The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:25-5:2.
In journalism, it's called burying the lede. It's when you don't start with the most important fact, like when a reporter starts off writing about a congressman's legislative program and doesn't get to the fact that he's under investigation for murder until the 3rd paragraph. But as with all rules of style, there are times when you may want to break them, like when you don't want to start off with the most startling or important idea. You may want to build up to it. You may want to show how it is the inevitable result of all the facts you lay out or you may want to end with a punchy summary of your argument. And that's what Paul seems to be doing in our passage from Ephesians today.
Paul usually wraps up his letters with a flurry of ethical commands that proceed organically from the theological arguments he makes earlier in the epistle. They are logical deductions that follow from the principles he was discussing, like grace or faith or love. But sometimes he uses inductive logic, going from the specifics to the principle we are to draw from them. This letter does both. In the first 3 chapters Paul is talking about the riches and blessings God offers us in Christ and here enumerates what our response should be. As some have pointed out, the first part of the epistle is about doctrine and the second about duty.
Last week, we saw how Paul was talking of unity. This is a major theme in almost all his letters and I think it is because Paul was on the front lines of the church's ministry to the Gentiles. In whatever city he entered he would first preach at a synagogue. Some Jews would come to see and accept Jesus as the Messiah but it was among the Godfearers, Gentiles who were interested in Judaism, that he saw the greatest response. Since most religions appealed primarily to the ethnic group in which they arose, Paul was finding it hard to make people understand the idea of God's universal kingdom. As we said, he hit upon the idea of the body of Christ, one group composed of individuals with various talents and functions, equipped and united by the Spirit of God.
So what we read today follows from that big idea. If we are one, then first of all we need to speak truth to one another. Truth is at a premium today. For quite a while, people have been “spinning” the truth, giving unfavorable facts an interpretation that renders them less troublesome to this side of a controversy or that. What's odd is that today, with instant access to just about all the facts in the world, people have dropped the “spin” and just out and out lie. It's possible that in some cases people are deluding themselves but in most cases it is a deliberate tactic. In his book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder explains the way modern disinformation campaigns work: put out as many versions of the facts as possible to confuse and demoralize people and make them despair of finding objective truth. If there is no such thing as objective truth or expert knowledge, then you might as well opt for the version you like, put out by the sources you trust. That's why often our modern discussions consist of people talking past each other, because they don't even share a commonly agreed-upon set of facts. Which makes it easy to stoke up fear about things that aren't really threats and divert attention from things that actually do endanger us.
Though it wasn't as well thought-out and orchestrated then as it is by modern nations, nevertheless Paul saw how people can manipulate others by falsifying their message. He writes Timothy, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
In any group of people problems will arise. The predicament is that, just as you can't properly treat a medical condition without an accurate diagnosis, you can't fix problems if you don't know the truth about the situation. That means speaking the truth in love, as we read last week, and listening to the truth, however uncomfortable it makes us. Seldom are problems solely the fault of one side. We all tend to contribute to major problems if only by complicity and complacency. We need to face the truth and then, acting together, work to make things better.
Paul next says something else people really need to hear: “Be angry but do not sin.” Anger is not in and of itself sinful. Reform often comes out of anger at a bad situation. But as Aristotle observed, “Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree at the right time for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy.” Anger can easily slip into rage and then, instead of being wielded surgically as Aristotle suggests, it becomes a blunt instrument, smashing everything, or like an automatic weapon, doing widespread and indiscriminate damage.
One way we can avoid this is by not attacking each other but attacking the problem. Rather than trying to fix the blame, concentrate on fixing the problem. Act as a team and not as antagonists. Even if one person precipitated the situation, our thinking should be, “This is our problem now; how can we fix it?”
Paul suggests another limit: time. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with it now. Lay the issue to rest as soon as possible. Even if you need a cooling off period, it shouldn't last a whole day. The longer you nurse anger the more it will fester. I think that is what Paul means by “do not leave room for the devil.” Don't give those who wish to sow dissension and disunity an opportunity. Don't give discord a foothold.
The next command is a no-brainer. “Thieves must give up stealing.” “Thou shalt not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments that most people actually recall. And it helps to realize that today a growing amount of theft is no longer the taking of physical objects like money or jewelry or art. These days someone on the other side of the world can steal your money from your bank account. Or your information from files held by a company or the government. Or, as 17 different US intelligence agencies have warned us, they can steal your right to vote. While it would be hard (but not impossible) to change votes after they are cast, hackers can simply change the status of voters, so that you go to your polling place and find that you are no longer registered or that your information is so corrupted that the poll workers aren't sure you are who you say you are.
Identity theft is a big problem. A clever person can get a fake ID with your name and information on it and use it to get credit cards or loans, or to do nefarious things online. They can even use it when they get arrested and make it extremely difficult to prove you aren't the person who was arrested in Tucson for DUI or petty larceny or possession of drugs.
And then there is intellectual theft. People can appropriate stuff you have created—writings, videos, artwork—and pass it off as their own. Think of how often you share such things online without checking to see if you are depriving a writer or artist or filmmaker of the money he or she rightfully should get for spending hours or weeks or months creating them. And then there is that old standby of stealing an idea from a coworker at your job.
We need to respect other people's property. A Christian doesn't steal. He or she does not take what is not his or her own, nor use what belongs to others without asking for and receiving permission. And often people will give permission. It's just that people seldom ask.
Paul talks of how in contrast we should do honest labor with our own hands. There are of course a lot of jobs that don't require the backbreaking work that used to be a part of every human endeavor back then but I think Paul would be flabbergasted by people who make money simply by shifting money about. You heard that Toys R Us has gone out of business? You probably think that it as because a lot of people simply shop on Amazon. But it turns out only 8.9% of all sales are online. What's killed companies like Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Payless and 16 other chains are private equity firms. Hedge funds borrow money to buy companies, then strip them of assets to repay themselves and saddle the companies with the debt. So the companies don't have enough money to modernize and improve, decline in sales and go into bankruptcy. The bankers get rich, though. One hedge fund owner bought Sears and Kmart and then spun off a real estate company that is charging them for rent on what was their own land. If they go under, he can simply rent the land to someone else. Is that honest work or sleight of hand?
6% of the workforce is in retail and cashier jobs. That's 8 million jobs. Hundreds of thousands of retail jobs have gone away and more are threatened by this tactic. Paul says that part of the reason to do honest work is so that we can give to the needy, not create more persons in need.
“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.” The word translated “evil” usually means “rotten.” This is the only place in the New Testament where it is not used of bad fruit or bad trees. So this is one place where I think the King James version is superior in using the word “corrupt.” Or maybe it should be “corrupting” because Paul contrasts this unhealthy talk with speech that builds people up. It's so easy to go negative. It's so easy to say things that tear people down and tear them apart. Rather than denigrate and destroy our words should “give grace to those who hear.” Before speaking we should ask ourselves, “Is this helpful or harmful? Will it make things better or worse?”
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God...” The Greek word for “grieve” can mean “cause distress” or “make someone sorry.” How is it possible that we can cause God's Spirit sorrow? Because he loves us. As the song goes, “Jesus loves me when I'm good, when I do the things I should. Jesus loves me when I'm bad, though it makes him very sad.” If you don't care about someone, what they do doesn't affect you much. If you love someone and you see them embarking on a course of action that will harm them or others, it upsets you. You want them to be the best they can. Paul is pointing to a side of God's love that we don't often think of. Rather than do or refrain from doing certain things because we are afraid God will punish us, we should instead avoid things that will disappoint our loving heavenly Father and instead do things that will please him.
“Put away from you all bitterness and rage and anger and loud quarreling and insults, together with all malice...” Today is the anniversary of the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia. All of those things that Paul tells us to do away with were on display then. The anger and rage and loud quarreling and insults came out of the bitterness on the side that still supports two racist causes that lost in wars roughly 160 and 80 years ago. And by the way, the Greek word for bitterness has overtones of poisonous. As someone once said, being bitter is like hating someone, drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to get sick. As for malice, that is deliberate evil.
And some of these racists have the impudence to call themselves Christian and appropriate things like the Celtic cross. None of these are qualities any Christian should manifest. Rather we are called to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no place for encouraging rage and fear and physical violence in the kingdom of God. Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight....” (John 18:36) At his arrest, Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place for all who take up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) And then he healed the man whose ear Peter had cut off. (Luke 22:50-51) That is the spirit of the person in whose footsteps we follow.
In contrast with the qualities we should put away, Paul says, “...be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” The word translated “tenderhearted” could also be rendered “compassionate.” Kindness and compassion, I needn't tell you, are in short supply. And that was true in Paul's day. Life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The majority of people, by which we mean slaves, women, children, and the poor, had no rights. There was no social safety net. There were no police. If you were disabled, you begged. Or died. No charity was going to help you out.
Christians stood out because of their concern for the unfortunate. They fed the hungry, nursed the sick, buried the poor, helped widows and orphans, ransomed slaves, and visited prisoners as well as the elderly who couldn't leave their homes. Their charitable works caught the attention of non-Christians and what they learned about the Christian God attracted them to the faith. As professor Robert Garland puts it, “here for the first time in history was a religion that was not judging you by the size of your wallet or your status in society or your gender or your ethnicity....The Christian God...will listen to your prayers, no matter what, as long as you are truly penitent. He'll actually love you....In fact, if you're poor or downtrodden or despised or sick, he'll look on you with special favor.” It is that kind of God, mirrored in the actions of his followers, that brings people to Christ.
And so we get to the lede, the principle towards which Paul is building his case: “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.” Children naturally imitate their parents. They develop habits of thought, expression and action based on what they see and hear their parents do. So we should imitate the grace and forgiveness and love we see in the God revealed in the words and works of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke the truth; he got angry but did not sin (the priests were upset with Jesus driving the crooked money changers out of the temple but they didn't arrest him; they knew he was right); he worked honestly with his hands and gave to the needy; no corrupting speech came from his mouth; his words were gracious and built people up; he did not give the Holy Spirit reasons to be sad; he was kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.
It's unfortunate that the question “What would Jesus do?” has become a cliché but it is still a good rule for living. As someone said, you may be the only Christ someone is exposed to. So let every thought, word and act be an imitation of or an extension of what we see in Jesus, the flesh and blood expression of the God who is love, into whose image we, as beloved children, should be growing up.