Sunday, August 30, 2009

All Washed Up

All Washed Up

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 30, 2009

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Never in the history of the world has there been a people so obsessed with external cleanliness as we are, obsessed with what goes into or onto a person. We have declared a war of substantial financial proportions on smells: billions are spent annually on deodorizing everything that might remind our noses that human life is going on in our homes and work places. Store shelves display dozens of brands of toothpaste, the main selling point of most being that they will get breath fresher or teeth whiter, or reduce the characteristic effects of smokers’ teeth and breath...that they will help prevent tooth decay comes almost as an afterthought.

There are racks of different brands of mouthwash that will cure “morning breath,” soaps that will guarantee our romantic happiness, laundry detergents that make clothes smell not like the people who wear them but like a forest, deodorants that remove human odors from every imaginable body part and some we would just as soon not imagine, perfumes, colognes, and on and on.

The point of this litany of modern hygiene is to say that the Jews of the first century were certainly not the only culture with an affinity for governing the personal hygenic habits of people. While our culture’s rules concerning the things that make a person unclean may not be stated as law, they are no less fully enforced. And they don’t always have to do strictly with health concerns any more than the Pharisees’ did.

If you think I’m off base, imagine sitting next to someone in a hot room, someone who has mowed the lawn on Thursday, neglected to shower for a few days, and who couldn’t find a clean shirt to wear this morning. The censure of our noses would likely be immediate! Yet, even though we might be offended by a little human body odor, many of us no longer notice the smell of smoke and exhaust that invades our cars when we sit at a traffic light. The irony is that the exhaust fumes carry many more potential hazards to our health than a little B.O. It turns out that we, too, have rules for social cleanliness no less elaborate than the rules of the ancient Pharisees.

We may be like the Pharisees in another way. We tend to divide up our lives into what they thought of as clean and unclean areas. Some areas of life are touched by our religious faith, others are not. Right? Well, not according to Moses: “No other nation...has a god so near when needed as the Lord our God is to us.”[1] The nearness of God. It was this very nearness which convinced Jesus that there was no area of life from which God excluded himself, or from which we needed to try to exclude God. Jesus had experienced God as one so close, so intimately involved with life, that there was virtually nothing which could separate us from God’s concern for us. Not eating the wrong food, not running with the wrong crowd, not even the lack of a bath.

The central drama of the Bible always has to do with God’s intimate concern for people, God’s desire to be near at hand when needed. It was this desire to be near that made God come close to the people in the Exodus, in the years of travel in the wilderness, in the years of the kingdom, in the exile from the promised land, in the very event of the incarnation, when Jesus was born as God’s own passionate expression of concern with us and among us.

The commandments of God, far from being the stark legalisms which would create distance between God and people, were intended to establish a relationship, to make divine love available, to bring God close.

When we try to remember what it is that made Israel great we are hard-pressed to discover anything except for one thing: an awareness that God is present with his chosen people. This is the source of the greatness of Israel, certainly not her wealth — which was puny, her military power — which was almost laughably short-lived, not her artistic achievement — which was practically nonexistent. The sole measure of the greatness of Israel was in her awareness that God comes close to people, makes covenants with people, desires to be near at hand to them when needed. And it was when Israel began to forget this that her troubles inevitably arose.

When Israel began to divide her life in two, one side saved for the world of commerce and business and trade and the marketplace and human interaction, the other side for the life of faith and devotion to God, then her troubles began to mount. God is not Lord of only this or that shred of our lives, God is satisfied only as Lord of all life, all of it: the good, the bad, the smelly, the pure, the parts we would like to see included in our letters of reference and the parts we hope no one — not even our closest friends — will see, the face that we put on for the folks at the cocktail party, and the face we wear when we awaken in the middle of the night with unsolicited thoughts of our own death, the shiny new shopping mall in the newest section of town, and the dreariest streets in bad-town where none of us would be caught dead in the middle of the night for fear that dead is exactly how we would be caught.

If we cannot believe this, that God is Lord of it all, that everything in all of life is the object of God’s affection and redeeming love, then we likely do not believe the witness of the gospel.

I remember a cartoon that a friend gave me years ago. An old fashioned school marm was addressing her class of elementary students from behind her imposing desk. The students, intimidated in the distance, were listening intently as she said, “The Board of Education requires me to teach you a unit on sex education and other disgusting filth.”

