We are back in Ephesians. Yes, I know. We spent the season of Lent hosting this letter. Now the lectionary takes us through it once more. It is a refresher course, a summer school retake, preparation for the fall semester. Ephesians isn’t as well known as, say, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Among the letters in the New Testament it is overshadowed by Romans and Corinthians. But, as we discovered in Lent, it is essential reading for us here and now. It is essential for us because Ephesians is addressed to a people who are discovering what it is to live the way of Jesus Christ. Here at University Hill we describe ourselves as a people who are “rediscovering the Way of Christ for the sake of the world.” Ephesians is addressed to us.
The six chapters of the letter to the Ephesians divide neatly into two sections. The first three are focussed entirely on what has been revealed about God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What has been revealed is that “by grace you have been saved through God’s faithfulness, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8). The first half of Ephesians roots us in the power of God’s love - God’s amazing grace - to save, redeem and make new.
Then the second half of the letter begins: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:1-2). Notice the word “therefore”. It occurs nine times in the second half of Ephesians, reminding the recipients of this letter of the odd news that has changed everything. The new life that Christians are called to live on the other side of baptism is all a gift from God. It is not a life lived in order to win God’s favour. God’s favour cannot be earned by hard work or by superior grades or by olympian feats of good behaviour. The new life that the church is called to embody is life lived after being saved by the God we meet in Jesus. And life lived after you’ve been rescued, after you’ve messed up, after you have not been able to save yourself from yourself is a lot different than life lived when you are trying to prove yourself capable of being the kind of person who God would surely judge worthy. “Therefore” is a crucial word for us. All of our ethics, all of our choices, all of our decisions are “therefore” ethics. They follow from our salvation by God. They do not lead to our salvation by God. We live out of the “therefore” of God.
Learning to live in this way is like being a little child all over again. It is putting away the grown up, adult life we have been living and becoming a toddler. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). There it is again - therefore. “Therefore be imitators”. Imitation is a funny thing. On the one hand, imitations have a bad reputation when they are passed off as the real thing. But, on the other hand, we learn to live and to become proficient by imitating. Pay attention to the children. Their gestures, their inflection, their accent all mimic those who have loved and nurtured them. They learn by careful, daily, studied imitation. This, says Paul, is what we do in Christian community. We learn a new way of life by careful, daily, studied imitation of the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We put away the habitual patterns of a life that is not rooted in the saving love of God. When we are trying to save ourselves by being good enough and right enough and smart enough we are not imitating the life and love of God. Then, says Paul, we are imitating a world that is alienated from God, ignorant of God, insensitive to God (Eph. 4:18-19). Of course, the church is not immune to being alienated from God, ignorant of God, insensitive to God. That is the reason that Karl Barth - likely the most significant theologian of the 20th century - insists that we are always beginners in the Christian life. He writes: “What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, of a learned and practised art. They may and can be masters and virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children.” (Church Dogmatics, IV/4: The Christian Life, p. 79).
Jesus puts it this way: “Except you become as little children” (Matt 18:3). This is a great gift. We begin a new school year as a congregation and even the oldest among us enter kindergarten all over again. Students arrive on campus to study for their advanced degrees but when they walk in the door of the church it is kindergarten. And we who are ordained ministers with our theological diplomas and ordination certificates are still, always in kindergarten when it comes to learning Christ. Did you notice? Paul writes “That is not the way you learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). We expect him to say: “That is not the way you learned about Christ”. But he is speaking of Christ the way we speak of a language, of a way of life, of a whole grammar and structure and way of being and of seeing the world. Becoming Christian means becoming immersed in a whole new language world where people not only speak with a different vocabulary, not only structure their sentences and govern their lives with different rules but where they also have different stories, different assumptions, different ways of making sense.
This is a wonderful thing about life here, in this congregation. Here we are all beginners in a Christian immersion program. There is no need for pretending - for pretension - here. No one is ranked as superior in the Christian life. The problem is that once we claim growing competence in the way of Jesus we find ourselves with less and less humility and soon become alienated from God, the God whose saving love is the source of our life always, everywhere. The wonderful thing about life in the church is that every year we re-enter the kindergarten of our apprenticeship, immersed in the new ways of Jesus Christ.
