There’s a story that most preachers have heard many times, and many of you may have heard too; one version goes like this: The brand new preacher was fresh out of school and beginning at her first congregation; she was enthusiastic and excited, and so was the church. Her first sermon was about the millions of people around the world who don’t know Jesus, who follow other religions or no religion, and wouldn’t their lives be better if they faithfully followed Christ. At the end of the service her church members were elated; they surrounded her, shook her hand, and hugged her, saying “What a fine preacher; what a great future we have.” Her second sermon referred to the millions of people in this country who are not people of faith, or who don’t know Jesus; wouldn’t their lives be better if they faithfully followed Christ. “Oh, what a fine preacher,” she heard afterward; “what a great future we have.” In her third sermon she commented on how some Christians of the past, or even in other churches today, have gotten some things wrong in their discipleship – the murderous Crusades of Europe, excesses of the 16th century Catholic Church, extremists who get a bit off-track; wouldn’t their lives be better if they faithfully followed Christ. “What a fine preacher; what a great future we have.”
In her fourth sermon, she noted that now that she had been in the community for a few weeks and gotten to know her congregation, she could identify a few things they might want to work in together on their discipleship: Does our conversation too often cross over into gossip? Are we giving as much money to support our church as we should? Are the businesses we run and at which we work polluting God’s creation? Do we show love to all the people around us, or just the ones we find easy to like? Wouldn’t our lives be better if we, the members of this church, more faithfully followed Christ?
After the service almost everyone exited by the side aisles, instead of coming to shake her hand. The few who did come to her didn’t make eye contact, and barely spoke. Small groups formed in the parking lot, speaking in whispers. The new pastor finally grabbed the chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee: “What’s going on? Did something happen?” “I’m afraid, young reverend,” he replied, “that today you got away from preachin’ . . . and went to meddlin’.”
“Meddlin’” – we’re not quite so fond of hearing about what’s expected of us as we are of some of Christianity’s other messages, are we? But as we get to the fourth of our four worship services working through the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians, we may find that the letter has turned from the kind of truths we most enjoy hearing to the ones some might call “meddlin.’”
Our first service, looking at Ephesians 1, included the good news that we have been adopted into God’s family, quote “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” “those who have obtained an inheritance,”; we like Biblical messages like that. Our second service, around Ephesians 2, related that it was through Jesus Christ that we who once were far away from God have now been brought near; through him we have peace proclaimed to us – we like messages like that. Our third service, from Ephesians 3, featured our being prayed for by the writer – I pray that you may be strengthened, and filled, and we like being prayed for.
But that only brings us to the halfway point of the letter, and I’m afraid the second half might strike our young preacher’s congregation as more along the lines of “meddlin’.” For now it turns to the subject of what would be an appropriate response, on our part, to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ: Now that we are recipients of God’s grace, of forgiveness, of eternal life, of peace . . . what is our part, our role, the expectations for us? How do we show our gratitude to God? What is our appropriate response?
It starts with the very first word of chapter 4, a word which will appear three times in our readings today. The word . . . is “therefore.” “Therefore” is a connecting word, of course; it links what has come before with what is coming next; “A” happened, so now “B” will happen. So when we see the word “therefore,” we ask “What are the pieces being connected?” What is the premise, and what is the conclusion? Or to put it another way: What is the “therefore”. . .
Well the preceding part is those good news messages we so much like to hear: we have been reconciled to God, in spite of our sin, by Jesus Christ; we are the recipients of the gift of grace. That’s the part which has already been stated. The conclusion, that which follows, will be the spelling out of how we are to respond. God has done all this for us, therefore. . . we respond, in gratitude, by doing the following. Now we are called to do. Will we follow through, given what we’ve just heard in chapters one through three?
Our attempt at responding with the right actions is called “ethics.” Ethics is the practice of determining and doing what’s right. What God has done for us calls for an ethical response. Markus Barth puts it this way: “The word ‘therefore’ emphasizes the logical dependence of ethical advice upon the preceding doctrinal statements . . . Ethics makes the gospel concrete.” In other words: as our response, it’s time to practice what we preach.
We will sample the ethics in the letter to the Ephesians today, not try to cover it all. The instructions we won’t get to today I encourage you to read at home, in chapters 4 through 6—just 3 pages. But as you read them, please do so thoughtfully. Here’s some guidelines which should help:
First, please read for instruction for yourself, for your life, not to find ammunition for telling someone else what to do. These words were not written to beat someone else over the head with; they were written to guide the readers’ response. So when you get to the section on husbands and wives, for example, if you’re a husband, focus on the part addressed to husbands – what are you instructed to do? – not on the part addressed to wives. And vice versa: wives concentrate on the part addressed to wives. Read for instruction for yourself.
Second, we read with the awareness that these words were written to a specific congregation nearly two thousand years ago. The writer wasn’t thinking, “Hm. How will this sound in 2018 United States of America?” There’s some help for us here, but the time frame also has to be taken into account. So when you get to the section addressed to slaves, for example, remember that the world was very different in the year 60 A.D. Don’t turn it into an endorsement of slavery today, the way nineteenth-century slave owners tried to do.
And third, as with all Scripture, we always always read verses in their contexts, in light of the verses around them, not one verse pulled out in isolation. This is a package deal. When I prepared a sermon several years ago, for example, on the Ephesians 5 passage which includes the words “wives, be subject to your husbands,” I drew a chart, I’m sure you remember, with three circles around the words. Each circle represented a Scriptural condition from surrounding Ephesians verses: you can only try to apply the “wives be subject” words if all three of the circles’ words are true. So the “wives be subject” words only come into play if these surrounding Ephesians passages are in effect: if the husband is also subjecting himself too, as Christ did for the church; if it is a relationship where the couple is practicing mutual subjection of their wishes for the good of the couple – see verse 21; and if it’s motivated by the practice of living in love, not by control, or selfishness, or anything else. Only if all those conditions are met should “wives be subject.” We read the instructions in their context.
