Once a year, at a little country church outside of Petersburg, there is a service called Homecoming, which is followed by a pot luck. At the right you see the cover of the bulletin from that service. Each year, a former intern of Pastor Larry Cantu, is the guest preacher for that service. This year I had the privilege.
Larry is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, which was my internship site. Below is the message I preached based on Ephesians 4:25-5:2.
How many of us growing up have experienced teasing or even what today would be considered bullying? Inevitably, there would be a parent or some other authority figure like a teacher, when they hear our tale of woe, would repeat these words, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
If that’s the case, then why do such words hurt us? Any of us who have lived long enough know the potency of language. How we relate and speak to others impacts every part of the lives of those around us.
This is the point Paul is making in this portion of Ephesians. The Gentile Christians Paul wrote to were living in a network of new social relationships because of being in Christ. They needed teaching about down to earth behaviors which are spelled out in this passage.
The main theme of Ephesians is love and how it is expressed by God toward us, us toward God and our relationship together as the community of faith. That last piece is a bit of a struggle for us. We are very independent people who like to do things ourselves. We don’t need anyone else’s help. But, as Paul teaches, we are interconnected as brothers and sisters together in the family of God.
In this part of the letter, we are given dos and don’ts of life together in Christ and we are given the reason, what our motivation should be for living in this way. The emphasis throughout this reading is not obedience to a set of commandments but rather the communal responsibility for building up the body of Christ. Paul gives us quite a list of dos and don’ts on how to live life together as the family of God.
The first is to speak truth with our neighbor. Truth in everyday personal relations speaks to people of our character. It is often assumed that people say that which is good for themselves, what is for their own advantage. Notice how this concerns not just fellow Christians. Strangers, non-Christians, all with whom we come in contact will see the way a Christians’ speech is dedicated to truth rather than self. This becomes a powerful witness of Christ.
The second exhortation concerns anger and sin. There are times that anger is appropriate, but we must not let it control us. Anger should not be a fixation that we keep harboring in our hearts. We are not to “let the sun go down” on our anger so we don’t give room to the devil. The community of faith itself is a sacred space whose boundaries may be violated by the devil. Paul appeals that Christians beware of forces outside the Christian community that are capable of undermining and dividing the community. This opens up God’s people to the influence of evil powers. For those who may wonder about the existence of “evil powers,” just watch the news or read the paper.
The third exhortation is that thieves are not to steal, but to work with their hands. Then they will then be able to share with those who have a need. The warning against stealing is not only a matter of individual morality or honest labor. It is assumed that those who have an abundance of this world’s goods will share with those who are less fortunate.
The fourth exhortation also regards speech. No unwholesome word or evil talk is to come out of our mouths. Literally, this means speech that is rotten or decayed. This means we have to give up our favorite pastime, namely gossiping. There are several reasons Paul gives concerning why we should watch our words: so that a need may be met and to give grace to the hearers. Our words can be a gift to one in need. Appropriate language protects and builds up the community of faith. The last reason given is that we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit, the seal of redemption.
Isn’t there something vaguely familiar about the idea of being marked with a seal for the day of redemption? We have these words in our baptismal liturgy. The one who has been baptized hears that they are, “Sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” If we are baptized, this has already happened in our lives. We just need to live it, to become who we already are and let God work through us!
It’s not enough to speak nicely to people, if we are simmering on the inside. We can say and do the right things while harboring evil in our hearts. Paul writes that Christians are to “Put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (v. 31-32). Malice refers to wicked intent. As God’s people, we are not only to be purged of such evil, we are also to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven [us]” (v. 32). Are you serious? Pastor, do you mean we are supposed to forgive like we have been forgiven? Yes and there is more.
We are instructed to be imitators of God. Paul has titles for people that have a moral kick in them. He calls the Ephesians, “children of God.” Because of this, we are called to imitate our Father’s loving nature. What God has done and continues to do in the gift of Christ is our incentive to behavior that reflects that of our Father. As a church, we are reminded that we are a redeemed, ransomed community, like ancient Israel and that we are summoned to reflect the holy character of our redeemer God.
As Christians, we need to pattern our behavior toward others, after God’s, whether they are Christians or not. God’s people are called to imitate the life of Christ as a whole, summed up in his suffering on the cross, representing his unselfish sacrifice for others. Christ’s love for others is God’s love. Our present lives are to be lived in anticipation of the realization of the will of God in the end. The Holy Spirit claims us now for the future so that our present life is defined in relation to God's future. God has not told us, “Be good” and left us on our own to figure out how to do so.
What is our motivation? Our motivation is to build up the body of Christ. What we do is for the sake of others.
That is why Paul makes this point so strongly. Rather than tearing down others with our words, we are called to build them up. Rather than hurting and hindering, we are called to strengthen, uplift and support. Rather than angry recriminations, vengeful accusations and harmful actions, we are called by our Lord to kindness, appreciation and forgiveness. (David Westphal)
In other words, we are to live with and respond to others as our Lord does with us: with grace, mercy and love. In that way, not only are we building up others, we are building up the body of Christ.
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B
Margaret Y. MacDonald, Sacra Pagina: Colossians, Ephesians
Ralph P. Martin, Interpretation: Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon
Charles H. Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians