11th Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Ephesians 4:25–5:2
If you’ve been watching the Olympic coverage over the past couple of weeks, I’m sure that—in addition to the actual sports events—you’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from commentators. They seem to be on television 24 hours a day, dissecting the performance of the athletes, the officials, the judges—even the Japanese summer heat and the vending machines of Tokyo.
Of course, it’s not just the Olympic games or other sports events that get commented on (or is it, “commentated on”?). All through the year, we listen to commentators—commentators on politics, football, books, movies, music, the economy, gardening, restaurants … you name it! If you can name it, somebody will be available to comment upon it. And for the most part, all of these verbose opinions come from people sitting on the sidelines.
But you know, it’s not only in the news media that we find these sorts of commentators. We find “homegrown” commentators around us in our everyday lives, all over the place: sitting in their living rooms—or in a sports bar—watching TV; working beside us in office and shop; riding with us on public transit. We hear them voice their opinions during intermission at a concert or play. They offer us their insights while we’re waiting in line at the grocery check-out, or pumping gas at the self-serve.
Yes, homegrown commentators are thick on the ground, eager to give the world the benefit of their opinions.
We also encounter them in churches, don’t we? These folks may comment after a service if the piano player touched a wrong note, if the sermon ran overtime, if the scripture reader mispronounced some obscure biblical name.
Now, some of these church commentators are actually quite knowledgeable. They can legitimately comment on who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. They can discuss the latest archaeological discoveries in Megiddo, Jerusalem or Qumran, and even address the question of how many “Isaiahs” wrote the prophet’s book. They’ve read Barth, Tillich and Rahner. They know their stuff!
However—and this is a big however—when it comes to commitment, many of them shy away. Because, you see—while they’re more than happy to be commentators—they don’t want to be active practitioners of the Christian gospel. They’re not at all eager to join in the life of Christ’s church, or to learn the art of cross-carrying. We get plenty of opinions from them—but a bare minimum of action.
Here’s another “big however”: One ounce of practice is worth two tons of theory! Christian discipleship is not a spectator sport. We need to get down to the nitty-gritty. Is our belief simply an intellectual exercise, or is it a way of life—abundant life—in Christ Jesus?
How do we perform in the everyday circumstances of life? Do we “walk the walk” as well as we “talk the talk”? Do we practice what we preach? When it comes to the ways of Jesus, are we participants … or merely commentators? These are some of the questions that challenge us if we carefully read Paul’s words in his Letter to the Ephesians.
In the early passages of this letter, we find a lyrical celebration of what God has done in Christ. The apostle lays before us the wonder of what Jesus has done—not just for the Ephesians, but for the entire world and the whole universe. Paul celebrates the divine power which will bring everything into harmony: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (4:5).
Paul really is amazing. He launches out upon the ocean of God’s glory and plumbs the depths of holy mystery. He sees visions far beyond the commonplace, and struggles for words to express the awesome wonder of it all. In the early part of his Ephesian letter, the sentences roll on as if punctuation was impossible once Paul got rolling on his subject.
Then, suddenly, the mood changes. The sentences become shorter. Now, Paul’s focus shifts to the nitty-gritty of Christian behaviour.
After soaring through the universe, he comes back to our street—back to our homes, our schools, our places of business … and yes, even our churches!
This doesn’t mean that Paul is setting his theology aside, and saying: “Okay, enough of the exalted theory, now let’s get real.” No. What Paul sets forth in today’s lectionary reading is the essential outworking of his high vision—but expressed in the common affairs of life. If we truly believe, as Paul does, that Christ intends to transform all things—and is calling us to help in this process—then we must begin at home. Just listen to few of the things Paul says here; it doesn’t get much simpler than this:
- “Tell your neighbour the truth” (4:25). Stop lying. No more half-truths. Speak the plain truth to one another because you are already members of the body of Christ.
- “Don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge” (4:26). Watch your moods, deal cleanly with your anger. It’s natural—and sometimes necessary—to get angry, but make sure it does not lead you into evil.
- “Get an honest job” (4:28). Stop stealing. Those who have been thieves must start working honestly for a living—not just for their own sake, but so they have something to share with the needy.
- “Watch the way you talk” (4:29). Filthy language must not pass your lips. Cut out spiteful words and actions. Don’t nurse your resentments.
- “Say only what helps” (4:29). Speak only what is good and helpful in a situation, so that your conversation brings blessing, not condemnation. Loud-mouthing and malicious gossip must cease immediately. Slander is never the way that Christ would take.
