(This blog post is a sermon that was preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church on May 6th, 2018. It is the second of a two-part sermon that belongs in a group of 6 sermons preached on a book study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, generally under the theme of a post-Easter challenge to Christians. To date, this is the third of four messages I have preached on Ephesians in the last two years. The first message can be found here: https://idealsandidentities.wordpress.com/2018/05/06/ephesians-4-the-fullness-of-christ/ — The Scripture verse for this sermon can be found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+5+-+6%3A9&version=NRSV …)
Before I begin today’s sermon, I want to thank Soren Kierkegaard, who was born 205 years ago this weekend. His text, “Stages on Life’s Way” offers the interpretive structure of this message. It is Kierkegaard who ironically states, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
It is in that spirit, I recount the words of the late George Carlin:
I want to live my next life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day. Then you get kicked out for being too healthy. You enjoy your retirement and collect your pension. Then, when you start work, you get a gold watch on your first day. You work forty years until you’re too young to work. You get ready for high school: drink alcohol, party, and you are generally promiscuous. Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities. Then you become a baby, and then you spend your last 9 months floating peacefully in luxury, in spa-like conditions: central heating, room service on tap, and then comes… the exciting part.
This week, on Facebook, I was asked to list my top 10 music albums of all time that have impacted me and that I still listen to. Now for a music lover like me, that is a really difficult task. My musical ear has been trained and inspired by so much music that narrowing it down to 10 is an almost impossible task. But as I have undertaken the task I have realized that music has played a part in almost every aspect of my life: from meditation and prayer, to reading, to playing on sports teams, to writing, through my divorce, my marriage with my partner, the birth and life of my children, leading up to the defense of my Master’s thesis, to being the soundtrack of my life with love, the passing of my father, and in a very real sense my worship of God. Music has had this very real impact on my formation as a person and has informed my way of standing in the world.
One song in particular, seemed to jump out at me, and sets the stage for us to look at our scripture passage today. It is the song “Time” by the British rock band Pink Floyd. In it, the band observes that in our younger years, we experience days as if there is time to kill. That is, until we realize that 10 years have passed and we didn’t know we that life had already begun. Then, in our middle years, we find that every year is getting shorter, and that we never seem to find the time. It is as if we have missed our opportunity and despite our best efforts, can never recapture that opportunity. Interestingly, it is in the reprise of the song, the afterthought, that the band expresses this set of lines that sticks with me: Home, Home again… I like to be here when I can … And when I come home cold and tired … it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire … far away across the field … the tolling of the iron bell … calls the faithful to their knees … To hear the softly spoken magic spells.
Like this song, Paul urges us in Ephesians 5 to “live not as unwise people, but as wise … making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” In this central passage of the reading today, Paul shifts our attention in focus from one way of life to another. Don’t live in idolatry, greed, debauchery, drunkenness. Certainly, a part of the contrast in this passage is the very real experience of the drunkenness and debauchery of the parties outside the temple of Diana. There is a separateness from local custom to which Paul is exhorting Christians. They would have experienced such parties as an escape from the realities of life. Paul draws the contrast of two ways of living at precisely this point, one way of being that escapes from the realities of life, and one that engages with the realities of life. This contrast is as true today as it was when Paul wrote it.
I am overwhelmingly forced to consider the exhortation away from the life of darkness in my own life. In each case of idolatry, greed, debauchery and drunkenness, I can recognize the deep emptiness of my individual life. I am being idolatrous when I suffer depression from the failure of my favorite sports team. I am being idolatrous when my sense of well-being is controlled by a lover. I am being idolatrous when I feel that my lifestyle is threatened. I am being idolatrous when I put nation over God. I am being idolatrous when I raise my fist, or when I absorb an “us” and “them” mentality. I am being idolatrous when I pick up my phone when my son wants to talk to me in person. In each of these instances, I have turned away from reality and into my own mind. I turn toward the shadowy, the dark and the illusory.
