Ephesians 5:3-20, Luke 14:1-14
And so we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
A journey in which our goal is to reach a place of better understanding
about how to live out our faith in a 21st Century Britain
which is the grip of Brexit fever, and fatigue,
suspensions of parliament,
social suspicion, fear and racism,
and a quietly impending environmental catastrophe.
That is something of our context.
What about Paul’s context, and that of the residents of Ephesus?
Well, Ephesus was the chief city of first century Turkey
– what was then the western part of Asia Minor.
And the church is in mission mode.
It is spreading quickly across the known world,
aided by the relative peace, prosperity, and infrastructure of the Roman Empire.
Ephesus was a pagan city,
it is not influenced much by Judaism,
and has only a recent history with Christianity.
Culturally, Ephesus is very different to Palestine,
where Christianity emerged, and where the church was born.
In the forming, storming, norming, performing model of organisational growth,
the church is still in the forming stage.
The Christian scriptures haven’t been settled,
key questions in Christian theology are still wide open,
and church governance is very fluid, relational and flat.
And as the gospel travelled at speed across the known world,
it was constantly in peril of losing track of its core identity.
Paul’s job – and it was a vital and largely thankless one,
was to steer the ship and keep it on track.
And it seems to me, that in this passage at least,
he is getting a bit stressed about the state of things.
The ship of the church is carrying a few holes, and is taking on water,
and he is busy trying to plug them and limit the damage.
Paul addresses the Ephesians at a level appropriate for them.
And that is the tribal level.
He is very concerned about purity
– there must be no sin,
and there must be no intermingling with pagans,
lest they lead the church astray from its core agenda.
He paints things in stark oppositional language:
once you were darkness, now you are light. Live in the light.
He also can’t resist the use of the threat
that if the Ephesians don’t do as he tells them,
God will be angry and punish them.
The tone of the passage is what I would call moralistic and scolding.
It doesn’t make for pleasant reading to our ears,
but Paul considered it the most effective way to pastor the Ephesian church.
We live in different times,
and have the massive advantage of living in an age of the church
in which there are settled scriptures, doctrines, and traditions of interpretation.
Not to say that we have all the answers now – far from it,
– we could use some of the missional zeal of the early church, for instance –
but we have a lively and rich source of material from which to draw
as we seek to live out our faith in new contexts.
Paul was more or less all on his own.
One way to look at his agenda
is as a two pronged concern for the container and the contents.
In this passage Paul is very concerned about the container.
If the church doesn’t hold on to its core traditions, its true identity,
there really is no hope that the rich contents
will be preserved and carried to those who needed it most.
It’s like the mission of the church in those days
was as a person running across a desert
with a glass of water in their hand
to take to a friend dying of thirst.
The precious water was constantly in danger of spilling out and getting lost.
And the mission Jesus’ left them with, of being stalled or lost forever.
Paul knows he cannot afford to let that happen,
so he takes the opportunity, five chapters into this letter,
to strengthen the container, so as to better preserve its contents.
Hence the emphasis on purity,
and not intermingling with pagans.
Thankfully Paul does share some of the thirst-quenching,
life-giving, juicy goodness of the gospel too.
The lectionary designers unfortunately didn’t provide in this passage,
the first two verses of this chapter,
which although they refer back to a different discussion in the previous chapter,
they also set up a framework for understanding the chapter that follows,
and this passage.
So, verse one and verse two read:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,
and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,
a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Paul’s real intent in our somewhat scolding passage
is summarised in the first two verses of the chapter.
That we should remember that we are God’s beloved children,
and that we should imitate God, and not the culture around us,
living in his love
– love that he has shown us in Christ,
who both lived and died for us,
as an fragrant offering to God.
This, for me, is the core message of the passage.
It is the essential essence of the Gospel that must not be lost.
The contents of the container, which is the church.
Verses one and two speak to our identity as Christians.
Who are we? is the question being answered.
And Paul’s answer is: God’s beloved children,
who are to imitate their loving Father,
and not the culture around us.
So when it comes to sin, and dealing with it,
avoiding it, finding our way out of it, etc,
we don’t need a new list of laws,
of do’s and don’ts;
we don’t need to be moralistic.
We need more of the carrot than the stick.
We need the one essential law:
the law of love.
Here’s a good analogy I like to use.
‘Once there were two farmers from different parts of the world,
who had just met up to compare notes and swap stories.
The American farmer said to his Australian counterpart:
”My ranch is so large and I have so many cattle
that it’s just cost me a fortune to put barbed wire around the whole property.”
The Australian replied: “You think your farm is big.
My farm is vast and I have thousands of head of cattle.
There’s no way I could afford to put up barbed wire fencing to keep the cattle in,
even if I wanted to.
I just have to make sure that the sweet water well
that is at the heart of the property
is kept pure and sweet.
Then the cattle don’t want to stray too far away.
They want to stay in contact with the sweet water well.”
All our moral decisions really stem from this core truth,
which we come to know more and more deeply the further we travel:
we are loved by God as we are,
not because we are good,
because we’re none of us very good if we’re honest;
but so that we can become good.
Christianity is not a series of fences.
It is a sweet-water well.
And the water of life that keeps us coming back for more,
is the profound and unmerited love of God,
– which is also deathless and eternal –
revealed in the life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ his Son.
We are, all of us, at times, broken, depressed, addicted,
angry, abusive, unpleasant people,
but we are also, always, loved by our good creator God.
That is the basis for how we are to live out our faith in the world.
Beloved children of the God of love,
acting out of love,
imitating the same unmerited gentleness, compassion and mercy
with which we have been loved.
But let’s do it!!!
Let’s really key in now and focus,
and give our best at this!
There is an urgency to Paul’s writing.
Wake up! He says.
Wake up oh sleeper, and rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
The days, Paul says, are evil,
and that is most definitely still the case.
There is work to do.
Exposing evil, and bringing to light what is in darkness
so that it may be healed, restored, and forgiven,
that the Kingdom may come,
and that humanity may have a future worth living,
not one spoiled by runaway climate change,
war, conflict, famine and disease,
with ever increasing numbers of refugees,
with ever increasing suspicion and fear of the stranger,
social breakdown, political extremism and even fascism.
Make no mistake. The days are indeed evil.
But we are beloved children of God
All of us.
Whether you know it or not,
whether you feel it or not,
God invites you today to accept his love,
to see yourself as he sees you.
To let this truth filter a little more deeply into your soul,
so that you can be healed, restored and forgiven,
and go from this place filled with the light of God,
filled with the Spirit of God as his ambassadors in the world,
so that the light of Christ may shine on all,
so that it may shine in the darkest of places.