Where the Rubber Meets the Road

This is the message preached at Crafton Heights Church on Sunday, May 29 2011.  The texts for the day are Genesis 2:18-25 and  Ephesians 5:21-33.  As mentioned below, this is the tenth in a series of messages stemming from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Years ago, my friend “Sylvia” began attending worship in the church where I was pastor.  She and her husband, “Ed”, had come around because we had a reputation for good children’s programs, and she wanted to take care of the kids in the eyes of the Lord, as it were.  She was surprised, however, that she found herself engaged in worship.  She enjoyed the sermons.  She started to think about her own spiritual life.  She attended Bible studies.  She asked me to give her a Bible of her own so she could read it for herself.

I was, you might say, a pleased pastor.  I thought to myself, “Self, this is how it’s supposed to be.  Way to bring her into the fold…You, my friend, are a good pastor.”

And then, one night after 11 pm, the phone rang.  It was Sylvia.  She was not a happy camper.  “All right, Pastor Dave,” she exploded.  “I’m trying hard.  I understand I’m supposed to live like Jesus and all that stuff.  I’m trying to clean up my act.  I’ve even been giving my money away, and if you knew me, you would know how hard that is.  But this is it.  You know how you suggested that I read the Bible?  Well, Ed and I started reading it together before bed.  But tonight, we sit down, and I open up, and this Paul dude that you are always talking about starts hammering on women, and telling me how I’m supposed to be submissive to a man?  Did I ever tell you what my first husband did to me?  Do you know?  I am sorry, Pastor Dave, but this could be a deal-killer.  If I have to act like that to be a Christian, then I suppose that I’m not cut out to be a Christian after all.”

Um, I'm pretty sure that this is NOT what Paul had in mind...

Let me say that I both loved and hated that conversation.  I loved it because here was a person taking the Bible seriously.  She knew that the Word of God was invasive in her life.  She got it!  But it was a difficult conversation, because if I wasn’t careful, I’d be the pastor answering the phone and saying something like, “Well, now, Sylvia, let’s be honest.  That’s just Paul, talking about relationships.  Nobody takes him seriously.  It’s just the Bible, being, you know, the Bible.  Relax.  Nobody expects you to do any of that…”

This is the tenth in a series of sermons on Ephesians.  I hope that by now you’ve gotten the idea that I am committed to taking this seriously.  But how in the world are we supposed to read this?

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we are well aware of the fact that it is a document that has its roots in a different time and place.  We read about sheep and goats gathering by the well, and we have to admit that we don’t know much at all about sheep and goats.  There are stories of ancient rulers and antique weaponry and different words for money and so on and we know that the Bible is anchored in a different culture, and we search for the meaning within stories that are from another era.

But when we see “husbands” and “wives”, we think, “Ah, this is something I know about.  Marriage is marriage.  I love weddings.”

Let me tell you something.  If the Apostle Paul were to stroll in here some Saturday afternoon and sit in on a wedding, he’d be mystified.  For starters, he’d probably be amazed at how old the bridal couple is.  The average age for a first marriage in the USA is about 27 years old.  What’s wrong with them?  That’s practically middle-aged!  And they are getting married because they love each other? What kind of crazy talk is that?  And why are you trying to avoid having children?  Everybody knows that children are one of the main reasons for marriage.  The more, the sooner, the better!

For most of the people in the Biblical world, marriage was a matter of economic necessity.  In many cases, it was a business decision: when a woman was given in marriage, her parents often received a payment that would help them in their old age.  Sometimes, marriages were arranged in order to foster political decisions or to bring neighboring towns into a closer alliance.

This is not to say that love was unknown in marriages.  But rarely was love considered a valid basis for entering into that kind of relationship.  Love grew out of the best marriages as husbands and wives made decisions and acted as a family.

OK, so if that’s true, does that mean that we are free to disregard the Bible’s teaching about marriage?  If it comes from such a different place, then is it irrelevant?

By no means.  We are not free to treat this teaching in that way.  In fact, you may have heard an echo from the Old Testament passage in the reading from Ephesians.  Paul quotes from Genesis in this teaching.  Moreover, if we were to turn to Matthew 19, we would hear Jesus quoting the same passage.  Paul also quotes from it in I Corinthians, making it the only Old Testament passage of which I am aware that is quoted in both the Gospels and the Epistles.   I believe that makes it an important passage for our consideration.  Marriage and the intimate relationships of our lives – they matter, don’t they?  Surely, God’s word has some guidance for us on these topics.

