A sermon preached on August 19, 2012 based upon Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
(There are two parts to this long sermon. In the second half I talk about Paul’s counsel in regard to truth-telling and dealing with anger.)
When I first read through these words that Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the expression that struck me as puzzling was this: “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” How do you grieve the Holy Spirit.
As I got to thinking about it, I remembered this story: In a certain town there was a church that would regularly hold revival meetings every couple of months. At each revival there would be a man who would always come forward for the altar call. Kneeling before the altar he would cry out, “Fill me, Jesus! Fill me!” He would leave the altar aglow with the Holy Spirit, but before long the glow would fade and invariably the man would return to a rather public display of sinning. (I’ll let you imagine what form this sinning might have taken.)
Nonetheless he would be sure to show up at the next revival meeting, coming forward for the altar call, once again crying out, “Fill me, Jesus! Fill me!” only to depart again to backslide once more into his life of debauchery.
It came to pass that yet another revival meeting was held, and the man once more responded to the call to give his life over to Jesus, crying out, “Fill me, Jesus! Fill me!” This time another cry came out, this time from the back of the congregation: “Don’t do it, Jesus! He leaks!”
When you have a moment when grace of God is experienced in such a way that the love of Christ becomes very real, coaxing you to let go of the tight reins with which you’ve been holding onto your life, the Holy Spirit is given room to come into your heart in such a way that a sweet intimacy is shared, as you and the Spirit dance together in a sweet embrace.
If then afterwards you once more take the reins of your life and go your own way, closing down the space in which the Holy Spirit was allowed to dance with you, it is as if the Holy Spirit becomes a jilted lover, overcome by grief.
Now it is important to keep in mind to who Paul is directing his words. He is not speaking to the world, for he assumes the world is too far gone – too much in bondage to the powers of death and destruction that hold sway in this world – for his words to have any real impact. Nor is really speaking to individuals, though that’s how we generally hear his words: what do they mean for me? No, he’s talking to churches – to communities of people who have been baptized into Christ through the Holy Spirit, having made the commitment to follow him.
When you realize this, it means that in the story of the man who repeatedly ends up backsliding and grieving the Holy Spirit, a large part of the blame for his leakage has to be addressed to his church, for failing to providing the man with the kind of community in which he could be sustained and encouraged in the path that leads to life. The church has failed to be filled with the lovely fragrance the body of Christ.
John Wesley, the founder of the movement that came to be known as Methodists once said that if you lead a person to an encounter with Christ and his love, allowing him to taste the blessed freedom of the new birth, only to drop him afterwards like a lead balloon, leaving him to fend for himself, then what you’re doing is “raising up children for the Devil.” The point being, that invariably the initial exhilaration of a conversion with inevitably diminish some in time, and without the support and counsel of Christian community, the pull back from the world will be too strong, leading to despair and eventually a certain hardhearted cynicism, as in, “I tried Jesus once, and it didn’t last. He isn’t real.”
The reason John Wesley is remembered today is because of the insight expressed in, If you lead somebody to Christ and leave them to find for themselves, you are raising up children for the devil. Most often when I talk about John Wesley I describe how he first set of to be a perfect Christian, only to crash and burn after a young woman broke his heart, leading to a profound experience of failure and brokenness, out of the ashes of which he experienced the grace of God in Jesus Christ, strangely warming his heart. His impact on the world arose in what came afterwards in his story. A year later he responded to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, when as an educated, refined Oxford Don he went out into the highways and byways to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the underclass of society who were being crushed by the Industrial Revolution. This was a rough crowd, folks who’d never spent much time in church, because church their type wasn’t particular welcome there. They worked in the mines and factories, and Wesley would go and preach to them as they going to and from work.
His preaching struck home. In part it had to do with the fact that it was pretty darn impressive to see this educated, refined man go to all the trouble of coming to where they were. But it also had to do with the fact that having experienced the love of Christ for himself when he felt down and out, Wesley spoke as one who knew what he was talking about. So thousands of people responded to his preaching with a decision to follow Christ.
