Last week we started reading this letter to the Ephesians beginning with chapter 4, and so I thought I would go ahead and continue reading it. I love this letter; I’m pretty sure I preach on it more than any other book in the bible, and the reason I love it is because it very clearly outlines how to manage the most important thing we have in life – our relationships. When you think about it, right relationship is at the very heart of the biblical message – beginning with our relationship with God, and then our relationships with each other. Jesus made it crystal clear when he was asked what the most important commandment was and he answered love of God and love of neighbor; on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Now remember, Jesus was well known for answering questions with questions or parables, but this is one question where he did not hesitate. He responded clearly and succinctly – love of God, love of neighbor… it’s what every single word in the bible revolves around and points directly to.
By the time the letter to the Ephesians was written, a lot of water had passed under the bridge since the time of Jesus. This letter was written primarily to Gentile converts brought on board by Paul, although many people no longer believe that Paul was the author, but rather someone writing in his name. Regardless of who penned the letter, when it was written it was intended to address specific problems that were starting to arise among the early Christians; human problems such as anger and stealing, and cheating and lying. Both Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, pagans and merchants were all trying to come together and live together, and it was causing a strain. Jesus had told people what to do, but the how of it wasn’t nearly as clear – especially among such a diverse group of people. So this letter was written in the form of a call to the earliest members of the church to make the life of faith real and practical, so that when the world looks at us—when the world looks in our direction—they see compelling and irrefutable evidence that we live our lives to a different standard; that God is at work in and among us in powerful ways.
Well I don’t know how successful the early Christians were, but I know for a fact there are some Christians today who still have a long way to go with all that. Have you ever encountered road rage? In St. Louis you see it all the time, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen one of those Christian fish symbols attached to the bumper of the one acting out in rage. And the worst part, after the danger has passed, is the message that it sends to those who are already skeptical about the church. Because like it or not, that fish symbol is attached to all of us, just like any bumper sticker that says anything at all about God or Jesus or the church. Have you ever seen Christian protesters at an abortion clinic, or the Westboro Baptist church protesting at a funeral? It’s the same thing. What the world sees are Christians spewing hatred. They don’t know that the protesters are not of our denomination; they have no idea that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations that all think and act differently. When the world looks in the direction of just one Christian, whoever that might be, they see all Christians; and while that might be compelling and irrefutable evidence that Christians live by a different standard, those looking are wondering who’s standard and thinking surely not Christ’s.
I have to be honest and confess that sometimes I am completely amazed that our faith has even survived all these years. For most of its history, the community of Christ has been messy and difficult, full of different perspectives and different approaches, and definitely not always the most comfortable community in which to function. But despite its messiness, despite its contradictions and difficulties, we’re still here…seeking, probing and aspiring to a higher purpose – and we are still doing it together. It is an intriguing puzzle because – like the early Christians – we still flounder. We believe in the mystery of new life in Christ and we experience transformation because of our faith…we are willing to welcome everybody into our community of faith…but nevertheless, we need guidelines, a system, some rules so that we know how we are supposed to behave.
Today’s passage is very clear outline of what it looks like when God is at work in and among us. If we claim our identity in Christ, if we know ourselves as members of Christ’s body, then we can’t be at war with each other. We can’t be at war either openly or secretly. If we truly belong to one another and to the Body of Christ, then we can’t hurt one another with angry words and actions; we can’t steal from each other – or anyone else. Because if we do those things then we are doing them to the body of which we are a part. Acting out in anger means hurting ourselves.
Speak the truth in love; be angry when you should be angry, but don’t hurt one another; don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, work for the things that you need and then share what you have with others who don’t have enough. Keep track of what comes out of your mouth to make sure that the words you speak build up the community of faith and give grace to those who hear. Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice . . . and be kind to one another, always forgiving each other. Here are our guidelines; here are some rules that tell us exactly how to behave.
But we have to be careful, because being the humans we are, we have this tendency to use rules for assessing not only our own behavior but everyone else’s too. Some people can’t help but keep track of who’s making the cut of the Christian life and who’s not. Some people are just natural born enforcers.
Rules have their place, and guidelines are helpful, but at the end of the day, relationship with the divine is a mysterious gift that surpasses any imposed structure of behavior we might ever construct. Rules lead to more rules to fix the problems created from the first set of rules. That’s why our legal system is such a mess. But living a life of faith within the community of Christ is mysterious, transformational, miraculous, even. Our relationship with God is not about imposing rules; it’s about looking around at the evidence in your life and in my life that God is well at work in and among us.
Whenever I need a good example of God at work in and among us I always think of summer camp where the first order of business was always to create a camp covenant. A covenant is similar to rules because it offers the guidelines that are needed to keep order in a community of people, but it’s different from rules because it transcends personal interest. The covenant is for the greater good of the community, and outside of that, there really were no rules. When the rules are set aside, the kids become free to explore their relationship with creation and anything becomes possible. There were many nights that they were up until midnight wandering around in the woods and learning that night is as natural as day and that God is with them all the time. They are encouraged to sing at the top of their lungs and dance until they fall down in exhaustion. It is a different experience from that of everyday life which is filled with rules and expectations and I cannot even count how many transformations I have witnessed because of it. The kids learn – without any rules – grace and love; they learn how to build each other up and how to forgive. They learn to deal with anger in healthy, open ways, and they learn to behave in a way that is tender-hearted toward one another. The transformation is purely the result of living in relationship with the community of Jesus Christ. Anyone whose life is engaged in authentic relationship with Christ will exhibit these qualities—it can’t be helped.
Ephesians wants the reader to make the connections between the new relationship they have with Christ and with each other on the one hand, and real living in the world, on the other. It is important to see both aspects because if we don’t then it becomes just another set of rules. But Ephesians is more than that…it assumes a new state of being which makes change for the world possible.
It has been my experience that we all love formulas—formulas that we can apply to ensure regular and predictable results. And to come up with a formula for creating the perfect life would just be the end of the rainbow for most of us. But there is no universal formula that can be applied to the mystery of human relationship or the miracle of faith in Christ. The letter to the Ephesians describes the qualities of genuine faith community, and it does so beautifully, but these are not hard and fast rules that guarantee anything other than an open portal into our hearts so that God can work in and through us to the greater glory of creation. The writer understood that for now, this is a good as it gets and that we are called to demonstrate a life of faith that reflects God at work in powerful ways. This call then is a call to responsibility – with everyone called on to work, and to contribute, and to help those in need. We answer the call not because we hope to gain anything, but because our faith insists that we must, and when that happens…it is then that we know that our faith is real, and that God is present.