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Shredding the Past

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Shredding the Past

Ephesians 1:3-14 | 1/5/2003

State-of-the-art shredders can destroy massive quantities of sensitive documents in minutes, but some attempts at destruction go awry. One thing that can never be shredded is our sins ... but they can be forgiven.

Shortly after the Enron story broke last year, Jay Leno quipped, “Enron is now officially out of the energy business. They are now in a new business: confetti.”

The paper shredders at Enron weren’t the only ones cranking out confetti in 2002. The Arthur Andersen accounting firm as well as WorldCom were at it 24/7 until the courts told them to stop.

To get a job like this done, however, you’d want to have the Taskmaster TM1620DS. This turbo-charged baby can destroy massive quantities of sensitive documents in minutes. Feed a two-inch thick ream of documents, spiral notebooks, cards, checks, computer printouts or document boxes into the Taskmaster and the unit will shred the stuff and discharge it as small, secure chips.

There is no denying that human beings have laid waste to a great many things in the course of time: cities, species and a vast amount of cultural, religious and linguistic heritage. Much has been lost through wanton and intentional eradication. What seems more remarkable, though, writes Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic Monthly, is how often our attempts at destruction go awry.

Check it out: On the eve of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, in 1979, American officials desperately fed secret documents into the embassy’s paper shredders, then departed. Over the next several years, while waiting for satellite dishes and Baywatch to arrive, the Iranians painstakingly stitched the documents back together. They ultimately published the reconstituted intelligence files in some 60 volumes, under the overarching title Documents From the U.S. Espionage Den.

Try as our foreign service officials did, their efforts at destruction and deletion amounted to failure.

There are times in our personal lives when what we want most is to hide something we did or said or wrote. This isn’t easily done. The Bible tells us: Nothing remains hidden in darkness, all is revealed (Mark 4:22).

Murphy cites another case in point: During the controversy over the Iran-contra affair, in 1986, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North attempted to erase all the relevant e-mail messages on his computer; he repeatedly pressed the DELETE button, thinking that he was thereby expunging the messages. “Wow, were we wrong!” he later observed. North didn’t know that pressing DELETE doesn’t result in complete deletion. He also didn’t know about the existence of a backup data-storage system. Oops. Try as he did to hide what happened, much, if not all, was eventually revealed at the congressional hearings.

Now we learn that some of the shredded documents from Enron may also be recovered - a task made easier by the fact that pages were sometimes put through the shredding machines sideways, leaving individual lines of type intact.

Enron employees had a zealous corporate directive, but they lacked morals, time, patience, and apparently, and most importantly, simple shredding know-how. If only they had tried burning the files after shredding, then they may have succeeded.

As it is, their greed, and the greed of those like them, has become their undoing.

Historically, fire has been an effective and successful means of destruction. When that sinful or sensitive information in your hard drive or in your file cabinet needs complete deletion, try the old-fashioned method. Acquire a local burning permit. Build a big hardwood bonfire in your backyard, toss on your paper files, then top it off with your PC hard drive. That ought to do it. Maybe.

History shows a good hot fire doesn’t always work well for data demolition, however. The Assyrian empire was brought down in the seventh century B.C. by an invading force of Babylonians, Scythians and Medes. The conquerors put the great library of Ashurbanipal to the torch, but they hadn’t thought it through thoroughly. The library’s contents were written on clay tablets, and the consequence was to fire the archives, as if they were so much pottery. Some 20,000 cuneiform tablets survived in the form of accidental ceramics records, much to the delight of modern researchers.

To completely, absolutely and with an irrevocable finality delete, destroy and demolish is difficult. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking crime scene evidence, files, records, books, art, people, cities, cultures, languages or sins. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard data, digitalized information or personal folly. It remains dauntingly difficult to erase mistakes, or crimes, or sins, leaving behind no trace.

One way to avoid the problems of our peccadilloes - be it greed or something less or more sinister - is to live perfectly pure and peaceful lives in the first place.