Jesus said, “There is nothing that goes into people from the outside that can make them ritually unclean...” that is, nothing so dirty that God will not want to have anything to do with us. Apart from the fact that our sexuality is one of God’s good gifts to us, no perversion of that or any other experience in life is so degrading but that God can work in the midst of it to redeem it. Nothing is so tragic, so humiliating, or so emotionally overwhelming but that God is capable of making love possible in it and through it.

Jesus went on to say, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” What matters to God is not adherence to some external set of rules and regulations, but the heart. Unlike our conception of the heart as the seat of emotions, it was considered in Jesus’ time to be the seat of the will, where we make everyday decisions about our relationships with others.

What separates us from God is not God’s unwillingness to look upon us if we engage in some frivolous misbehavior, not our dirtiness, not our failures and shortcomings, but our unwillingness — in our attachment to our favorite shortcomings — to look upon God. What separates us from God is not God but us. That is the tremendous gift of freedom God has given to us, that even in the presence of the overwhelming power of God’s love — a love capable of outdistancing the Egyptian army in the desert and bringing the people to the promised land — we still hold the potential to deny, to keep God’s love at bay, to turn away, to prefer darkness to light.

We might think, with all our sophisticated hygiene, with toothpastes and mouthwashes and cleansing agents, that what can ruin us is what we put into our mouths or bodies. Here we learn that the key to divine health, at least as it pertains to the deeper dimensions of life, is what comes out of our mouths, for it is there that we express what is deep within our hearts. Into our mouth may go the best, freshest tasting gel, but it is for naught if what comes out is the slandering word which destroys another person.

Pray with me that out of our mouths may come instead the word of faith. That all our lives may be one, and the whole lot committed to God, who in Jesus Christ longs to be one with us in every phase of our existence. May we hold up our whole lives before him, so that what comes out of us may be faithfulness, honesty, respect for life, contentment, truthfulness, and humility. And join me in thanking God that when we fall short of these standards, he is faithful enough to us to correct us, forgive us, and empower us to live transformed lives.

[1] Deuteronomy 4

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Armor Up!

Armor Up!

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 23, 2009

Ephesians 6:10-20

I used to drive back and forth on Interstate 5 between Salem and Albany back in the days before they widened and improved that stretch of the freeway and the bridges that cross it. If you drove that stretch back then you might have noticed, as I always did, a certain old barn on the west side of the freeway which faced the traffic coming from the south. Ever since the introduction of the automobile onto roads, farmers have known that barns and other buildings facing the motoring public on public roadways can serve as pretty good advertising space. But this particular barn was not covered with a slick poster advertising an automobile, or painted with a four or five-color promotion for some product. No, through the years on this particular barn there were a few different messages, crudely painted in whitewash against the dark background of the roof. The last of these, before the barn came down to make room for the latest highway improvements, issued a command, in all caps, “ARMOR UP!”

I often wondered what the host of people driving by that old barn at highway speeds thought of its message. To immigrants from Mexico, making their way to harvesting jobs in the Willamette Valley, the type-A business professional, gabbing away on her cellular phone, the college student heading for school up north, the family vacationing from Kansas, the highway-hypnotized trucker on his fiftieth run of the summer from L.A. to Tacoma, the commuter from Albany or Corvallis who drove by that barn five mornings a week, the escaped felon trying to get to Canada, the believer, the non-believer, to all of them, that two-word phrase must have presented anything but a consistent meaning.

What did the folks who painted it mean to tell us with this urgent command? Immigrant farm workers are not likely to understand it, urgent or not. The business woman may be so wrapped up in her cell phone conversation she will not notice that she is going 85 MPH, let alone the whitewashed letters smeared on a barn. The college student, having finished a course last term on “The Bible As Literature,” may sniff at the primitive understanding of Ephesians 6 represented there. The family from Kansas, members of the Pillar of Fire church, smile and nod their heads in agreement. The trucker, if he snaps out of his reverie long enough, may recall momentarily his hitch in an armored division in Viet Nam. The commuter will not remember seeing the barn today, nor anything else between Albany and Wilsonville for the past six months.

So what does it mean, this urgent call to “armor up?”

