Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 15, 2021
Ephesians 5:15-20 Commentary
Near the middle of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostle summons his readers to “understand what the Lord’s will is” (17b). In a letter that he soaks with grace, this may be among the biggest challenges he sets before God’s Ephesian adopted sons and daughters.
Paul spends much of the first part of his letter to Ephesus’ Christians talking about God’s almost countless blessings through Jesus Christ. Chapter 2 is a particularly stirring song of praise for God’s grace that not only saves God’s people but also prepares us for works of loving service to God and our neighbors.
Yet in chapter 4, the apostle begins to make a kind of “turn.” He spends much of the rest of the letter discussing the nature of the good works God prepared in advance for God’s dearly beloved people to do. Paul speaks of God’s will for Christians’ behavior as our being united in love, active in our use of the gifts the Spirit gives us and holy in our living.
While that description of God’s will basically begins in Ephesians 4:1, the apostle introduces it 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 both understanding and living out God’s will helps give God the glory that God deserves for God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.
Yet few things are more difficult that understanding some aspects of God’s will. The Spirit helps Christians understand part of that will in its broadest sense. We understand that, for example, God summons us to a faithful reception of God’s grace. What’s more, God invites God’s adopted children to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves. God also calls us to wait in hopeful expectation of Jesus Christ’s return at the end of measured time.
But understanding God’s will for our daily lives can be more difficult. Whom should I befriend? How can I use the gifts God gives me? Should I marry? If so, whom? How should I use my time, money and other resources? Ephesians 5’s proclaimers might spend time exploring some of those hard questions regarding understanding God’s will.
It’s interesting that while Paul calls us to understand what the Lord’s will is, he doesn’t offer much advice about such specific questions. Instead he fairly tightly focuses his understanding of God’s will on three areas of the Christian life.
Those who preach and teach Ephesians 5:15-20 might choose to deal with all three of the contrasting ways of living Paul offers. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lessons’ proclaimers might also, however, choose to focus on just one of its verses.
Wise teachers and preachers will want to deliberately anchor their proclamation in the theme of wise living that’s grounded in the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. Otherwise our proclamation may 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 God’s “will” for God’s beloved people, it suggests that thanksgiving for everything is part of both what glorifies God and that for which God creates us. God’s image-bearers display God’s likeness 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 helps make 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 be ungrateful to God or take God’s good gifts for granted. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will want to come up with examples of what’s the 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 points out, 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 can, 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.” He, instead, 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 bold words seem to defy Paul’s admonition to always give thanks to God for everything. Yet those who preach and teach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson 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 proclamation may want to tiptoe around verse 20. On the other hand, those who are willing to both wrestle with the Scriptures and help our hearers wrestle with them can walk carefully and biblically 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, COVID-19, 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 give thanks even for such misery. 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. We can only begin to understand God’s will for our thanks to God for everything when we remember that, as Reformed Christians profess in the Heidelberg Catechism, God will “turn to [our] good whatever adversity he sends upon [us] in this sad world.”
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 . . . 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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