A Sermon for 12 August 2018
A reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Before launching into this reading, it might be helpful to remember that Ephesians is an epistle of the New Testament. It is attributed to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul. But as far as we know, Ephesians is what scholars believe to be a circular letter. The style, language, and meanings are uncharacteristic of the other letters that we know the Apostle Paul wrote to certain church communities. Additionally, in the opening of the letter, the earliest manuscripts we have of Ephesians don’t mention Ephesus at all. There’s not some known church crisis outlined and refuted in this letter. All of which points to the conclusion that the epistle of Ephesians is just a good wholesome letter of encouragement to everyday Christians – probably circulated to several worshipping congregations in Asia Minor. Perhaps Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul towards the end of his life. Like a wise old saint, near the close of his days, who passes on his collective wisdom to others on the journey. If not directly from Paul’s pen, then likely Ephesians comes from someone taught by Paul who similarly sought to encourage other Christians (The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, 1994, NT p. 272). Which is all to say that Ephesians is for us all – everywhere. On any old day. . . . With this in mind, listen now for God’s word to us in a reading of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV).
“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. 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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Last weekend I was at the home of my childhood with my parents and surrounded by my sisters. It was great fun! Growing up, summers always were the best. With time to just hang out. Relax together outside at the beach near our house, in the water, or just wandering through the woods. As my sisters and I got older, we were alone together a lot. And it was then – especially in the summer when we didn’t have much else to do but mom’s chore list. It was then that we eventually turned to provoking each other. If you’re a sibling or have reared children or grandchildren, then you might know what I mean. One childhood taunt I dreaded most was when my sister would copy me. Ever experience it? If you really wanted to get under the skin of your sister or your brother you’d just start repeating every word they said. Scrunching your face like they scrunched their face when they protested for it to stop. Stomping like they did. Mimicking the whinny tone in their voice. Relentless – especially when unsupervised ‘cuz then there was no parent to tattle to. You were totally at your sibling’s mercy! . . . I don’t know why children do it – it’s totally immature, yet so incredibly effective. It can be done without making a peep. From all the way across the room even once mom has banished you to separate corners. Still, your sister – or brother – could get 100% under your skin by imitating you!
Imitation’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s also a pretty effect way to grow. When not done of the purpose of driving your brother or sister absolutely nuts, imitation can lead to mastery. Think about all the things toddlers begin to do because they see the person in front of them doing it. Clap your hands with a smile before a little one and they’re bound to start clapping too. Show a youngster the steps of mastering things like shoe tying or letter writing. Soon they’ll be at it on their own. As we age, we go through an entire period of growth called adolescents when it seems imitation will have no end. Teens wearing the same cloths as their friends just to fit in. Girls wanting to pierce their ears ‘cuz everyone else is doing it too. Boys telling silly jokes because the boy who seems to get all the attention tells silly jokes too. The way to self-assurance developmentally leads through imitation. As adults observing, our hope is teenagers pick the right ones to imitate! Avoiding the examples all around of bullying and disrespect and irresponsibility. Hopefully imitating peers and role models whose values are in line with the way we want them to grow.
I’m not sure the age of those who heard the epistle of Ephesians when it was being circulated around the Mediterranean. If the letter really was written near the end of the Apostle Paul’s life, then it’s highly likely that those who heard it were at most a few decades in to being committed followers of the Way – disciples of Jesus who early Christians came to believe was the Christ. The One of God come to deliver the people. We can debate all day exactly what they needed deliverance from, but it’s clear that some who heard of Jesus were captivated by his teaching. They were astounded by the way his disciples vowed compassionate care of one another. They were impressed by the community’s broad inclusion of Jew and Gentile alike. It would take the established church years to develop the theological doctrines we take for granted today. In the meantime, those who wanted to be a part of Christ’s movement came to learn just how they were to be in the world each day.
One source tells of early baptismal liturgies that ritualized the expected behavior. G. Porter Taylor writes: “in the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326). We see remnants of this in baptismal vows of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The first vow in the covenant of Baptism reads: “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” (Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018, p. 409). “I renounce them,” the baptismal candidate is to proclaim (Ibid.). In the PCUSA, after professing the One to whom the candidate for baptism will turn, they are asked: “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?” “I will, with God’s help,” PCUSA baptismal candidates respond! (Ibid.). In those first baptismal liturgies, after turning to the west to renounce the forces of darkness; baptismal candidates “then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world” (G. Porter Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3, p. 326). Taylor goes on to write: “They literally stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized. They were then brought into the community of faith. In baptism the old self is killed off, and the new self is raised” (Ibid.). From that moment on, the baptized live as those aligned to the Light of the World!
“Imitate God,” Ephesians 5:1 declares. “And live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Imitate God. . . . Lest we fail to know what that means, the writer of Ephesians fleshed it out with description after description. The world may be full of those who want to lie. Those who imitate God speak the truth. The world may be full of those who get angry and immediately lose their temper. Those who imitate God get angry. We recognize anger and every other emotion as the signal they are from our own body-mind. Then we act free from sin – not stewing in disgruntlement lest those forces we renounced in baptism have a chance to take hold. The world might be full of those who labor for their own ends. Imitators of God labor honestly so as to have something to share with those in need. Ephesians reminds that the world may be full of those who let all sorts of drivel come forth from their mouth. Those who imitate God use words to build up others so that grace abounds. Bitterness, wrath, wrangling anger, slander together with malice may surround us daily in our streets and from our cities. But those who imitate God practice kindness – in big and small ways. Imitators of God are tenderhearted – no matter how callous everyone else might get. Those who imitate God forgive; for we know it’s only so long until we’ll need the same forgiveness.
Imitators of God are beloved children. A fragrant gift to the world around. Not always perfect, but still striving for the goal. We seek to imitate the One we know in full through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord. In our life together. In our lives at home. In our lives wherever we go in the world. Let us live love, as Christ has loved us. Let us imitate God.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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