Paul was not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, to compare life with combat. One thing a believer knows, though – and in this we all ought to be of pretty much one mind, from the fundamentalist to the mainliner, from the painter of the barn message to the author of sophisticated theological literature – anyone who wants to be a faithful Christian in Paul’s time or ours will be in for a fight. Paul said, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Do you remember John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl classic, The Grapes of Wrath? The farmer wanted to know who had foreclosed on his land. The local banker said he was just doing the bidding of the home office. The home office was beholden to its Board of Directors, who weren’t at fault because they had to answer to their stock holders. The conclusion, of course, is that the system is at fault, so no one is to blame. Still, a family had lost their farm, was left alone to battle the powers.

Another grieving family, having lost their only daughter to the rage of a madman with an gun in a Post Office shootout with police, may also wonder who should be blamed. The gunman’s childhood was filled with abuse, so he may be excused; the dealer who sold him his weapon has a right to do so under current constitutional interpretation; the members of Congress who might change a portion of that interpretation of the law consistently defeat any bill threatenting to limit access to firearms; some folks continue to claim that, after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. We say to that grieving family that no one is at fault because the whole system is to blame. Still, a grieving family rages alone against the powers of darkness.

“We wrestle not against blood and flesh
but against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

As I said, Paul was not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, to compare life with combat. But the combat he envisions has little two do with tanks, missiles, arms and armies. For the battle against Principalities, he suggests taking up the armor of God, and it should be helpful to us to remember that this is not the same as the armor of humanity. To follow that mistaken idea is to be guilty of the same humorless lack of understanding as those who threw “Onward Christian Soldiers” out of some hymnals because it was too militaristic. To think the line “marching as to war” is the same as “marching to war” is to be incapable of comprehending metaphor. What about “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”? I don’t much like “Onward Christian Soldiers” personally, but that is basically because of its thumping rhythm and Sunday-school lyrics more than because I fear it might inspire classrooms of sixth graders to run out and sign up to be Airborne Rangers or start subscriptions to Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Paul recognized that the real enemy is invisible, much bigger and more pervasive than we can imagine, and with human armor, our cause against such an enemy is hopeless. A poster used to hang in some churches a few years ago. Pictured there was a tiny white one-room church. A huge freeway populated by zillions of cars passed in front of the church. To one side was an X-rated movie theatre, on the other a armaments factory. One member, standing out front, said to the other, “Do you ever get the feeling that we are losing ground?”[1]

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the truth of this observation. A fifteen-minute sermon on self-sacrifice stacks up against hundreds of broadcast hours of advertising paid for by the largest, wealthiest companies in the world, encouraging everyone to consume as much as possible; A least-coin church fellowship supports mission with a handful of dollars in a far-off land torn apart by competing armies of thugs armed with millions of dollars worth of weapons supplied by outside interests, ten tanks are sent for every sack of flour; Losing ground? Sometimes it feels as if there is no ground left to defend.

Still. Still there is the whole armor of God. The cause of believers is God’s cause. The armor Paul describes is defensive, meant for holding fast, meant to keep us from falling apart. There is a metaphorical belt, and shoes, and a shield, and a breastplate, and a helmet. I can imagine the apostle, sitting in his prison cell, looking at his guard and using the items of his uniform to help his readers remember the defensive assets of the faith. Against these cosmic and humanly uncontrollable forces we are to bring “an arsenal consisting of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God. Against cosmic powers which appear to control the universe, we are to bring weapons whose effectiveness is less than obvious.”[2] It seems ludicrous on the surface. How, for example, does faith protect against an opponent whose own weapons are the stuff of human nightmares? But our weapons are for defense. Clearly the battle itself is left to God, for the sword of truth is God’s own Word. Against this present darkness, believers are only commanded to withstand. It is up to God to advance the cause.

If you face life’s crises the way I do, you know that it is not within human power to fully equip ourselves for facing all the traumas of our lives, battles of such magnitude that rugged individualism can’t help but fail us in the end. It’s certainly not in my power. So think of the pieces of armor that Paul used as an illustration, the qualities they represent suggesting ways God strengthens us.

