Living Together 1.0, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
First United Methodist Church, August 12, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
I read a letter last week that a woman wrote to her daughter as the young woman prepared to enter high school. It was a beautiful letter filled with love, encouragement and practical advice that she wanted to be sure her daughter heard before beginning this new adventure.
The letter began with these words:
First, I want you to know how proud I am of you. I am truly in awe of the young woman you’ve become. You embrace challenges with such grace and confidence. You wake up every day with a song in your heart. You are smart, kind, hard working, funny and talented. Such a good soul. An amazing human being. I am honored and humbled to be your mom.
She then offered a list of advice, hopes and challenges for those moments a young teen is sure to face along the way: Mom offered her blessings for her daughter to have fun, to dream, and not be afraid to try new things. She gave advice on such things as how to be a friend and what to expect out of friendship, and then offered warnings, such as the dangers of cyberland, and the importance of saying no to drugs, and not drinking and driving.
The letter was written out of love and with the desire for her daughter to experience this new chapter in her life fully and joyfully.
This summer we've been reading Paul's letter to the churches he's built and we're continuing today as we read a section from his letter to the church of Ephesus. We've noted that this letter is most likely a "circular" letter that is personalized at the beginning and then offers encouragement and teaching that will benefit each of the churches where it is read. Paul isn’t dealing with a particular issue or difficulty that they're experiencing, but he wants to offer instruction/practical advice as to what it means to live in community; how to live together in the way that Christ has called them to live. Though it is written to both Jewish and Gentile converts to the faith, it is particularly important to the Gentiles whose experience of living in a faith community is new.
Like the mom who writes to her beloved daughter, Paul lovingly writes to these new Christ followers because he wants this new chapter in their lives to be full and joyful.
When we first read over these verses, it may seem as though they are a list of rules that these new Christians are expected to embrace. But as the passage begins, Paul writes that these new believers are to "put off" or "strip away" their old selves so God can make them new. Just a few verses before our reading today, Paul says in verse 22, "You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self." These words would point them to the act of repentance and renewal that comes in baptism. Their baptism makes way for behavioral change—for a new way of living.
We go from our old selves to a new creation in baptism.
There aren't very many stories from sermons I heard while I was in seminary that I still remember, but this one has always stayed with me. Maybe I've shared it with you before. But good stories are worth hearing again.
It was told by a North American pastor who was somewhere in the South American countryside looking for the grave of his sea captain grandfather who had died at sea many years before. He found the grave in an overgrown cemetery, situated beside an ancient-looking church building that appeared to have been constructed from the various sizes of stones that lay about in the fields around the structure. Intrigued by the setting, he decided that he would attend worship there the following morning.
Approaching the church the next morning, the man could hear the congregation singing the slow and labored tones of a funeral dirge. Upon arrival, he saw a naked child being carried to the front of the church by his mother. They were followed by the child's father, who carried a roughly hewn, child-sized, wooden casket over his shoulder, and a young girl—apparently the child's older sister—who carried a large earthenware pitcher of water that had been drawn from the family's well. At the altar, the minister took the water from the young girl and poured it into the casket. The child was then smeared with embalming oils, and was immersed in the water of the casket as the minister said the words, "I kill you." In an instant, the child was brought up out of the water and raised up to the sky with the minister's words, "I resurrect you." The waters were then used to make a cross on the child's forehead and he said, "I brand you." As though on cue, the congregation began singing an Easter hymn, and the Sacrament of Baptism was complete as the child was welcomed into this membership of Christ's family.
We go from our old selves to a new creation in baptism. As we go under the waters of death, the old self is killed off and we are raised with Christ into newness of life. In the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness. They then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world. They literally stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized. They were then brought into the new community of faith.
In baptism, the old self is killed off, and the new self is raised.
In our baptismal liturgies today, we repent of our sin and our former ways of living as we respond to these questions:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? (I do)
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? (I do)
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races (including Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus, and you and I today!) (I do)
As Christians, they could—we can—turn our backs on what was, we can be washed clean and made whole and new…given new life in Christ.