But it wouldn’t last. Before long this rough crowd was back to the signs of their old life, getting drunk and beating their wives and children, getting in fistfights and cussing out their neighbors.
Wesley could see this, and realized the problem was one of follow up and he had a gift for organization, so he organized his new converts into what were called “societies”, where fifty or a hundred people would get together and a teacher would instruct them in what it meant to follow Jesus. This helped some, but not a lot.
So then Wesley organized within the societies what came to be called “class meetings,” in which groups of about twelve people only would gather weekly to share with one another regarding “How does it go between you and the Lord?” They would pray for one another, and love one another, and as a part of that love hold each accountable to stay on the path that leads to life. The class meetings proved effective in nurturing these newly converted Christians so that their personal transformations were sustained and deepened. Along the way, as the church found a way to truly be the Body of Christ, all of England was transformed as well. Some historians credit the Methodist movement with keeping England from going the way of the bloody French Revolution. Empowered by their new identity of being children of God, they were able to slowly rid society of some of its grosser injustices, raising the quality of life of the underclass.
If John Wesley were here today he would hardly recognize what has come of the movement he started. As the rough edges of those called Methodists were smoothed over, giving rise to a more polished and educated sort of person, the power of sin in our lives became less obvious. We gave up carousing and brawling, but that doesn’t mean we ceased to be in bondage to the power of sin, though we often deceive ourselves into thinking it isn’t so, and figure we don’t need the support of support and accountability that once characterized the class meetings. The sort of bondage to the power of sin that characterizes our more sophisticated lives is, in fact, often harder to own up to and address. This is nothing new. It is exactly what happened in the Gospels when the rough edged folks with lives that were more obviously sinful responded enthusiastically to the grace offered freely in Jesus, and the Pharisees, polished and educated, did not. Nowadays if you want to find something that resembles Wesley’s class meetings you’d have to go take in an AA meeting.
Okay, now I want to shift gears and return to the words Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, keeping in mind that they are written primarily to communities of Christians rather than to individuals. These are words for people to ponder together as we would attempt to keep moving forward on the path that leads to life.
Paul reminds us that we are “members of one another,” which is reference to his primary understanding of what the Church is: we are the body of Christ. We are connected to one another the same way arms and legs are when they are part of the same body.
The hope of the world as Paul sees it is that we the Church will live up to our calling to truly be the Body of Christ. We are to live together in this world in a such a way that when the world sees us, they will catch a glimpse of the grace offered in Jesus. If we fail to live out this new, life giving way of life, then obviously our witness to the world won’t be too effective.
So Paul gives practical advice in regard to what this new life together looks like, presumably because they’ve got work to do in these areas.
So I want to highlight a couple of the themes he addresses.
First off, tell the truth to one another; put away falsehood. They are some obvious meaning to what this means. Don’t spread rumors, don’t talk behind peoples’ backs. We shouldn’t pretend to be something we’re not; our words shouldn’t be used to deceive — to give a better impression than our actions have warranted. (None of which is the norm in the world: as just one example, consider the presidential campaign.)
But truth-telling also involves telling the truth about how life is going for us. Don’t ask somebody how they are if you aren’t ready to listen to a truth that is other than “fine.” And if the community is to be the Body of Christ, we should be able to share the things that at times are truly troubling us. And if we don’t feel safe in doing this, then again, it means the community as a whole hasn’t succeeded in being a truly safe place for such honesty.
Did you catch the line about thieves should make an honest living? The reason Paul gives? So that they may have something to share with the needy. That’s a pretty radical notion regarding the purpose of making money. The world assumes we make money to increase our standard of living. No, Paul says. It is so we will have something to help folks who are really in a bad way materially speaking. When we live in a place like Morris County, it can be a lot harder than it was in Paul’s day to come face to face with truly needy people, but that doesn’t meant there aren’t plenty of people we could help with the money we make.