If in the middle of our trials we find that there is truth to sustain us, it is likely to be God’s truth. If we find that we are unexpectedly getting some things right, it is likely to be a “right”-eousness that God has granted us, not our own faltering attempts to do things right. If we find that despite all expectations to the contrary we are able to hold our ground and remain standing even though everything familiar seems to be failing us, it is because our shoes have a firm foothold in the gospel of shalom, of peace. If we find that things which usually drive us crazy now seem insignificant, hardly relevant, it is because the sustaining word of our faith is shielding us from those things which we might ordinarily allow to bring us down. If we find that even though every human being around us has failed us but we find strength in the fact that God loves us in spite of it all, we are protected by the promise of salvation in Christ from having to rely on the strength of anyone else. If we find, astonishingly, that we can even talk to others about our difficulties and maybe even support a fellow sufferer by the ability to articulate our own pain, we are in reality giving voice to the word of God which lives within the heart of every believer through the strength of the Holy Spirit.

I once read about a Princeton University student who was interviewed by a reporter concerning the prospects of American troops being sent to this or that conflict somewhere in the world.[3] Her response was telling. She said, “There’s nothing worth dying for.” Since all human beings die some day, this means, of course, that she will one day “have the unpleasant task of dying for nothing.” I would think believers would expect more of themselves. Every life needs to be committed to something worth spending our lives on it, worth giving ourselves to it completely.

The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us something worth standing fast for, worth persevering for, worth enduring for, worth, if the times call for it, dying for. Paul said that he wrote as an “ambassador in chains” for the gospel. He was telling believers then — and if we have looked around our own culture with eyes to see, he is telling us today — that if we plan to follow Jesus, we had better get ready for a fight. And we will need each other more than ever. Remember the apostle’s advice:

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand... and Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

[1] “Up Against the Powers that Be,” by David Buttrick, in Best Sermons 1, Harper Collins, 1988, p. 200.

[2] Walter Brueggemann et. al., Texts for Preaching: Year B, Fortress, 1993.

[3] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon, 1989, pp. 149-150.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Subject or Object?

Subject or Object?

Fourth in a series of sermons from Ephesians

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
August 16, 2009

Ephesians 5:15-33

One summer, I was riding through the Scottish countryside with my cousin, Malcolm and his wife, Muriel. They have a highly kinetic relationship, so a good deal of good-natured bantering was going back and forth between them. Finally, Muriel had spoken maybe a little more sharply than she might have intended, and there was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence. Then Malcolm spoke up, “Muriel, I know you love me; you told me so five years ago.” Without missing a beat, Muriel replied with mock seriousness, “That was then; this is now…” Referring to marriage in a sermon in our day, even in an oblique way, is among a preacher’s greatest fears...and with good reason!

Several years ago, on Orientation Sunday in Duke University Chapel, the text assigned to the preacher ... was ... Ephesians 5:21. The preacher’s heart sank. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands...”

“I can’t preach that,” the preacher thought. “Only the likes of Jerry Falwell would preach such a text! Especially is it an inappropriate text for a progressive, forward-thinking, university church. Forget Ephesians 5. The word for our day is liberation, not submission. But the preacher decided to let the Bible have its say. He began his Orientation sermon this way:

“[We] despise this text. No one but Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) or some other reactionary would like this text. What an ugly word! Submission. And yet we know that, taken in the context of the day, this is a radical word. Women had no standing in that day. The writer of Ephesians 5 expends more words giving advice to husbands, telling them about their duties to wives, than words to wives telling them what they are to do for their husbands...this is not a text about women’s submission in marriage, it is a text which urges mutual submission in a strange new social arrangement called the church.”

“And that is why we despise this text. Our word is liberation.”[1]

While scripture’s word is submission.

There is so much modern misunderstanding about this passage of scripture that our lectionary suggests preachers skip verses 21-33 altogether. Even less likely is a modern day sermon on the first 9 verses of chapter 6, with their emphasis on obedience in children and slaves. The use – and abuse – to which these verses have been put in many places and circumstances over the centuries, makes any preacher less than enthusiastic about preaching on them.

So, we have a whole section of scripture, much of which sounds immediately distasteful to modern ears, with words about subjection and submissiveness, directed at wives, children and slaves. Aren’t these verses a perfect example of the need to use the Thomas Jefferson method of scripture analysis, cutting out the passages which offend us in order to leave us with a Bible that is not only more agreeable, but which more closely reflects modern sensibilities?

