Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ephesians 5:15-20 Commentary

Intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom.  In fact, some of us can identify people who rank among the highest on the intelligence quotient (IQ) scale but rank among the lowest on the “wisdom quotient” scale.  Perhaps that’s why our text’s Paul feels the need not to tell his readers to be “intelligent” or “smart,” but to be “wise” (15).

Ephesians 5:15-20 is part of Paul’s teachings about the cross-shaped life.  While those instructions begin in Ephesians 4:1, the apostle introduces them with 3:20-21’s doxology: “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work in us, to him be the glory in the church and in Jesus Christ throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  This suggests that to live “a life worthy of the calling” (4:1) and “wisely” (5:15) is part of what brings God the glory that God deserves for God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1-3).

New Testament scholar Susan Hylen (Working Preacher, August 16, 2009) notes that a review of Ephesians’ use of the word “live” (or literally “walk”), paripateo, unveils some of its central themes.  In Ephesians 5:15-20 Paul invites his readers to live wisely.  In doing so, he links it to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially to the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  In doing so, the apostle links our text to biblical instruction concerning life that’s consistent with our identity as those whom God creates in God’s image.

So we might compare Ephesians 5:15-20 to an owner’s manual.  I might choose to run my car, for example, as I choose rather than in ways that are consistent with what its owners manual dictates.  I might, for example, choose to exercise my freedom by refusing to put gasoline in my car’s tank or regularly slamming on its brakes.

I might, after all, think I know what’s best for my car.  But, of course, I don’t naturally know what’s best for it.  Its manufacturer does.  She knows that if I don’t put in enough gasoline, the car will stop running, perhaps permanently.  My manufacturer knows that if I don’t take good care of my breaks, they’ll wear out if not catastrophically fail.

In a similar way, I might assume that I know what’s best for me and so choose to exercise my freedom by frittering away the opportunities I have (15).  I might choose to be foolish (17).  I might choose to get drunk on wine (18).  I might choose to stay silent when I should be speaking the Scriptures and making music to God (19).  I might even choose to only sporadically give thanks to God (20).

But then, suggests Paul, I’d be acting unwisely.  I’d be acting in ways that contradict what my Creator made me for.  I don’t, after all, naturally know what’s best for me.  Only God knows how I can live in ways that are consistent with both the way God created me and the purposes for which God created me.

Those who preach and teach Ephesians 5:15-20 might choose to deal with all three of the contrasting ways of living Paul offers in it.  If so, they should also address the life to which Paul calls us for which he offers no contrast (speaking to each other biblically, making music to God and always giving thanks to the Lord).  The theme of wise living would make a good organizing heading for it.

Those who preach and teach the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday might also choose to focus on just one of its verses.  If so, wise teachers and preachers will want to deliberately anchor their teachings in the theme of wise living that’s grounded in the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ.  Otherwise our presentation will easily devolve into little more than yet another moral lesson that’s little different than that which any number of self-help gurus offer hearers.

Among the verses that especially intrigue me (as well as those to whom I preach each Sunday) is verse 20-21’s call to “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus.”

Since this is part of what Paul calls “wise” living, it suggests that thanksgiving for everything is part of both what brings glory to God and of that for which God created us.  God’s image-bearers reflect God when we give thanks for everything.  The apostle at least seems to be suggesting that to refuse to give thanks for everything is to do not what’s best for us.  That makes verse 20 potentially fertile soil for Ephesians 5:15-20’s preachers and teachers to “till.”

Yet since it doesn’t follow verses 15-18’s “not this … but …” pattern, wise preachers and teachers may want to set up their own contrast.  They may want to note that Paul at least implies that his readers should not to be unthankful or take God’s good gifts for granted.  Those who proclaim Ephesians 5:15-20 will want to come up with examples of what’s opposite of always giving thanks to God for everything.  Preachers and teachers may also want to spend time exploring what saps our thanksgiving to God.

We also want to note how, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, it’s not surprising to hear the apostle tell us that a Spirit-filled life overflows with gratitude.  What is surprising, as Mast goes on to write, is the level and extent of the gratitude to which Paul summons those whom the Spirit has filled.

We could, after all, easily understand why the apostle would invite us to thank God for good things.  Even if we don’t always practice it, God’s adopted sons and daughters at least know that we should thank God for every good gift.  We know we ought to thank God for God’s blessings that range in size from God’s redemption of the whole world to the breakfasts those who hear us enjoyed.  Ephesians 5:15-20’s preachers and teachers will want to spend the right amount of time talking about those good gifts.

Yet Paul doesn’t just summon Jesus’ followers to always thank God for every “good gift.”  No, he invites us to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.”  It won’t take preachers and teachers long to come up with a list of things for which it seems downright unchristian to give thanks to God.

In his July 1, 1997 article in the Christian Century Ronald Goetz wrote, “There are many specific things in life for which we simply cannot give thanks, concrete events before which all of the humanity within us recoils and for which we could never forgive ourselves if we did give thanks.”  These are big and bold words that seem to defy Paul’s admonition to always give thanks to God for everything.  Yet those who preach and teach Ephesians 5:15-20 will recognize that its sentiments lie deep in the hearts of not just those who hear us, but also in our own hearts whom the Spirit has graciously softened to the misery around and sometimes in us.

Those who are looking for a neat way to package and tie a bow around their lesson and message may want to tiptoe past verse 20.  On the other hand, those who are willing to both wrestle with the Scriptures and help our hearers wrestle with them will be willing to walk carefully in and through verse 20.

Mast writes, “We can only [always give thanks to God for everything] 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’.”

Even the wisest and godliest preachers and teachers struggle to give thanks to God for horrors like the abuse of a child, plight of refugees, dementia and climate change.  Yet we can only even just begin to do so as we let the Spirit not only fill us, but also help us to honestly and compassionately wrestle with how to do that.  We’ll also only be able to at least begin to give thanks to God for everything, even if just in fits and starts, when we remember that our Savior Jesus is also the world’s Christ and its Lord.

Illustration Idea

In her June 13, 2017 Greater Good Magazine article entitled, “Can Gratitude Make Our Society More Trusting,” Elizabeth Hopper writes, ‘Research suggests that Americans have become less trusting over the past few decades. That’s a problem . . . So how can we reverse this trend?

‘A new study suggests one potential way: by increasing feelings of gratitude. In the study, published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers found that people who had consciously counted their blessings for just a week were more likely to trust others.

‘The researchers asked half of the participants to complete a gratitude journal: Every three days, they listed up to five things for which they felt grateful; the other half of the participants simply wrote about what they had done over the past several days . . .

‘Several days after completing their journals, the study participants played a short online “trust game” in the research lab. They were told that they would be exchanging money with another participant (although, in actuality, the game was played with a computer and there was no other participant). Participants were given a small amount of money and could choose to give some of this money to that other (fictional) participant. They were told that any money they gave away would be tripled (e.g., if a participant gave away $1, the other participant would receive $3), and the second player could choose whether to send any of this windfall back.

‘Participants who were more trusting of others would presumably give more money to the second person: They would expect that they would get their money back and that both participants would profit. However, less trusting participants would presumably avoid any risk by keeping the original money for themselves.

‘The researchers found that, compared with the participants who had simply written about their days, participants who had completed the gratitude journaling were more trusting. The former group sent about half of their money (on average) to their partner in the game, while the gratitude group sent almost 70 percent of their money. Participants in the gratitude group also reported feeling more grateful to their partner for sending money back to them.’


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