Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 16, 2015
Ephesians 5:15-20 Commentary
Comments and Observations
This text is a kind of hinge between the black and white moral exhortations of 4:1-5:14 and the relatively grayer areas of personal relations in the family and the workplace in 5:22-6:9. Paul’s fierce condemnation of pagan lifestyles and his no nonsense commands for the Christian life have come to a head in the immediately preceding words about light and darkness. Christians are children of the light, even if they were once part of the darkness of paganism. Things are very clear for the children of the light; we know how we are supposed to live. However, in the realm of husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave, employer/employee relationships, things are not quite so easy to spell out. Yes, submission is a key principle, but what does that mean for the tangled relationships of a typical family or business? To live in a uniquely Christian way in the murkiness of marriage or the whirlwind of family requires wisdom. That’s what this text is all about– how to live wisely in the complicated world of human relationships.
“Be very careful, then, how you live…. “ Although that is a decent enough translation of the Greek, it obscures several salient points. The word “live” is really “walk,” (peripateo in the Greek). This is the fifth time Paul has used this word in this ethical section of Ephesians, each time signaling a shift of thought. Further, the Greek says, “Look (blepete) how you walk.” Keep your eyes peeled as you walk, because these days are evil. The word “carefully” (akribos) modifies walk, not look. We must keep our eyes wide open, so that we can walk carefully in this evil age. Paul’s word choice might seem to suggest a rather pinched and paranoid approach to life, but that is not at all the picture Paul draws in verses 19-20. Careful living, in fact, results in an intoxicatingly joyful life full of song, thanksgiving, and healthy relationships. But more on that later.
For now, Paul spells out what careful walking looks like. Using two different words, he calls us to wise living. He defines wise living in two ways. Because our eyes are wide open as we walk carefully through a treacherous world, we can take advantage of opportunities. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t talk about avoiding pitfalls, which we might expect since “the days are evil.” Instead, he puts a more positive spin on wise living. Wise living involves making the most of opportunities.
Paul doesn’t spell out what kind of opportunities he is talking about here, but the context suggests something other than business opportunities. The idea is that the culture can lull us into living the way everyone else does, so we have to be alert for those moments (the Greek is kairos) when we can exhibit uniquely Christian living. The word for “making the most” is exagoradzomenoi, a commercial word. Think of a sharp realtor snapping up suddenly cheap property during the housing bust of the Great Recession. Being wise, then, means looking for opportunities to snap up parts of life for the Kingdom, since every square inch already belongs to the King (Abraham Kuyper).
Secondly, living wisely means understanding what the Lord’s will is. In this letter, Paul has spilled much ink in describing God’s great cosmic purposes as well as his will for everyday living. Thus, Christians should know both what God is doing in the world and how we should respond in our everyday living. The great temptation is that we become (a better translation than be) foolish, that we forget the unique things we already know about the Lord’s will and just drift along with the current of the culture. We are seeing that happen today as Christians abandon long held biblical ethical standards and theological truths and go with the flow of the secular culture.
But it is ferociously difficult to resist the tide of history. How can we live wisely in a foolish and wicked age? Paul gives a simply profound answer—“be filled with the Spirit.” What does that mean? Paul helps us understand with a stunning analogy. It’s like being drunk on wine. Paul doesn’t include this prohibition on getting drunk because that is such a terrible sin, but because it is such a helpful comparison. When you get drunk, you are under the influence of alcohol. You lose control of your mind and your body, so that you act differently than you would if you were sober. Your speech slurs, your eyes roll, your feet stagger, your libido rages, etc. That doesn’t happen all at once; you have to keep drinking to come under the control of alcohol. And being under that control doesn’t last forever. Once you sober up, you’ll have to drink again to get drunk again and come under the influence.
That’s what it is like to be filled with the Spirit. It doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t last from day to day. Yes, we do receive the Spirit all at once and forever, but to be filled with the Spirit is an ongoing process, thus, the present tense of the verb. We must be repeatedly and progressively filled with the Spirit, so that we are under the influence of the Spirit, indeed, controlled by the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit is the opposite of DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence). It means LWI (living while influenced by the Spirit) or LUI (living under the Spirit’s influence). Only the Spirit of Jesus can lead us into all the truth, so that we can spot the opportunities and understand the Lord’s will in the complexities of life.
Paul does not tell us here how we can be filled, but he is clear about the results of being filled with the Spirit. Earlier I said that Paul’s opening words about careful living might seem to suggest a pinched and paranoid to life. But Paul’s words in verses 19-20 point to a radically different version of a careful, wise lifestyle. He uses five words to describe a Spirit filled life. The NIV translates them as imperatives, but they are descriptive participles: speaking, singing and making music, giving thanks, and being submissive.
(Our lectionary reading cuts off that last participle, but that is a real mistake. This is one long sentence and upotassomenoi is a key part of the Spirit filled life. I don’t know if the lectionary stopped short of verse 22 because submission is such a politically charged term in our day, or simply because it seemed to be out of step with the rest of Paul’s description of a Spirit filled life. But it is as important as the other descriptors; indeed, it leads directly into the gray areas of relationships.)