I exhibit greed when I seek a promotion. I exhibit greed when I take credit for team success. I exhibit greed when I buy a lottery ticket. I exhibit greed when I dominate conversation.
I have exhibited drunkenness and debauchery to – when I have a cigarette, when I drink too much, when I have been unfaithful. What was produced was isolation, loneliness, and in the end destruction.
And although I was reaching out for something with the deepest of my being – for connection – community – communion; I instead sought escape from the deep pain, suffering and darkness in my own life.
We are called to live in community. It is a central theme through out the New Testament, in Paul’s writings, and specifically in the letter of Ephesians. “Rise from the dead” he encourages us in verse 14, “and Christ will shine in you.” The fullness of Christ, the life of the Spirit, the peaceful community, are calls to us, both as individuals and as a community, to live differently. Do not escape from each other, but be called together, to live in community, as God intended us.
Being filled with the Spirit is the substance of what walking wisely, living wisely is. It is the manifestation of what Paul writes in 1: 8 – 9. Being filled with the Spirit, and living in a Spirit-filled way, is the fruit of our indwelling of the Spirit that happens upon our confession of faith. It is the engagement of ourselves with the reality around us. Not the escape from it. It is the stepping towards each other, and not away from each other.
It is this turning toward each other that is the real key. After Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit in verse 18, he encourages us to speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making music in our hearts and giving thanks to God for everything! And then he encourages us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
I think the tangibility of the next three examples remind of this fact: being filled with the Spirit happens in the most common and real situations we experience. The relationship of husbands and wives is a metaphor for how community fulfills the will of God and manifests the life of the Spirit. The relationship between parents and children manifests the discipleship of young people. The relationship between slaves and masters must be one of peace and goodness because God is the encompassing reality of both. The tangibility of these examples is all the more important because they very real and present.
In distinction from the escaping of the life of darkness, their presence and tangibility remind us that we cannot be “otherworldly” in our walks. We must engage with those around us, and this for more than self-interest. Yes, Paul reminds children to obey their parents in the Lord so that life will be well and long. Yes, Paul reminds husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies. Yes, Paul reminds slaves to obey their masters not only to win the favour of their masters. But all of these relationships are used to illustrate the life of the Spirit; marital relationships for holiness and purity, children and parents for discipline and maturity, and slaves and masters for relationships without threat, and for deeds that will be rewarded by God.
And the word “submit” offers us a key to understand what it takes to live the life of the Spirit. Submitting is the ultimate turning toward community, instead of escaping from it. Much has been made about the fact that Paul tacitly supports slavery, exhorts wives to submit; but husbands only to love. I think much of this misses the deeper spiritual point that is communicated. Ephesians as a whole, and the passage today in particular, lead us toward engagement with each other and not toward escape. The forces that imply that our most prescient concern should be on the sexism or economic inequality seemingly endorsed in this passage really miss the point – in effect escaping from reality, rather than engaging with it. Paul is not laying down a doctrine that man is the head of the wife, or that slavery is good. Rather, Paul is encouraging us to walk filled with the Spirit, which is a turning toward each other in a community of peace, of maturity and unity, outlined in chapter 4.
To those of you who in anticipated that I indeed would take on the controversy of sexism in the household rules portion of Ephesians, I challenge you to take on the effort to escape community, rather than engage with it. I want you to see three ways that walking in the Spirit changes the way we live.
The first way the Spirit of God changes the way we live is by changing the way we engage with time. When Paul writes: “making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” he is telling us to see the times we live in as broken and suffering and needing to be redeemed. We are to approach the times in front of us with the heart of redemption. Instead of escaping time in a moment of drunkenness and debauchery, we instead have a kind of urgency for making the most of our opportunities. Instead of a drunken and delayed response to a broken world, in verse 17 we are immediately guided to understand the will of the Lord. Opposed to “being wasted”, we are to not waste our time.
The second way the Spirit of God changes the way we live is by changing the way we engage with each other. Isn’t it interesting that instead of exhorting us to be good, Paul gives us the imperative to sing with each other? Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; sing and make music in our hearts. Why not just be good? Well, it is my belief that that just isn’t enough. I have been a decent person for the better part of my life, and it hasn’t produced the fruits that I know are God’s promises.
