Second in series: “Postcards from Ephesus”
Last week we started our series, “Postcards from Ephesus” by recognizing the spiritual crossroad that exists at the intersection of heaven and earth that is manifest in Jesus Christ. We talked about the differences between living according to Jesus’ example compared to living in-step with contemporary culture. How different might the world be if everyone lived a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. We also realized that Paul is writing to Christian believers, to the church, to us – not unbelievers.
Today we continue to hear about the lives of the early Christians at Ephesus. Paul has more to say about the choices they make and how we should make our choices. It has me thinking about ethics – specifically, Christian ethics. Ethics is understood to be about the positive goals and directions we set for our lives. It is about the choices we make as we try to become good people and shape our lives into something worth living – a good life. For Christians, that effort cannot be separated from what we believe about God and about our relationship with God. Ethics – the choices we make – and our faith are linked together.
In theory, everyone tries to make choices that lead to a good life for them. The challenge is that people disagree about what it is that makes a “good life.” For the most part, people seek satisfying personal relationships with people who share similar interests. We want to build comfortable homes and secure futures for our families. We try to do good work and earn a good living to support this good life. Since this good life is relational, there is also an element of helping others to live good lives as well. Knowing that we have done things that made better lives for others, should be an important part of living a good life. Christian ethics is a complex topic for which there are no simple rules for living. It insists that we do not leave God out of the conversation when we discuss how we should live and treat others. Today’s postcard calls for a transformation of behavior; it leads us to discard our old nature and adopt a new way of life. This is really part of the covenant we make at our Baptism – to change our lives from what we were to what we will become.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Here we go again with this talk about “speaking truth”…Last week the postcard told us to “speak the truth in love” to one another, now he wants us to speak the truth to our neighbors. I believe that Paul’s point is that we need to speak the truth at all times because we are part of one another. When we do not speak truth to another person, it is the same thing as not being truthful with ourselves. Being Christian is about being in relationship. Without truth relationships fall apart. We cannot have authentic Christian community without speaking the truth.
It is not coincidental that this line is followed with:
“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Paul does not try to tell us that Christians never get angry; we do and sometimes it is appropriate. There should be anger against the effects of injustice and oppression, both inside and outside the church. We cannot read this as an excuse to be angry and certainly not as an excuse to feed and nurture anger. There is tension in these verses. We are called to speak the truth, but not to let whatever anger we experience linger and fester, because we belong to one another. When we are angry, do not let anger lead us into sin. New Testament professor the Rev. Dr. Brian Peterson suggests: “The church ought to be a place where the truth can be spoken: the difficult truths about our world and about ourselves, and the gracious truth about the God who has redeemed us. We are, however, very skilled in using a self-justifying excuse of ‘speaking the truth’ as a cover for our efforts to manipulate, retaliate, and tear down those with whom we disagree.” That sort of truth-speaking is simply lying in disguise.
It is hard to imagine the entire Body of Christ being able to stand together in truth and love, without anger and division. There is so much disagreement over what the truth really is. The church is segmented into denominations that split from one another so long ago that nobody even remembers what doctrine divided us in the first place. Too often, the things that separate us are of our own making, not God’s, and we cannot tell the difference. The tension between truth and anger, and between different faith communities, makes Paul’s vision of unity seem like a dream. We are in the midst of an ongoing process of becoming; it is a process that is not finished, but is actively going on.
There is tension also in the next set of behaviors: Thieves should give up stealing and go to work. I can’t imagine that anyone here would disagree with that statement. However, we need to understand what stands behind Paul’s message here. He is not arguing against thievery because it violates a Commandment, or because it is wrong, or because thieves will go to hell. Paul is concerned with a Christian community where authentic living is about everyone making their fair contribution. Christians should have jobs primarily so they can help those in need. Paul challenges us to imagine what it would be like if we made our decisions based not on whether choice A or B would bring me the best paycheck, the highest status, and the most comfortable life. Rather, which choice will allow me to serve those in need? Those are very different ways of looking at the same set of choices.
Paul goes on to tell us to think before we speak and be careful of what we choose to say. Word choice is very important for Christians because words can build up and they can destroy. We must beware of trying to sound like we think we are the smartest person in the room. We must always recognize that our words may not always be welcome and ours are not always the most authoritative words to be heard. “Two ears, one mouth” is still a good image to recall: “Listen twice as much as you speak.”
The postcard goes on to give us a laundry list of things we should do and things to avoid as we deal with one another. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Once again we are challenged to slough off old behaviors and practice new, better behaviors. It’s about transformation; about dying to our old self and being born anew into a better self. We need to hear Paul saying that negative behavior not only harms the one doing it, but it harms the Christian community. We cannot deny that close relationships,
in families and in faith communities, will involve missteps and hurt. That is why we are called to forgiveness. No meaningful relationship can function without forgiveness. Paul reminds us to forgive each other in the same that God has forgiven us. That is huge! Just imagine all that God has forgiven of you and then try to find something for which you have no forgiveness for another person. In all honesty you cannot.
The final note on our postcard is that we should be imitators of God. That sounds like a pretty tall order! “Imitating God” really means to focus on actions that grow out of God’s character. God’s gracious action is performed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our imitation of God, then, is to follow the example Jesus set for us. It is to really listen to the things Jesus taught and not try to re-frame Jesus based on what we want him to have said. The ethical behaviors that we encounter in today’s text are designed to help us be more like Jesus. Christian ethics is about making choices that reflect the timeless will of God. It is about taking action that grows out of God’s character. It is about realizing that God intended for us to live together in unity, even when that is inconvenient and uncomfortable. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.