Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Ephesians 4:22-32; 5:1-2[1]
We are a people for whom connections play a significant role in life. There was a time when “connections” meant knowing the “right” people. I think, however, that a fundamental shift has taken place over the last couple of decades. Instead of knowing the right people, having the right connections is now a matter of technology. Now, it means that you have internet service in your home, and that you have a smart phone that is fast enough to do everything you do on a computer.  Unfortunately, I think these notions of having the right “connections” miss the point. What truly connects us are the ties we have to family, to friends, and to a community of faith like this one. But in order to appreciate how important these relationships are, we have to get outside our tendency to focus on ourselves and pay attention to our real connections.
I think this is the point of our Scripture lesson from Ephesians for today. St. Paul urges us to see to it that the change that has happened in our lives because of Christ actually makes a difference in the way we live. He tells us to “put away your former way of life,” and to “clothe yourselves with the new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24). This is a concept we’re familiar with. It lies at the heart of salvation. We who come to faith in Christ experience a complete transformation (cf. Rom. 12:2), so that we can be said to have become “new creatures” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). If we’re familiar with the concept, I’m not sure we’re aware of how far the Scriptures get personal with what it means. In fact, in our lesson for today, St. Paul gets right down into the nuts and bolts of our daily interactions with those around us—into the real connections of our lives.
The first “connection” Paul addresses is the way we speak to one another. It may seem naïve in a time when we use our words to manipulate others, but Paul insists that we must “stop telling lies”! (Eph. 4:25). He says that we are to be truthful with one another because “we all belong to each other.” It’s clear that one of the basic principles of being connected to one another in the body of Christ is that we are essentially truthful with one another.[2] Later in the passage he points out that we are to avoid “evil talk,” which traditionally has been related to cursing, but I think that limits what Paul had in mind. I like the way the Good News Bible puts it: “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you” (Eph 4:29 TEV). I think that’s the bottom line for Paul: because we’re connected to one another, we are to speak to one another in a way that will “do good.”
Another “connection” that Paul addresses is our work. It may seem strange for Paul to deal with so ordinary a topic as work, but how we go about our work makes a significant difference in our connection with one another. It’s unclear to me why Paul would introduce this topic with “thieves must give up stealing” (Eph. 4:28).[3] But one thing he makes clear to us is the intention of work. In a time when “laboring and working honestly with one’s own hands” was frowned upon by the elite, St. Paul set the example by doing that himself.[4] Perhaps equally as important is the motive he supplies for work. It is intended to be viewed as a means of “having something to share with the needy.” In other words, in the new life we have from Christ, our work is not merely supposed to provide for our needs and wants, but perhaps more importantly to contribute to the welfare of the others to whom we are vitally connected.
Finally, St. Paul deals with the topic of anger. He says, “Be angry but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).[5] To some of us, that may sound contradictory, because we’ve been taught that to be angry is to sin. Of course, that’s not the case. Anger is a normal part of life. But while it is human to get angry, we must beware the tendency for anger to turn into bitterness or even hatred.[6] When we let anger turn into a grudge, not only does it fester inside us, it also severs the connections that St. Paul says are essential to our new life in Christ. Instead we are called to practice forgiveness. St. Paul calls us to forgive one another because God has forgiven us in Christ. He calls us to replace anger with kindness is because we have been shown such great love and kindness. And so we are called to “be imitators of God” and to “live in love” (Eph. 5:1-2). The forgiveness and love that God has poured out into our lives is that which establishes the connections between us. Therefore we can do no less than to seek to live our new lives in this way.
Speaking truth. Working honestly. Healing anger with forgiveness and love. They may seem to be such ordinary topics. And yet, I think the Scriptures show us that salvation is so all-encompassing that there is no aspect of life that is left out.[7] Because these issues are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our lives, we are all going to bump into them, and others like them, as we seek to live out our new lives. And we’re not always going to make the right choices when it comes to the nuts and bolts of what that looks like. But the point of all this is not that God expects us to be able to live the Christian life perfectly. Rather the point is that we make the effort to become what the good news says we are[8]—new people who are freed from old ways to live a life that is truly human, truly joyful, truly loving.[9] One reason for this is that in this fabric of life we are deeply connected to one another.[10] It can be easy for us to miss that when we are attuned to ourselves. But the love we have been given by God calls us to live in such a way as to get outside ourselves and build up these real-life connections that truly matter in life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/9/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at http://hickmanpresbyterian.org/sermons.
[2] I don’t think Paul has in mind that we will be “brutally” honest with one another in this respect. Since the point is that we speak to one another in ways that will build up our connection, we must remember there is a time for speaking the plain truth, and a time to hold one’s tongue.
[3] His language seems to imply that some of the believers were actually stealing. It may seem unlikely, but then there are various forms of “stealing.” Most of us have probably been in a situation where a co-worker didn’t pull his or her weight (cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 432). In many cases the Bible also considers underpaying people for their work is a form of stealing. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:429, where she points out that the theme of the “reformed thief” was common in the moral writings of the time. But she suggests that the reference here may be to call believers to “provide for themselves and others rather than seek to live off the largess of wealthy patrons.”
[4] Cf. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB IX:432.
[5] Paul is apparently alluding to Psalm 4:4 “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.”
[6] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 61, where he recognizes that “be angry but do not sin” is potentially confusing; he says that the point is we may get angry at times, but that anger “should not become an obsession” but rather should be dealt with in a healthy way.
[7] Cf. especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-189, where he calls attention to several ways the new life changes our connections with one another 1) from an economic system that is built on “lethal tendencies” inherent in the exploitation of nature and humanity to one that exists in harmony with nature as God’s creation and makes it possible for all people to share in the wealth created by their labor; 2) from a political system that is built on the inequity of holding and exercising power over others to one that recognizes the “uninfringable dignity” of every person and upholds the “equal rights of all” without exception; 3) from a social system that is based on privilege in which self-justification by any and all means becomes a compulsion to suppress those who are “other” to one that is based on self-acceptance based on God’s acceptance of us all through Christ and therefore becomes a liberating recognition of all who are “other” as fellow human beings.
[8] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 55-56: “Christian ethics begins with the resurrection of Christ, and imperatives (do this, don’t do that) are grounded in the indicatives of what God in Christ has done for the world and is doing by sending his Spirit into the human scene.” He adds (p. 59) that the call is to “become in reality what in your baptism you professed to be.”
[9]Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 146, where he argues that “God’s will” for humankind is for our total “well-being”: “God’s will is a helpful, healing, liberating, saving will. God wills life, joy, freedom, peace, salvation, the final, great happiness of man: both of the individual and of mankind as a whole.”
[10] Cf. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:431: “Relations with others are central to the concrete examples of the new Christian way of life. False speech, anger, theft, bitterness, slander, and the like destroy relationships among human beings.”

No comments: