In Edinburgh, Scotland in the home of the Protestant leader John Knox, is a display of religious memorabilia. Among the items are tokens in the form of coins given to members of the church after they had been examined by the Elders to determine if they were pure enough to receive communion. Without passing the examination and without the tokens, members were denied the Bread and Wine.
A missionary returning from India tells of this experience: She was riding in a taxi in an Indian city when the cab was forced to come to a halt. A religious observance was taking place in the street. Men and women were crawling as an act of penitence and purification. The taxi driver turned to the Christian missionary and said, “It’s things like this that make me want to be a Christian. You see, it’s so much easier your way because nothing is required.”
These stories illustrate the two errors the church has made while seeking to have ethical integrity. On the one hand the church has at various times turned the gospel into another form of legalism and in the process has killed the Spirit. Legalism always results in self-righteousness which has no time or place for compassion.
On the other hand, the church has at other times watered down the demands of the gospel until the motto for all practical purposes is “Anything goes.” God’s grace is turned into cheap grace which demands nothing of those who profess Christ.
How do we maneuver ourselves through the turbulent waters of legalism on the one hand and “to each his own” on the other? How can we make a difference in our world that is not legalistic and which reflects the truth of God and our calling in Christ? I believe we might find some help in our passage for today.
In these verses Paul offers some moral teachings which seem on the surface rather tame–the kind of advice we might read in secular form in Poor Richard’s Almanac or in Ann Landers or even in a fortune cookie. But a closer look reveals an ethic with a twist, and that twist is what makes Christian living special, graced-filled, and righteous without being self-righteous.
Our passage begins with a Greek word that means “therefore”/”for that reason.” Well, what is that reason? What is the basis for Paul’s ethic? The basis for Paul’s ethic is the overall message of Ephesians. The first half of this letter affirms and celebrates God’s gracious purpose in Jesus Christ, and that purpose is the creation of a new humanity in which all the divisions held precious by the world are demolished by a volley of God’s sacrificial love. Throughout this letter God’s lavish love and astonishing grace are praised in eloquent doxology. Any legitimate Christian ethic must flow from and reflect this gracious purpose of reconciling love found in Jesus Christ. It is because God loves us that Paul is able to speak of our response to that love through lives of obedient trust. That is the overall context for Paul’s ethical teaching.
But the specific context for his teaching is found in the verses immediately preceding our passage for today. In these verses Paul contrasts the lifestyle of the surrounding culture of his day with the lifestyle embodied and taught by Jesus. This lifestyle to which we are called is an alternative, qualitatively different lifestyle from that of those untouched by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Paul says we are to put off the old nature of the life that did not belong to Christ and to put on the new nature of Christian discipleship. Here Paul is referring to the image of baptism–when old garments are set aside and new clothes of righteousness are put on as we die to the old and are raised to walk in the newness of life provided by Jesus. Anything Paul has to say about Christian living stems from this fundamental change in the Christian’s life.
Space will not allow us to look at all the ethical injunctions of this passage, so we shall concentrate on two of his teachings. But I assure you that the twist we find in these two teachings can be found in every verse in this passage.
In verse 25, Paul says, “As we put away falsehood, let us speak the truth with our neighbor, for we are members one of another. We belong together.” Now what is at stake here is not just the temptation of stretching the truth or telling little white lies. In the previous verses Paul has said that the surrounding culture from⋅which this new humanity has come is not known for its honesty. In fact, it maintains itself by perpetuating a gigantic hoax. It has a dark understanding of this world which allows for the greedy, callous, and perverse manipulation of others. The big lie by which our world operates is the denial of God as its ultimate source and allegiance and the denial of others as children of God and therefore brothers and sisters of one another. Only by such a lie can the world exploit, oppress, abuse, and mar some so that others may be elevated and saturated with wealth, glory and status. Only by such a lie could the divisions which so painfully divide us be sustained. Only by such a lie can we allow ourselves to believe we are answerable to every principality and power but the eternal God. And only by such a lie can we pretend that the emperor, naked as a jay bird (as people say in the South), is fully clothed and in his right mind.
So Paul says if we have been baptized into Christ–if we are new creations –if we are a part of the new humanity God is forming in Jesus, then we don’t have to live the lie. We don’t have to partake of its deceit, its intentional blindness, its selective deafness. We are free to speak the truth and live the truth because only the truth spoken in love can reveal our fundamental connection in the heart of God and set us and others free.