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Anger is a very big and confusing subject, and one which I feel a little foolish preaching about, because anger scares me, both anger in others and in myself, and generally speaking I try to avoid it as best I can. So I can hardly hold myself up as a model in how to deal with anger. But I will proceed because I don’t think I know anybody who is especially adept at dealing with anger, so we’re all in this together
Oftentimes we view anger as something that is intrinsically bad. It’s not. Jesus got angry. God gave us the capacity to feel anger because it is a kind of energy that, when used the way God intended it, can be used to change unjust things that need to be changed – things that tear down community. So Paul says go ahead and be angry.
But we’ve got to examine our anger. If we react too quickly, we are likely to do or say things we will later regret. So in most instances we need to take a step back and do a little soul searching.
One of the movies David showed in his small groups this summer was “Seabiscuit.” One of the characters in the movie is a young jockey with a chip on his shoulder. Every little slight is for him a call to arms. In one scene, his anger causes him to lose a race that he could have won. He becomes so incensed when another jockey cuts him off that he throws out the winning strategy, concerned only with his need for retaliation.
Afterwards, he continues to fume, unable to see how foolish he acted. The owner, an older and wiser man, cuts through his inner confusion with a simple but direct question: “Son, what are you so angry about?”
God is whispering the same question to us when anger overtakes us. Clarity is needed. In some instances we may come to recognize that the person we are angry with didn’t really do anything wrong. We allowed ourselves to get overly stressed – “anxious and troubled about many things” (that’s what Jesus called it one time with Martha lost her temper at both Jesus and her sister.) We take offense where none was given. The problem was with us, perhaps with our need to have the world devote itself to making us happy. Maybe our need to be in control got out of hand and we lost it with someone who didn’t want to go along with our need to be the boss.
Sometimes the real object of our anger isn’t the person in front of us – it’s about something someone did to us yesterday, or even decades ago – and something in the present situation called up that old, buried anger. Such was the case for the young jockey in Seabiscuit. His father had abandoned him when he was a child, and still angry about it all these years later, he is quick to fight any man he crosses for every little perceived slight.
Since anger often makes us feel very uncomfortable, oftentimes we pretend we aren’t angry when in fact we are. The anger ends up getting buried inside, churning away, giving the devil room, as Paul calls it. It can make us depressed, undermining the vitality and life that is our birthright.
Perhaps we manage to go a long time without ever expressing anger so everybody thinks we’re super nice (I’m speaking autobiographically here), and then one day the stressors of life conspire to push us over the edge, and it’s like a damn busting, surprising and terrifying the people around us, causing damage to cherished relationships.
Keep in mind that Paul is addressing a community, which means that the thing about anger that isn’t dealt with is that it damages community. Even if we never “blow up”, our unaddressed anger will mean we quietly pull ourselves away from others. The intimacy of the body of Christ is damaged. Telling the truth to one another includes being willing to acknowledge when we are feeling angry towards somebody in a way that leads us to keep our distance.
The good news is that anger can be expressed without sinning. It is possible to speak the truth in love. Here are some suggestions how to do this.
Pray before you try to express your anger. My wife reminded me of this recently when I was fuming over anger towards someone I felt wronged by. Pray that the Holy Spirit be present in the conversation you intend to have. Pray for the person you feel wronged by. It changes the whole tone of the interaction.
When you speak, avoid saying things that attack the other person’s whole entire identity. For instance, saying “You’re such a loser!” isn’t helpful. Address specific behaviors that have caused you pain, and don’t overstate what the person has done. Don’t use the word “always.”
Above all, convey that you value the relationship you have with the person. Try to communicate that the reason you are speaking out is that you are hoping to bring about reconciliation.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
Obviously, there’s a lot of things we shouldn’t be saying. But what occurs to me are all the moments I let pass by when some words of grace could have been spoken by me. Words of encouragement, appreciation or affirmation that could mean so much to the other and take so little effort on my part.
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
The capacity to be tenderhearted towards others begins with being tenderhearted towards ourselves. And that means taking seriously the Gospel message that God has forgiven us our sins. The places inside us that strike us as repulsive — our failings, our frailties, our weaknesses, our flaws — if we can be tender towards these parts of ourselves in obedience to Christ’s love for us, we can be tender to such things as they appear in the lives of others. We will be, as Paul says, living in love as a fragrant offering to God.
Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.