Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2017
Ephesians 5:8-14 Commentary
In one of the verses of this Lectionary selection Paul says that “it is shameless even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” Apparently the Lectionary agrees because it has carved out these verses from within a wider context where Paul does name—at least a bit more specifically—what some of those deeds of darkness are. But the Lectionary would have us look away from the verses just prior to and just following this lection. Maybe we shouldn’t.
Because if we do look at that wider context, we will see that Paul talks about things like sexual immorality but also greed, drunkenness but also coarse speech. It’s a curious assortment of activities and sins, some of which count as things the church has traditionally been very tough on—sexual immorality—and some of which often gets a pass in the church (greed or somebody with a bit of “good old boy” coarse talk). Yet for Paul they are all on the same level of things we ought not do if we are living in the light of Christ.
Earlier in this same letter Paul had made it clear to the Ephesians that not so long ago—and spiritually speaking—they had been dead (cf. Eph. 2:1). Now the image is one of being in darkness, which may be the same idea stated differently. But the point of all such imagery is to highlight the utterly dramatic change that comes when we gain union with Christ through baptism (and the “wake up, sleeper” imagery here is almost certainly a reference to baptismal rites in the early church).
This is, of course, typical of Paul’s New Testament writing. Again and again the Apostle roots the whole of our existence as believers and the core of our new identity firmly in baptism. Baptism is the ultimate “before-and-after” moment for disciples. In those waters the old self drowns and a new self is raised to life. True, the death of the old self seems to remain oddly incomplete. Like some zombie walker from The Walking Dead, the old self is mostly gone but still can lurch forward and inflict some damage if we are not careful. Living in the light that baptism introduced into our lives still takes some intentionality and—as Ephesians 5 makes clear—some active resistance to the old ways of darkness.
It also requires community, as Paul will go on to say in some other verses later in this chapter when he encourages the believers to speak and sing to one another as a way to build up and celebrate the whole new way of life we have in Christ. We are to encourage one another, build one another up, pick one another up if we fall, and even rebuke one another if we sense a brother or sister is about to drive over some spiritual or moral cliff.
Of course, all of this traffics very near the edge of a different kind of theological cliff, and that is the deadly peril of moralism in the church. Moralistic preaching has long been a staple of too many of us preachers. And why not? It’s easier to wag the finger, to guilt people into behaving, to scare people into staying on the straight and narrow.
What is tricky is encouraging morality and a whole new way of living as Christians WITHOUT relying on the kind of stern lecturing and de facto “work your way to heaven” legalism that too many people quietly believe as it is. The far more difficult task for us preachers is to point to the goodness of the light by sticking to salvation by grace alone. We behave differently than the people of the darkness not because we are just generally better folks to begin with and no in order to MAKE God love us. No, we act differently because through baptism we ARE different. Period.
The Apostle Paul’s many moral imperatives never boil down to “Behave so that God will love you” or “Become what you are not by trying harder, will ya?” No, the indicative precedes the imperative for Paul. First Christ died and did it all for us and gives it all to us by grace alone. Then we can be told to “Be who you are!” Paul never sees the living out of a moral life as a stretch for believers, as something unnatural. Quite the opposite: living that way should come very naturally for people who are new creations in Christ and through baptism. Yes, we can all have conversations about what is the best way to behave in this or that sphere of life. But that Christians lives should be distinctive in marked ways ought not be in dispute.
The difficulty is that they are not always so distinct, and you have to guess this was somewhat true in Ephesus long ago too or else Paul would not have had to write what he did. In a city like Ephesus, so shot-through with all that was secular and tawdry and pagan and idolatrous in the Greco-Roman world—it was easy to lapse back into the old ways of talking, partying, hoarding. It was easy to be as greedy as before you met Christ, to acquiesce in even some pretty nasty sexual behaviors in your neighbors or friends. And so again and again and throughout most of Paul’s letters the call back to baptismal identity has to be issued.
In the church today we are afraid to do this. We don’t want to be caricatured as fire-and-brimstone Puritanical moralists. We don’t want to be associated with the worst fringe of the church that shouts damnation at gay people or threatens violence against outsiders. We want people to believe that we mean it when we say “God is love.” We want to be identified with the Jesus who spoke kindly to prostitutes, touched the unclean lepers, forgave the very people whom the uptight moralistic Pharisees of the day would not even deign to look at, much less love.
And yet . . . we also face a generation that is increasingly drawn to Christian Smith’s description of “moral therapeutic deism” in which God is pretty much an old softy who has only passing interest in our lives, much less the moral shape of them. We live in a time with a lot of pressure on some churches to go along to get along, to shoot for the lowest common denominator on most everything in a nod toward pluralism and tolerance, even if it washes out the distinctiveness of the faith along the way.
I don’t think the Apostle Paul ever found it terribly easy to strike the right balance between grace and morality. It agonized him to see people taking his Gospel message of grace and turn it into a license for loose living. He could not let that go. But then again, he could not let immoral living just slide, either. And so he brought it back again and again to the joy of grace. Paul was good at highlight the beauty of right living as the fruit of grace, as something that is simply a JOY to do because it aligns so well with how life on this planet was designed to go.
The issue is not whether or not preachers should point to right living. We must. The issue is whether we ourselves see that kind of holy lifestyle as so attractive, winsome, and gorgeous that we can incite others to catch our enthusiasm for it. We ought not try to shame people or scare people into shaping up and flying right. We ought instead to be having such a good time doing this ourselves that others will want to buy into that.
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Most of us who watch even a modicum of TV these days have surely seen the series of ads for the Lincoln MKX car featuring the actor Matthew McConaughey. (Click here to see a typical 30-second example). Of course, like most ads, this is ridiculous. At the end of the day a car is just a car. It’s a tool, a necessary evil in the modern world. Half the time when we are stuck in our cars, we wish we weren’t. And no matter how sure most of us are when we buy a new car that THIS car will stay neat and clean and always look good inside and out, sooner or later they get filthy, dust gathers on the dashboard, the floor mats get pine needles stuck in them along with lint and other stuff, and we don’t always take the time to clean it up.
But the folks at Lincoln want to sell you on an experience. “The feeling stays with you” is the ad’s tag line, as though just driving this car is as elegant, handsome, winsome, and satisfying as Mr. McConaughey looks behind the wheel as he tries to convey a glowing, warm, and just downright happy ambiance through his facial expressions.
I realize I may be stretching things here but the point is they are making you interested in this car because of how it makes you feel, how much fun it is to drive, how the latest features make it cool and intriguing. Lincoln could, of course, just lecture us on how well built the car is, how reliable its components are, how they use really good materials for the engine, the dashboard, the leather seats. They could TELL us that this car would be good for us and so we MUST get one.
Instead they want us to believe this is fun, elegant, romantic, and flat out a nice way to get around. Might we in the church get farther with pushing a moral lifestyle if we stopped lecturing people on how good it is and instead could demonstrate to people that being inside the lifestyle is attractive, fun, full of joy and satisfaction? If those of us living this way did this just generally, might others be more intrigued in ways that shoving facts at them in bold, in-your-face ways never could achieve?
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