Last week, I led a two and a half hour seminar for a group of teachers.  The topic was speaking respectfully to other people, and treating them with respect.  There were about 25 people in the room, and it was a great seminar.  I had met a couple of them before, but for the most part, they were strangers to me.  And it was nice.  I spoke.  I told a few jokes.  I offered wise words about how to behave well in relationships.  It was easy, frankly, because none of those people actually knew me.  I was free to talk all day about how to be a nice guy because none of the people there can actually verify whether I am a nice guy or not. I’m a stranger.

But here, well, it’s a little different.  Some of us have known each other for more than twenty years.  You’ve seen me.  You may know something about my marriage.  You, or your spouse, may have come to me with some issues in your own marriage.  Heck, I have officiated at a lot of your marriages.  We have watched each other.  We know secrets about each other.  We hear what is said.  We are not strangers.

And yet here I am, talking to you about marriage.  And my anniversary is tomorrow.

Sooooooooo.  How ‘bout them Pirates?

Do you remember what we’ve said about Ephesians?  How it begins with the really big issues: who is God? What in the world is God doing? What does it mean to the world that Jesus Christ has come as the Son of God?  And then, after having laid out a few of those large questions, Paul helps us to see our walk in the context of that which God is doing.

Today’s reading is simply a logical extension of that process.  He has helped us to see that there is no part of our lives that is untouched by the grace of Jesus – that every area of our lives should show the love that God has for the world.  He’s talked about the ways that we conduct ourselves in public, the ways that we interact with each other in the church, and now…well, now, he starts to meddle.  He’s talking about marriage.

What does a Christian marriage look like?

Many of us grew up with a stereotype that was based on a faulty reading of this passage.  Some people read that wives were to submit to their husbands and began to teach that a “Christian” marriage was one where the man runs the show, tells the woman what do to, and she cowers meekly, subservient to his demands because clearly, God has made him the boss in that relationship.

However, the folks who have taught us that have left out the beginning of this passage.  Our translation has it as “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Because you “revere” Christ, be mutually submissive.  The Greek word that we have translated as “reverence” is one that you recognize: Φοβω.  Phobia.  The “fear of the Lord.”  If you’ve read the Bible, you’ve come across that phrase before.  If you’ve been here often, you’ve heard me speak of it.  The “fear of the Lord” is a concept that appears in both the Old and the New Testaments.  It does not mean that we are to be cowering in terror because the Lord is waiting to smite us.  It means that we respect the awesome power and grandeur of the one who created, redeems, and sustains us.  We take our every step, our every breath, fully realizing that steps and breaths are gifts that come to us from God.  Typically, the Bible talks about “the fear of the Lord” as an element of faithful worship.  Here, Paul says that we approach the most intimate relationships of our lives anchored in the reality that we live in God’s world, we breath God’s air, and we are called to participate in God’s purposes.

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is another way of saying, “because Jesus is who he is, and did what he did, and gave you what he gave you, now you go out and respect the other people about whom Jesus feels the same way.  Your husband, your wife – is precious to Jesus.  Treat that one as precious.”

Starting a discussion on marriage with the idea of fearing or respecting the Lord prevents us from keeping score in the marriage relationship.  It keeps any discussion of marriage in the language of self-giving and covenant.  If the opening sentence is missing from this passage, we might be tempted to read “wives, you do this” and then “husbands, you do that” – as if the process is somehow cause and effect.  As if the core task in marriage is to make sure that the other person is kicking in their fair share.  As if marriage is somehow a 50-50 proposition.

Paul doesn’t have any time for the nonsense about a 50-50 marriage.  His primary illustration for the marriage relationship is that which exists between Christ and the church.  There is a head and a body – neither of which can survive without the other.  Each of which relies on the other.  Does Christ exist for the church? Yes.  Does the church exist for Christ? Undoubtedly.  In the same way, husbands and wives are for each other.

He really hammers that home as he commands the husbands to truly love their wives.  You may know that there are several Greek words for “love”.  Here, he uses the word αγαπε (agape), which we understand to be the self-giving, self-sacrificial love in which the lover nourishes and treasures and encourages and cares for the beloved.  It is the love described in I Corinthians 13.  It is a generous love.