Living ethically certainly is a step beyond the life of debauchery Paul initially referred to. We can uphold people’s rights, tolerate difference, create fair legal and administrative procedures, and still not have engaged people in our communities. The ethical life is, to pay homage to Soren Kierkegaard, not enough. Instead Paul tells us to sing together. Could it be that in the experience of harmony and unison through singing we indeed come closer to a much deeper communion with others in the community than we do by tolerating alternative sexualities or permitting education in one’s own native tongue? To sing together, to engage with each other in such intimate and powerful ways, is a kind of “ought” that goes beyond the command and obey structures often placed on the family, with husbands and wives, and parents and children. Certainly, it informs the way we read the rest of the passage. Don’t be tempted to think that submission of wife to husband is an exhortation to rule-following. It is an encouragement for spouses to give themselves to each other in an act of communion that goes far beyond the ethics of the role of either husband or wife. The demands in that relationship are far more intense, and the rewards are far greater. The exhortations of Ephesians 5 are to redeem our relationships, and not merely to create fair relationships.
The failure of some interpretations of the “Wives and Husbands” part of this passage is that we don’t follow it far enough. The NRSV included verse 21 as part of the section as an improvement from the NIV, which drew the distinction in a way that made it seem that submission was the rule for wives and love was the rule for husbands. Certainly, the NRSV way of sectioning the passage puts the demand to submit on both partners. Yet, isolating the passage this way does not go far enough yet in understanding the life that is outlined in all of Ephesians 5 at least, if not the whole letter. The demand isn’t only mutual submission as if the only issue is a matter of who defers to whom. More importantly, it is an invitation to communion with each other. Not only about fair treatment, it calls us to the deep harmony analogous to song, an engagement and vulnerability with each other that would be destructive if it were not held together in the bond of peace and were not founded on the gospel of peace that was manifested by Jesus’ death on the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The third way the Spirit of God changes the way we live, is by changing the way we see everything. Instead of verse 21 acting as a frame for the household rules, I encourage us to see verse 20 as the lens through which we not only interpret the household rules, but also as the transformative outlook to which we engage with life, that we should indeed always give thanks to God the Father in everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
For me, this is the hardest word of God to hear. There has been so much sickness and suffering for which I have a terribly hard time being thankful. And even though those times of sickness and suffering have passed, I still complain about not being home enough for my kids, about lower back pain, about too long not having talked to a brother, a hang nail, and the list goes on. I am certainly not always thankful for everything!
But that is the call today. Can you imagine having any other attitude than peace if we truly were thankful in everything at all times? Can you imagine being thankful for that broken bone, for the homophobic person, for Donald Trump, and for the life of a person who died too soon? Can you imagine being thankful for that last snowfall that happened in April, for the challenges of your life?
I echo Paul’s call to the Ephesians here today. I encourage us to be thankful to God for everything and at all times because this not only redeems the time we have, and the relationships we have, but it will redeem our life in freedom and indeed, in peace.
Instead of simply recognizing others, we would embrace them. Instead of bemoaning a broken bone, we heal. Instead of tolerating our children, we become thankful for them. Instead of being annoyed by our parents, we are thankful for them. Instead of held by the rules of marriage, we are thankful for the person to whom we are married. Instead of being oppressed by our employer, or annoyed by our employee or colleague, we become thankful for them.
But to change the way we see everything in the fullness of the Spirit is a daunting task. In our lives we can be all-too-aware of the host of events and persons for which we are ungrateful, and to which we may even be hostile. To draw the line this way is then, indeed, not a support for our educated liberal-minded attitude that by having proper institutions, or by giving to the right charities, or by saying the correct words, we are actually walking in the way called for by Paul here in Ephesians 5. To draw the line this way is to say that there is no way to peace and communion with God. Instead we should understand peace and communion with God and each other is the way of life in God’s Kingdom.