Scripture Ephesians 4:25-5:2 Common English Bible (CEB)
25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil. 28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.
29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
5 Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.
Last week we talked about forsaking the old ways, asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and transgressions, and looking to live life differently. Today’s reading is specifically about how to be better people - how to embrace the new life in Christ that we have been given.
Paul’s instructions in this passage seem to be pretty much no-brainer. Be truthful. Be angry without sinning. Don’t steal. Watch what you say. We got this, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
I get the “Still Speaking” daily devotional from the United Church of Christ which is based in the lectionary reading for the day. Today’s was written about this particular reading and the writer’s perspective was rather different, and very timely. Rev. Quinn Caldwell addressed the first two verses of today’s reading, saying, “Paul did not do a good job of anticipating the Internet. Like, I'm not blaming him or anything, but let's just be honest that he really failed to see Facebook coming. All his advice is given to people who are looking each other in the eye. What would he say about how to engage on Facebook, or Twitter, where you can easily be in electronic relationship with thousands upon thousands of people you will never meet in person? "Speak the truth"—OK, that's pretty clear, I guess, maybe. But "speak the truth in love"? What does love look like in the middle of a Twitter flame war or Facebook showdown? Is it always patient, kind, understanding—or is it sometimes a smackdown?”
He has a pretty good point. I mean, some people have a hard time speaking the truth with love in person, but when they get online . . . and it doesn’t even have to be about anything big, or political, or religious. I posted a picture of a cat sitting beneath my hummingbird feeder, which I thought was cute. Almost immediately people began attacking me, with great anger, because I was using red hummingbird food. I was not aware of any problems with red hummingbird food prior to that moment, and OK, I understand they had a concern they wanted to express. But I think “speaking truth in love” would sound less like, “You horrible person! That red food is killing the hummingbirds!” and more like, “Studies suggest that red dye in hummingbird food may cause liver problems. You can make your own, healthier hummingbird food of sugar and water.” Both of these statements are true, well, except for the horrible person part, but verily I say to you, my brothers and sisters, my reaction to the latter is way more reasoned than my reaction to the former. Remember when we used to tell our children “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”? That works on Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media. And in person. Speak as you would be spoken to. Speak truth in love.
There are those who would say it is always wrong to be angry. But Paul seems to feel differently. “Be angry without sinning,” he says. “Don’t let the sun set on your anger. Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.” Rev. Caldwell disagreed, in part, noting that “anyone who's ever been engaged in a heated conversation online [or in person] knows that sometimes sleeping on it is a way better strategy than responding immediately.” One of the techniques I was taught for dealing with anger is to write a letter to the person I am angry with and not mail it, for at least 24 hours. Often I would discover that I wasn’t nearly as angry in the morning light as I had been in the moment. I would usually be able to tear up my letter, and address whatever the issue was more calmly and reasonably than if I had spoken out at the time.
“Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work”. Paul said that they should then use their income to help others. And they should. But I know that getting a job doesn’t necessarily end the stealing. I have known people to “help” their church by donating office supplies “liberated” from their place of employment, or providing pirated software for the church computer, or by thinking copyright laws don’t apply to church music. Don’t do those things. All of those things are stealing, and no part of the Christian life.
“Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth.” OK, that sounds pretty clear. Watch your language! An admonition that I need to remember more often than I want to admit. However, is that what it really means? Because the next sentence is “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” We are back to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”, I think.
What Paul is really addressing here is conflict resolution. You see, there were some significant conflicts in the churches in Ephesus. Every church has some conflict, and most of that conflict even from the very beginning of Christianity has been between “We have always done it this way,” and “Let’s do this new thing!” Do people have to be circumcised (the old way) or not (the new way.) Do we have to follow the dietary restrictions (the old way) or not (the new way.) Do we want pews (the old way) or chairs we can use in different configurations (the new way). Sometimes conflicts are over personalities - Apollos versus Paul. Sometimes the conflicts were over how to interpret what Paul had taught. Regardless of what the conflict was about, Paul was trying to teach folks how to deal with conflict, saying “Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”
Chances are pretty good that we here at First Christian Church in Selma are going to engage in some difficult discussions in the not too distant future. This week many of the people who you have elected to leadership positions will be meeting with a representative of the Board of Church Extension in Indianapolis to talk about our financial situation - which is not good - and possible choices for our future as a church. Then we will start talking about those possibilities - all of us together. And when we start talking about those things, we need to do so with open minds and hearts. We will need to take into our hearts these words from Paul - who knew a thing or two about dealing with conflict. “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”
Embracing the new life in Christ that we have been blessed with means changing the way we think about things, and the way we respond to things. We start thinking about what is best for all people, not just what benefits me, or us right here. We start reaching out to make life better for all people, not just for our own folks. We ask ourselves how we can best serve all of Selma instead of how we can best serve First Christian. Jesus did not tell us to just love some people. He told us to love our neighbors, and then he told us the neighbor was the Samaritan, the enemy, the person we would never normally allow into our homes.
Paul told the folks in Ephesus, and us, “…imitate God, like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us.” When we go from this place today, let us do as Paul directs. Let us follow the example of Christ, loving others and giving ourselves for others, as Jesus gave himself for us. Let us embrace a new life, a new way of being. Let every day be a new day in Christ, a new day in love, a day to embrace the new way of living.