We continue hearing Ephesians from lectern and pulpit. Paul in prison, Pastor Paul to the Ephesians, missionary or apostle Paul to the surrounding areas, and he is talking to them through the letter probably first read out and elaborated upon by Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21) but which over the centuries is now read by countless voices, in countless accents reminding the Church with its 2,000 years of history that seems to involve increasing fractures and fragmentation of the truth that the Church of Jesus Christ is one – that God continues to call people from death to life in and through Christ – and that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all and through the gifts of the spoken Word, God continues to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify the whole Christian Church on Earth. How’s that for a summary of the first three and a half chapters of Ephesians?!
Remember he is writing to the first and maybe second generation Christians – Gentiles and Jews – who are coming to grips with what it means that they’re in the same room – and for the Gentiles more so, I think, unlearning a lot of ways of reacting and behaving as they follow Jesus instead. Roman society – like all places had its jungle qualities – the survival of the fittest stuff to get by in the market place, in politics, in relationships whereby people gather together and make strategic alliances because we all know that we need others to live well and to minimise the damage when attacked – before we’ve attacked them. People also followed religions and philosophies to give meaning in their lives. The Roman gods tended to be humans-in-clouds-on-steroids – just bigger and nastier versions of us and like the world does with all its gods, the Gentiles tried to placate them and get them to serve us. There was philosophy too – presenting particular world-views about humanity, emotions, reason, pleasure and then seeking to consistently follow through in living according to a world-view. So Stoicism or Epicureanism spoke to people’s identities, emotions, and behaviour. The Gentiles addressed in Ephesians were a potpourri of views and behavioural norms from their childhood bonded together only because of Jesus.
And they were bonded also with Jews. How strange was that?! And with Judaism with its framework more in keeping with a religious worldview – ethics and behaviour follow God and not the society or the laws of the land – so they could tend towards theocracy on one side or being strangers in a foreign land on the other. What the Jews who became Christians had to deal with was that Jesus was the Messiah – which could be incorporated into Judaism – but that the God of Israel who was definitely one was now revealed in the person of his Son, Jesus, who could only be described appropriately as Lord (which equals for Jews, the God of Israel) meant that in essence 2=1 for with Jesus there was something new – the old was passing away – the new covenant was here and enacted at each Baptism and Lord’s Supper – and all this could not be incorporated into Judaism. And so the Jews side by side with the Gentiles in these new communities were dealing with lots of stuff – this perspective of being alien was probably something more alien to the Gentiles who were used to being part of the society and culture – but the disciples of Jesus always discover – as 21st century Christians in the West seem to be discovering more and more – that this world is not our home but it is the home we have for now and we’re here to serve.
For these early Christians there was a movement from old to new – the old ways of believing and behaving were being transformed to new ways. This was declaratory – God’s action in making all things new – those in Christ are new creations (only God can create according to the biblical landscape – we might procreate or manufacture) and this new life is real but hidden – maybe occasionally spotted by others but rarely if ever spotted in ourselves by ourselves – for we live by faith in God’s Word that he has done what he said he did. And thus there is a second movement from old to new – the behavioural (the intentional and the unintentional), the attitudinal, the choices we make which is never a perfect process or science but one marked by repentance and seeking to be obedient to Jesus. This is the Christian’s response in faith where the newness of and in Christ is lived out in new ways. For the world Jesus is just another lifestyle guru or worldview or philosophy – and yes Christianity looks in many ways like other religions in the supermarket of religions but the difference those first Christians discovered was that Jesus was not absent from them but present with them through word and sacraments. These Christians discovered that they were not blind people stumbling in the dark – more on that next Sunday – hoping they were on the right path – but that God had stepped into their lives, into the world, had revealed himself so they didn’t have to guess about God as they discovered the mystery and that God now gives his life to us. Their old lives would never be the same again.
And now Paul picks up some practical points about that – and the intention is clear – we can understand what he is saying without huge commentaries – except at times to correct what the Church had said about what was clear in the first place or make application today.
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:1-17 – 5:2 ESV)
The broad brush strokes are clear. Walking is an image, allusion, metaphor for living – appropriate in talking about discipleship in the ‘learning by doing’ school of Jesus. And Paul’s criticism of the Gentile world – or really the Gentile mind – is that it is futile, unenlightened, ignorant and devoid of God – surprising when you consider the pantheons of gods around – and so such living is marked by sensuality, pushing the boundaries, searching for new highs, defining life on their own terms. (Sound familiar?) Living always has effects – just think about eating and drinking – and it is the same with what we see and hear and meditate upon – and as such this Gentile lifestyle produces hardness and callousness as life is slowly snuffed out.
Paul reminds those who hear him that it is different with Jesus. Jesus is not the latest fad that will be upgraded at some stage but with him you have God – God’s holiness and righteousness. So God speaks to us – to our minds, our identities and declares us his children – created now after his likeness – and that is how we live.
What Paul says is clear. No falsehood – speak the truth. No corrupting talk, no pulling down. No grieving the Holy Spirit by being nonchalant about sin and especially by pushing Jesus away when discipleship is difficult. Let there be no bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, clamour, and any malice and instead be kind and tender hearted and forgiving.
Did you note that he doesn’t say no anger but rather if you’re going to be angry do not sin and since we don’t do anger well because of our sin, anger is not something to avoid – a Christian mustn’t get angry – but rather controlled so that it actually is in service to others rather than seeking our best interests and the destruction of the cause of our anger. Since anger is our choice, we are to deal with it quickly – in one day – for the sunset is a new day in Jewish thinking and we’re not to be found still nursing our anger. As a pastor who served many years in PNG once said, ‘Those who keep their anger in a crock-pot – a very slow cooking pot – are only inviting the devil to dinner’ (Strelan,1981, Ephesians: 62).
Is Paul realistic? Practical? Some people have suggested that it is hard enough to live like this in the Church but it is impossible in the world. There is so much greed and anger around because in this world, they largely work – you have to roar and grab what you want in this world, otherwise you won’t get anything – you’ll be a beggar. I can imagine the Gentiles especially hearing this and really wondering what will become of them if they follow this Jesus.
And Paul leaves them and us in no doubt – use your head – you’re not victims in this world for you make choices each day and so therefore be imitators of God. That’s not new! Which God?! That’s always the question!
But following Jesus involves walking in love – no longer looking out or roaring for ourselves – but living for others each day – working out what is best for them – using our brain – and then trying to do it. Life is messy – people behave around us in all sorts of ways – for good and not – but the follower of Jesus will do what Paul describes in these verses – will try and do them! – knowing full well that if the world can take advantage, it will – but we will still follow Jesus in how we live.
Such a lifestyle is marked by one thing the world at times does notice – especially the ultimate version of it – but because life is cheap and masses of people are – and still today – just seen and treated as fodder so that the idea of someone willing to sacrifice – I’m not talking death first up – but to live for the other in each relationship, each day – not with a glum face but with love and, dare I say, joy is a sweet momentary fragrance in a world decaying with death and selfishness. We live in this world now as aliens – people loved by God in Christ. We live not with one eye on our escape but fully focused on the here and now and the people around us – so that only Jesus’ spectacular return will get us to look away – for until then, the people around us are meeting Jesus through us and learning of sin (ours and theirs) and of grace (Jesus and his sacrifice).
- Ephesians 4:17 - 5:2