Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 9, 2015
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Commentary
Comments and Observations
At last the rubber hits the road. For three long complicated chapters, Paul has been explaining God’s plan of salvation in breathtaking terms: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (1:10) That plan begins with God saving individuals “by grace… through faith.” (2:8) But God was not content with uniting individual people to himself. He also intends to unite Jew and Gentile in Christ, to “create in himself one new man out of the two….” (2:15, 16) All of that uniting is ultimately designed to make “the manifold wisdom of God… known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (3:10,11) Paul has soared into outer space as he gives his most complete account of what God is up to in Jesus Christ.
Now it’s time to come down to earth and tell us exactly what God’s cosmic plan means for us as we walk the mean streets of our cities and towns. Last week in our study of Ephesians 4:1-16, we heard Paul tell us what God’s plan for reunification means for the church. By all means possible, we must “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (4:3) If the church’s unity is crucial to God’s plan, then we absolutely must be united as the Body of Christ.
But what about outside the church? How are we to live in the world? Paul has begun to explain that in 4:17-19, where he says bluntly that we “must no longer live as the Gentiles do” and gives a devastating critique of pagan living. He gets more positive when he says in 4:20-24 that we must put off the old self and put on the new self. But what, exactly, does that mean? In our reading for today, Paul begins to tell us, exactly.
In fact, Paul is so exact that we may struggle with how to preach this long list of moral instructions. How can we keep from preaching a check list morality that can drive us either to despair because we cannot live by the list or to self-righteousness because we think we have checked off each item on the list? And how can we preach about Christian living in a world where one poll after another says that Christians don’t live any differently than non-Christians, except that Christians are judgmental, narrow minded, and bigoted? Well, in fact, if we pay careful attention to Paul’s words, we should be able to call each other to a Christian lifestyle that will be a witness to the effectiveness of God’s grace as he unites all things in Christ. There are four things to which we should draw our congregants’ attention.
First, notice what areas of living Paul points to as he begins to describe street level living: speech, anger, and stealing. The church of my youth described distinctively Christian living in narrower terms: you don’t go to movies, you don’t dance, and you don’t play cards. That’s how you avoid living “as the Gentiles do.” Now, there were good reasons for that checklist morality; it was designed to keep us separate from the world. But it led us to think that if we just didn’t do those things, we were being good Christians. Paul says that we have to be more basic than that. Where you go and what you do for entertainment aren’t as important as the way you talk, how you handle your anger, and how you deal with material things.
In fact, Paul’s instructions for those three areas of human life are so basic that many scholars think Paul has simply borrowed from classic Greco-Roman ethics. There are undoubtedly similarities, but notice how Paul puts a distinctively Christian spin on each area. The reason we must speak the truth is that “we are all members of one body.” (verse 25) Not speaking truthfully will destroy the trust that is so important to the unity of the Body of Christ and, by extension, to the unifying mission of God in the world. Again, in verse 29, Paul urges edifying speech so “that it may benefit (literally, “give grace”) to those who listen.” The way we speak is part of God’s work of grace in the world.
The reasons we must manage our anger properly are also distinctively Christian. If we don’t manage our anger, if we let it simmer and fester day after day, we “give the devil a foothold” in our lives, so that he can use us in his divisive campaign. Or to put it more positively, if we deal with anger properly, if we get rid of all forms of anger and instead forgive, we are modeling the work of God in Christ (“just as in Christ God forgave you”). (verse 32)
Further, the reason we must stop stealing and do honest work with our hands is not just so that we can support ourselves and, thus, not be a drag on society and the church (as Paul put it in II Thessalonians 3:6-10). Here Paul ups the ante by explaining that Christians should work hard so “that [we] might have something to share with those in need.” Let the former thief become a benefactor of society. What would the world think of the church if we were known for our benevolent efforts on behalf of the poor? Working for that reason, says Paul, is part of God’s uniting mission in the world.
