Ephesians 4:25–5:2 (NRSV)
Rules for the New Life
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 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. 29 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. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
As years progress and the courses of history move from one era into another, those that live during the transition often wonder about the future. During the transitions of time things seem to change faster than the community can adjust, cultures move and people slowly adjust. During these periods of adjustment many begin to look to the past with nostalgic lenses wishing that things would return to a simpler time period, yet we often forget that those yester years were not as simple as we remember. Others look to the future with longing that all the problems would just go away without realizing that we must walk the paths to the future through the trials. I continue to speak in this manner because focusing solely on the past or the future can leave us blind to the present, and the present is the most important time and place to be. But it is difficult to keep our presence of mind focused during transitional periods because there are so many pressures squeezing around us, pressures that make us feel as if everything we once knew no longer matters.
We are living in transitional times of history. We are witnessing the first stages of the next great awakening. Just over the horizons of time we will see something beyond our wildest dreams, something that will give us hope and passion. We are going to see God build his kingdom here. How do we get there is the greatest question. How do we move from this seemingly hopeless state we often feel ourselves living in and move into the construction zone of the kingdom? Friends the reality is that we are already there.
The first century Church at Ephesus experienced similar things that we are experiencing today. I know this because they are just as human as we are, I know this because every generation views the past with nostalgic lenses and the future with smoke and mirrors. I know this because I like the music of my youth and think the music of today is horrid, just as my parents thought and their parents before them. Yet the church in Ephesus was not held back by these thoughts but boldly proceeded into the future and saw the kingdom grow on earth as it is in Heaven.
The key is to focus on what matters. Paul opens this passage by saying, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” This is an amazing statement, because prior to this He had been speaking to the Jewish and the Gentiles attempting to reconcile the differences between them, going so far as saying that we all entered this world equal, none were born more righteous than anyone else, all were born uncircumcised until we were brought into the community of the faithful. This church in Ephesus was facing major struggles, the Jewish community had been living, working, and worshiping in this place for over 300 years and suddenly the culture was shifting and now after 300 years there were gentiles coming to faith. How were they to handle this change?
Paul says, “Put away the falsehood, stop playing games and justifying actions, and be real.” That is where we must begin. The number one complaint against the people outside of the formal church is that people are hypocrites or fake. The contemporary generation is even more sensitive to this than the previous generation. The generation that is moving into adulthood today are tired of people playing games, saying words that they have no intention of keeping and people acting contrary to what they say they believe. To them it is a total waste of time and energy to put on a façade, or to act. Why waste the energy to convince people of something everyone knows is a lie? Many of us here today look at this emerging generation with disdain because they do not respect or honor authority, we see this a rebellion, but this current generation is probably the most honest generation that America has ever seen.
Put away the falsehood and be real. This passage should deeply resonate with Friends because this is really the core of our faith. Honesty and integrity are one of the pillars of our faith that stretches across the entire spectrum of Quakerdom. People knew and respected the integrity of our culture to such a degree that the name Quaker represented truthfulness and quality. There is something important in that, there is something very important in authenticity 2000 years ago up to today.
Paul does not stop with authenticity though he goes on to say, “speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” We are members of one another. This is a profound statement. No matter how independent we think we are there is a deeply rooted need for community. We may perceive that we have made our own way, but we are members of one another. I know many of us do not like this thought, but I want us to consider it for a moment. I do not stand here alone. I stand here because of generations of ancestors that have gone before me. I stand here because someone took the time to talk to a young man and listen to all the questions. I stand here because a community saw a broken man and instead of judging the past they looked beneath the surface and saw something more. I stand because someone invested their life into mine because we are members of one another. I could stand and list off the names of those people that realized that they had a responsibility Leo, Earl, John, James, Leslie, Lois, Bob, Carol, David, Charles, Vicki, Cliff, Candice, Donna, Virl, Larry, and many more… common names, names of people that may not be considered great in anyone’s eyes but mine. They are the names of church members, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends. We are all members of one another, members of the kingdom.
Those people that moved beyond, they looked beneath the surface and began to nurture within me something that no one else saw. They invested their lives and spoke the truth. They showed me the gospel not in word but in life. They fed me, clothed me, taught me, you might say they had to they were family, but you do not know which of them is the most important or why.
I say this because the kingdom of God is built on the lives of common people doing common things. The kingdom is built by each of us seeing into the very hearts of those around us and recognizing that spark of light within, and nourishing that light.