And so, the behaviors Paul lists aren't a to do list of things that these new followers of Christ are to check off, but they are marks of a new life given to them in Christ. They are ways in which they can live fully and authentically in community together.
Let's look at what Paul identifies as important:
Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
In the letter the mom wrote to her daughter, she said, "Don't Lie. Fess up. We will always forgive you. Remember punishments will always be less severe if you fess up and admit to your mistakes."
When we really care about someone and we want to be in relationship with them, we don't lie to them, we deal straight up with whatever is going on. We admit our mistakes, our oversights and seek forgiveness where it's needed. When Paul says that we speak truth because "we are members of one another," then not speaking the truth is the same as not being honest with ourselves…it's just not helpful.
If we want to build community, we need to be honest with one another.
Next, Paul says, "be angry, but do not sin…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil." Paul's not telling the church then or now that they're not to be angry. That's a real human emotion and even Paul knew in that day and age that burying it isn't a good thing. It also doesn't mean to just "let 'er blow," without regard to another person's feelings…but deal with it, in a way that's healthy and honest and direct. There are probably a gazillion books that can help you do that better if it's an issue for you, and I'm sure that it's a common topic for counselors to deal with, too. It may be best to give yourself some time to cool off and think and to measure your words, that's good and okay. Don't let anger build up in your heart and soul and carry it around with you because it'll do damage to you and to your relationship.
In verse 28, Paul says that thieves should give up stealing, which seems to be even more obvious than the other behaviors Paul writes about. He tells them to labor and work honestly with their own hands… And here's the part that may be unexpected—the reason is so they can have something to share with the needy. Their reason for honest work isn't to build bigger and better barns for themselves, but to have something to give away.
Paul calls the church to look out for one another, to see who is in need, to provide for, to care for, to offer what you have to those who don't have. I think of John Wesley as he instructed in his sermon, "The Use of Money," to gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
In verse 29, Paul says, "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear." What comes out of our mouths brings evidence of new life in Christ. I think this instruction convicts all of us at one time or another. How often do we ask ourselves—is this helpful? How much better might life in community be if we remember (who said it?) there's a reason we have 2 ears and one mouth. Perhaps we each need to do more listening than speaking.
It seems to me that today, I need to apologize to children and young adults for the way we older generations speak to one another. There is so much unkindness—name calling—and disrespect of other people. This is wrong and not the way Christians are to speak to one another or to anyone else. I hope this younger generation will see how negative this is and be more kind and gentle and respectful than we who are supposed to be role models.
Finally, Paul tells the church not to grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30). I thought at one time that there was a particular thing that we humans do to grieve the Holy Spirit and so our task would be to beware of that behavior. Instead of being puzzled of what that thing might be, I think that perhaps grieving the Holy Spirit is anything that tears down another person, which in turns, tears down the community. When he tells the church to put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling (fighting), and slander, together with all malice (v. 31), these are the things that grieve the Spirit. When our children are bitter with one another and fighting among themselves, that grieves us as parents… Why would God, our heavenly parent, not grieve when we're going at one other? And so, because we have taken on this new life in Christ, our task is to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving of one another, as we've been forgiven (v. 32).
I thought when I first read through these verses, that these behaviors seemed pretty obvious, pretty easy, "well, of course" kinds of instructions. Those Ephesians, that first century church—must have been pretty naïve to need such basic teaching in how to live together. But when I'm honest, I realize my own short-comings and how quickly I can fall into behaviors that aren't good for me and that aren't good for the community, and in contrast to "those Ephesians," I've been a Christian for as long as I can remember.
We each carry some of the traits of our parents. I've been told I'm a lot like my mom: I have a lot of her mannerisms and physical characteristics. That's just a part of who I am, and that's a good thing. But as a follower of Christ, it's even more important that I be like him. I want to carry his traits with me in all that I do. My voice may be my mother's voice, but I want my words to be Christ's words. My arms and my hands may look a lot like my Mom's arms and hands, but I want to make sure they're open like Christ's hands and arms, ready to receive, ready to embrace. Ready to love. Like Christ loves.
May it be so for each of us.