A Clean Break (Ephesians 4:17-5:20)

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:17-19 NIV)

We may find these verses quite harsh, let’s be honest; how many of your non-Christian friends would you describe as indulging “in every impurity” or “full of greed”? Most of my non-churchy friends throughout the years have been quite nice, quite normal, respectable and friendly Canadians. The difficulty with reading verses like these is that we sometimes have trouble getting our minds out of our culture and into the setting in which they were first written.

Back in Paul’s day there was good reason why Jews and Gentiles would never hang out together and would remain quite separate. They were worlds apart! The Jew would look down upon the Gentile as an immoral sinner, while the Gentile would look down upon the Jew as a stuck-up Bible carrying prude (except for the few would find their righteousness attractive). While we may worry about a downhill slide of morals in our day, the morality of the typical Canadian is quite commendable when compared to the typical Gentile of New Testament times. They really were indulging in every kind of impurity and really were full of greed. Perhaps from watching too many movies, we have an incorrect tendency to think of ancient cultures of being quite like our own.

Paul, therefore, is calling Gentile converts to stick out like sore thumbs in being very different from the society all around them at that time. Indeed in becoming Christ followers they will be taking on some good Jewish theology, recognizing one God, the sanctity of life, and the value of work for example. But in fact the Christian in following Jesus should be taking their righteousness a step further than the Jew: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NIV). Becoming a Christian would cause a Gentile person in that time and place to be very different indeed, and in so many ways.

So why do we not tend to see the same big differences between Christians and non-Christians in Canada today? First, we Canadians still enjoy the influence of Christianity on our society. So when a non-believer in Canada says something like “I am a good moral person” what they often do not realize is that their appeal is to a standard set by a more solid Christian past. Your typical twenty-first century Canadian, churchgoing or not, looks like a saint compared to your typical first century Ephesian and this is a result of the Christian influence on what is, and is not, considered good in society. Second, if the apostles were around today, they would likely have much to say to the Canadian Christian about our passion, or lack thereof. It may be a time for a change of clothes: “and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 NIV). And so what Paul has to say to the first century Ephesian in the rest of our passage, he has to say to us.

We do well then, to hear Paul’s call to imitate the kindness of God in a way that affects our honesty, handling of anger, goods & money, speech, and offence.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin” : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:25-5:2 NIV)

And we do well to hear Paul’s call to no longer follow society’s lead, but rather God’s, and therefore become leaders of society in matters of sexuality, speech, morals, drink, and worship:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:3-20 NIV)

Becoming a Christian required a clean break from the living and thinking of the surrounding society for any Gentile in Paul’s day. While it is sometimes easy enough for us as Christians to blend in with the comparatively more moral society around us, perhaps we need a clean break more than we know. Jesus makes a huge difference; may we learn to be different!

Walking Worthy of the Calling (Ephesians 4:1-16)

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1 NIV)

This verse marks a change in the letter to the Ephesians with Paul going from theology sprinkled with ethics in chapters one through three, to ethics sprinkled with theology in chapters four through six. Paul having spoken to us about God’s amazing plan of grace and our part in it now goes on to encourage us to play our part well. It would be interesting to stop right here and ask, “what is first on the list?” If you were Paul and were about to speak about Christian behaviour and character, what would you put first on the list? Given that the sex saturated society of the Roman Gentile world was far worse than that of Canada today, perhaps you might start there? Or start with alcohol abuse, or slavery in the Roman world, or the Artemis worship of the Ephesians? How does Paul begin? With a plea for the maintaining of unity, something which interestingly enough tends to get shuffled down the list of priorities today.

Paul introduces this theme of unity with an encouragement toward the development of character traits that are good for unity: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2 NIV). As one commentator puts it, “bearing with one another” would be better translated as “putting up with one another.” I have just enough knowledge of Greek to agree, but plenty enough experience in churches to agree whole-heartedly! Over the years many a well meaning Christian has meant well, but not done well due to a lack of humility, gentleness, patience, and a commitment to put up with me and/or others. Let us strive to live a life worthy of the calling we have received, and put these character traits at the top of our to-do and to-become lists.

Paul goes on: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3 NIV). I like the New Revised Standard Version of this verse which speaks of maintaining the unity of the Spirit. In other words, we do not create unity, but we are tasked with recognizing and nurturing the unity that is already there. When Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples in John 17 he was praying for the Father to do something only the Father could do – make unity happen! It’s not for us to force it, it is for us to see it, to nurture it, to enjoy it. That God is the source of our unity is made clear in the next few verses:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV)

From these verses it does seem ludicrous to think that we can create unity. One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all; we have no impact on any of that! But we would also be fools to fight against that and carry on as if there were several bodies, several Spirits, several hopes, faiths, baptisms, and Gods to choose from. There is only One, and so the best thing we can do to promote unity is to strive to know that One!