Now, on the part we can cover here today: we will concentrate on chapter 4. The beginning of chapter 4 summarizes the intent of all that follows: “Therefore, I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” It is a life which includes “bearing with one another in love,” and a life which includes “making every effort.” Markus Barth defines three key phrases: “Lead a life” comes from a Greek word meaning “walk,” and it’s a particular kind of walk – not a casual stroll or a wandering about, but walking in a directed way in a fixed order, like when Israel marched under God’s guidance in the wilderness. “Lead a life” means “walk this way”; these are your marching orders.
“Bear with one another in love” (verse 2). “Love” here, as in many other places in the Bible, has to do with our actions, not with warm fuzzy feelings. Behave toward one another in a loving way, the way you treat yourself, regardless of how you’re feeling at the moment. “Love” is an action.
And “make every effort” (verse 3). This phrase has an urgency about it; it stands for haste, passion, and the full effort of the whole person – will, emotions, reason, physical strength, and total attitude. “Make every effort” leaves no room for passivity, no room for sitting back and saying “let’s wait and see.” Do it now! It says. Do it, now.
And what is the focus of what we are to “do, now”? What do we so urgently diligently do as our response? What are our ethics? How do we lead the right life? What’s the key?
The central focus may surprise us, given the way we often hear right and wrong discussed. The key to right and wrong does not have to do, according to this passage, with decisions involving sexual behavior, or use of alcohol or drugs, or bad language. Although we often hear discussions of ethics reduced to particular topics like that in conversations or on religious broadcasting, or maybe do it ourselves sometimes in the examples we give in group discussions, the essence of the right life as spelled out here is not about sexual practice, drugs and alcohol, bad words, or other traditional no-no’s. The key to our ethics, to the response God wants, according to the letter to the Ephesians, we find to our surprise . . . is unity.
Unity, within the body of Christ. Strengthening our connections with one another. Building each other up instead of knocking down. Affirming instead of criticizing. Treating each other in ways which will increase their desire to remain part of the group instead of think about leaving. Avoiding divisive statements. Unity. That’s what the writer singles out as most important in formulating a proper response to God! What God wants, as an expression of our gratitude for all which has been done for us, is that which promotes unity within the body of Christ. Hebrews 10:24 says, after all, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,” not just “let us provoke one another.” It’s about unity.
So for the rest of the chapter, we find an emphasis on unity, and most of the ethical instruction related to unity. Verses 4 through 6 describe our oneness: “there is one body and one Spirit . . . one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” We are all in this together, not meant to go our separate ways. When the diversity of our particular gifts is listed, in verses 11 and 12, they are all presented as being intended for one purpose. Some are pastors, some are teachers, some evangelists, and so on, but all to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ – one mission. When we get to verses 15 and 16, we find reminders of Paul’s famous example in First Corinthians: the human body has many parts, but they are all part of the one body. A foot cannot say “Because I am not a hand, I am not part of the body.” The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” All the parts are indispensable, and all part of one unified body. The key is building up the group, appreciating of one another.
When we get to specific behaviors, as in our second reading today, we are warned not to stay angry with each other. It’s good to get angry in certain circumstances, as when seeing someone being treated unfairly, but soon it’s time to move on to reconciliation, or at least to the point of no longer glaring, sniping, muttering, and shouting. Do not stay angry. Why? “Because we are members of one another.” When we find the word “truth” in verse 25 – “speak truth to our neighbors” – the word “truth” means not only not-lying but also witnessing to, and treating with love, and building each other up. That’s all part of the truth we have learned from Christ. When we get to verse 29 we find the phrase “evil talk” is not referring to certain nasty words, “cuss words,” we used to call them – but to talk which does not build up, encourage, affirm. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” That’s about strengthening the group, the church. When we get to a list of behaviors to avoid in verse thirty-one, the behaviors are bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice – all things which divide the body, all having to do with unity. Even the encouragement to work, in verse 28, is given the reason “so you can give to the needy” – so you can build up other members of the body. Our response, our ethics, is about strengthening the community.
Every section of this chapter outlining the proper response to God reminds us that the centerpiece of what God wants has to do with unity, with building each other up, with affirmation and encouragement, with avoiding divisions. That’s the response to God’s goodness which God wants
So our quests for personal perfection or personal salvation are misguided if they come at the expense of the unity of the congregation. Our attempts to get everyone to do things “the right way” are wrong if the effect is to criticize someone or drive them away. Continuous complaints which undermine a group effort are out of line once the group has chosen to proceed in a certain direction. The centerpiece of a proper response is unity.
And the summary of the instruction is found at the beginning of chapter 5: “Therefore” – there it is again – “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, even giving himself up for us.”
- We have been adopted into God’s family
- We who were once far away from God have now been brought near and granted peace, through Jesus Christ
- We are prayed for, that we may be strengthened and filled
- We respond.
And the way we respond is by making stronger the connections which hold us together, by building each other up, by committing ourselves to unity.
Let’s pray: God thank you for all you have done for us – your grace, your forgiveness, your love, your family of faith. Help us to respond gratefully, by leading lives pleasing to you, including committing ourselves to the unity of our church. Amen.