Christ,” however, does. 
When we embrace Jesus, every conversation becomes a conversation in which the Messiah takes part.  Every day becomes a Messiah-day.  Every problem becomes an issue that the Messiah challenges us to address in his way, with his resources. 
Just as our thoughts and feelings can be overwhelmed by the experience of being in pain, in debt, in distress, or in love, our eyes can be opened to the fact that being in Christ means he is the always-present Lord over our health, our possessions, our emotions, and our relationships. 
Being in Christ means we live every day in the Messiah’s domain – Jesus’ geography of grace.  
That doesn’t mean we always get to fly first class.
But it does mean we will never be flying alone.