As in kindergarten, there are practices that we, well, that we practice. There are five of them collected in today’s text from Ephesians. Five is a handy number for remembering things in kindergarten because we can count them on the fingers of one hand. Here are five practices of imitating the God we meet in Jesus listed here for us to practice this year in our life together:
1. “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another (Eph. 4:25).” Perhaps you have noticed the coverage in the national press that is being given to a motion that is coming before the United Church General Council that is meeting in Ottawa this week. The motion addresses the problem of gossip, a problem described as a cancer in congregational life. Gossip is rumour and innuendo. Sometimes gossip includes truth. But gossip is marked by the fact that it is spoken to everyone but the one it is about. And gossip regularly intends to hurt. You would think that after all of this time the church would not need to pass a motion reminding its members that gossip is not the way of Christ. But enough people have been victimized by gossip in the church that it is national news. Of course, to those who remember that we are always beginners in the way of Christ it is not surprising that we are still learning to put away old habits of talking behind the backs of our neighbours. Practice number one - speak the truth to one another.
2. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26). Some of us were taught from an early age that anger is bad. We were taught to mimic parents who themselves had learned from their parents to suppress anger. Being Christian meant not getting angry. It meant always being nice. Of course, when anger is suppressed and never expressed it takes its toll. Some of us, on the other hand, were taught by adults who regularly vented their anger in destructive and harmful ways, becoming violent with their words and with their hands. Their anger became sin, a source of brokenness rather than of healing. Paul would have our kindergarten class practise expressing anger with one another and with God creatively, lovingly, carefully so that the source of the anger can be addressed and our relationships can be repaired, restored. Practice number two - express anger in order to heal, not to hurt.
3. “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Eph. 4:28). Well, this is pretty specific. No to stealing. Yes to giving. And this is the purpose of hard work: “to have something to share with the needy”. Putting an end to theft is only half of the battle. The other half is to learn to give away what we have worked hard to earn. Yes, its true. We are well schooled in the graduate degree program of a culture of consumption and acquisition. When it comes to sharing with the needy we are beginners. Practice number three - no to stealing, yes to sharing.
4. “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 (Eph. 4:29). The way we speak to one another matters. Words hurt, disable, break down relationships. You remember the playground verse that we learned in the playground: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Not true there. Not true here. Words intended to hurt, hurt. So, says Paul, practice speaking words intended to build up and to give grace. They may be hard words. They may be difficult words. But their intention must be to strengthen, not to weaken, the community. Practice number four - speak with the intention to build up and to give grace.
5. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31-32). That is a mouthful. At first glance it appears beyond us. But, then, remember we are beginners. This is kindergarten in the way of Christ. And basic to the way of Christ is kindness, a tender-heart, forgiveness. This is the beginning of our life together. We are saved by a kind, tender-hearted and forgiving God who loves us in spite of ourselves. Little children raised by such a God do not learn to imitate malicious bitterness, endless wrangling and mean-spirited slander. The children of the God met in Jesus are known for their kindness, tenderness and forgiveness. Practice number five - put away bitter wrangling; put on kindness, tenderness and forgiveness.
Did you notice. I missed one. There is a sixth practice in this list from Ephesians. I am not sure what it means or how to practice it. Which only goes to show that I, too, am very much a beginner. It goes like this: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). I wonder what would cause the Holy Spirit grief? The Holy Spirit is the source of our energy for new life. It is the down payment that God has made on us, a promise that God intends to claim us on the day of redemption. Maybe living as if we are not being saved by God, perhaps reverting to our old habits and ways of life - gossiping, repressing our anger or venting it abusively, taking rather than giving, using speech to hurt rather than to heal, nursing bitterness rather than tenderness - perhaps returning to these old ways causes the Holy Spirit of God great sadness, even grief. To be honest, we have surely caused the Holy Spirit no small measure of grief. The church itself, formed by the saving love of God, has caused the Holy Spirit much sadness. Paul’s list of kindergarten practices has regularly gone forgotten, over-ridden by the ways of the world that create amnesia in the church about the Way of Christ.
Thank God, then, that we are not saved by becoming graduates in the school of Christ. Thank God that we are being saved as beginners - apprentices - in the odd, new Way of Jesus. We are always beginning all over again. And once again it begins here - with the God who loves us in Christ beyond all measure, all expectation, all common sense. Therefore, welcome to kindergarten.