- “Don’t grieve God” (4:30). Don’t do anything that is offensive to the Spirit of God who now lives in you.
- “Be gentle with one another” (4:31). Don’t forget you are members of one body. Be kind-hearted and eager to forgive, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Could Paul get more down to the nitty-gritty than this? This is what his lofty theology means on the streets of Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. It’s what the gospel is about on the streets of Tokyo, London, New York, Calgary, and Toronto.
Paul is showing us how we can put our ideals into practice. We are called to be not commentators, but practitioners, of faith in Christ.
Now, when we hear Paul talking about cheats, liars, thieves and slanderers, maybe we think to ourselves: “What a rough bunch those Ephesians were!”
Perhaps we feel superior to those early Christians to whom Paul wrote this letter. But look: we are not called to be commentators about them and their faults, way back then and there. No. We are called to be practitioners of Christ—here and now. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians still applies to us. Who among us can bear his checklist, without flinching? Listen to it once again:
- “No more lies,” Paul says (4:25). That means no “white lies”—and no deceit by truth withheld! How does our honesty in all our dealings stack up?
- “You do well to be angry,” Paul says (4:26)—but only if you channel your anger into some good purpose. “Don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge.” Do we follow the apostle’s wise advice?
- “Did you used to make ends meet by stealing?” Paul asks (4:28). There are plenty of ways of stealing other than burglary and shoplifting—like tax evasion, or claiming credit for another person’s work. What is our record like?
- “Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth” (4:29). This includes verbal abuse and the disrespect for others that lies behind it. It includes racism, and religious prejudice. Do those things lurk among us?
- “Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk” (4:31). Do we choose words to bless others rather than hurt them? Do our words affirm, encourage, inspire and lighten the load that others bear?
- What about spitefulness? Do we harbour resentments?
- How about gossip? Libel causes damage whether or not it ever ends up in court. Good will and trust can be forever destroyed by idle slander.
- Or, what about being generous and merciful? Giving without looking for reward? Forgiving as Christ forgives us? Is that truly our style?
Are we really that much better than the Ephesians? I’m not sure we are. And, actually, I know I’m not! The down-to-earth practical things still challenge me—challenge me to get off my commentator’s cushion and put my faith into action.
Small things matter. Paul’s grand vision—where everything is reconciled in Christ and drawn together in beautiful harmony before God—in the end, it all comes down to some very basic stuff. It is not enough to sit on the sidelines as Christian commentators. No. Our calling is to be practitioners. But there’s no instant Ph.D. in the field of discipleship. This is a step-by-step venture. It takes time.
And yet … we live in an era that emphasizes speed. Automobiles can cover long distances in a few hours. Our airliners can take us to the other side of the world while we eat, drink and sleep a little. By telephone or internet, we can instantly communicate with just about anyone, just about anywhere on earth. Things happen quickly these days. We like speed.
But our journey as disciples of Jesus remains a pilgrimage on foot. We move towards the magnificent future that Paul says lies in store for us—but we proceed step by step.
There is no expressway to the Kingdom of God. Instead, we traverse a narrow path that is, in places, rough and full of potholes. There are deep ravines and high mountain passes to navigate. Sometimes robbers may fall on us and try to steal our faith. False guides will meet us at crossroads, offering tantalizing diversions or bogus short cuts.
And then, at pleasant camping places, we may meet some very friendly folk—expert commentators who have watched many other pilgrims go by. They invite us to come and stay with them, and discuss at length the profound questions of life. We must not allow them to delay us for too long.
Some mornings we may feel exhilarated by the new day, and—when evening comes—we have intriguing stories to swap around the campfire. Other evenings we will lie down weary, bruised, and discouraged—and wonder why we bother. But, by morning, the call of Christ lifts us to our feet once again.
That’s how it is. Speed is not the essence of this journey, but the small details are. The small details of faithful, practical love—these are essential to our pilgrimage. From Paul, we have received the glorious faith that all things will be drawn together in harmony through Christ. We also learn from him that such glory becomes real when we pay attention to the details—the details of loving deeds.
I tell you, the world we live in does not need our religious opinions. But the world we live in is very much in need of our faithful actions. It is desperately in need of our love, our joy, our hope of resurrection.
Remember, we are the ones entrusted with Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18)—the ones through whom God is making his appeal to the world in this day. So, my friends, let’s be faithful ambassadors for our Lord. Let’s be practitioners instead of commentators … for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
* The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson