Ephesians 4:24 – 5:2
August 9, 2015
This scripture was fresh in my mind as I sat down to watch the Republican debate Thursday night. I found myself thinking, here is a case study of what the author of Ephesians wanted the early community of followers of Jesus Christ avoid. Many of the candidates profess Christian faith, but if you want an example of how to live in love, that was not it.
I know, they were just doing what they were supposed to do in a debate: using their words to skewer each other. (Although usually the points go to the candidate who calls others stupid without actually saying “Stupid… stupid!”). They were just meeting the expectations of how they perceive the voting public.
The author of this letter knew about debates. [We call the author Paul, but scholars debate whether or not the author was actually Paul, or someone writing in Paul’s persona, which was common at that time.] He – and it was probably a he – knew that supposedly reasoned arguments could easily turn into fighting words. He also knew the danger of the divisiveness in this way of speaking, and so encouraged a different mode for the gathering that would become the church at Ephesus. Too much was at stake for them to act out of their anger, or to not deal with each other honestly. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,” he said. And “let your words give grace to those who hear.” I appreciate that he said it’s okay to be angry, but slander and malice and wrath are not acceptable. Instead, “be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving as God has forgiven you.”
I suspect these are words we could never hear too much, especially given this larger community which we inhabit here in the D.C. area. Kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness – these are not values our political culture engenders or espouses. It’s not that they don’t exist here, but that they often aren’t celebrated. Or that they aren’t to our advantage. Our nation’s current military involvements aside, on this week when Japan observes the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I remember an article describing a conversation between a Japanese journalist and Clifton Truman Daniel, President Truman’s grandson. The journalist kept pressing him to apologize for his grandfather’s order to drop the bombs. Clifton Daniel never did.
“I don’t know that there’ll ever be an apology. Maybe the two countries can find language that brings them together to say ‘you know we acknowledge that serious hurt was done on both sides and we own that and going forward we pledge not to do something like that’ but it doesn’t feel at this point that there will ever be a flat out apology from the US to Japan or the other way around,” he explained.
Admitting that our nation did something wrong, even if we believed we were doing it to save as many lives, to end the war – it’s just not politically savvy.
The author we call Paul has a different motive for those who follow Christ. He wants them to see themselves, not in terms of what divides them, but in terms of their common identity in Jesus Christ, an identity that means they are members of one another. The way they treated someone else was merely an extension of how they treated themselves. “If I hurt you, it’s going to hurt me, too.”
Ultimately, this common connection to Jesus means that they understand they are loved by God in the same way that Jesus was, that they know the same truth. Paul wants them to hear the same way Jesus did at his baptism, “You are my beloved.” And Paul would add, “So live like it.” In the end, it’s about living out the same kind of love God has for us: imitating God’s love – or imitation love – not in the sense that it’s a fake, but in the sense that the only we way to learn it is to imitate God.
Our culture tells us love happens when you are on the same side, when you agree, when you have proven yourself to be worthy, whether because of your body shape or skin color or intellect or ability to make yourself popular or electable. Which in the end isn’t really love.
It’s a direct contradiction to the unconditional love Paul describes here. Paul uses the Greek word agape – translated literally, it says “walk around in agape.” This is love for love’s sake, and this is how we imitate God. Some people call it cross-shaped love: on the vertical axis, we know God’s love for us; therefore we should live it horizontal plane with others.
Agape – it’s the best kind of love, but also the most difficult, particularly when you understand that Paul is talking about a community that takes on family relationships. In my own family, I have two wonderful children, until they end up on the back seat of a car on a long ride from North Carolina. The people we love the most can also frustrate us the most. Paul had to know this, because he didn’t say don’t be angry, only don’t let the anger get the best of you.
The last few months have taught me a little more about the agape part, too, about the challenges of loving people unconditionally. Imitating God, trying to walk in agape, means you’re going to hurt some, too – not because of anything you or the other person has done – but simply because of circumstances.
I have only lived apart from my family for a few short months – getting to see them on the weekends, knowing they are being cared for and that we will be and are now reunited. Knowing how I felt for that short time, I ache so much more for those parents and children who are divided by long work hours, or military service, or incarceration, or deportation, or chronic illness, or even struggles to conceive.
As a parent separated from her children, as scripture also describes God, I’ve also learned that the actions that spring from agape – the imitating – also brings goodness. Advice to preachers is usually to take some distance from your emotions before you try to preach about them, but yesterday, anticipating my family’s arrival – my parents and my children – it was all I could do not to pop. Last week, every night, I would stand in the doors to Will’s and Ginny’s rooms in our new house in Arlington, rooms they saw for the first time yesterday, and imagine them there, what they would be doing, how they would arrange things – or leave things on the floor. (You may guess which one of them does that.) Only at the end of the week could I bring myself to sit on their beds – partly because one of them didn’t have a bed until Thursday – but mostly because it was just too much for me. Our new neighbors would ask about our children, and we would say, “yes, they’re coming Saturday,” – almost to remind ourselves we put up a bright, tacky “Welcome to your new Home” poster and balloons. When I heard Scott say “they’re here,” I dropped everything and ran. I wasn’t consciously imitating God, I was just doing what a mom does – what a daughter does – when those she loves the most drive up after an absence.
Yet here’s what struck me, and why I share it with you. That’s what God feels like all the time. Times infinity. Towards you, towards me, towards every single person. That’s what Jesus came to show. That’s what makes us members of one another, whether we like each other or not. Being faithful means recognizing unconditional love when we see it, means sharing that unconditional love, and not just with those we naturally love the most. In fact, if Jesus’s way, if the words to the Ephesians are true, they may be the very people we are called to love if we are to live as God’s beloved children.
Friends, in this world, in this town, where words are often crafted to hurt, may yours give grace to those who hear. In this time when anger often erupts in malice, may we learn to show kindness, compassion, and mercy. And may you walk in love, in agape, and discover the unimaginable love God has for you and for all. Amen.