Last Sunday I suggested that Paul’s words to the Ephesians about the practical living out of discipleship, of one’s union with Christ, in this world would be opening oneself to being victimised by the world. To no longer live as the world does – particularly as the Gentiles were used to with all their gods (the Jews at least had wandered from the true God) and no longer use words as the world does for one’s own end rather than for truth, or no longer use anger to manipulate and get our way, or no longer nurse bitterness, wrath, malice when things don’t go our way can seem naïve at best and simply dangerous at worst for the world will simply gobble you up if it gets the chance; it doesn’t care. To be truthful, use anger to build relationships, and to be kind and forgiving – to walk in love – will get you sacrificed – but then isn’t that what Jesus did? And that’s how we left things with the aroma of ‘a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ in our literary nostrils.
Today Paul has kept going – obviously he didn’t pause for a week in the letter – and our lectionary compilers have strangely, in my opinion, omitted three verses (Eph 5:3-5) which talk about our sexual ethics and behaviour and broadly speaking say ‘not as the world does’ for such behaviour whether mental, verbal, or behavioural are all aspects of idolatry. He doesn’t say ‘choose your God’ as such but talking to Christians he is saying ‘walk wisely’ in this world. Switch your brain on in this world because Christianity isn’t about rules for every occasion but choosing which relationship has priority in every occasion. That’s my summary – Paul put it this way …
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:6-21 ESV)
So having just spoken about sexual attitudes, speech, and behaviour without any detail Paul advises his hearers and later, readers, to not be deceived by empty words because the world is simply going to say outright or tease or mock such attitudes and behaviours and say simply ‘No’ or ‘Do what you want’ or ‘Do what you want as long as no one is hurt’ and where this behaviour or attitude or speech reflects leads us to be the ultimate judge of what we think is right then Paul calls this disobedience and Christians are not to be partners with the world.
Easier said than done, as we all know. And Christianity – as have other religions – has oscillated about how to live in this world when it opposes what one believes. History tells us that when we try and make the perfect community, a heaven on earth, a theocracy that they all end badly and become law driven and, at an extreme, cultic and death dealing. The other oscillation is the ‘who cares?’ one – it’s all too hard – go with
flow – tell everyone that God loves them and then get on with your own life. This has something to commend it – Paul never tells Christians to separate from the world – eg. he advised Christian spouses to stay with their non Christian spouse – but to allow them to leave if they don’t like the Christian ‘you’. But Paul never says that the world sets the agenda for living – that believing in Jesus but doing our own thing is ok. And James, in his letter, was more blunt – faith without works is dead.
So what Paul does is give us a picture to help us understand our situation. For at one time you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord (Ephesians 5:8a). He doesn’t say that you were in darkness but now you are in the light but you were darkness – away from God – but now you are light in the Lord. It is a powerful imagine, in my view, and certainly makes you a target for those who are darkness. You are seen and noted and again without precise definitions, lists, criteria but called to what is good, right, and true – taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness – again no precise definitions – but your very presence as light exposes what is dark.
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them (Ephesians 5:11) is not a call for Christians to police the world. Sadly in the history of the Church both God as the Cosmic Cop and Christians as the bobby on the beat is not unknown and has contributed to the legalism and hypocrisy today for which the Church is often accused. Christians are called to live to God’s glory and in service of those around us and that very action – that light is noticed in the dark. It isn’t about us going up to the darkness and pointing out you shouldn’t be doing that – where we’re in judgement on the world – rather it is about our following Jesus and the world – or some in the world taking note. It is about us seeing the evil in the world and not following but acting appropriately to alleviate or challenge evil and to help those who suffer because of it. My point is that Christians are called to follow Jesus – not with the accusing finger saying ‘Tut tut’ or ‘Bad, naughty world’ – and not following the world’s lead in the workshop, the boardroom, how to get a promotion, how to treat people who are different, etc. It is basically living when required against the peer pressure of the world in whatever situation you’re facing.
Can you sense how tiring that might become? How challenging? Lord, what do you want me to do? Paul knew that – that’s why he said ‘try and discern what is pleasing to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:10), ‘look carefully how you walk not as unwise but as wise’ (Ephesians 5:15), and ‘do not be foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is’ (Ephesians 5:17). When do I laugh with the crowd, when do I not? I like Sally, Julie, and Fatima – Lord, whom shall I ask out? Whom should I marry? Do I choose a job for the money I might make or the satisfaction I might receive? What do I do with a bully at work? At school? At home? In my marriage?
The same thing in all situations? By the way, these questions or variations on them and a lot more are what everyone asks – seeks advice for – looks for guidance on – and I’ve often wondered why Paul linked not getting drunk with wine – a type of debauchery – with instead being filled with the Spirit and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and giving thanks (Ephesians 5:18-20) and while I can’t prove it my guess is that the world looks for guidance among peers and a good place is the pub – since alcohol facilitates certain conversations – and in the Roman world there were numerous versions of retail outlets some of which had dining facilities which sold hot or cold food and various beverages – though the upper classes enjoyed these times much more in their homes – and Paul is calling the Christians to keep meeting together in their homes and halls, with and without meals, in worship (as we understand it for an hour or so) and in fellowship (such as our morning tea or after service fellowship but also Bible Study or home group – times where people can support and guide each other about the past week and the coming one).
And a key component of the difference between the world and the Church is thanksgiving. Yes, the world can be thankful for all sorts of things – usually when it goes their way – but the disciples of Jesus – the light in the Lord – have learnt to give thanks always and for everything – which is nonsense to the world by default – and something Christians themselves can struggle with.
Paul’s picture of light and darkness is similar to his picture in chapter 2 of death and life. Remember that the world is dead spiritually and needs to be made alive in Christ – and we can sense the parallel with darkness and light and that is why in all our discussion with the world, all the debates, all the argumentation the world brings against Christianity we remain focused on and pointing to the Light of the World – Jesus. The simple truth is that God loves us in Christ – and through Jesus’ death and resurrection – through his Word to us now and through Baptism and Holy Communion, he continues to come to us so that we may live. In our Ascension brochure we have Irenaeus’ oft repeated quote: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’ which is not a call to pop psychology or wish fulfilment but Irenaeus is referring to those alive in Christ – the Latin has the idea of being alive. God’s glory is that we live. Why? Because without Jesus, being physically alive doesn’t change the truth that humanity by nature is dead in its sins. A favourite verse for me is Jesus in John 10 talking about why he has come – ‘so that they [the sheep – us!] may have life and have it abundantly (v.10). Salvation is not about deciding a moral code or choosing a deity but is about becoming alive and seeing who has rescued you. Similarly with light – darkness cannot snuff it out – light pushes the darkness away, makes things visible. We see the cross to see God and non Christians see us to see God.
What they see are human beings alive – with all their sins but not glorying in them but rather struggling against them – not sour faced killjoys trying to rule each other but seeking to serve each other – and repenting again and again – with thanksgiving and, dare I say, joy for this God we follow isn’t punishing us for our sins – that’s what Jesus went through for us – but is walking with us and leaving us very much to choose how we live each day, how we behave. God’s grace never changes and that is why whether with shame for yet another sin, tears that life is tough, or joy that our cup runneth over, we learn to give thanks all the time and in all circumstances. And that’s something, in time, the world will notice.
- Ephesians 5:6 - 21