Why does all of this matter?  In the grand scheme of things, why does the church concern itself with the ways that we choose to relate to one another?  Remember the point of Ephesians: that God is doing a big thing in the world through Jesus Christ.  In Christ, we find our fundamental identity; we find healing from old wounds, deliverance from trials, relief from pain, and hope in loss.  In the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed the fact that in Christ, we have a new quality of life – the ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy reflect the purposes God has for the world.

Here, Paul says that if we have this new quality of life, then it should probably show up close to home.  If there is anything at all to this business about humanity being created and redeemed; if we believe that God has a purpose for the world and we have a role to play – in short, if any of this counts for anything, then it should be apparent in our basic, every day lives.  Like the way you treat your wife.  Or the way you talk about your husband.

There has been a great deal of conversation in recent years – and in recent weeks – about “traditional values”.  The politicians, the culture, the church, and your neighbors – they have all had something to say about sexual ethics and homosexuality and divorce and equality and so on.

I do not know where this cultural shift is taking us.  I do not know where the debates will end up.

But I do know this: that the world (and our conversation about relationships) would be different if for the past 200 years the world watched the people who claim to be the church live and love in the ways that Paul describes here.

When the church was first getting started, it had a reputation for being a place in which people were treasured.  A man named Tertullian, who lived around 200 AD, pointed out that the outside world just couldn’t understand what Christians were about. “Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).[1]  Christians changed the world with a self-giving, generous love that sought to welcome the other.

Now, well, things are different.  My sense is that if you ask anyone under 30 who does not go to church what they think about Christianity, and rather than joining Tertullian in talking about Christian love, you will hear that the church is the place where people are judgmental.  The church is the group of people who hate the gays.  The church is full of hypocrites.  The church is a place where people pretend to be something that they are not.  The church is anti-science.

Are these criticisms true?  Too often, they are.  For instance, the Barna Research Group – a conservative Christian polling company – released data suggesting that for conservative, born-again, evangelical Christians, the rate of divorce is about 3 in 10.  For those people who claim to be atheists, that figure is 2 in 10.  I’m not here to bash anyone who has experienced the tragedy of divorce, but simply to indicate that before we presume to speak too loudly about morality and values, we’d better be sure that we are doing as we say.

In Ephesians, Paul is saying that nobody cares about the huge things that God is doing in the world if they can’t see the little things that God is doing in your life.    Don’t get me wrong: the people of God are called to speak a word to the culture that is around us.  But that word has got to be lived out in our homes before it is preached to the world.  Paul begs the church – you and me – to show the world what the new life in Christ looks like before we presume to tell them how to do it.  Today, let those of us who wear the name of Jesus commit ourselves to confessing where we have fallen short and to treating each other the ways that God, in Christ, has treated us.  Let’s start in our homes, and allow that grace-filled way of honoring and relating to others to flow into our world. Amen.


[1] Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter 39.7

What a Lousy Trade!

This is the message preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, May 22, 2011.  We are continuing a study of Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus, and our text for this passage is Ephesians 5:1-20

As we begin this morning, let me ask you to think about some of the spectacularly bad trades in history. On May 6, 1626, Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Canarsee people for sixty guilders, or $24.

On December 26, 1919, the Boston Red Sox sold George Herman Ruth, Jr., a.k.a. “Babe” Ruth, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, to the New York Yankees for $100,000.

On December 13, 1961, Mike Smith of Decca Records went to Liverpool, England, to hear a local band perform. A couple of weeks later, Decca Records sent this letter to Brian Epstein, the quartet’s manager: “Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars particularly are finished.” Decca Records turned down the Beatles (who eventually managed to sign a record deal and did all right for themselves) and instead signed the legendary quintet of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

Our trades don’t always work out, do they?  Human beings can be very shortsighted – we oftentimes choose the good and leave the best on the table.

In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about the fact that the people who are followers of Jesus Christ have an imperative: we’ve got to clean up our acts, he says.  Not so much because God will love us more if we are honest, level-headed, encouraging, and so on, but because it is easier to act like the body of Christ when we give up stealing, lying, gossiping, and temper tantrums.

Chapter five begins with “Therefore…”  “On the basis of all that I’ve just said,” declares Paul, “imitate Christ.  Love each other in the same way that Christ has loved you.”

Really, Paul?  Imitate Christ?  Love one another in the same selfless, honest, sacrificial way that Jesus loved us?  That’s really, really hard.  In fact, that’s a little unrealistic, don’t you think?

