Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 19, 2023
Ephesians 5:8-14 Commentary
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul summons Christians to “live as children of light” (8). However, we might also say that he offers his readers some walking lessons. After all, the apostle uses some form of the word paripateo no less than six times in chapters 4-6, including three times in Ephesians 5.
As the New Testament scholar Richard Carlson notes, while paripateo literally means “to walk around,” Paul generally uses it to refer to appropriate Christian activity. However, Carlson basically combines those two meanings when calls the apostle’s use of that Greek verb in Ephesians 5 “akin to our use of the word ‘walk’ in the phrase, ‘You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk’?”
In the first three chapters of his letter to Ephesus’ Christians, Paul describes both Christians’ basic identity and what God has done in Christ to shape that identity. Chapters 4-6 are what Carlson calls “a theological ‘therefore’” in which the apostle summons his readers to act in ways that are appropriate for those whose identity is in the Christ whose death and resurrection has rescued us.
Carlson suggests that the second half of Ephesians builds on 2:10. There, after all, Paul says that God “created us in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But the Greek word that’s translated as “to do” is peripatesomen – whose root is, of course, peripateo. So we might translate Ephesians 2:10 as God “created us in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance for us to walk in.”
Yet as he so often does, Paul also at least alludes in this Sundays’ Epistolary Lesson to the ways in which our culture walks. It’s that “gait” that help make the ways Jesus’ friends want to walk look so strange. While the stride of the world look like that of neighborhood strollers, Christians’ “gait” look more that of a waddling duck.
Paul, however, only alludes to the culture’s stride in verses 8-14. In verse 8 he speaks of “darkness” (skotos). In verse 11 he refers to “the fruitless deeds of darkness” (akarpois tou skotous). In verse 12 the apostle also mentions “what the disobedient do in secret” (kryphe ginomena).
For a better understanding of “dark” deeds that are done in secret, preachers can refer to verses that lie outside of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s suggested text. We may even want to include at least Ephesians 5:1-7 in this Sunday’s Scripture readings.
After all, in Ephesians 5:3 Paul says, “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality (porneia), or of any kind of impurity (akatharsia), or of greed (pleonexia).” In verse 4 the apostle also condemns a variety of ways of speaking that is inappropriate for Jesus’ followers. So we might say that our culture’s walk looks, in other words, a lot like what The Message paraphrases as love that deteriorates into lust, filthy practices, bullying greed and improper language.
However, before delving into what God’s adopted sons and daughters’ walk should look like, preachers might point to what Carlson points. He notes that Paul repeats the word we translate as “light” (phos and photos) in verse 8. The apostle first reminds his readers of Christians’ identity as “light in the Lord.” He then calls Rome’s Christians to walk as “children of the light.”
In doing so, Paul avoids the kind of moralizing into which Christian preaching can so easily devolve. He isn’t offering us good moral advice with a spiritual flavor. The apostle is grounding Jesus’ friends’ behavior in our Christian identity. We “live as children of the light” because we are “light in the Lord.”
Like what, then, does God’s adopted sons and daughters’ walk look? Paul begins in verse 8 by asserting that it looks a lot like what he calls “the fruit of the light” (karpos tou photos). That fruit includes “goodness” (agathosyne), “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) and “truth” (aletheia).
While preachers may choose to explore each concept more fully, some may choose to simply note their countercultural nature. To speak, act and think in such ways that are consistent with our Christian identity is to talk, behave and think in almost the exact opposite ways of what the apostle refers to in verse 11 as “the fruitless deeds of darkness.” It seems, in fact, that Paul is deliberately drawing a contrast (“light” vs. “darkness,” “fruitful” vs. “fruitless”) between Jesus’ friends’ walk and society’s walk.
Of course, Paul goes on to suggest that walking in fruitful, light-filled ways often requires some discernment. In verse 10, after all, he invites the Christians in Rome to “find out (dokimazontes) what pleases (euareston) the Lord.” The Greek word we translate as “finding out” seems to include both discerning God’s will and approving of it. In other words, Paul summons Jesus’ friends not just to discover what is pleasing to God. We also walk in ways that show that we agree with it.
Paul continues his exploration of walking in the light by calling his readers in verse 10 to “expose (elenchete) the fruitless deeds of darkness” (ergois tois akarpois tou skoutos). While he doesn’t mention the contrasting light and fruitfulness, they almost certainly stand in verse 10ff’s background.
Jesus’ friends who walk in the light don’t waste our time pursuing fruitless darkness. We don’t expend our energy doing the kinds of things that displease God and harm our neighbors. God’s dearly beloved children don’t do and say the kinds of empty things produce divisions among people. Jesus’ followers, instead, “expose” them.
Yet it seems instructive that the Greek word we translate as “expose” has two slightly different shades of meaning. There’s certainly an element of condemnation in it. But there’s also at least a hint of proving the wrongness of what Jesus’ friends condemn. So perhaps Paul means that Christians don’t just condemn the deeds of darkness; we also show how they’re harmful.
Of course, this naturally leads to questions about just how God’s dearly beloved people can expose what Paul calls the fruitless deeds of darkness. While Christians sometimes assume that we must do that verbally, Paul, in verse 12, insists that it’s “shameful (aischron) to even mention (legein) what the disobedient do in secret” (kryphe).” This seems to caution Jesus’ friends against talking either too much or loudly about darkness’ fruitless deeds. We are careful in our language, even about things that harm people and communities.
Paul seems to at least suggest that simply walking in the light helps expose those fruitless deeds of darkness. As Christians live lives that are characterized by goodness, righteousness and truth, we help tear off what sometimes covers ugly behavior, talk and thinking. The light that Christlike behavior sheds into some of society’s morally darkest corners exposes what lurks there.
As that happens, Paul concludes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in verse 14, God may even raise what is dead to life, turning what is spiritual darkness into light. Carlson suggests that this means when people who walk in darkness see Christians walking in the light, the Spirit may prompt them to repent and walk in the light so that they too, by God’s grace, become light.
That, after all, is among the goals of the Christian walk. We walk in the light not just to honor God. Jesus’ friends also walk in the light so that the people around us may see our walk and praise not us, but the God whose Spirit animates our walk.
You might assume that you don’t need rules in order to walk properly. But you’d be wrong – at least when it comes to the Olympic sport that is race walking. In order to walk competitively, athletes must abide by a strict set of rules that judges enforced during the races.
According to Race Walking’s International Olympic Committee’s website, race walking differs from competitive running. While the best runners often have both feet off the ground, race walkers, by contrast, must always have at least one foot in visible contact with the ground. Judges can deem any loss of such contact to be “lifting” and penalize it.
What’s more, a race walker’s knee of his or her forward leg must never bend and must straighten each time his or her body passes over it. Judges can, in fact, penalize any race walker who bends his or her knee in the course of a race. If three different judges, including the chief judge, warn a race walker, the athlete is disqualified.
These rules lead to what is arguably the most comical gait on the face of the planet. In fact, you might argue that what race walkers do in the course of a race hardly even looks like walking at all. It, instead, sometimes look like a procession of men and women who are trying to imitate waddling ducks.
Christians’ walk also may look distinctively odd to a culture that walks in entirely different ways. After all, rather than conforming to society’s ways of walking, Paul summons Jesus’ friends to follow Jesus not just toward the cross and empty tomb, but also in the way Jesus fully loved both God and his neighbors.
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