The only way to nourish the light is to be authentic. Just like everything else discipleship is a cyclical process. For us to encourage the light to grow within someone else we must feed it with the light living inside of us, showing them life. For many we look at this passage and we can easily be confused because it sounds contradictory. Paul says be angry and then a couple of verses later he says not to be angry. Because of this I looked up the words just to see if maybe they were different, thinking maybe there might be two types of anger that Paul is speaking about. But it is the same. Anger is anger. Wrath is wrath. Paul is saying be real. If you are angry, be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger. We can disagree on many things but we should never let that disagreement harm the relationship, if it is something that might we must do what we can to reconcile the friendship. If we neglect this process of reconciliation, if we allow the emotions of anger to dominate our lives and cause division within our community, we are allowing the unholy to reign in our lives.
The community, the Kingdom of God that is around and in us is the most important thing we should pursue. This is what Paul is telling the Ephesians. They were dividing, choosing sides and pointing fingers at others. They were neglecting their first love. This is seen in how they speak to one another and how they treat those around them. They were allowing disagreements to damage friendships and they were allowing friendships to die because they were unwilling to forgive. But there is more. Anger and Theft are mentioned directly. This concept of thieves is very interesting because it really is not what it appear.
The ancient world was a world that was dominated by classes of people. There were nobles, freemen, and slaves. If you think there is economic disparity today the ancient world was much worse. The nobles controlled everything. The concept of thieves that Paul is mentioning is actually speaking to the way freemen and slaves relate to the Nobles. If a nobleman considered your good or service not to their liking they could charge you with theft and you would be convicted. The church was beginning to grow and people were turning away from the religions of old, this was causing cultural rifts. Slaves were beginning to see themselves as equals in the eyes of the divine and were no longer easy to control, so the nobles were charging the early Christians with theft because they were stealing property and food. Paul actually has a bit of humor in this passage because he is saying you thieves work stop stealing and do your job. But do not just do it do it better than the others so that you will not be seen as a thief any longer. Work harder and use the fruit of your labor to help others. Freemen likewise use the wages you earn benefit the community. Again he is reminding those in the church of Ephesus that the community and the relationships within are of greater importance.
This humor is not all fun because he is also addressing another very real concern within the Greek and roman cultures. Within the culture was an idea that the intelligent and philosophical minded people could become benefactor. These sages would expect a free ride in life because they were passing on wisdom. So as people grew in knowledge they would begin to expect the church to pay their way. This joke just became a double edged sword especially to those who wielded influence over others. Paul is calling them thieves as well, because everyone should be laboring and helping others within the community. No one person is of greater importance we all have jobs to do and a responsibility to those in need. Pastors cannot demand payment beyond the means of the community and in the same sense the community cannot withhold from their leaders proper compensation for the services they provide to the community. Again a cycle, a cycle based on honoring the relationship of all within the community.
Right after Paul calls everyone a thief he then proceeds to focus in on how to speak to one another. The words we say should be simple, plain, and truthful but they should be spoken in a manner to encourage growth, grace, and a deepening of the kingdom. When we act we should be putting others before ourselves and when we speak our words should be filled with the same intent. We should be mindful of how our words will be heard and quick to recognize when we may have been misunderstood. If the words we used insight anger we should strive to reconcile the relationship. Easy right!
Paul pretty punches each of us right in the gut. He hits our individual liberty, he cause us thieves, and he tells us to work harder, to speak truth, but not incite anger. He basically tells us that what we think is not really all that important and the worst thing about it is he is right. Be imitators of God, live the love of Christ with others, make your life a fragrant offering to God. The first must become the last and the last the first, the greatest in the kingdom must become the servant of all. It cycles back to the beginning again be real and speak the truth to your neighbor because we are members of one another.
I speak of a new era emerging around us, I speak of transitional history, and how the kingdom of God is just on the horizon. I say this because I believe it to be true. The emerging generation wants truth, they want reality and they do not have time to waste of anything fake. They are crying out for the gospel, they are seeking the very thing we say we have so why are so many leaving the community? Friends this is not a testimony of how bad the culture and the world is around us but a testimony of how we have distorted the gospel in the past. But there is hope. Jesus did not come to save the righteous but the sinners, he came to heal the broken and the sick, to restore to life those that were caught in the grips of death. He came to give us life, life filled with the things that matter to Him. We are in the construction zone of the kingdom God is working all around us and He is calling us all to speak the truth to our neighbor, because those people outside of these walls are the very people He wants and we are not his people until we recognize them as our people. As we enter into this time of Open worship and Holy expectancy I want us to consider these words of Paul. Have we caused anger to control our lives, have we become thieves to our own community, have we neglected imitating God in how we interact with those around us? Are we willing to repent? Are we willing to look beyond the surface and nourish the light within other?