How about instead of actually loving other people that way, I just go to the store and buy a bunch of Valentines or Mother’s Day cards that say “I love you”?  It’s a lot easier to buy a box of chocolate than it is to actually love someone.

Being a part of the Body of Christ, which is Paul’s point in this section of the letter, is not for sissies.  It involves being authentic.  Owning up to the places where we have fallen short.  It means having a willingness to engage another person – and God, and ourselves – with respect and honesty and hope and trust and loyalty and a generosity of spirit.  Given where we come from…and our experiences, and our desire to take the easy way out…well, a lot of times, that kind of relationship is just too hard.  I’m not good at it.  It’s work.

And so we broker trades, don’t we?  We want love, but we settle for sex.  We want friendship and acceptance, but we settle for sarcasm and jokes and an easy familiarity.  We want to enjoy each other’s company, to know each other and to be valued in return, but we settle for getting drunk and self-medicating our own loneliness.

Don’t get me wrong – sexuality, laughter, and alcohol – they are not bad things in and of themselves.  But at the end of the day, they are not what we really crave.

Sexuality completes a relationship that is healthy and vibrant and intimate.  Laughter blesses a strong friendship and helps encourage a new one.  Alcohol can enhance a meal or a conversation – but it can, of course, kill either one.

We laughed a few moments ago about the foolishness of trading something as valuable as Manhattan Island or Babe Ruth or the rights to the Beatles for a few dollars, but don’t we do the same thing every day – don’t we trade what is really valuable for that which is merely shiny or tasty?

We have developed a way of talking about the life of faith that is, I think, unfortunate.  When we speak with other people about the process of “becoming a Christian”, we often use language that implies that it’s time to give up anything that is fun or enjoyable and suffer for Jesus for the rest of our lives.  You’ve heard people talk about changing their lives and they say things like, “You know, before I followed Jesus, well, life was just crazy.  I mean, there was all the partying and the money and the girls, and well, I want to say, it was crazy fun! But I gave all that up when I became a Christian…”  We speak as if following Jesus means walking out of the party and into the mausoleum.

That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding about what it means to be a Christian.

Let’s say that it was in my power to grant you the gift of an entire evening to spend with someone that has been truly important in your life, someone who has shaped you, who has meant a great deal to you.  Someone whom you have loved.  It might be someone who has died, or it might be someone who is absent from your life for one reason or another.  But let’s say that I can give you the gift of four or five hours with that person.

Would you like to spend that evening watching Wheel of Fortune reruns?  Or playing computer solitaire?  Or trash-talking the neighbors?  Of course not.  If you had the chance to spend some time with a person that significant, you would want it to count, wouldn’t you?  You would want to really share yourself and connect with the other.  You would want to make the most of that time.

“Make the most of the time…”  That’s exactly what Paul says to his friends in Ephesus.  And let me tell you something about the words that Paul uses here.  The Greeks had two words that meant “time.” Chronos time (like the word “chronological”) is the time that we spend most of our lives thinking about.  I have a dentist appointment at noon, the kids get home from school at three-thirty, dinner is at six, and my program starts at nine. cronos time is that sort of scheduled, one-thing-after-another kind of time that we live in.  Paul does not use the word chronos here.

Here, he uses the word Kairos. Kairos time is special time – the opportune time, the “right” time.  One teaching of the church indicates that kairos time is when the eternal intersects with the present.  Another way that we might understand that kind of time is when we use the phrase “time stood still”.  “When I saw him get off that plane, time stood still for me…” or “while she was in surgery, time stood still…”  Do you see?  Obviously, seconds, minutes, and hours continue to pass by.  But there is something deeper at work.

I think that Paul uses that word intentionally here.  When we follow the Lord, we engage ourselves in both one-thing-after-another time as well as in eternal time.  More and more, we grow to see our lives as shaped by the things that are outside of us, that are connected with God, that are reflective of God’s purposes in the world.  In using the word kairos here, Paul is saying that every day we can choose to invest the things that we do with ultimate meaning and significance.

He accentuates that point by reminding the Ephesians of a part of the liturgy with which we are unfamiliar: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.”  This is apparently a portion of what was said during the baptisms in the early church.  “Remember!  You are baptized!  Stop walking around like a dead man and remember that the light of Christ is in your life!”