Well, no, I don’t think so, though you are welcome to disagree with me, and if you do it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in my ministry! What is needed is the recognition of a few crucial principles in reading these verses.


Only a community of faith which receives these words

can hope to understand them correctly.

These words were not directed at the culture in general, but to believers whom together Paul calls the “body of Christ.” So, a real understanding requires, first of all, a life within the community of faith. These are not general human principles which would make sense to any thinking person whether they were believers or not. They sound crazy to non-believers, and, truth-be-told, to quite a few believers as well, and probably for good reason.

It makes no sense to urge non-believers to allow themselves to be subject to others, because in the world outside the family of faith, where power is the motivating force in most relationships, to suggest that people assume a powerless and subjective position would be tantamount to suggesting that they become permanent victims. There is no guarantee of mutuality there. Being subject in a world that treats people like objects doesn’t sound like good news but more like a prescription for servitude. No one in the world can assume that submissiveness on their own part will be met with mutual submissiveness from others. Quite the contrary. The world is entirely likely to victimize anyone who makes themselves so vulnerable.

We must grant that pursuing all relationships with a sense that they are about power is a way that leads to death, not life. But only a community of faith organized around a different standard can understand submissiveness in a way that leads to life and wholeness.


These verses may legitimately be understood

only with deep humility, convictionally and confessionally.

They are intended to be understood so that a spouse, for instance, may ask himself for herself from time to time, “Am I working toward loving my spouse as Christ loved the church, sacrificially, unselfishly?” They may legitimately be used reflectively, subjectively. They may not be used legitimately as a blunt object to threaten the opposite person, but rather as a personal moral guide.

So when, in Paul’s letter, husbands, for instance, are advised concerning their behavior, they are not permitted to ignore the verses directed at them while berating their mates concerning the verses Paul wrote regarding wives. Similarly, wives ought not read the verses directed at husbands as part of a riot act, while overlooking the admonitions Paul wrote to them.

There are those interpreters who attempt to show that these verses reveal a divinely ordained order for family relationships, with God at the top of the organizational chart, then husbands directly under God, with wives appearing under the rule of their husbands. I have seen this type of structure referred to with various headings like “God’s Chain of Command,” as though loving relationships among faithful people had mostly to do with organizing a power structure in which some give commands and others obey them. The odd thing is, the chain of command idea already existed in Paul’s time, though not as a guide for Christian living, but as a pagan listing of household responsibilities. In Ephesians, Paul called upon everyone’s familiarity with that idea in order to help believers break free from it, to move human relationships beyond the banal questions of who will be giving the orders and who is destined to take them.

The discipline encouraged in this passage is meant to be internal, chosen, not external and enforced; it is to be subjective, not objective. No one may legitimately use these verses to force subjection on an unwilling spouse, and neither may one use them to require sacrificial love from their “better half.” I recently read about a Christian speaker who was approached by a married couple with the husband asking, “I want to know who should be in charge of a Christian marriage?” The speaker looked at them and said, “But that’s not a Christian question! The Christian question is: ‘How can I serve my spouse…?’”[2]

These are principles which must be freely chosen to have any meaning at all. And the operative principle in all of them is announced in verse 21.


“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It is true that every home needs a leader, but the contest for that position should not be between one spouse and the other. The leader of every believer’s home should be Jesus Christ: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Paul declared. It is Christ who is the one deserving reverence in Christian homes.

All the things Paul encourages in his letter: that husbands love their wives as fully as Christ loves the church, which is to say, as fully as one who was willing to face death on a cross for the sake of his love; that wives should subject themselves to their husbands, which anyone who has been around our culture lately knows has about as much human chance of getting a hearing these days as a shellfish in a oyster bar; all these things should be things we hear with amazement, not with nodding heads. They are incredible, from a human point of view. But before we can hold up our hands and say, “No way!”, before we even hear words about submissiveness and sacrificial love, Paul predetermines our view of his instructions with the first instruction, the one that supersedes them all: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

He explains further, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” This isn’t an exhortation about how we can be if we just work at it, but about how Christ is. Christ was submissive even to the point of death, Christ loves his church – loves us – more than he loved his own life. It is only because we know that’s how Christ is that we can begin to see the mystery that Paul mentions as it applies to our own commitments – how we can be. We begin to see that the commitments we make to one another – not just as husbands and wives, but as lovers, as friends, as families in the fellowship of the church – these commitments are going to be hopelessly control driven unless we submit them to the one who was totally submissive in giving himself away for us all.

