Comments and Observations
“A great man,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a man who draws a larger circle around what we think is possible.” If that’s true, then Paul was a great man, because he drew a larger circle around the Christian church than anyone would have ever thought possible. Of course, Paul would (and did) say that his understanding of the mystery of the church was revealed to him by God. It was a God-sized understanding of the mission of the church that Paul has been expounding in the first three chapters of Ephesians. God intended to unite all things in heaven and on earth under one head, namely, Christ (1:9, 10). God has already begun that reunification by bringing sinners back to himself (2:1-10) and reuniting a warring human race in the church composed of Jews and Gentiles as equal partners (2:11-22). All of that reconciling work was aimed at outer space. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (3:10) That is an unimaginably large circle.
Now, after all that high flying theology, Paul turns to the practical implications of God’s world-changing, cosmically important work. Ironically, Paul begins not with a call to change the world, to take on the Empire for Christ, but with a call to “be completely humble and gentle.” He begins with “small virtues” because the first task of those who are part of the impossibly large mission of God in the world is to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We already have amazing unity because of God’s saving work. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope, when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all.” So the most important thing in the world for us is that we maintain the unity planned and accomplished by the Triune God. The attitudes and actions with which Paul begins Ephesians 4 are crucial to that precious unity. That’s why he makes a big deal of such small virtues.
Of course, humility and gentleness and patience and love aren’t small virtues at all; they are among the cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. But preaching on them this Sunday will present you with unique challenges. I mean, how can we preach on the importance of unity to a severely splintered church in a hopelessly divided world? Who is going to believe that God is actually doing a mighty work of re-uniting all things under Christ, when even the body of Christ is divided? And how can we call Christians to these old virtues when we live every moment in a world that prizes power and pride and glorifies action and violence? Who is going to believe that being humble and gentle can change the world? How can we preach this apparently unrealistic, counter-cultural message?
Well, let me demonstrate an approach to this text that focuses on just one of those virtues—patience. No, it is not the key to the text. It’s just a keyhole through which we can peek to get a clearer view of God’s grand vision for the church and our humble place in achieving that vision. I’m going to limit my comments to verses 1-6, because I think the whole pericope in the Lectionary is far too long to cover in one 30-minute sermon. Paul’s eloquent explanation of how the diversity of gifts fits into God’s plan for unity is another subject entirely. So I’ll skip that for now. Many of my comments and observations on patience come from a sermon I preached on this subject many years ago.
In Galatians 5 Paul says that patience is part of the fruit of the Spirit, but it strikes me that many people don’t want this fruit very much. It has been called “the beggar’s virtue” (Paul is a prisoner as he writes Ephesians) or the “virtue of an ass that trots beneath its burden and is quiet.” We all want the rest of the fruit, well, at least love and joy and peace. But patience? What we really want is for things to move along, to get better, to be done with NOW. We would agree with former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, when she said, “I am extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end.” So, who wants patience?
Well, God does. God’s passion for patience is so strong that he puts his Spirit in our hearts to produce the fruit of patience. That means that patience is not optional for us. It’s not a gift like those Paul mentions in the next verses of Ephesians. Some people receive one gift, other people get another. But patience is a fruit that all Christian must cultivate and exhibit.
But what is it? Patience is a lot more than the ability to wait. The Greek word here is sometimes translated “longsuffering,” and that helps flesh it out. But that word means literally “long passion,” especially the passion of anger. Patience has to do with anger and judgment and punishment—not holding on to our anger for a long time, but precisely the opposite, holding off our anger for a long time and not executing judgment and visiting punishment. In the rest of the Bible, the patience of God is his merciful delaying or withholding of wrath until something takes place in us that justifies the postponement of that anger.
God’s call to patience, then, freely acknowledges that there are all kinds of good reasons to be angry with people. It does not deny that people do some terribly sinful, incredibly sick, and just plain silly things that severely test our patience. It does not deny the legitimate concerns of justice. But instead of encouraging us to unleash our righteous anger, God calls us to patience with the wicked, the wounded, and the weak. Instead of coming down on them in punishment, says Ephesians 4, we must bear with them, put up with them, endure them—not with gritted teeth and clenched fists, but with love that is humble and gentle. That’s the heart of patience—a love for the wicked, the wounded and the weak that wants to see them saved in the comprehensive way Paul has outlined in Ephesians 1-3.
From that brief description of patience, you can hear that it takes great power to be patient. This is not a weak virtue. Patience does not merely overlook sin and sickness and silliness, because we can’t do anything or because we simply don’t care. Patience is not helpless endurance or feeble indulgence. It is not born of moral irresolution or a compliance with sin. Rather the fruit of patience powerfully withholds angry retaliation because it looks beyond the immediate moment when things go wrong to a distant time when things will be made right. God is patient because he sees further than we do. He has the end in view. He calls us to be patient in the faith that God will make all things right.
That brings us to a second question. How does patience express itself in the complexity of life? In verse 1 Paul calls himself “a prisoner for the Lord,” because he was literally in prison when he wrote this. It’s hard to be patient when you’re just “doing time,” watching the minutes tick by and pages fall off the calendar. And there were people with whom he had to be patient—his supporters on the outside who couldn’t do much to help him, the guards who were themselves subject to power, and his opponents on the outside who took this opportunity to bad mouth Paul. When we are dealing with the weak, the wounded, or the wicked, patience will mean different things.
