Thursday, April 03, 2014

Healing Light

Healing Light
Ephesians 5:8-14[1]
  Another popular misunderstanding about the Christian faith is that if you just give your heart to Jesus, then you will immediately find your life transformed.  To be sure, many people experience the release of surrendering  control of their lives into the hands of one whom they trust.  Many experience the euphoria of their new-found way of life and their new extended family of faith.  But, all too often, without proper guidance, many of these new believers cannot be found anywhere near a church within a year.  Sometimes less!  The truth of the Christian life is that lasting change takes place over time.  And despite stories of miraculous transformations, the reality is that it takes concerted effort for most of us to experience genuine change.[2]
  I’m not proposing here that finding the joy and peace and love of the new life is some kind of massive self-help project.  It always has been and always will be the work of God’s Spirit.[3]  But we do have to “work out our own salvation,” as confusing as that may sound to us.  I think at least part of what that means is that we have to do the kinds of things that make our hearts and minds available to God’s Spirit.  The changes that lead us to the joy and peace and love of God’s kingdom come as the result of a definite decision on our part to take a different direction in our lives.[4]
  I think that this is something of what St. Paul was trying to convey in his letter to the Ephesians.  Many of the Christians in that area had converted from the worship of local idols, and they were still surrounded by constant reminders of their former life.  Even the local Jewish Christians must have experienced the tension of being surrounded by vivid images that Caesar was “Lord,” or Zeus was “Lord.”  And so the Apostle was writing to teach them how to reinforce their new faith by making changes to their behavior (Eph. 4:17-24).  These changes were specific, including speaking truth, dealing with anger in healthy ways, doing honest work, avoiding slander and gossip, practicing kindness, and showing God’s love to one another (Eph. 4:25-5:2).[5] There was a lot about their former lives that was incompatible with their new faith.[6]
  I find it interesting that in our lesson for today, St. Paul tells them that the way they could make these changes was to expose their former way of living to the light of Christ.  He likens the promiscuity, depravity, and corruption of their former lives to living in darkness.  Using images from Easter, he speaks of the living Christ as a light that has shined upon them.[7]  And he observes that whenever the light shines on what is in the darkness, it reveals the true nature of what is going on, whether good or bad. 
  But more than that, Paul speaks of the light of Christ as a healing light, a light that effects change.  He says, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” and continues by saying, “everything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:13-14).  I think what he is saying is that when we open our hearts and our lives to the light of Christ, it changes us[8].  It transforms us from where ever we’ve come and from whatever we’ve been into people who reflect the very same light in our lives.[9]  And so Paul calls us all to open ourselves to the healing light of Christ.
  Part of how we do that is by moving our lives in a different direction.  We have to change how we respond to what comes our way if we want to change how we experience life. [10]  I think St. Paul was hinting at what he had said earlier about re-directing their behavior when he says that “the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:9).  It seems to me that “all that is good and right and true” is a pretty good summary of what the Christian life is about.[11]  If you want to know what changes God’s Spirit will make in your life when you turn to the healing light of Christ, I would say it will be “all that is good and right and true.”  That was the goal that St. Paul had for the converts he was encouraging.[12]
  I think his instructions for the Christian life still have value for us as well. There is much about our world that is different from St. Paul’s.  But there is also much that is very similar.  This world surely can feel like a dark place sometimes.  And it can seem like an impossible task for us to keep from succumbing to the darkness, or at least being deeply affected by it.  I think we need his words now more than ever.  If we want to live in an authentically Christian way, if we want to experience genuine change, if we want to learn to practice “all that is good and right and true,” then we too need to open our lives to the healing light of Christ.  When we do, it might be painful at first, as all healing is.  But the outcome will be joy and peace and love as we reflect his healing light in our lives.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/30/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, 151: “the phrase, ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’ says it well: When we repeatedly direct our minds toward thoughts and memories that evoke feelings of love (or safety or strength), the very structure of our brains is altered.’  This perspective is the basis of a whole field of scientific research into how the brain works, from the connections between our thoughts and our feelings and our bodies to how to retrain a person who is learning to use a prosthetic limb.  Cf. also Margaret M. Polski, Wired for Survival; and Norman Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself.
[3] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 41-42, “God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.  Only love effects true inner transformation, not duress, guilt, shunning, or social pressure.”  But as he later adds (p. 52), “it is a lot of work to get out of the way and allow that grace to fully operate and liberate”!  Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 65.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3:512-13, saying of the believer, “ What makes him a Christian is that he has a Lord who to his salvation will not leave him in peace but constantly summons him to wake up again.”
[5] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 60-61, where he attributes these new “down-to-earth behavior patterns” to “living in the network of new social relationships,” and more importantly to their “being-in-Christ,” or their “faith-union with Christ” (p. 58).  On the latter idea, see A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 327, where he says that the believers “have become identified with the light because of their identification with Christ.”
[6] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:437, where she recalls the “ridicule and abuse” suffered by new Christians in the Mediterranean world as described in 1 Peter 4:3-5.  She goes on to point out that while they are to dissociate from their former behaviors, they are nowhere instructed to dissociate from their former acquaintances. However, in contrast to the approach I am taking to the passage, she suggests that the “exposure” is to take place as Christians call out the behavior of those outside the church.  Cf. Similarly, Lincoln, Ephesians, 330.  This difference of interpretation is reflected in English translations: for the idea that the light transforms us, see the TEV: “anything that is clearly revealed becomes light” (cf. also TNIV, CEB, and ESV).  For the idea that the light exposes the deeds of others, see NLT: “And where your light shines, it will expose their evil deeds” (cf. also MSG, CSB, NIV, NIRV, CEV).  It seems to me that Paul’s focus in this passage is primarily on the effect the light has on believers, and so I opt for that interpretation despite the fact that there are many who take the other view.
[7] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 63, where he also points out that Eph. 5:14 is a reminder of baptism (which in the days of the early church was typically observed in connection with Easter).  Cf. also Lincoln, Ephesians, 326, 332.
[8] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 39, “you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within.”
[9] Cf. Brach, Finding Refuge, 151; see also Tara Brach, “Opening the Gateway of Love,” The Huffington Post 12/3/2012; accessed at http://www.huffington While I would agree that we can change our outlook, our emotions, and even our lifestyle by focusing our attention on what we want to become, I would say there’s more than that going on in the mind of St. Paul (no pun intended!).
[10] Cf. Brach, Finding Refuge, 118, where she points out that our earliest hurts in life often shape our assumptions and experiences as adults.  She says, “As the saying goes, ‘Our memories are Velcro for painful experiences and Teflon for pleasant ones!’ We are very inclined toward building our core beliefs out of experiences of hurt and fear, and holding on to them (and the underlying fears) for dear life.”  Cf. also Tara Brach, “Loosening the Grip of Core and Limiting Beliefs,” The Huffington Post 11/29/2012; accessed at
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 62, “there are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating to life.  This is our real, de facto, and operative ‘truth,’ no matter whose theories or theologies we believe.”
[12] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 31, “the goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of all sin, which is not possible anyway ..., but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it.

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