Reading: Ephesians 4:17-32
I really do love Paul’s epistles — somehow, I feel like his letters are very fresh, they might have been written almost 2000 years ago, but so often they feel like they are written for here and now. Back then, there was a big ethnic conflict going on that split the church, and Paul wrote to address that. Now, the church is pretty clearly fragmented. Back then, Paul spoke of the need for us to become new people — now, so many of us want to remain the same and expect others to change to suit us. I wish we could hear what Paul says.
Paul was known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Sometimes I wonder why we use the Latin word instead of the Greek, saying instead, Paul was the apostle to the ethnic people. You might remember that the first big argument in the church was whether Christianity should be open to ethnic peoples, or if it should be limited to “God’s people.” This was followed by an argument on how much of Jewish culture the ethnic people had to give up for their own.
Paul was the liberal in this argument. Paul saw no reason for people to change their diet, or suddenly start observing the Sabbath — Paul instead called people to a life of transforming faith, love, and community. His ideal church was one that included every national group and accepted a wide variety of customs.
Thing is, that Paul had one thing in common with the Judaizers who wanted the ethnic converts to become something other than who they were born. The Judaizers wanted the ethnic Christians to become respectable, like the Jews were and conform to their customs and cultures. Paul, on the other hand recognized that we belong to a new nation — we are now citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. Paul writes: “No longer live as the Gentiles do\ldots” We have a new identity, something other than our ethnicity.
As Americans, the challenge can be that we are the new Judaizers. We often expect those who come to Christ to accept our national cultural norms, or our political ideology, or any other piece of culture which has nothing to do with love or faith. We risk missing the point of Christianity by making the power of transformation and resurrection for someone other than ourselves. Like the Judaizers, we see that the ethnic Christians need this new identity, but we forget that every one of us is a Gentile.
If you notice, Paul actually tells us what the new life looks like — and what he describes is not cultural norms, but attitudes. We are not called to respectability, but to honesty — and that honesty for the sake of a functioning community. We are not called to go out and change the world through our righteous indignation, but to let the anger pass. In God’s kingdom — anger cannot be a way of life. We are to control our tongues, and speak gracefully — why, for the good of others who might be put off by ungracious words. This is not the norms of American culture, where people care about getting what is due them — this is the norms of a group that puts others ahead of themselves.
All of us need to put away the old self — replacing bitterness with kindness, anger with compassion, wrath with forgiveness. We need to live in such a way that there is no need for fighting, and in which gossip is no longer a pastime — but instead an unspeakable sin against the community. Us Americans, who so often want to teach a Christianity that looks like us need to remember that our normal sinfulness is exactly what Paul calls out. We are those that need transformed. We are the ones who need to conform to the new kingdom.
Most of American Christianity talks about personal salvation — and I will not deny the necessity of this at all — I freely admit that I need Jesus — I need to be saved. Unfortunately, we often neglect to observe that scripture talks about the salvation not only of the individual but of the community. The individual sins mentioned here are the sins that harm the community. The Holiness that Paul teaches is not about fulfilling a list of rules, but about being the kind of community member that makes the community a better place. Paul calls us to do more than conform, Paul calls us to become good citizens. Our model is the pillar of the Christian community, Jesus Christ! We are to forgive as Christ forgives.
Unfortunately, if we forget that this is about the salvation of communities, we can create communities that try to enforce grace by being ungraceful. We have to ask, when reading not only — “How can I live, as a citizen of God’s kingdom, here on Earth,” but we must as a community ask how the community can be an outpost of heaven. How can the church be the church, as opposed to a group that exists to validate the individual? We must ask, what does it look like when Christ saves the church?
As much as I love Ephesians, I have some difficulty giving advice. While it is clear enough, it almost as difficult as Jesus’ words: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I don’t know anyone who is so pure of heart that he or she never speaks out of malice or slander. Even when people are trying to be helpful and show compassion, many silently think thoughts that are less than merciful. Most people have a grudge or two that is being carefully tended instead of allowed to die before the day is over. We do very badly.
In spite of this difficulty, I will give some advice — I advise everyone to pray for God’s mercy, and for divine help. Pray that God gives us the strength to forgive. Pray that God helps us to hold our tongue. Pray that God helps us forgive. I give the same advice Jesus did on the sermon on the mount, I advise every one of you to pray for others — pray for the community, even pray for your enemies. Perhaps as we bless those who we believe curse us, we can learn love. Perhaps while we are praying for others, God can give salvation to not only us but our community as well.
Now, to be honest, I know that nothing short of a miracle would take wrath, bitterness, slander, and fighting out of our community. I know that the poison of factions and us verses them language is likely to remain with us as long as I remain in this world. I am fully aware that seeing these replaced by love, mercy, and forgiveness would be nothing short of a miracle… I also can tell you, I am praying for a miracle.