Sunday, August 13

The bible isn’t always the most practical book around. For instance, I have never known how to incorporate certain passages from the book of Leviticus into my spiritual journey. While it is historically fascinating to know that God required the Israelites to sacrifice an unblemished female goat to atone for unintentional sins, I don’t rush home to open up the book of Leviticus when I’m experiencing remorse. On the other hand, the book’s detailed instructions for detecting leprosy were of the utmost practicality for the Israelite tribes. But other biblical passages were never intended to offer practical advice; they were written to help us understand our collective identity as children of God. The stories of the bible, full of heroes and anti-heroes, illuminate what it means to be human, what it means to be created in the image of God, what it means to be alienated from our Creator. We don’t read the book of Jonah to get trained for mission work; we read the book of Jonah to ponder the awesome call of God, to recall that we may as well be swallowed up by a great fish if we disregard God’s intentions for our lives.

All of this is to say that the passage from Ephesians which we’re contemplating this morning strikes me as one of the most beautifully practical nuggets of scripture in the diverse collection of writings that make up our holy scriptures. If you’re looking for a passage to memorize, might I suggest a few lines from the fourth section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Here we encounter a lesson on human relationships, a little “do’s” and “don’ts” list for the Christian community. There isn’t a whole lot of theology in this passage. We are reminded that we are forgiven by God through Christ, and that means we are charged to imitate the sacrificial love and forgiveness of source of our salvation. But the crux of this text is the matter of how we treat our brothers and sisters, and so, along with a small reminder of Christ’s large sacrifice, we are instructed not to go to bed angry.

This very useful passage is included in the scriptures because our relationships with one another should be informed by our faith. Our confession of faith in Christ Jesus should have bearing on the way we think, speak, and act.

The fact of the matter is that just because we are Christians, doesn’t mean we are any nicer to one another than any other group of human beings. And this is sad. Many people have walked away from the Christian faith because they have witnessed shameful behavior among the members of Christian congregations. We want to believe that they will know we are Christians by our love, but that isn’t always the case. The Ephesian Christians received this letter because they were clearly struggling in the human relationships department. They knew that they had been clothed with new life in Christ, but they hadn’t yet figured out that this new life came with new expectations, new responsibilities. They hadn’t yet discerned how to translate the love and forgiveness they experienced through Jesus Christ into their daily lives and interactions. Their struggle is the struggle of every Christian person throughout the centuries—the struggle to embody the sacrificial love of our Lord and Savior, not only in theory, but in practice.

And so today I want to take this scripture very, very seriously, and consider how we can be ever more faithful and loving in our interactions with our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives, our friends, our parents, our children. Know that if I sound preachy, I’m preaching to myself first. I stand before you as a person who wants to be kinder, more tenderhearted, and more forgiving of the people I love.

The author of this letter is clear about what behaviors are befitting the Kingdom community, and which behaviors should be edited from new life in Christ. Lying is definitely out. Giving into rage and anger is another sinful action. We are to reject stealing and undue temptation. Paul further coaches the Christians to eradicate bitterness, wrath, shouting, cursing, and malice from their relationships.

Isn’t this all easier said than done? Even if our closets are free of the most egregious skeletons, we all have our moral clutter: leftover grudges, quick tempers, tendencies toward gossip, or a dependence on the little white lies that pacify the ones to whom we are accountable. Even if the little things we do and say that do not align with the Kingdom of God cause us remorse, turning away from them still requires emotional and spiritual effort.

I do not think many of us would roll our eyes at Paul’s list of vices to avoid and see simply a moralistic code that serves only to illuminate our guilt. Paul is, after all, one of the greatest proponents of the amazing grace of God. This is not a man who believed that we can save ourselves by our own virtue. Yet Paul clearly sees practicing virtuous behavior as essential to the Body of Christ, the necessary and natural response to new life.

John Calvin, one of the theological minds behind the Protestant reformation, was notoriously strict on moral matters. He not only kept a close watch on his own behavior, but he set forth Ordinances for the supervision of church members and seminarians. For instance, he mandated that “If anyone sings songs that are unworthy, dissolute or outrageous, or spin wildly round in the dance, or the like, he is to be imprisoned for three days, and then sent on to the consistory.” Even though his theology stuck, his moral legislation did not, as he and his severe punishments were thrown out of Geneva.

The problem with Calvin’s moral program was that it misunderstood the relationship between freedom and virtue. As heirs of new life in Christ, we inherit a profound freedom. We are no longer saddled by sin and shame. I’ve heard about a sermon that Pastor Alan preached about the delete button. God’s forgiveness deletes our sin. Christ’s love cuts away the guilt of our vices. The last thing we need is to gain a new set of shackles in the form of moral codes we can never fully obey. Yes, we are called to be tenderhearted, but failing to do so cannot catapult us back to a prison of guilt and shame.

Dan Clendenin, a pastor whose biblical commentary offers genuine spiritual sustenance, puts it this way: “Instead of reading Paul's exhortations as legalistic commands that restrict my freedom, I think of them as promises that will transform my life, or as gifts to receive instead of goals to achieve. Imagine a politician who "put off" predictable rhetoric and "put on" truth-telling (4:25), a parent who moved from compulsive anger to gentleness (4:26), a corporate criminal who made restitution and shared generously with others (4:28), or a musician who realized how badly raunchy lyrics degrade our communities (4:29). Who would not long to live in a society where "bitterness, rage, anger, slander and every form of malice" were rare exceptions, and where "kindness, compassion, and forgiveness" ruled the day (4:31–32)? On the journey with Jesus such dreams can become reality, at least in part. I dare say you can find examples in your local church.”

“Gifts to receive instead of goals to achieve.” This is a language of virtue, an approach to faithful Christian living, that takes seriously that we are free in Christ, that we are recipients of forgiveness and grace, not simply slaves to a new master.

Paul ends this particular exhortation with a seemingly impossible command: be imitators of God. If we take this literally, John Calvin would send us all to jail and throw away the key. Yet if we understand Paul’s passionate call for virtue as a gift to receive, we can rest in God’s grace.

St. Irenaeus wrote that the glory of God is “human being fully alive.” And so to be imitators of God is not to attempt an impossible project; it is to accept the joy and responsibility that we are created in the very image of God. To imitate God is not to become intolerable perfectionists or sanctimonious slaves to the law. To imitate God is to become more authentically human, free enough to live in Christ’s love.

I don’t know if I have succeeded in my attempt to be practical; tossing John Calvin into the fray isn’t always a good indicator of practicality. But I do know that as much as we need guidelines for how to love and live well, Christian morality is much more than a behavioral code. We are Kingdom people, a living witness to God’s glory and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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