Christ will not fail to honor those who reverence his submission for our sakes. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” For Christ has made himself subject for our sakes. May God bless us richly in him, and may each of us strive in every way to be a blessing for each other.

[1] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon, 1989, pp. 152-153.

[2] Stephen Knox, “Becoming One Christ’s Way,” Best Sermons 2, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 179.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Speaking Truth, Speaking Love

Speaking Truth, Speaking Love

Third in a series from Ephesians
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
19th Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 9, 2009

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Dear Abby: “My mother-in-law has moved in with us. I am not sure if I can continue to take her constant comments about my housekeeping and my cooking. Every time we go out to eat, she is critical of the expense, yet when we eat at home, the food we prepare is never up to her standards. My husband says I should just appreciate how much she did for him when he was growing up and think of this time she is with us as our opportunity to return the favor. Abby, she didn’t raise me! It’s getting harder every day to bite my tongue and avoid lashing out at her. What should I do? Sign me ‘Boiling in Boise’.”

Dear Abby: “My wife’s best friend is over at our house all the time, and I am getting sick of it. She has been out of work for over 18 months, so she whines to my wife about it constantly, and my wife gives her groceries and even some spending money out of the little bit that we are able to bring home from our jobs. This woman has had several opportunities to go to work to pay some of her bills, but she just won’t get motivated. My wife says we should help her out, because she has children at home and they shouldn’t starve just because their mother is lazy. Worst of all, we have been finding little items missing from the house after she has been here, like my wife’s pearl brooch and a radio I keep in the garage. Not too long ago, my wife found a several of our CD’s at her ‘friend’s’ house, which she said she had just ‘borrowed.’ Abby, I want to be compassionate, but this is just too much. How should we deal with this? Sign us ‘Desperate in Des Plaines’.”

Dear Abby: “My friend, I’ll call him ‘Ned,’ never has a nice word to say about anybody. I like Ned, but every time we get together, the conversation always turns to the things that are wrong with all the people he knows. I have heard him heap abuse on some people that I know pretty well, and they aren’t nearly as bad as he makes them out to be. He seems so bitter, but it’s like his hobby: gossiping about other people seems to be the thing he’d rather talk about than anything else. I’ve begun to wonder what he says about me when he’s with other people. How can I help Ned get a better attitude? Sign me ‘Slandered in St. Louis’.”

If you were Abby, or her daughters, or whoever is writing the column now, how would you respond to these letters? Abby might trot out her laundry list of time-worn advice-column items. To “Boiling in Boise,” she might respond with the old “No one can take advantage of you without your permission. You need to tell your mother-in-law how you feel, and your husband needs to back you up...” To “Desperate in Des Plaines,” Abby might say, “Unload this so-called ‘friend’ pronto! She needs counseling...” She might advise “Slandered in St. Louis,” “Ned’s got a real problem with his self-esteem. He needs counseling, and as his friend, you should suggest it to him. Why not leave a copy of this column under his plate the next time you have lunch together…?”

We all value truthful speaking, but only to a certain extent. We hear people say, “Isn’t she refreshingly candid?” or “At least you don’t have to guess where he stands.” Of course, some people are just characteristically negative, no matter what light we throw on it. But we also know people who can be candid – that is, speak the insightful truth as they see it – in an unvarnished yet positive way.

I think Paul received similar questions from people in the churches he started, but he had something behind his answers that set them apart from any advice column. Abby and Ann Landers and all the rest have given a list of do’s and don’ts over the years that look very similar to Paul’s:

  1. Speak the truth
  2. Acknowledge your anger
  3. Labor and work honestly
  4. Share with the needy
  5. Say what is useful for building up
  6. Be kind to one another
  7. Forgive one another
  8. Live in love
  1. Lie
  2. Let the sun set on your anger
  3. Steal
  4. Engage in trashy talk
  5. Grieve the Holy Spirit
  6. Be bitter, wrathful, angry, quarrelsome, slanderous, malicious

But as Paul writes us these words of advice which sound like advice we might get anywhere, we might write back: “Dear Paul, you told us we should do this and that, but why should we?” Signed, “Effective in Ephesus.”