Let me ask you to think about your day.  Is it hard for you to get out of bed?  Do you like waking up early?  Many of us – particularly when our day is full of cronos kinds of things like work or school or being on time for church – find that it’s hard to be excited about being up and about.

But if you anticipate a day that is filled with kairos moments, it’s different.  If you knew that tomorrow you’d have the chance to go fishing, or sit with a friend during surgery, or watch your niece be born, or prepare for your wedding, well, you’d get out of bed in a hurry.

Before we heard the call to follow Christ, our lives were a series of one-darn-thing-after-another.  When we were unsure as to whether anything had eternal significance, it was pretty easy to settle for some fleeting moments of distraction.  That’s not to say that we didn’t know joy, or that there was not great good in those lives, but it was easy to face each day with fairly low expectations.

But now, says Paul, we are united in the body of Christ.  We have the opportunity to live with purpose and intention.  As a part of the great thing that God is doing in the world, we can be encouraged to strive for that love which is difficult in practice, but eternal in nature.  Because we have access to the great gifts of God, we can pursue relationships that are deep and intimate and fully of integrity.  We can risk ourselves in these kinds of relationships because we know that we belong to God, and God has given us what we need for each day.

So when you hear these verses from Ephesians, don’t hear your brother Paul scolding you for all the ways you’ve screwed up over the years.  Instead, listen for the voice of encouragement that begs you to trade that which is merely funny for that which is truly joyful. Instead of seeking that which is numbs your pain temporarily, look for ways to walk through the difficult places of your life with integrity and faith.  Instead of pursuing shallow relationships that are based on physical satisfaction, why not hold out for real intimacy?

Ephesians five gives us a moral code much like we saw in Ephesians four, and for the same reason: a warning that it’s all to easy to settle for less than the best.  Let us call each other to always be looking up, to always be aiming high.  Remember who you are.  Remember whose you are, and remember where you’ve been called.  Amen.

Spring Cleaning (or “what good is it to be good?”)

What’s the point in being good?  That’s the question that came to us from Ephesians 4:17-32 in worship at Crafton Heights on May 15, 2011.  This is the eighth in a series of messages from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.

I am not sure how she feels about it these days, but this used to be one of my daughter’s favorite times of the year.  Now, I like May, because it means I can plant my tomatoes and launch my boat and prepare my strawberry beds.  You might like May because you enjoy the flowers.  But for the last couple of years, Ariel has enjoyed May because that’s when the students were moving out of their rooms and if you keep an eye on the right dumpster outside the right dorm, you might cash in on some pretty cool stuff. One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, as they say.

It’s time for spring cleaning.  The season for garage sales and flea markets and that sort of thing, right?  Where does that stuff come from?  Well, when you pass by a yard sale, you can be pretty certain that folks there have stuff that they don’t need, right?  Once, they really needed (or imagined a need for) the playpen or the exercise bike or those water skis, but now, well, to be honest, they’re just taking up space.  There’s no place for that stuff – in my house or in my life.  It just doesn’t fit with what we are doing NOW.  And so we box it up and throw it away, recycle it, or take it to the thrift store.

As we continue in our walk through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, allow me to remind you that he’s indicated that the Church is the great thing that God is doing NOW in the world.  The Church, in fact, is God’s strategy for reaching and for changing the world.  Last week, we talked about the ways that people like you and me are called (Greek: kalew) to be the Church (Greek: ekklesia), and we celebrated the fact that God has gifted us as the Church.  In the unity of Christ and through the generosity of the Holy Spirit, the Father has equipped the Church to do the work we’ve been given.  We have everything we need.

Unfortunately, we also have some things that we do not need, too.  In today’s reading, Paul tells the Church that it may be time – well, it’s always time – for a little spring cleaning.  Time to take a look at our lives and our practices and see what we can take out to the dumpster today.

He begins this passage by telling the Ephesians to put on the “new nature” – to act with righteousness and holiness.  While he’s mentioned the reality of the new nature earlier in the letter, this is the first time that he’s spelling out the specifics of what that nature looks like.  If we are going to accomplish that which God has given us, we will need to have this new nature – a new set of allegiances and practices.

Heyward gets the black & gold

Last month, the Steelers made their #1 draft pick – a young man by the name of Cameron Heyward, who played for some rinky-dink little school in Ohio, I think.  He grew up in Georgia.  His dad played football for New Orleans and Atlanta.

