Sometimes people think Christianity is real complex and mysterious and you have to work really hard to understand it and know what is expected of you. Today’s passage from Ephesians is proof that Christianity is actually so easy a caveman can do it. Easy is the wrong word, of course, used for the purpose of mimicking the popular advertisement. Change it to Christianity is so simple a caveman can understand it.
And because it is simple and straightforward, our tendency is to read a passage like today’s quickly and keep moving to get to some passage that will really challenge us adequately, like trying to understand what role Jewish purification rituals should play in our lives today. We really would prefer to have to perform the twelve labors of Hercules in order to prove that we are Christians than try to take the teachings in today’s passage seriously.
It is like Naaman in the Old Testament, the Syrian general who had leprosy and came to the prophet Elisha in Israel because he had heard he could heal. He brought letters of recommendation from the king and carts full of stuff to pay for the healing. Elisha didn’t even come out to see him, just sent a message for him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and the leprosy would be gone. This wasn’t what Naaman expected, and he didn’t like it. He thought Elisha would come out and go through an elaborate ceremony, wave his hands, pray exuberantly and long, maybe dance. But he told him to go down to the river and wash. So easy a caveman can do it. He was so angry he was ready to go home until his servant calmed him down and asked him what it could hurt to try. He did and was healed.
If you were asked to write down a code of behavior for Christians you could come up with what Paul has in this passage. Carl Holloday says that these teachings are “most striking for their practicality and concreteness.” But he hastens to add, “The preacher should not blithely assume, however, that the Christians to whom he or she speaks have mastered even these seemingly elementary principles of the faith.” (Preaching the New Common Lectionary, Year B, p. 127). Nor, might I add, should the congregation assume that the preacher has mastered them.
How can things that sound so simple and obvious and even easy in theory become so hard to put into practice when we get caught up in our everyday lives? It is because we are human and are surrounded by lots of other humans, we are still prone to sinfulness, and we still view the things that happen from our own selfish viewpoint. That was true of Paul, the author of these words, too. In another letter, this one to the Romans, he wrote these anguished words: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but the law of sin is at war within me and holds me captive. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:21-24)
Paul gives credit to God through Jesus Christ for rescuing him. But the rescue is a life-long process, not a moment in time after which we are no longer plagued with sinful natures. It is a life-long battle, and it is a battle that many people around us are not even concerned about fighting. So we have to remind ourselves regularly through reading Scriptures like this, and we need to surround ourselves with a community of people who are also trying to live by this calling. Doing so builds in support and accountability.
Next Sunday will be an important Sunday as we mark the beginning of a new school year with kicking off a lot of new and renewed activities. The handout you got this morning lists many of those and tells you how you can participate in them. Having a group to be a part of such as a Sunday School class is one of the best ways to surround yourself with a community of support and accountability. It gives you an opportunity to gather with fellow pilgrims each week to look at an alternative reality to that which we face every day on CNN and from Hollywood and Wall Street and from school and the work place. We can struggle together with what it means to love our enemies, to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, to be forgiven and called to forgive others. We have a lot of Sunday School classes, and all of them would welcome you. If you need help deciding on one or two to try, Amy and Carrie will be available in the Sunday School areas next Sunday to point you in the right direction, or call one of us during the week. When you are battling sin and human nature and the prevailing culture, you need all the help and positive reinforcement you can get, no matter your age.
Now – back to the Scripture reading. Let’s be reminded together of the way we are called to live as Christians. I am going to group some of Paul’s teachings together and hit some high points from the passage.
The first area has to do with our mouths, which is appropriate. How much misery we bring on ourselves with the things we say or do not say! The letter of James says the tongue is a fire that starts blazes and no person can tame it.
Paul has several pieces of advice here. The first is to tell the truth rather than what is false. So easy a caveman can do it, yet it is one of the first things our parents try to teach us and we are still struggling with it when we die. Within families and communities, not telling the truth has the power to destroy relationships and trust. And not telling the truth to outsiders is a reflection on the whole of the Christian faith, the church, and every Christian.
Next, Paul urges us not to let evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up other people and relationships. Again, let’s go back to early childhood, with Mom exhorting us that if we don’t have anything good to say we shouldn’t say anything at all. We all need a little bird on our shoulders that everytime we start complaining, criticizing, or gossiping would start singing. Paul is addressing these words to the Christian community. Surely within the church we could treat each other with kindness and consideration, right? No, the world of Christians is as bad if not worse than any other aspect of the world. Christians or denominations on different sides of issues talk at and about each other as though the other side was the devil incarnate.
Paul’s final word on the subject is a fitting one for Christians to keep in mind every time we get ready to open our mouths. He says, “Let your words give grace to those who hear.” Let the words that come out of your mouth communicate grace to all who hear them. What exactly is grace? The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible defines grace as “God’s unmerited free, spontaneous love for sinful people, revealed and made effective in Jesus Christ.” May we always weigh our words on this scale before we let them loose!
The second major area Paul talks about is another huge one for us – dealing appropriately with anger. He does not give us a “one size fits all” solution for anger, but gives some helpful suggestions.
“Be angry, but do not sin,” Paul says. There are things worth getting angry about, and even Jesus did. So the key is to channel the anger into appropriate and helpful channels, rather than destructive ones. There is a fine line to learn to walk to be angry without sinning, but it is important.
Paul adds, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Anger that is not dealt with and resolved creates distance and resentment in a relationship. This makes room for the devil, who fertilizes that growing distance and resentment and makes the relationship fester until it is poisoned. This all happens under the surface of things so you may not fully realize it is going on until the relationship is dead or at least seems to be. Each day you hold on to anger without resolving it makes it much more difficult to overcome it because the emotional damage becomes so severe. So if there is an old or new chasm in your life resulting from anger, I hope you will resolve today that you are going to do what you can to deal with it.
A third piece of advice Paul gives to the Christian community is that thieves should quit stealing and start doing honest work so that they will have something to share with the needy. It is informative that the primary motivation Paul gives for going to work is so that you will be able to give to help others. Not in order to help the economy or preserve the free enterprise system or pay taxes, but in order to be able to give to the needy. Paul wants us to move from being “takers” to being “givers.” We need to give as well as receive in order to be healthy and have a healthy community.
Finally, Paul gives two contrasting lists. First, a list of things to remove from our lives, and then a list of things to replace those with. What does he tell us to get rid of? Bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. That’s a no brainer, right? So easy a caveman can do it. Do you like being around people who are bitter or angry or mean or unscrupulous or gossipy? Of course not! So don’t be one!
Replace those things with these qualities: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Another no brainer, right? So easy a caveman could come up with it. Do you like being around people who are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving? Of course you do! So be like that! In this way your life as well as your words become a constant expression of grace. You will be a happier person, more content, and will be a blessing to everyone you come in contact with, which in turn will motivate others to want to be a blessing to you.
In summary, Paul closes his exhortation with these words: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Amen! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
David J. Bailey
August 9, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church