Paul’s response is the place where we begin to realize that, for all its similarities to a modern list of good advice for moral behavior, Ephesians is so much more than that. Why should we try to walk by principles such as the ones listed here? Because of these two sentences: “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. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...” It’s very unlikely that we will see those lines in any upcoming newspaper advice columns.

We should strive to live a new life, not because Abby said that by trying harder we can be effective. Our trying may never be effective. But it is empowered by the knowledge that we are called to act toward others the way God acted toward us. We must speak the truth in love because we are members of one another in the same sense that an arm or a leg is a member of the body. One member of a body trying to deceive another is senseless. Someone once said that the New Testament does not give us directions, but direction. When we fail to live up to the code established for us and begin to wonder why we should try, the gospel directs us toward Jesus, who gave up everything in order that we might know the love of God.

Why act a way that is different from all other people? Because that is the way God is. One little side note, since this is the Bible passage that includes the proverbially famous line about not letting the sun go down on anger. The admonition sounds like a command: “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Actually, it needs to be heard more this way: “You may be angry, if you can’t help it, but don’t let that anger become an obsession,” one nursed to the point that makes it a fixation, an immovable object in the way of reconciling with others and imitating Christ, who, after all, prayed even for those who took up hammers and nails to attach him to the cross. Anger is admitted as a natural emotion, but upon recognition, it calls for a decision. Paul tells us to decide the way Christ did.

Tennyson’s poem, Maud, includes the line

And ah for (one) to arise in me,
that the (one) I am may cease to be!

The one who may arise in us is none other than Jesus Christ, Son of God, Christ in us. It is a prayer that we might decrease so that Christ might increase in us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Built in Love

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 2, 2009

Ephesians 4:1-16

Paul concludes this little passage by referring to the church as a fellowship in the process of, “building itself up in love.” He had completed a couple of paragraphs describing the gifts of believers as something like individual bricks, which may be used to help build the one church. His repeated calls for unity throughout the passage lead me to believe that in his time he was aware of churches in which the commitment to the fellowship was coming in second to individual commitments to a “do your own thing” religious faith.

When Paul described the ideal church as one which is “building itself up in love,” he used agapé, the New Testament word that stands for a dispassionate care which takes the needs of the other(s) into account before the needs of self. Other types of love — phileo: brotherly love, eros: erotic love — are more commonly understood in our culture, they are types of love which are heavily endowed with emotional content. The way we feel about someone has a lot to do with whether we will have brotherly, or, especially, erotic love for them.

Agapé is not like that. Agapé is a love which leaves emotion aside and makes a decision. It is a love that says no matter what happens — you can spit in my eye — I will still seek to do and be what is best for you as I see it. It is the quintessential committed love, while the others come and go with the ebb and flow of our emotions.

This is all fine and good, but how do we go about “building in love”? What are the building blocks of such a church? There are some great words describing the actions of God in regard to us in this passage: Calling, unifying, gifting, maturing, building. Let’s listen for their implications for our life together.

Calling. So many people believe that “calling” is a word applied to people who take up religious vocations, but that “regular” Christians just have jobs. That’s not the way Paul thinks of it here. Paul did not say he begged pastors to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called...” His words are addressed to all believers. Every Christian has a calling from God. Do we know what our callings are, each of us? If we don’t and would like to, it should be the subject of prayer with our families or prayer groups, so that we might get a better understanding of what God is trying to call us to do. Paul outlines the marks of one who has undertaken his or her calling. Such a life will be marked by humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, just the opposite characteristics from those which many of our workaday “jobs” require of us. Our calling takes the community into account first, while mere employment is so commonly marked by “what’s in it for me?”

It’s amazing to think about: the creator of the world, the one who flung the planets into their orbits and invented the platypus and the peregrine falcon, the ferns and the fir trees, who sent a comet crashing into Jupiter, this very one calls us. Surely we must answer.

I have a friend, a former Marine, who said that ever since his days in the service when he walked on board aircraft carriers, he thought of the church as similar to those great ships. An aircraft carrier is not a place where people come to sit and stay and ring the bell for service. It is a place to get refueled, to gather up ammunition, to get attention for wounds if need be, but ultimately a place from which to depart on a specific mission.

