August 8, 2021
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
Our second reading today comes again from the letter to the Ephesians. We read from this letter last week and heard how we are to build up the body of Christ in love… that we are all gifted by God… equipped by God for the work of ministry… that we… both individually and corporately… are to mature in our knowledge of Christ… that we are to grow to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We are to lead that life that is worthy of the calling by which we have been called. Big picture… high ideal words, right? An aspirational vision that is to guide and inform us in the larger journey of faith. Today we hear more about what that new life looks like in the everyday. Listen as God now speaks to you from Ephesians 4 starting with verse 25.
READ Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
So what is your true self? Who are you? This is a question that any person of faith… even community of faith… this is a question that must be asked over and over again. Which… in and of itself is a little dangerous because even asking the question… while prodding us to seek the truthful answer… also allows us the opportunity to deceive ourselves. If we don’t know our grounding… if we can’t recognize that to which we are tethered… how easy it is to lie to ourselves and believe we are something we are not.
Who are you? Who are we together? Are we products of our past? Are we creatures of habit or inner drives that we don’t seem to have any control over? Isn’t that part of Paul’s lament in Romans… “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Our actions are always more revealing of the truth than we would like them to be. Who are we? Are we products of the myriad of overlapping contexts that connect in ourselves? Who am I? And just how much control do I have in shaping the who that I am?
The answers to that last question really run the spectrum. On the one side you have the person who believes they are exactly who they have made themselves to be… their will is able to overcome all aspects of their innate self. On the other side is the person who is only the product of outside forces… and they are powerless to change but must find a way to live in the form others have made for them. Inflated ego. Perpetual victim. Surely the answer is somewhere between these two extremes… like answers usually are. But that’s me… isn’t it… the natural born centrist always looking for that answer somewhere between the extremes.
With these verses from Ephesians… I think we are in this somewhere in between territory. We talk about spiritual gifts that we have each been given. These are not of our own making. They’re gifts… something you can say we’re born with… or born again with if you want to use that language. In Ephesians, spiritual gifts are given to everyone… every manner of sinner gathered together here today has been given a gift… everyone in this faith community from the youngest to the oldest has purpose and function within the larger body… every gift is there to further the work of ministry to which the community is called… every gift working properly together promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. No one is to be on the sidelines… and those who put themselves on the sidelines do that to the detriment of the community as a whole because the gifts of the spirit reveal God’s intentions for our community. The gifts are already here and their unique mixture tells us who we are… who God is making us… shaping us to be. There may be the impetus to be like the “successful” church down the street… but we may not have the spiritual gifts in our community to imitate what we’ve come to believe is “successful” ministry. We instead have to be ourselves. I was listening to a comedian the other day… and I would give you the name of the person if I could remember who it was… I think it may have been Chris Rock… but they were doing this bit about how we tell our children “you can be anything you want to be”. On the surface that sounds like great advice. Encouraging and supportive. I know I said it to my children when they were young to keep their horizons open. Right? You can be anything you want to be. What is it that you want to be? But in reality… the answer is no. No, we can’t be whatever we want to be… said this nameless comedienne who might be Chris Rock. We can be whatever we’re good at. And I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at that… because it’s so true. I would love to be able to sit at that piano and play and sing like Stevie Wonder. I will never be able to sit at that piano and play and sing like Stevie Wonder because I have zero musical ability. That’s not a gift that has been given to me. I could practice and practice and practice. Even with 100,000 hours of practice… I will never be Stevie Wonder because my brain just isn’t wired that way. My brother on the other hand… he can sit at that piano and be Stevie Wonder. But he could never be a minister because his natural born temperament would get in the way. You all don’t know my brother… great guy… don’t get me wrong… but patience… not really one of his gifts. And Saints, you can’t be a minister without patience. Trust me on that. Patience and love. Patience and love.
To get back to the point… though… understanding who Parkway is at any given moment in time takes some awareness of how God has gifted those who make up Parkway at any given moment in time. There is always change happening. It’s why we can’t just go backwards and do what was done before… because the spiritual gift mixture is different now than it was then. As people change, so should the understanding of who we are… who we are being called to be. But… but… at the same time… and here’s where we get to that someplace in the middle understanding… there is also an outside understanding of ourselves as Presbyterians and that outer theological framework is also at work to shape us and define who we are. Its not just the gifts alone. It’s not just the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions alone. There is this point where these two meet… these two and a host of other shaping influences… and we live there… in the messiness. But still… there’s a broader vision and specific gifts that inform what we can do… who we can be. Somewhere at a point in between lies the ever-changing authentic self of Parkway Presbyterian… and also… the ever-changing authentic selves of those who make up Parkway Presbyterian.
Conceptually, I think this is where the faith community at Ephesus found itself. Remember, it was a community of faith created out of diversity. E Pluribus Unum. That could have been the motto of the Ephesus church. Out of many, one. We heard that last Sunday. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” That’s the big idea… that the theological framework that binds the community together. But it’s never that simple… it’s never enough to come up with the big idea and have that be who you are. Even if that big idea is oneness in God. I mean, are you ever only what you think? What you believe? That inner list of concepts and principles you feel is important or that defines the real you? Is this ever your true self? Or is your true self revealed through what you do? Your actions and interactions with the people and world around you? How many times have you found yourself in a situation where it didn’t matter who you thought you are, the truth of who you really are came through loud and clear with your actions. May have been you in that situation… surprised by doing that thing you didn’t want to do instead of the thing you wanted to do. Could have been when the truth of someone else was revealed to you through their actions. Such revelations always come as a bit of a surprise. Sometimes for the good. Sometimes for the not so good.
In practice, though, we want those two to be one and the same, don’t we? Or at least close. We strive for authenticity of self… the self that reflects the image of Christ. If inside we believe we are a kind person, then outside we ought to be acting in ways that register as kind… not just by our own definition of kindness… but is recognized as kindness by the one to whom we are trying to be kind. This is the “well, that’s obvious isn’t it” part of this scripture passage. The obvious part that in practice Christians fail at over and over again. Live in love as Christ loved us. Obvious right? Then why are so many Christians so damn mean? Not just mean, but can be outright cruel. That’s not how the love of Christ was expressed to us. The words get spoken… words that say who we ought to be… but the resulting actions are then nowhere near those words. And again, it’s obvious… it’s obvious who they really are over who they say they are. It’s the old old lesson… actions speak louder than words. Being mean and hateful… surely that must grieve the Holy Spirit. Evil hateful talk that spews and spews and spews… when you can only build up by tearing down someone else… that is no imitation of a God of grace. That’s not what God in Christ did.
In Ephesus… they had a big idea… oneness in God. They began to recognize in their diversity the different spiritual gifts within the community that made them more unified… that helped them to grow toward God in Christ. And they also recognized those actions which betrayed themselves and their calling. Anger is going to happen. Anger can be constructive at times. Anger can also lead to sin… to separation… to brokenness within individuals and community. Anger that leads to sin does not build up the body in love. Anger that leads to sin does not bring unity out of diversity. Neither does bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slandering. All forms of malice tend to divide and destroy the body of Christ rather than build it up in love. It’s obvious… though still often not recognized to our own detriment.
Who are you? Who are we? Who ought we be? That seems to be the question that Paul really put to those in Ephesus and everywhere else. First… he said… let me tell you about God and what God in God’s good grace has done. So knowing that… knowing better this God who has called you and claimed you as his own… who ought we be in response? Amen.