We’re jumping back in to Ephesians today. If you were with us last week, you’ll remember that Ephesians is essentially broken down into two halves: the first three chapters are Paul’s explanation of God’s cosmic work—the big story of salvation for the whole world—and Paul’s personal encounter with that story. The next three chapters are dedicated to the ‘so what?’ questions. “What do we do with this big story, now that we know it?” “How do we live and work and worship together as a community?”
We pick up his encouragements for the church in Ephesus at chapter 4, verse 25.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, 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, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant to preach on this passage this morning – mostly because, even for me, there are few things worse than a preacher who gets up to spout off a long list of rules. I generally don’t love of these parts of Paul’s letters, precisely because they are so often torn from their context and turned into checklists: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t swear, be nice, don’t be so angry, be forgiving, and above all, be nice.
Those aren’t bad things, but this part of the letter to Ephesus is anything but a church-y checklist—and Paul is not demanding from us ‘niceness.’
Paul is writing to a community of believers made up of both Jews and Gentiles, though mostly Gentiles, encouraging them to be one community. He continues to use the metaphor of the body, reminding them that in baptism, they are made members of the body of Christ – and if they’re going to act like it, they have to work together. They have to be willing to build one another up. To lie to one another or let anger linger and fester poisons the whole body, including you.
But before we get into the details of this passage, there are two big concepts that Paul is building on here, and assuming we already know that. The first is the wide range of meaning in baptism – not only the promises that God makes to us, but the significance of the vows we make, too. This is what Paul means by being marked with the holy spirit as a seal. The second is what comes after baptism – the ten dollar churchy word is sanctification, which comes from Sanctus, the Latin word for ‘holiness,’ and essentially means “the process of becoming holy.”
The act of baptism in our tradition has many meanings and symbolizes many things: our dying and rising with Christ, being cleansed from sin, entering into the community, or body of Christ, being renewed and refreshed for learning and service together.
And in our baptismal vows, either the parents of a child being baptized or the adult being baptized themselves make some very specific promises. Among them is a rejection of evil: baptism asks us to turn away from evil and empty promises, so that we can fully receive with empty hands the fullness Christ’s promises: life, love, salvation, and community.
In the Presbyterian tradition, we’re only baptized once—but that doesn’t mean we only get one shot at that sort of life. Sanctification, then, is the process of living into those promises every day: rejecting the evil we see in our own hearts and in the world, so that we might grow up in all things into Christ Jesus, our Lord. And believe me, it is a process.
The bulk of this passage, then, is just a description of the ways we do that together, as the body of Christ.
One of the things I love about this passage, though, is the way Paul shows that he remembers we’re all human, and he knows his audience. He knows that anger and frustration are almost inevitable when you have to interact with other people—and in the right circumstances, that’s necessary and good—even Jesus got angry. But if we’re going to be in this together, following Jesus and growing in love, we can’t hold on to it for eternity and let it grow out of proportion.
For example: have you ever hated someone so much and so irrationally that even if they were doing something completely harmless and unrelated to you, you would still be like “Ugh! They’re the literal worst over there eating crackers.”
Put away the old life, Paul says, of taking whatever you can get your hands on, and receive instead the invitation to a life of Christ-like generosity.
Turn away, too, from all the things that would tear down your relationships: harsh words, gossip, division, manipulation. This life together is not about getting what we want at any cost, but about building one another up for the sake of the whole body.
But here’s where I have a bone to pick with whomever decided how the chapters and verses were divided out in Ephesians. Because if you just stopped at the end of chapter 4, you would miss out on the ‘why.’
The beginning of chapter 5 might be the end of this portion of the letter, but it’s also the core: we don’t do all of this to be nice. We do all of this because we are called to live and love like Jesus. We do all of this because Jesus loved us first, and gave himself up for us.
Jesus is the center, the core, of our life together; and so everything we do—mission, education, worship and preaching, even fellowship and fun, is designed to spur us on, to encourage and support us on this journey toward being more and more like Jesus in our everyday lives.
And that’s why I get so annoyed with the folks who make this out to be the Naughty and Nice list. Because our call, our life together, goes so much deeper than be nice, feel good, don’t make God come down here.
Yes, we are called to be people who live in a particular way – but not for the sake of reputation or brownie points.
We are called to be imitators of God, to live in love, because we are dearly beloved children. We’re not going to ‘arrive.’ There will not be a single day on this side of God’s kingdom in which we could check off all the things even on this list.
But achievement was never the goal, anyway.
Martin Luther, the 14th-century theologian, said:
“This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”
Beloved people of God, receive today this baptismal blessing, and go to stand on its promises:
It was for you that God created the world, for you Jesus came to live among us, for you he lived and taught and healed. It was for you that he died, and for you that he rose again. All of this, he did for you—long before you knew anything about it. We love, because Christ first loved us.
We learn from the best. Thanks be to God!
 1 “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, transl. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works, Volume 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 24.