One building block of our loving fellowship must include a sense of the particular piece of this church’s ministry to which God is calling each of us.

Unifying. Paul felt so strongly about the need for unity in the church, he wrote of oneness over and over, like a mantra: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God...One, one, one.

This building block of our faith is so critical, especially in our world of increasing factionalism, where every denomination, political movement, and cult claims to have the corner on the message of Christ to the exclusion of all others. Celebrations of diversity — for all the good they represent — sometimes threaten in our time to become declarations of hopeless division. To take Paul’s meaning, we must believe that if we have not found the faith, baptism, Spirit, hope, Lord that unites us with other believers, we have not yet found the faith of Christ, not fully. That faith in its highest form should pull us together into the body with other believers, not drive us apart into endless wrangling over fine points of doctrine and detail. Those beliefs and movements which overemphasize human distinctions or tend to divide the community of faith are, in a deep way, antithetical to the essence of God’s will for the church.

To commit together to unity, even when we don’t feel like it, is part of the meaning of agapé love, one of the building blocks of a loving fellowship, which must seek unity.

Gifting. To develop unity in the body of the church, we are each given gifts: The equipment of the saints. That’s the way Paul described the gifts that are given to believers by the One in whom they have come to believe. Every sport needs its own equipment. Hardly any calling in our world comes without some special equipment. People who do word processing need computers; athletes need all manner of paraphernalia specific to their sport; carpenters need hammers and woodworking tools; auto mechanics need great cabinets with drawers full of tools to work on our cars; physicians and nurses need x-ray machines, lab equipment, stethoscopes; attorneys need access to vast libraries of law books; musicians need copies of the score and instruments; preachers need long black robes to keep their shapeless bodies from distracting from the message they proclaim.

The gifts of God are the tools needed to equip the saints. That’s you. Did you realize you were a saint? Sure you are, that’s what Paul says you are. And you need equipment to go about your saintly business on behalf of the one who calls you. And the equipment you lack, you may be sure is provided to someone close by, so that together, you may be a complete church which can witness, prophesy, teach, and care for each other and the world in which we find ourselves.
Another building block of our loving fellowship includes the equipment or gifts which God has given us to get our work done. Whatever we find ourselves capable of doing for the sake of the church, we must be sure to do.

Maturing (growing up). Paul says that gifts God gives to us are for one purpose: to bring unity and maturity into the fellowship called the church. How do we spot a fellowship which is immature? Paul gives an example: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Sometimes I think there isn’t a frail wind of speculative doctrine which the church has been able to resist. Theology and Hope; Christianity and the Current Crisis; Theology and Liberation; Reimagining God; The Death of God; Theology as Pastoral Counseling; Salvation through the purchase of Indulgences; one after another they come down the pipe and the church grabs on, hoping this will at last be the corner of the gospel which will save the rest, make it relevant or understandable enough to modern people. And yet time after time, the little corner of the gospel that these represent cannot stand in for the whole thing. For that we need all the gifts of God’s people, not just itty bitty particulars of this or that theological speculation.

Maturity, in Paul’s view, seems to require an ability to recognize that the whole gospel is bigger than any of us, and so requires the gifts of all of us. Another building block of a loving fellowship is establishing a maturity that recognizes and welcomes the gifts of others into the mix of the church.

Building (in love). Paul closes this little section of his letter saying that such a church will build itself up in agapé, in hard-headed love which sets aside personal advancement and individual claims in order to advance the building of the fellowship that has the high calling of “body of Christ.”

Paul said, in the beginning of chapter 4, that we are called to a lead lives worthy of our calling, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” How many of us can say we have made every effort toward building up the church fellowship in love, more effort than we spend rending it asunder by rigid adherence to our own cherished opinions?

I pray with Paul that our fellowship may grow toward that maturity which builds itself up in agapé, which moves toward a love characterized by commitment to common faith, common purpose. My friend and fellow pastor, Mike Brown, closes his newsletter messages to his congregation with the instruction to “Be the Church!” Now that Paul has helped us understand what that means, we may take on the command as well. Dear friends in Christ: Be the Church!