Those who are filled with the Spirit speak to one another in a distinctive way—with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. What an interesting idea! We speak not with kindness or with charity or with honesty, though those virtues are obviously important as well. We are to speak with music on our lips. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 says that we should teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and then mentions singing to God. Is Paul simply being poetic here? Is Paul suggesting that our speech with fellow Christians must be harmonious and beautiful, like music? Paul’s language here is more impressionistic than precise. We can’t say exactly what he means, but we get the impression. Our conversation with each other should be like music.
And our relationship with God must literally be filled with music—“singing and making music in your heart to the Lord.” What a wonderful way to characterize our walk with the Lord—not grim duty, not costly sacrifices, not reluctant reverence, not fearful distance, but heartfelt singing. Those who live wisely are filled with joy that overflows into song, even if we can’t carry a tune in a bucket. We make music first of all in our hearts and, then, if the Lord so blesses, with voice or instrument.
Further, and not surprisingly, a Spirit filled life is filled with gratitude. It is the level and extent of the gratitude that is surprising. Paul says that if we are filled with the Spirit, if the Spirit is really in control of our thoughts and desires, we will give thanks always for everything (panta huper panton). How can that be? Somethings are so obviously awful that we can’t give thanks for them; maybe we can give thanks in them (I Thessalonians 5:18), but not for them. But Paul does say “for.” We can do that only when we are wise enough to understand what the Lord’s will is (verse 17), when we believe that the Lord is our Father and intends good, even in the bad, when we believe all that because of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such an extravagantly thankful life is only possible when we are filled with the Spirit. A Spirit filled life overflows not with complaint and dissatisfaction, but with thanksgiving.
Finally, a Spirit filled life is an ordered life. The word upotassomenoi means “to order oneself under a leader,” as opposed to the kind of individualism and independence that leads to disorder. It is hard to hear this word positively in our culture, because of the abuses we’ve seen in marriage and family and the wider society. I mean, how can anyone think it is a good thing when men dominate their wives, when parents abuse their children, when masters abuse their slaves (indeed, when there are slaves at all)? It is only when we read these “house tables” against the backdrop of a brutally hierarchical society that they will sound like a positive word. When we hear Paul say that there must be mutual submission and when he then defines a husband’s headship as sacrificing his entire life for his wife, we can begin to catch what a revolutionary piece of good news the word upotassomenoi really was. A Spirit filled life is a life of mutual love and sacrifice and concern for those above and below us on the social scale.
What does such mutual submission look like in real life? There’s no legislating it, no way of spelling out in detail what it means for this or that relationship. That must be worked out with the leading of the Spirit, “out of reverence for Christ.” Or as the Greek says, “in the fear of Christ.” Sometimes we soften “fear” to “reverence” or even softer still to “respect.” But as one scholar said, this means much more than respect, but not quite as much as terror. The idea is that Christ is Lord, and we’d best remember that as we order our lives. We too quickly abuse our positions and roles in life, so we do well to remember that we will answer to the real Lord, even Jesus Christ. Here’s a strong reason not to lord it over others, but to be as sacrificially loving as our Lord was.
Overall, this text calls us to the kind of living that will move people to ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us—carefully wise, always looking for opportunities to live for Christ, deeply in touch with the purposes of God in the world, but not in an overly punctilious way. Rather, the Spirit will fill us with joy and gratitude, creating relationships that are musically harmonious, demonstrating our closeness to God with hearts that overflow with song, and showing the world what marriage and family and work can be if we are willing to put others before ourselves. This is how we should live by the black and white commands of God in a world that is fifty shades of gray.
To help folks get a picture of how to be filled with the Spirit, here’s a cute, maybe even true story. A little boy came to his father with a problem. His hand was stuck in an expensive vase. His father didn’t want to break the vase, but no matter what he did, the boy’s hand remained stuck. Suddenly, something occurred to him, and he said to his son, “Hold your fingers out straight.” To which the boy replied, “I can’t. If I do, I’ll drop my penny.” If we clutch the penny of sin, we can’t be filled with the Spirit. We must repent, so that the hand of faith is empty and can receive that filling.
A number of years ago, well-known sportswriter Mitch Albom became more widely famous for a moving little book entitled, Tuesdays with Morrie. It was about the Tuesdays Albom spent with his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as Morrie died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In one conversation about what Albom would do if he had only one day to live, Morrie says, “Our culture doesn’t encourage us to think about such ultimate things, until you’re about ready to die. We’re so wrapped up in egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it’s broken—we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get in the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, ‘Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?’” He paused and said to Albom, “Mitch, you need someone to probe you in that direction.”
We all do, and that’s exactly what we have in this text—Someone probing, pushing us to look at life more carefully. “Be very careful then how you live, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
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