Do no wrong. Always and in every way behave flawlessly. Say nothing wrong. Never lie. Never hurt with words the ones we love. Never speak before thinking. Perhaps never speak at all. Think nothing wrong. Keep our thoughts wholesome, our minds upright and our imaginations unused. Perhaps not thinking at all is best. Commit no offense or transgression. Keep the slate clean. Keep the hard drive empty. Be perfect like your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Like that’s going to happen.

Even if we haven’t lied about the existence of billions of dollars or tried to cover up details of decades of espionage, we all sin - big ones or little ones - and do so nearly every day. It’s a given. It’s the way it is; it’s the way we are.

It’s as if our souls themselves are assembled with a divinely digitized storage device endlessly and effortlessly recording all of our thoughts and all of our actions over a lifetime, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly for permanent playback to God.

There just isn’t anywhere to hide. There isn’t any deletion program on earth capable of that kind of obliteration.

Human beings, all of us, are born with an advanced and natural capacity to mess up, to hurt each other and to fall victim to our own desires. We tend to buy into whatever supports our false self-image. We adore our various desires, addictions and jealousies. In short, we readily and easily fall into temptations and simply love those seven deadly sins in all their glorious forms: gluttony, lust, envy, pride, wrath, greed and sloth. On our own we can’t undo the sinful events of our lives. Alone we can’t reinitialize our souls to a random order of zeros and ones, effectively making our souls empty and blank and sparkling new. We can’t erase, delete or destroy our life’s record. The data is never lost. The facts are never destroyed. The statistics of our lives are embedded in the essence of our souls. There’s no fifth Amendment to plead. God sees all hears all and knows all. No sin, public or private, is missed.

Nothing - the bad, the good, the ugly or the beautiful - is ever hidden from God. What’s done is done. The record is made. The information is in there. Sin and its consequences can’t be covered up or ignored.

Even Paul, the best of the brightest of his time, had his own struggles. In his letters he tells us that his spirit is willing but his flesh, like ours, is weak. He had his troubles that led him to sin. He had that thorn in his side which he took time to mention. Paul knew how he should behave, and Paul knew how to live the good and holy life, but he found himself doing the opposite. Just like us. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

So what can we do if we can’t delete or destroy?

It sounds bleak but it’s not really. God gives us each a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s called grace through Christ. It’s simple to accept forgiveness through Christ as God’s greatest gift to us.

Here’s the good news: Jesus Christ, “in whom we have redemption - the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7 KJV). What we can’t do alone, Christ can do for us. Christ will delete and destroy all evidence of every sin, if only we ask. Christ is our hope and our freedom.

Christ came to make God user-friendly by granting holy forgiveness to those who choose to believe. And it is a choice.

Accept in your heart this offering of God’s forgiveness, this gift, no matter your personal history of damaged relationships. No matter deeds done, or deeds left undone. No matter words said, or left unsaid. No matter the wounding of hearts, or minds, or bodies, or souls - your own or others.

Christ is the hope for the hopeless. This promise is given in the Scriptures: Our sins will be forgiven by God, by love of our Creator through Christ (Ephesians 1:7).

God through Christ has this power to completely, absolutely and unabashedly delete and destroy our sins and forgive us our trespasses.

We can’t do it alone.

So, people of God, have hope in your hearts. No matter what you have done. No matter what you have said, or thought, or written. Have hope in Christ.

He’s our sin-shredder.

Participation Pointers

 Announce several weeks ahead of time, that the first Sunday of the new year, you will be having a Service of Re-Consecration. Many churches observe holy communion on the first Sunday of the month. Incorporate communion and a Rite of Consecration in which you invite people to come forward to rededicate their lives to Christ. If you have a large congregation, have some deacons or elders waiting at the altar to say a prayer of recommitment for each person, laying hands on them and presenting them anew to the will of God. In smaller congregations, the pastor can do this for each one who comes forward. Music can be playing in the background as this ritual is observed, and then close the service with the singing of a hymn.


Murphy, Cullen. “Delete, baby, delete.”

The Atlantic Monthly, May 2002, 16.


