Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Ordinary 19B; Proper 14
Put away falsehood. Let your words give grace to those who hear. Put away bitterness and wrath, anger, slander, malice. Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven. Live in love as Christ loved us.
Reading these verses from Ephesians this week elicited two reactions. The first and most powerful one was a deep, grief-filled longing. The second was a question: Is such a community possible? All this kindness and speech that builds up and this putting away of anger sounds too utopian to be true. I am on social media, after all. Despite my pithy plastic keychain that reads, “Never read the comments,” I do, in fact, read the comments, all the comments. I read Yelp reviews and watch the news, too. In these spaces, wrangling and wrath prevails. Bigly.
That’s why as I read this beautiful poetic parenetic text from Ephesians I was moved to tears. Be imitators of God. Yeah, right. Put away all bitterness. Sure, that’ll happen. Been on Twitter lately? Let no evil talk come from you. Fat chance of that. Each admonishment seems more unrealistic, unlikely and implausible than the last. But then I read the Gospel lesson appointed for this day, the one from John that continues the theme of Jesus as the bread of life, but this time with the skeptics and critics in the mix, the voices of those not inclined to build up others with their words or put away all wrath and bitterness. #sonofJoseph #notspecial #whodoeshethinkheis
I imagine the Twitter feed and social media accounts of those scribes and Pharisees, the ones who know they are better than, smarter than, more than Jesus and his disciples and the crowds. I hear a familiar cynicism and self-righteousness that would fit well in our current climate and so I lean in to hear Jesus’ response to them. What does Jesus have to say to the doubters and haters?
Jesus, as is his custom, points to God. Always Jesus points to God. Reminding his hearers of their place in relation to God’s power. Jesus is unfazed by their complaints, aware that the gospel creates its own hearers and that God will draw to him those whom God calls. (Maybe eventually some of those filled with bitterness and wrath and evil talk.) Jesus tells those hell-bent on destroying rather than building up that God’s promises are not dependent upon their consent, assent or belief. Jesus’ work will be done on earth as it is in heaven, with or without them. Therefore, he will continue his ministry of forgiveness, healing, salvation and redemption, knowing that God will teach those with a teachable spirit, no matter what the haters do or say. #breadoflife #Godtaughtones #neverhunger
If that’s the case, that God teaches and calls those whom God chooses, then what’s the role of Christ’s disciples, those of us who are preachers, teachers, followers? Be imitators of God. Be kind. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Let no evil talk come from your mouths. Start to live as if the utopian vision of this Ephesians text is not only possible, but through the power of Christ working within us and the Spirit blowing where it wills and God’s teaching, promised and inevitable.
Imagine if we lived as described in Ephesians. Really, truly, daily practicing forgiveness, being kind, allowing no evil talk to come from our mouths but only those words that build up the other, the community and the world. Would not others be drawn to us and through us, through the grace of God, to the One we follow? This vision of behavior and community in these few epistle verses this week are radically countercultural. They brought forth a longing in me that I do not think is unique. Don’t we all long for such encounters and community and connection?
Those of us invested and committed to the church, the institution of the church as an expression of the Body of Christ in this world, lament readily our decline and irrelevance. We wring our hands over the loss of members and influence and, frankly, we should be concerned about such matters. Not because we need to be large to be faithful, but because our shrinking reflects our reluctance to practice evangelism in the largest sense of that word. We have been the complainers, not the proclaimers. We have been the ones so cynical we’ve reduced Jesus to just that kid from Nazareth, rather than the Son of God who has come to save the world. Evil talk and wrangling and wrath have spewed forth from our lips and we have failed to forgive as we have been forgiven or love as Christ loved us.
The gospel creates its own hearers. God will draw to Jesus Christ those whom God calls. God teaches the teachable and writes God’s law upon their hearts. And yet, those of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to preach and teach, too. We are called to be witnesses. To go to the ends of the earth, all the world, baptizing. To love God and neighbor. To tend and feed. To live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. To not just read and long for the life outlined in Ephesians, but to prayerfully, humbly, haltingly practice it every single day.
Imagine if before we fired off that comment or posted that pithy, clever post or took out our frustration on whoever happens to be in front of us, we asked ourselves: Does this build up or does it tear down? Is this kind? Am I speaking the truth in love? How does this act or word imitate God and show the love of Christ Jesus? This is no greeting card sentiment or vapid bumper sticker or self-referential, self-help slogan. This is radical. Such practices require discipline, prayer, the ability to confess, repent and keep trying. All these acts point away from ourselves and toward God. They demand that our focus be less inward and more outward, less skeptical and more hopeful, less fearful and more merciful, less self-righteous and more aware of our need for the grace of God, less sure of our own abilities, insight and wisdom and more open to the Spirit and God’s teaching.
Imagine. No, don’t imagine. Start imitating God and loving as Christ loved us. Every. Single. Day. Trust that others will be drawn to us and through us, to the One we follow. No utopian vision, but the actual Body of Christ, the church.
- Read through the Ephesians verses and choose one of the practices to focus on each day this week. Write down which one you intend to practice and then record your discoveries at the end of each day.
- Are you inclined to be cynical? Skeptical? Why? How do these attitudes fit or not with the message of the gospel?
- How have you been taught by God and drawn to Jesus Christ?
- John’s Gospel has Jesus repeating the phrase, “I am the bread of life.” Do you think of Jesus as the bread of life?
- When have you been in a community that has practiced the admonitions found in this Ephesians text? When have you experienced the opposite?
- Read these other passages that talk about God teaching those whom God calls: Isaiah 54:13, Jeremiah 31:33 and 1 Thessalonians 4:9. If God is doing the teaching, what is our role?
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