A long time ago, right after I finished High School, I was offered a place at Mount Lawley Teacher’s College. This was a very different kind of place to a university – where the goal is to increase your knowledge about whatever it is that you were studying – maths, science, history? Whichever.
As a Primary School Teacher, I already knew more than I would need to know – so far as KNOWLEDGE goes. What I didn’t know yet was how to BE a TEACHER. There were indeed some very practical teaching skills I needed to learn, but the most important work I had to do there was learning how to BE a person who would inspire curiosity in children and empower them to learn – something that is much more easily said than done.
I think that many of the early Christians knew that BEING a Christian was also something much more easily said than done.
Our selection from Ephesians this week – 4:25-5:2 – takes up a challenge laid out in the verses preceding it.
So get rid of your old self, which made you live as you used to - the old self that was being destroyed by its deceitful desires. Your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God's likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy.
This, of course, invites us to ask certain questions; like
What exactly does all this mean?
What does this new life look like? and
How will I know if I am living it?
I think our selection today is trying to flesh out the answers to questions like these.
There are some interesting little rules in this selection. Some seem to be echoes of Old Testament rules, while others have echoes from elsewhere in the New Testament writings and some even have an echo of the local philosophical ideas. None of them are particularly striking, really, are they?
But the one thing that I think is interesting about them is that six times we are given a particular reason why we should behave in that particular way; and perhaps even more interesting is that none of these reasons are in the form of a threat; they simply appeal this sense of what the Christian identity is all about.
Truthful speech becomes a requirement for the Christian community because “we are all members together in the body of Christ.” Now you realise that “member” in this context is something far more intimate that being on the parish electoral roll. It means being a member like a body part is a member of your body. Being untruthful among ourselves is like the eye telling the nose that it isn’t smelling an onion – it actually couldn’t do that. So it should not be possible for a Christian to be less than truthful.
The little rules about anger are interesting. Anger is a really powerful emotion – you only have to see a little kid getting scared of how strong their own reaction of anger is to realise this. We can also think of stories of road rage in our own time to understand how our anger can lead us to doing really bad things. Here we have an appeal to beware of forces outside the community that are capable of undermining our strength.
One thing we noticed about this part on Thursday morning was that we are not old not to be angry. We are simply told not to let that anger lead us into sin.
The next one is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it? Anyone who used to rob is told to stop robbing, not because robbery is wrong, but because it is far better for them to earn an honest living.
The matter of our speech is raised again. How easy it is to utter harmful words. However, in the Christian community, we are here encouraged to do our utmost to build each other up with our words, rather than tear each other down. Again, we have a positive reason given for behaving differently rather than a rule that we should not do this.
Did you notice the little reference to the Holy Spirit? I love that idea that the Spirit is what marks us a God’s forever, but this reference is right in the middle of what we have before us and it seems to me this emphasises a vital consequence of our failure to live in the prescribed way – the Spirit of God is grieved.
The last area of behaviour that is focussed on is forgiveness. This really is a hard area of life for us sometimes. When someone hurts us we generally hold back forgiveness for as long as we think we can get away with it. Along with these words in which we are encouraged to see the example of God’s willingness to forgive us our failures as a motivation to forgive those who have offended us, my three year old granddaughter has a message for us all from her favourite cartoon movie – “Let it go! Let it go!” a song from the movie Frozen.
There is an epithet of local wisdom going around that “withholding forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” It is a good analogy because I think it illustrates well the effect upon us of the poison. But we are called to live differently – forgiving others because God has forgiven us through Christ.
So then, all these little rules and their motivating assertions come together like a climax in the final verses of our selection:
Since you are God's dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.
Elsewhere we read about imitating Christ, and there is a sense in which this could be taken to mean the same thing. I also take it to mean that in the same way that a child looks up to and imitate the parent – mother or father – so we should look up to God and imitate all that is good in the character of God, as supremely demonstrated in the death of Jesus which is here described as a sweet-smelling offering that pleases God.
There is some lovely imagery here interweaving the idea of the Gospel and our response to it. God’s action in Christ in a sense demands certain behaviours of human beings, but alongside these comes the gifts that make them possible to yield to: our “membership” in the body of Christ, the seal of the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of God and love of Christ.