In verse 28, Paul calls for the thief to stop stealing and to work with his hands for the good. Now that sounds like a line from Poor Richard’s Almanac–“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Don’t steal. Work! “Amen,” we would say. “Amen,” Archie Bunker would say. “Amen,” say the politicians who are more interested in making millionaires into billionaires than they are in feeding children. But then comes the kicker–the twist that makes this injunction specifically Christian. Why should the thief stop stealing and work with his or her hands for the good? To become a contributing and productive member of society? No. To feed the economy so our GNP can grow? No. To impress his or her neighbors? No. To build up a bank account and become successful? No. The thief should stop stealing and work with his hands for the good so that he might share his income with those in need.
And here Archie Bunker’s “Amen” is withdrawn. Here the politician’s “Amen” is withdrawn. And perhaps so is our own. We are to labor honestly and for the good so that we might share with our brothers and sisters in their time of need. Why? Because once again, contrary to the big lie embraced and lived by our world, we belong to one another.
Paul sums up his ethical teachings at the end of chapter 4. He exhorts us to don the clothes of righteousness sealed by our baptism and made available through Jesus’ sacrificial love. We are to put on kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. Why? Because God has been so inclined toward us and because we are members one of the other. In short, Paul says we are to imitate God—we are to embody the sacrificial love, the uncommon forgiveness, and the commitment to truth revealed in God’s Son.
Horace Greeley (19th century editor of the N.Y. Tribune) once received a letter from a woman who wrote of difficulties within her church revolving around poor attendance and financial woes. She recounted with desperation all the steps that had been taken to help ease these problems. The church had tried strawberry festivals, oyster suppers, a donkey party (whatever that was), a turkey party, raffles, young/old/controversial/non-controversial ministers – you name it, they had tried it. She pleaded, “Will you please tell us, Dr. Greeley, how to save and keep a struggling church from disbanding?” Greeley replied with only two words: “Try Christianity.”
Ephesians was written to give the church a dynamic sense of identity and purpose. Within our text for today, Paul has touched on the practical consequences of the essence of our faith–the difference we should embrace and embody in our world. A church that really “tries Christianity” may not have the largest attendance or biggest bank account or the most sophisticated of members. And as it seeks to live the truth in the midst of the big lie, it may not avoid controversy or perhaps even persecution. But such a church will be the people of God. And rather than being one more disappointment to God, such a fellowship will join Christ in the reconciling and redeeming work of the gospel. For the sake of a world lost in the big lie–for the sake of God–and for the sake of our own integrity as disciples of Christ, let us try an ethic with a twist–let’s try Christianity.
Gracious God, in Christ we are a new creation. The old nature we have sloughed off, the new nature we have entered through our birth into Christ Jesus. We are a new creation–but the old nature still haunts us. Tendencies toward pride, greed, malice, violence, despair, apathy, and cowardice and acquiescence before evil–they all still frequent companions in the secret places of our hearts. And they still bear bitter fruit in our lives and relationships. We are an odd mixture of the old and the new–of apathy and love–of hostility and compassion–of prejudice and understanding. And at times we wonder which nature has the upper hand–which nature is the real me–which nature will win out in the end. Much too often we find that our biggest enemy is ourselves.
O God, first remind us of the eternal foundation for the Gospel we proclaim and embrace–that what is most important is not who we say, think, or feel we are but who you say we are in Christ Jesus. We are yours–the good, the bad, and the ugly of our lives. In our weakness, you show your strength –in our struggles, you reveal your eternal truths which are always more than our feeble minds can ever understand–in our stumblings, you repeatedly uncover for us the Rock of Ages upon which we can stand even with knees shaking and hearts quivering–in our sins, you offer your forgiveness and grace with the ever-present possibility that by such opportunities of being found and loved we may find our places, untainted by pride or humiliation in your eternal family.
O God, help us to define ourselves most by your sacrificial love for us–for each of us—and for all of us. Only then can we respond to your grace with obedient trust–only then can your righteousness become incarnate in our lives–only then can we be changed from one degree of glory into another in the likeness of your Son.
So gracious God, we thank you that though we do not know who we really are–old or new, sinner or saint, lost or found–you know. And you have called each of us by name and through your endless compassion have embraced us to walk in the newness of life. Help us to trust your grace–to hear your calling of our names. And having immersed ourselves in the spiritual waters of baptism, may we live from the inside out–from your presence to our faithfulness– from your grace to our obedience–from your love to our trust as we anticipate through our own experience the new heaven and new earth by which all things will be made new.
Mindful of that final healing and redemption of your creation we pray for all who are need of what only you can provide. Keep them in your love–help them to trust your grace–and inspire us to words of truth and deeds of compassion as your ministers of healing, reconciliation, and wholeness–as your harbingers of the splendor of your new creation. Through Chris our Lord–the Alpha and the Omega of our existence–we pray. Amen.