Second, as we move through this list of moral instructions, it is very important to show our listeners that a uniquely Christian life is not primarily negative. In each command, Paul moves from a negative to a positive. We must replace falsehood with truth, anger with forgiveness, stealing with generosity, unwholesome talk with edifying speech. Too often Christians are known for what we are against, so we come across as censorious and life-negating. Our text calls us to qualities and behaviors that are life enhancing and liberating. There are, of course, sins that we must avoid; Paul is withering in his critique of pagan society in 4:17-19. And his words about sexual impurity in 5:3-7 are scathing. But the bottom line is that God calls us to a counter-cultural lifestyle that focuses not first of all on law, but on love. “Be imitators of God, therefore, and live a life of love….”
That brings us to the third remarkable feature of uniquely Christian living; it is centered on forgiveness. The “life of love” to which we are called is a particular kind of love—not the eros of the bedroom or the philos of the kitchen table, but the agape of the cross. We are called not merely to be nice to people who like us or to take care of those with whom we feel a bond of kinship, but to give ourselves up for those who have treated us shamefully. How can we possibly make such a sacrifice? Only be keeping our focus on the One who made such a sacrifice for us on the cross. Paul uses the Greek word kathos (“just as, in the same way as, to the same measure as”) two times in the later verses. We must “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as (kathos) in Christ God forgave” us. (verse 32) And we must imitate God by living “a life of love just as (kathos) Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….” (5:2) Christian living that is worthy of that name is primarily characterized by a love that forgives and sacrifices for those who do not deserve such grace.
Fourth, as the previous paragraph suggests, genuinely Christian living depends on and centers on the work of the Triune God. To keep our sermons on this text from becoming moralizing lectures, we must keep in mind the overall theme of Ephesians, as explained in such soaring terms in chapters 1-3. Paul’s words about the Trinity in this text will help us do that. We must do all these things “as dearly loved children,” who want to imitate their Father. We must do these things in the same way as the Son of God did. And we can do all these things because of the work of the Spirit in us. If we don’t live this way, we “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” (verse 30) We must live this way and we can, because of the vast investment the Triune God has made in us. Because of that work, we are dearly loved children. When we don’t live this way, God won’t terminate our adoption. Rather, the Spirit will weep just as human parents weep when their children stray from the path of holiness and happiness.
When we see this list of commands in this Trinitarian light, we can’t possibly preach it as a list of requirements for salvation. This is simply the way God’s children live—in a positive, life affirming, liberating way that advances the unifying purpose of God. If we live that way, our lives will be a “fragrant offering” that will attract people to the One who gave his life as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
There are some hard words in this passage. What, for example, does Paul mean by the cryptic quote from Psalm 4:4? “In your anger do not sin.” I found at least 4 very different interpretations. Is that a command to be angry, or permission to be angry, or a concession about anger (“even though”), or a condition (“if”). You will have to decide how much to focus on these details. Just be sure that your sermon is grounded in grace, so that it calls people not only to distinctively Christian living but even more to the Triune God whose work makes us Christians in the first place.
When South Africa finally moved away from the poisonous policies of apartheid, a key part of the healing process was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Black South Africans were invited to come before the Commission to tell the truth about what they had suffered under apartheid. Only when the lie of apartheid was publicly exposed by the truth of its disastrous effects could the healing begin. As Paul puts it in our text, we “must speak truthfully to our neighbor, [so that] we [can be] members of one body.” Truth is the basis for trust.
Rather than limiting life, this list of commands will in fact liberate us from the ongoing presence of sin in life. Flannery O’Connor put it well. “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom with sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it that way.”
Paul’s call to “live a life of love” uses an interesting word for “live.” It is peripateo in the Greek, “to walk around.” So when he calls to imitate our Father, he is calling us to walk as our Father walks. That brought to mind a picture I saw as a child every Sunday in my home church. There was a family of six—father, mother, and four children. The father had a strange walk. He bent forward from the waist at a 20-degree angle, his head thrust even further forward. His arms hung straight down, not moving at all when he walked. His legs were stiff, a bit like a giant blue heron picking its way across a pond. When he walked into church that way every Sunday, his four children marched in behind him with exactly the same ungainly gait. Without even intending to, they walked in imitation of their father. We will have to be intentional if we are to walk with the graceful strides of our heavenly Father.
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