One day a very little boy was heard by his mother saying words that he had obviously heard his older brothers saying while they were playing in the street.
Now this woman was a particularly wise woman, having a great understanding of how a little boy’s mind would work, so she took him aside and spoke unexpectedly gently with him.
“Those words you said, just then, are not really nice words for a good boy to say, but I thought I should tell you that there is one thing I never want to hear you or any of the big boys ever saying.”
“What’s that, Mummy?”
“I don’t ever want to hear you say “Rule Britannia!”
The little boy solemnly promised never to say such a bad thing. But it wasn’t long before his older brothers heard him one day stomping his feet in the back yard shouting “Rule Britannia! Rule Britannia!” because he was very cross about something.
We call this reverse psychology and in some situations it works. But in my teaching experience I always found that I preferred not to teach what I wanted kids to do by showing them what not to do. It was always much better to show them what was good or right.
Unfortunately, St Paul was not up with the latest in pedagogical theory, having learned mostly from Gamaleal some 2000 years ago who was working out of the Hebrew peripatetic tradition. Thus we have in our selection from Ephesians (5:15-20) today something expressed quite differently from what we had last week.
Last week, he was telling us very positively what to do and why. Over these few verses we have three emphatic contrasts drawn to our attention – but with the same purpose as we were given last week – unpacking for us what it means to be new creations in Christ; what this new life really looks like.
“Don’t live like ignorant people,” he says, “but like wise people.” I guess we would all like to do that, but what he is really getting at is a very particularly Jewish way of thinking. The Greek and Roman philosophers of the day thought they had captured WISDOM with their knowledge about all things and their powers of logic. For the Hebrew mind, however, WISOM is about the orientation of your life towards God and God’s values. So, what Paul is calling us towards is to live in keeping with God’s commands, pursuing those traits of character that make for a peaceful and harmonious life, and attending to God’s wisdom as revealed in our Scriptures. Now that is a rather big call, isn’t it.
The second pair of contrasting things he raises for us is in verse 17: “Don’t be fools then, but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do.” In first century philosophical thought, the opposite of foolishness would be self-possession, discipline and an independence of spirit and the will. Paul calls us towards a very different kind of wisdom. Foolishness for Paul is relying on your own wisdom, but true wisdom is found in trying to understand God’s will for us.
Finally Paul warns us of the misuse of that terrible spirit – alcohol. “Don’t get drunk with wine, which will only ruin you; instead be filled with the Spirit.” I have always been intrigued by the word play that exists for us in English by our use of the term SPIRITS to refer to strong alcoholic drinks. I discovered that in the etymology of this term is the pre-scientific notion that what made people behave strangely when they had too much wine or beer was a spirit that had possessed them. Indeed it was not uncommon then and now for people from various religious traditions to use alcoholic drinks or other mind-altering substances to induce an ecstatic experience that was deemed to be a means of accessing the gods.
Paul is clearly aware of this and he wants to push us towards the True Spirit – the Spirit of God – who alone can give us those truly ecstatic experiences of the divine.
Finally, Paul commends to us all the important work of thanksgiving to God – for EVERYTHING. Since God is greater than all creation and God is in all of the creation, everything we have is a gift from God, and it is an appropriate act of reverence to thank God for that. Likewise in our interdependent relationships with each other, the appropriate act of reverence is to give thanks for all that we mean to each other. It is also a great way of keeping the peace.
Now I hope that these words make some sense to you. They are a clarion call to live our lives centred firmly on God through Christ. It is in Christ that we discover the will of God for us. It is in Christ that we find true wisdom. And it is in Christ that find the voice that will truly and rightly praise God, in whom we live and move and have our being.