Right from the start, the letter to the Ephesians sounds like the work of Paul ... but something strange is going on. The opening greeting and declaration of blessedness are quite familiar, but the text never takes on the personal, pointed trajectory common to other Pauline letters. There are no personal greetings, and no associates or fellow Christians are mentioned as co-senders. The recipients do not seem to be personally known by the apostle (“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” 1:15), which sounds strange since Paul spent considerable time in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-22), and he wrote to the Corinthians from that spot. And yet, the Ephesians clearly owe a great debt to Paul, as Gentiles who have now been brought into the people of God (2:11-13). Perhaps their familiarity with the apostle has come through his writings, rather than through his personal presence.

Though debate continues, there is considerable consensus that the “letter” to the “Ephesians” should be seen as a kind of general sermon intended to be read during worship to any number of congregations, with the Ephesians probably one of many. In fact, some early manuscripts lack the words “in Ephesus” (1:1), which leads some commentators to suggest that Ephesians was originally a circular letter into which the name of a particular church could be inserted. Long before letters could be mass-produced using word processors, leaders of the early church may have been “personalizing” correspondence in this way!

Thus, the document’s rather impersonal tenor and its numerous liturgical and hymnlike qualities may be seen as part of this generalized function the “letter” was intended to serve. It may have been written by a disciple of Paul, based on Colossians and other Pauline letters, to be used as a letter of instruction in numerous churches throughout the region.

The language of election or predestination seems to seep throughout the first few verses of today’s text. The Pauline writer speaks confidently of how God “chose us in Christ”

(v. 4) and “destined us for adoption ... according to ... his will” (v. 5), as the gift of grace is “freely bestowed on us” (v. 6). But we must be careful not to read church history back into this language. Nowhere in Ephesians is the notion of “election” used to suggest that some will be saved and others damned. The glory of divine election is seen as an

opportunity for praise and wonderment. Set in contrast to the other ancient Near Eastern philosophies of capricious fate, the notion of an engaged God who is intimately involved in all aspects of life is a comforting, not chilling, thought.

This does not mean, however, that our “elected” status allows us to live our lives without moral or spiritual boundaries. Verse 4 clearly states that while we are chosen in love, we are also chosen to be “holy and blameless.” Of course, our moral status should reflect our family tree, for we are “his children,” and this grace comes to us through “the Beloved.”

Verse 7 reminds listeners that this new status and salvation cost the giver plenty, for our “redemption” comes through “his blood,” our trespasses forgiven through the lavishness of his grace. The term “redemption” can be used for freeing a slave, and it evokes memories of how God obtained Israel as his people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:16) and from captivity in Babylon (Isaiah 51:11). This Christ-based redemption comes through “his blood,” because Christ’s death is understood as the penalty paid for human sin - the “sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25) that makes redemption a reality. All this giving and graciousness, all this love and acceptance, are revealed now to be part of God’s eternal plan of redemption. Although it becomes known only now, through Christ’s saving work, this is a “mystery of his will” that is no longer a secret.

In the first century, “mystery religions” were extremely popular. Each sect claimed they possessed some secret “key” (knowledge) that would open the door to eternal life for a chosen few. The Ephesians text plays on this popular language by calling God’s revealed plan for our salvation a “mystery.” But it is a “secret” that believers must shout from the housetops. It is gnosis or knowledge that can become common knowledge through Christ.

The inclusivity of this deliverance will become a recurring theme of this letter. In verse 10 the inference is universal as God plans to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The writer next invokes the language of “inheritance,” suggesting a special status that had previously been thought the domain of the Jews only. A bit later this point is articulated even more blatantly: Both Jews and Gentiles share equally in the blessing and grace that God extends to all creation (2:11-22). No thing and no one lie outside this new form of divine “election” so long as they are “in Christ.”

“The first to set our hope on Christ” (v. 12) should be taken to mean those Jews who saw their long-expected dream of a Messiah fulfilled in Jesus. But even as Jewish believers are saved through Christ’s sacrifice, so are all other believers. The inclusion of “you also” in verse 13 means “you Gentiles also” are family, “marked with the seal.” Verse 14

combines Jewish and Gentile believers and declares without distinction that “this is the pledge of our inheritance.” All peoples can now celebrate their common redemption as “God’s own people.”

Verses 13-14 suggest that participation in this redemption is not dependent on genealogy but rather on a series of steps. First, the individual must hear “the word of truth,” that is, the “gospel of your salvation.” Second, after hearing, each person must respond by believing in this message. Third, the believer must be “marked with the seal” of the Holy Spirit, an idiomatic phrase which suggests that all believers enjoy the full measure of the Spirit’s gifts. The presence of this Spirit is a sure sign of the full inheritance of redemption that is shared by all who live within the faith community.

Animating Illustrations

“There’s this ... it’s kind of hard to explain,” [Ian said, feeling guilty over the death of his brother]. “This church sort of place on York Road, see, that believes you have to really do something practical to atone for your, shall we call them, sins. And if you agree to that, they’ll pitch in. You can sign up on a bulletin board - the hours you need help, the hours you’ve got free to help others ...”

“What in the name of God ... ?” [his mother] Bee asked.

“Well, that’s just it,” Ian said. “I mean, I don’t want to sound corny or anything, but it IS in the name of God. ‘Let us not love in -‘ what - ‘in just words or in tongue, but in -


“Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some SECT?” his father asked.

“No, I haven’t,” Ian said. “I have merely discovered a church that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you and Mom.”

“Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our educations,” his mother told him. “Of course we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you children to be Christians. But OUR church never asked us to abandon our entire way of life.”

“Well, maybe it should have,” Ian said.

-Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 127.

Russell Ford has watched many of his friends die. It’s an integral part of his most unusual ministry. Ford is a chaplain for Death Row inmates in Boydton, Virginia. He knows he can’t save men’s lives. But he can lead them to the One who saves souls. Ford works with men who have committed gruesome murders. Some of them refuse to accept Christ’s forgiveness. But thankfully, some do. He has helped several brutal murderers become repentant pilgrims.

Men like Alton Waye. He was convicted for killing a 61-year-old woman. Even other Death Row inmates found Waye to be particularly mean. As with others, Russell Ford taught this man the gospel. Months passed and yet Waye didn’t seem to change. Then days before his 1989 execution, this murderer’s demeanor had suddenly reversed. Ford walked into Waye’s cell and found him singing spirituals. He had decided to accept the pardon from Jesus. The night before he was executed, Alton Waye, the murderer, confessed his faith in Jesus and was baptized. Twelve members of the death squad witnessed God’s miracle of redemption. After the baptism, they all joined hands, singing “Amazing Grace” and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

-Jim Clark, “Am I beyond God’s forgiveness?” Heartlight, July 11, 2000,

All of us have things in our hearts that can leave us convinced that we are somehow unforgivable, unqualified, cut off from the full measure of inheritance that God has for us. Maybe it’s something like an abortion that happened a long time ago that we’d rather leave buried. Maybe it’s a long-term struggle with a particular sin or way of thinking that we feel we “should” have overcome by now. Maybe it’s just a case of “terminal uniqueness,” that very subtle feeling that we are somehow the only creature in God’s whole creation who can’t be forgiven.

The problem is, for whatever the reason, the suspicion that there is something in our souls that is unforgivable, leaving us with hearts of stone. As long as we are convinced we can’t be forgiven, we cut ourselves off. As long as we labor under a load of shame and condemnation, our effectiveness in the kingdom continues to be cut short. But that shame and condemnation is a lie. It’s the wedge the enemy uses to come between us and God, to try to abort the plans God has for us.

The truth of the matter is, it is not our place to decide whether, or what, or how much God forgives. That’s his choice.

-Karin Albert, “You can’t abort God’s forgiveness,” Karin Albert’s Web Page, January 22, 2000,

In the hit movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett, Pete and Delmar are hiding out in the woods, running from the law, when they encounter a church congregation going down to the lake to be baptized. Delmar, overwhelmed at the sight, runs into the water and is baptized by the preacher. As he returns to his companions, he declares that he is now saved and “neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.” And then he utters the phrase, “Come on in, boys, the water’s fine!”

-Philip Lotspeich, “New church development,” Good News: A Ministry of the General Assembly Council, Presbyterian Church (USA), Summer 2002, 2.

Bill Gates has discovered what CEOs around the globe are just starting to grasp about e-mail: It can - and will - bite! E-mail messages dashed off years ago by the Microsoft Corporation chairman and his top lieutenants now figure prominently as digital “smoking guns” in the Justice Department’s landmark antitrust case against the software giant. Trustbusters say electronic messages, perhaps more than any paper document, could help them prove that Microsoft sought to crush competitors and monopolize access to the Internet. “E-mail discovery has got everybody really scrambling,” says Nina Bondarook, a Microsoft spokesperson.

And not just at Microsoft. As more and more businesses use e-mail to revolutionize their links to clients, suppliers and customers, they’re facing a whole new Information Age challenge: how to take advantage of vast new levels of communications without getting tripped up by the informal, candid and sometimes inflammatory missives it can foster. Just last March, for example, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. agreed to settle a discrimination suit brought by two of its employees. The smoking gun? An e-mailed joke, playing on stereotypes about African-American speech patterns that a colleague had zapped around the office.

-“Office e-mail can zap you!” Ohio Chapter Association for Information and Image Management, August 3, 1998,

Six in 10 Americans say they’ve forgiven themselves for past misdeeds and an even larger percentage - three in four - say God has forgiven them for mistakes, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

But only half - 52 percent - said they’ve forgiven others for major wrongs done to them, and slightly more than four in 10 say they have ever sought forgiveness from others, the researchers reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Adult Development.

That’s too bad, writes Richard Morin in The Washington Post (February 17, 2002), because forgiveness appears to be good for the body as well as the soul, according to the survey of 1,423 randomly selected adults. Higher levels of forgiveness were associated with overall higher levels of satisfaction with life and fewer reported incidents of psychological distress, including feeling nervous, restless or sad.

Children's Sermon

Assemble the supplies needed to seal a letter with wax, and then go through the process in front of the children: Put a letter in an envelope, close the envelope, light the sealing wax, drip some wax on the letter, and then seal the letter by pressing a signet into the wax. Show the children the mark made by the signet, and explain to them that this mark is special to you, and it shows that you are the one who wrote and signed the letter. Ask the children what it might mean for Christians to be “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). Suggest that God has marked us with his Holy Spirit seal, a sign that is special to God, and that this seal means that we belong to him. Ask them to give you some ideas about what a “Holy Spirit person” looks like, and acts like. Encourage them to choose one way that they are going to show the world their special mark this week - one act of love or joy or peace or patience or kindness or generosity or faithfulness or gentleness or self-control that is going to demonstrate that they are God’s people. Let them know that God’s seal is a beautiful mark, and it will stay with them forever.

Worship Resources


Blessed are you, O God, for you have made us your children. You have brought us here to worship you and given us the confidence of your salvation. Teach us your truth, and send your Holy Spirit upon us this day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. Prayer


Lord, we have tried to gather up things on earth and have neglected the things of heaven. We have focused on our material well-being and have ignored the well-being of others and our own spiritual well-being. We have looked only to further our own advantage, and have ridden rough-shod over the needs of others. Show us, O God, that we cannot ignore you and our neighbor. Redeem us from self-centeredness, and make us worthy of the inheritance we have through Christ.


May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ bless you with every spiritual blessing. May you know the mystery of God’s will and experience God’s plan for you in the fullness of time. And may you, and all those whom you love, and all our earth live abundantly in the praise of God’s glory. Amen. Music Links


Blessed Assurance

My God, Accept My Heart This Day

Here, O God, Your Servants Gather


Blessed Be the Lord God Almighty

Only By Grace

Let Your Mercy Flow

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