Sometimes the people who try our patience are simply weak, just humans with limitations—little children, incompetent bosses or employees, students who simply cannot learn, parents who are aging, or bad drivers. But sometimes we need to be patient with folks who are wounded, people who are troubled. I’m talking about folks who are emotionally and psychologically damaged because of childhood trauma, chemical imbalance in their brains, brain injuries, or catastrophes in their lives. These people are just humans, hurting humans. Because they are so hurt themselves, they pull us into their circle of pain and they hurt us. It is harder to be patient with the wounded than with the weak.
But it is hardest to be patient with the wicked, people who deliberately hurt us. I think of those enemies of Paul who with jealousy in their hearts tried to use his imprisonment to damage his ministry. Sometimes it is very hard to tell the difference between the wounded and the wicked—both kinds hurt us, but the wicked intend to hurt. Or they hurt us because they are so wickedly centered on themselves that we don’t matter to them at all.
As I said, it is easiest to be patient with the weak—she’s just a little kid; dad is getting old. Again, it helps to remember that the person who so annoys us is deeply troubled—maybe he is off his meds today; she had a difficult childhood. But when someone is simply wicked, you wonder if there is a limit to patience. Is there ever a time when God says, “It’s OK to stop being patient and express your anger and demand justice and inflict punishment.”
Well, on the one hand, is it ever OK to stop being loving and joyful and peaceful, to act contrary to the rest of the fruit of the Spirit? No. Then how can we stop being patient? But, on the other hand, does that mean we must always let people get away with it: that we shouldn’t correct and strengthen the weak, that we shouldn’t intervene in the lives of the troubled, that we shouldn’t stop the wicked in their sins? Must we always be patient? No. Even God’s patience does eventually run out. But we must be careful to act in humility, gentleness and, most of all, love when it is time for anger to be unleashed.
Given the difficulty of patience, it will be helpful to remind our listeners why patience is so important. Though there are many reasons, Paul focuses on just one here in Ephesians, namely, unity. Verses 1-7 are one long sentence in the Greek and the whole sentence is about unity. Paul is talking primarily about unity between Christians. Patience is so important in maintaining the unity that is centered on the Triune God precisely because the church is full of weak human beings who do silly things, wounded human beings who do strange things, and wicked human beings who do sinful things. Because the unity of the church is so central to Christ’s work, the Spirit of God is working hard to make us patient with each other in church.
But we could also apply this lesson on humility to unity in the family. In my long ministry, I have often observed that divorce finally breaks a family apart when someone loses patience. It isn’t just that things are bad; often they have been bad for a long time. But finally someone cannot take it anymore and files for divorce. Patience is gone, anger is unleashed, justice is sought, and punishment is meted out. The fact is that marriage always some weakness, some weirdness, and some wickedness. So it takes great patience to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace between husbands and wives. The same thing is true with parents and children.
That raises one last question to consider as we preach on this text, even if we don’t focus on patience. Where can we get these virtues that are so essential to unity? Where can I get more patience? I’m tempted to give the usual answer. Pray for it, and then duck. Some say, never pray for patience, because God will immediately give some situation that will test it. So, I won’t say that. Instead I’ll suggest that you give your congregation three words to concentrate on. To grow in patience we need these three things.
Wisdom. Pray for wisdom from on high, so that you can understand the ways of God and the timing of God. If we know that God works through all kinds of people to produce his fruit in us and if we understand that God makes all things beautiful in his time, we will be more patient.
Second, faith. It’s one thing to intellectually know those things I’ve just mentioned; it’s quite another to trust God in your heart. If you trust that the God of love is working even in this moment, even in this church, even in your marriage, you will grow in patience. But it is hard to trust God’s love for you when the wicked or the wounded or the weak are trying your patience.
That’s why the last word is grace. We will not trust God patiently unless we focus on his patient grace that sent his Son to remove his anger, satisfy his justice, and suffer our punishment. And we will not be able to trust God unless we ask God to give us the powerful grace we need to be patient.
The duty of every Christian is to be patient. Thank God for the gift of the Spirit who produces this difficult fruit. As you prepare to preach on this text to Christ’s difficult Body, be grateful that God is patient with the weak, wounded, wicked person you meet in the mirror every morning.
Paul’s self-identification as a prisoner here throws this whole text into a different light. Is Paul calling for these “small virtues” because they are the only option a prisoner has? Are these prisoner virtues? That question brought to mind Nietzsche’s distinction between “slave morality” and “master morality.” He famously claimed that the “slave morality” of the Christian church had brought the Roman Empire to its knees. The Greeks and Romans had always valued a “master morality” that emphasized power, while the church emphasized the kind of virtues we read about in our text for today.
We need to be careful with Nietzsche, because his critique of Christianity is more nuanced than we might think. He points out that the church’s “slave morality” has produced good things like democracy. But he was arguing that a “master morality” is a better thing. His call for rule by the nobility, the powerful, the superman was adopted by the Nazis and still resonates with the power politics of terrorists like ISIS and even the political maneuvering in Western democracies and, sadly, in the Christian church. So, be careful with using Nietzsche, but an accurate reference to his distinction may help people connect our ancient text with the realities of a 21st century world.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 2, 2015
Ephesians 4:1-16 Commentary