I am a wee bit like my father in that we tend to have pet-peeves that no one else would ever think of. Here is one of mine; inter-church services that focus on unity. Strange but true, and here is why. When there is an inter-church service that has a focus on unity from the call to worship and opening hymn to the closing hymn and benediction, I find myself distracted by our differences and wondering if we are not worshipping unity itself. But if an inter-church service would focus on Christ from beginning to end, then as I worship Christ, and my Pentecostal, and United, and Anglican, and Presbyterian, and Alliance, and what have you all worship Christ, we experience unity without the incessant need of mentioning it. I am left with no doubt that I share a wonderful bond with my Christian friends across denominations – and that bond is Jesus. Want unity? Get Jesus! Let us strive to live a life worthy of the calling we have received, let us keep ourselves centred on Christ and so enjoy the unity He gives.

Taking Our Prayers Up a Notch (Ephesians 3:14-21)

The reactions of our church family were amusing when we first introduced the idea of systematically praying through the Church Family directory. As we began to list people’s names for prayer in the bulletin each Sunday, there were those who asked “what’s wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Soandso that we are praying for them?” This practice can also cause us to wonder just what we should pray about for others, especially when we don’t know them. And what would we want others to be praying for when they are praying for us?

Taking a good look at our prayer life can help shine the light on what is important to us. One of the most difficult courses for me while in seminary was called “Clinical Pastoral Education.” It also turned out to be one of the most beneficial. As we students took to the hospital wards in the role of chaplains we were required to submit on a regular basis “verbatim reports” which were our written recollections of an entire conversation with a patient. We would then take turns being on the “hot seat”; handing our verbatim reports to our student group, who would then ask all manner of questions, including very often “why on earth did you say that?” It was not too long before most of us realized that our “pastoral” conversations with patients were often really more about us and our concerns, than they were about the patients. You can learn a lot about yourself by taking good note of the things you talk about, or fail to talk about! It would be an interesting exercise to do the same thing with our prayer lives; imagine what we might learn about ourselves if we prepared verbatim reports on our conversations with our Lord. Perhaps you can take a moment to think through your most recent prayers. What do you learn about yourself from them? What do they say about what is really important to you?

The content of Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 can be a wonderful challenge for us with regards to what we pray. Paul can become a wonderful mentor to us if we are willing students of prayer. When Paul prays for the Ephesians, what does he pray for?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, (Ephesians 3:16 NIV)

WHEN PAUL PRAYS FOR OTHERS, HE PRAYS THEY WILL EXPERIENCE POWER. I suspect many of us pray for escape from our troubles, but Paul prays for strength and power. Looking back on my life, I am glad for the times God did not answer my prayers for escape – the strength He has given me instead has had a much bigger and better impact.

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:17a NIV)

WHEN PAUL PRAYS FOR OTHERS, HE PRAYS THEY WILL EXPERIENCE A NEARNESS TO GOD. There could be no more loving prayer for another person than that they experience a closeness with God. Many of our prayers for others lack eternal dimensions. Praying for for one’e relationship with Christ can change their lives for better and for good!

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, (Ephesians 3:17b NIV)

WHEN PAUL PRAYS FOR OTHERS, HE PRAYS THEY WILL ACQUIRE A GROUNDING IN GOD’S LOVE. While many people celebrate Mother’s Day today, many others struggle to celebrate having experienced hurtful relationships. How much hurting would have instead been celebration had there been a greater grounding and rootedness in love?

may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. (Ephesians 3:18,19a NIV)

WHEN PAUL PRAYS FOR OTHERS, HE PRAYS THEY WILL HAVE A DEEPER KNOWLEDGE OF GOD. The NIV translation here supplies a bit of interpretation, the Greek text not containing the words “is the love of Christ.” While the NIV translators help us to understand what the width, length, height, and depth might refer to, the original Greek texts do not tell us. Some suggest it refers rather to God’s power. Perhaps it should refer to everything about God! But verse 19 makes it clear that if we don’t know the love of God, we don’t know God.

that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19 NIV)

WHEN PAUL PRAYS FOR OTHERS, HE PRAYS THEY WILL BE FILLED WITH ALL THE FULLNESS OF GOD. Imagine a life marked by the beauty of God, the holiness of God, the wisdom of God, the patience of God, the compassion of God, the love of God, and the glory of God. This and more is what Paul prays others will experience, and while we may think that this would require a miracle, we are quickly reminded in the next two verses that our Lord is in the habit of granting them!

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20, 21 NIV)

If you are like me, then our passage will inspire you to take your prayers up a notch. Let’s pray!