In his multi-chapter lead-up to this morning’s lesson, the apostle Paul employs breathtaking language to explain first to the Ephesians and now to us God’s plan of salvation.
God firmly intends, Paul writes, “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under Christ” (1:10). Heaven’s plan begins with God saving humanity “by grace … through faith” (2:8), but the Lord is not content to leave it at that.
God in Christ also intends to unite Jew and Gentile – insider and outsider, friend and foe, creating, in Jesus, “one new person out of the two, thus making peace,” and letting the Cross of Jesus put to death the hostility that separates us from ourselves (2:15-16). All of that uniting ultimately aims to use the Body – the Church – to display God’s wisdom in the fullness of lush variety (3:10).
Over the high-flying course of his first three chapters of correspondence, Paul soars deep into outer space to provide a dazzling account of what God is up to in Jesus Christ. Now it’s time to come back down to earth and explain exactly what God’s cosmic plan means for you and me as we together walk the mean streets of our communities. The rubber of faith and belief is meeting the road of everyday life and living – in Paul’s vision, a transformation point where we shed the skins of our old selves and put on new, more divine selves in Christ.
What we’ll be hearing shortly is Paul’s devastating critique of godless living. But Paul’s words compose no mere checklist of moral demand that only drives despair, because you cannot follow its litany of strict demand. Nor are Paul’s words a simple formula for self-righteousness that you cook up by checking off each item on his recipe.
Instead, if we pay careful heed to Paul’s understanding, we become empowered to nourish one another in living Christian lifestyles that witness to the effectiveness of grace, as God unites and reunites all things in Christ. Listen, then, for such amazing grace, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who plays a key role in all this, too, as we drop into mid-chapter four of Paul’s letter to the ancient church at Ephesus.
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 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.
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. (Ephesians 4:17-5:2)
Poll after poll confirms that we Christians don’t live any differently than non-Christians, except that Christians are judgmental, narrow-minded, and bigoted – or at least that’s how non-Christians perceive you and me.
Paul offers several opportunities for you and me to change those perceptions. Notice, in particular, the behaviors to which Paul points as he begins platting out street-level living: speech, anger, and stealing.
Many of us grew up hearing the Church describe distinctively Christian living in much narrower terms: You don’t go to movies; you don’t dance, and you don’t play cards. Those restrictions, supposedly, are how you avoid living like non-Christians – in Paul’s language, living “as the Gentiles do.”
Now, in her defense, the Church had good reasons for compiling those checklists of morality. They intended to keep Christians separate from the world – from being lured and enticed into the darkness of sin. But sadly, it also leads us to think that, if we just don’t do those things, we are being good Christians. Paul, instead, drills down deeper and hits the bedrock of faith: Where you go and what you do for entertainment aren’t as important as how you talk, how you handle your anger, and how you deal with material things. Those metrics aren’t uniquely Christian, but Paul puts a distinctively Christian spin on each behavior.
For starters, we always must speak the truth, because we all belong to the Body. Speaking untruthfully destroys the trust that is so important to the unity of the Body of Christ and, by extension, to the unifying mission of God. Our speech must bestow grace upon those who are listening – part and parcel of God’s work of grace in the world.
We always must speak the truth, and we always must manage our anger. Letting it simmer and fester day after day gives evil a foothold on our lives and lets the devil coerce us into his divisive campaign. Or, in more positive terms, if you deal with anger properly, if you rid yourself of anger in all its broken forms, and if instead you learn to forgive, then you are modeling – imitating – the work of God in Christ.
We always must speak the truth, and we always must manage our anger, and we always must avoid dishonesty – stealing! – and put our God-given gifts and talents to work not just to support ourselves and avoid being a drag on society but also so that we might have something to share with those in genuine need. Let the former thief become a community benefactor! Our approval ratings in the polls will soar if we Christians were known mostly for our benevolence and advocacy for the pale and downtrodden, and less so for our judgment and self-righteousness.
Reforming our behavior, as Paul suggests, shows non-Christians that living a uniquely Christian life as an intimate follower of Jesus is not life lived primarily in the negative.
In each command, Paul flips a negative into a positive – replacing falsehood with truth, substituting anger with forgiveness, reforming stealing with generosity, editing noxious talk with edifying speech.
Too often Christians are known for what we oppose, thus we come across as critical and disapproving – not that our world lacks for brokenness that must be named. But our lesson calls us to qualities and behaviors that are liberating and life-enhancing, even as it names the sin we must avoid. The bottom line is that God calls us to an alternative, counter-cultural lifestyle that focuses not primarily on law and rules but first and foremost always on love. “Be imitators of God, therefore, and live a life of love … .”
Uniquely Christian living – the “life of love” to which we are called – embodies a particular kind of love. It is not the erotic love of the bedroom, or the neighborly love of the kitchen table or coffee shop. Rather, it is a life that centers itself on the unconditional love that hung on the Cross! The Lord calls us not merely to be nice to people who like us, or who look like us, or to care only for those with whom we feel some bond of shared experience, but to give ourselves up for others – even those who have treated us shamefully or done us wrong.
How possibly do you make such a seemingly impossible sacrifice?
Only be keeping your focus on the One who made such a sacrifice for you on the Cross.
In the same way and measure as Jesus, you and I must be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as – in the same way and measure – God forgives us in Christ. And we must imitate God by living a “life of love” just as – in the same way and measure – Christ loves us and gave himself up for us.” Christian living that honors the name is primarily characterized by a love that forgives and sacrifices, even for those who haven’t done a blessed thing to deserve such grace.
Genuinely Christian living depends and centers on the work of Father, Son, and Spirit. We must do all these things “as dearly loved children,” who want to imitate their Father, as revealed in the Son, and driven by the Spirit. We do all these seemingly difficult and impossible things because the Holy Spirit is always at work within us.
Shunning the work of the Spirit grieves the Spirit. Her sadness arises from the reality that our bad behavior terminates our adoption as forgiven children of God in Christ! We must live at imitators of God in Christ, because of the vast investment that Father, Son, and Spirit have made and continue to make in us. When we stray, the Spirit weeps with sadness, just as human parents weep when their children stray from the path of joy and holiness.
So, when he calls to imitate our Father, Paul is calling us to walk around as our Father walks around.
Which recalls a picture I saw as a child every Sunday in the congregation of my youth. Among the fold was a family of nine – mom, dad, and seven kids. The father walked with a very strange and unusual gait – bent forward from the waist at a not-so-slight angle, head thrust even farther forward; arms hanging limp at his sides, never swinging when he walked. His legs were stiff – as another suggested, a bit like a giant blue heron gingerly picking its way across the shallows of a pond.
When this guy walked that way into Mass every Sunday, his wife and seven children marched in behind him – with exactly the same ungainly gait. Without even intending to, they walked in imitation of their father.
Let us be as intentional with our imitation, if we are to walk around with the graceful strides of our heavenly Father, his one and only Son, and their ever-moving Spirit.
Let us continue proving the pollsters wrong! Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, May 14, 2023, the sixth Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the fifth of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Stan Mast, and Pheme Perkins inform the message.