Few Lectionary texts begin more mysteriously than this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. “You were once darkness,” Paul reminds Ephesus’s Christians, “but now you are light in the Lord” (8).
The apostle seems to assert that God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t just naturally live in spiritual darkness. We naturally are spiritual darkness. God doesn’t just summon God’s beloved people to walk in the light. In Ephesians 5:8 Paul also insists that we are “light in the Lord.”
Those who choose to proclaim this Sunday’s mysterious RCL Epistolary Lesson will, as always, want to begin to unpack it by setting it in its literary context. Paul begins chapter 5 by identifying his readers as God’s “dearly loved children.” He then calls his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ to imitate God by especially living a “life of love” (2).
Yet while our culture easily confuses love with some kind of sexual activity, God, says the apostle, sets clear limits on acts of sexual intimacy. To a society that in some ways glorifies sexual acts, Paul insists, “there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed” (3). The sexual intimacy that we so easily confuse with love has, in other words, its proper place for God’s dearly loved children. But it’s only in the context of marriage.
In fact, Paul goes on to insist in verse 4, not even the kinds of vulgarity that so easily attach themselves to sexual intimacy outside of marriage’s context have any place in God’s people’s live. There is no room, he insists there, for things like “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” Do not even be “partners” with those who peddle in such inappropriate behavior and language, Paul adds in verse 7.
Why? Well, answers the apostle, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (8). In doing so he is perhaps saying that those who act and talk in spiritually darkened ways easily become spiritual darkness itself.
It’s perhaps the mirror image of the saying that if you want to love someone, act like you love her, and your feelings will follow. Paul may, in fact, be claiming that those who act in spiritually darkened ways are in danger of becoming spiritual darkness itself.
But, of course, God’s dearly beloved children whom the Spirit is transforming don’t want to be spiritual darkness or even act in spiritually dark ways. By God’s amazing grace, we want to be spiritual light. Christ has graciously “shone” (14) on naturally spiritually dead people like his followers. Now we want to reflect something of the glory of God that we see most clearly in Christ. God’s dearly beloved people want to be so characterized by our imitation of Jesus Christ that we actually are “light in the Lord.”
How can God’s adopted sons and daughter be characterized by “light in the Lord?” Since we are light in the Lord, we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, act in ways that reflect our status before God. “Live as children of light,” the apostle insists. “Be who you are,” we might say. “You are light in the Lord. Now be light in the Lord.”
Of course, as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in a wonderful earlier Sermon Commentary on this text, God’s dearly beloved children don’t live as children of the light because we’re better than those who live in darkness. Jesus’ followers don’t live as children of the light because try to be better than people who are darkness. We live as children of the light because we are by God’s wondrous grace children of the light.
How, then, do God’s adopted sons and daughters live as children of the light? Paul summons us to let the Spirit fill our lives with “all goodness, righteousness and truth” (9). These are, after all, among God’s chief characteristics. Jesus’ life was characterized by goodness, righteousness and truth. What’s more, God created us to live in good, righteous and true ways.
On top of all that, since even the children of the light may have a hard time discerning what goodness, righteousness and truth look like, Paul summons us “find out what pleases the Lord” (10). The pursuit of those Christ-like virtues isn’t an individual chase. It’s something God’s dearly beloved children seek to discern in conversation with the Spirit through the Scriptures and Christ’s Church.
Verses 11-14 suggest that part of what children of the light discern is a commitment to both completely avoid and expose “fruitless deeds of darkness” (11). While we may think those deeds of darkness include the sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking Paul earlier mentioned, Ephesians 5’s proclaimers also want to remember what Paul goes on to say.
Those deeds of darkness may include foolishness and drunkenness (17-18), as well as acting in unhealthy ways in relationships between wives and husbands, children and parents, employers and employees. The deeds of darkness Paul calls us to avoid and expose are, in other words, not just moral in character; they’re also relational.
The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority has been running a campaign whose slogan is, “If you see something, say something.” It’s designed to encourage riders to speak up and out when they see something inappropriate or suspicious on its trains and buses.
Those who proclaim and hear Ephesians 5 might riff on that slogan: “If you see something that’s darkness, say something about it.” Because God speaks up against all sexual immorality and coarseness, as well as any kind of impurity and greed, God’s dearly beloved children do as well. Because Jesus constantly advocated for healthy relationships, his followers do as well.
Of course, those who proclaim and hear Ephesians 5 on this particular Sunday live under the virtual worldwide cloud the coronavirus (COVID-19) casts. Nearly all of us wonder just how God wants God’s dearly loved children who are light in the Lord to live as children of light in the shadow of this virus.
The Paul who writes Ephesians 5 obviously doesn’t directly address this question. He, after all, writes nearly 2,000 years before COVID-19 broke out. Yet those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson do well to consider some possible applications of it to this current health crisis.
Paul’s emphases on spiritually “light” and “dark” words suggest that language plays a significant role in living as children of light. Children of the light who talk about the people affected by the virus are careful not to spread the kind of racism that seems to be emanating from possible sources of this virus. God’s dearly loved children are also careful about the language we use to describe the coronavirus and its victims. What’s more, Jesus’ followers work to expose untruths about the coronavirus.
The shadow threats like COVID-19 cast are dark and sobering. But children of the light who wish to live in the light understand that nothing can dim the light that Christ both casts and implants deep within us. We seek to reflect that light in all of our world’s dark corners, including those darkened by COVID-19.
In a January 30, 2020 Christianity Today article entitled, “What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus,” Jenny Yang describes Martin Luther’s response to the re-emergence of the Black Death in his hometown and surrounding area. Luther offered advice for God’s dearly loved children who were dealing with the contagion. It may help both Ephesians 5’s proclaimers and hearers to think about living as children of light in the coronavirus’s shadow.
First, says Yang, “Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee.” People in ministry, Luther wrote, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” Those who are sick and dying, after all, need someone to comfort and strengthen them, as well as administer the sacraments to them.
What’s more, notes Yang, Luther called public officials to stay at their “posts” in order to maintain civic order. Public servants were to continue their professional duties. Parents and guardians were, said Luther, to do their duties toward their children.
But, adds Yang, Luther did “not encourage his readers to expose themselves recklessly to danger. His letter constantly straddles two competing goods: honoring the sanctity of one’s own life, and honoring the sanctity of those in need.” Luther also defended the need for public health measures that included quarantines and seeking medical help when it’s needed. “In fact,” Yang adds, “Luther proposes that not to do so is to act recklessly.”
Luther’s advice is both pertinent and challenging in challenging times for both those who are darkness and those who are light in the Lord.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 22, 2020
Ephesians 5:8-14 Commentary