What would the Steeler Nation think if Heyward showed up at training camp this year wearing a Saints jersey?  What if in his first interview, he said something like, “You know, I am glad to be here, but I really hope that the Falcons go all the way this year.”?  That would be, I suspect, unacceptable.  Sure, he may have cheered for his dad wearing those uniforms, but he’s on our team now, so black and gold is the order of the day, right?  We need him to be a team player.  We are not going to pretend that the past doesn’t exist – but we are going to refuse to be governed by it.  There’s a new team, and new allegiances, new practices, new colleagues.

In this section of Ephesians, Paul says, “Look, you were on the outside.  We’ve gone over this – you were at one time estranged from God and from each other.  But if the Church is going to DO what the Church needs to DO, and if the Church is going to BE what the Church is supposed to BE, then it’s time to clean up our act.” Membership in the church is participating in the Body of Christ.  And participating in the Body of Christ requires a new way of thinking – a new way of living.

What kind of living does he mean?  In verses 25-32, he lists a series of ethical guidelines for the Ephesians.  Don’t lie, he says.  Don’t steal.  Don’t gossip or talk down on other people.  Don’t let your temper get the best of you.

Now think about that for just a moment.  Those are the rules that Paul laid down for the Church in Ephesus.  What do we learn from that?  Well, for starters, we learn that the Church in Ephesus counted among its members liars, thieves, gossips, and hotheads. I could be wrong, but I’m betting that they don’t say that on their website!  This is not a great PR campaign for the church, is it?  We expect the church to be full of nice people.  Kind people.  Friends and neighbors we can count on to be pleasant.

So we pretend that is who we are.  We come to church and we try to give the impression that we are really pretty good people.  Oh, we’ve got our faults (who doesn’t?), but by and large, we are really OK.  We’re getting along fine – thanks for asking.

And, to our credit, when most of us realize that we are behaving in some of those ways that Paul pointed out, we try to stop acting that way, or at least we feel guilty about acting that way and hope that God isn’t too angry with us.  The problem is, I think, that in the Church of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have often made this kind of ethical behavior a matter of personal choice – we act as if these things are best left to private conversations between individuals and God.

You see, we read texts like this, and we are aware that God’s not crazy about the lying, stealing, gossiping, or temper tantrums we throw.  And we resolve to do better.  And maybe we ask God to help us do better.  We get into trouble, though, when we start thinking that God is going to like a little better if we just behave.  If we believe our moral choices to exist only between us and the Lord, then it’s only logical that God is impressed when we make better choices and disappointed when we make poor ones.

And we don’t set out to teach this as a systematic understanding of how the faith works – but often, in subtle ways, we lead ourselves and others to believe that the “holier” you act, the more God’s going to love you.

That’s nonsense.  God loves you.  God is crazy about you.  Right now, in the midst of your hot-headed, thieving, lying, gossiping life – God has promised to send his Son to die for you.  God forgave you – look at the scripture – it’s in the past tense.  And acting nicer isn’t going to allow you to cash in a bigger check for God’s love.  He couldn’t possibly love you any more.

So what’s the point of being good?  Why does Paul want us to change our ways, then, if we’re not going to change the way that God feels about us?

I want to suggest that the reason that Paul is talking about specific behaviors in this spot in his letter is that these behaviors interfere with the Church’s ability to relate to each other.  The ethical and behavioral choices that we make affect our ability to be fully unified in the Body of Christ – and therefore, affect our ability to do that which we were called to do.

Remember, what is the Church, according to Paul?  Isn’t it the Body of Christ, unified in and through Jesus?  Isn’t the Church God’s new thing in the world, the agent of change and reconciliation?

Well how in the blue blazes are we supposed to do and be those things if we can’t really trust each other?  The kinds of behavior Paul mentions, along with other “moral” choices that we make all day long, get at the heart of the matter that our morality is not simply a private matter between individuals and the Lord. They have consequences in terms of how we are able to be the Body of Christ.

For instance, let’s say that you are a person who gossips.  Oh, you say that you are just “getting caught up” with the news of the neighborhood.  You might even say that you’re looking for “prayer concerns”.  But when you start tearing down another person and making fun of him or spilling her secrets, well, how can I know that I can trust you with any of my secrets?  How can we function together as God’s agents of transformation when I can’t even trust you with who I am?

Suppose you take a drink every now and then.  Well, more than one, to be honest.  Sometimes, when you drink, you are hilarious.  But sometimes you are mean.  Or you start to grope at people.  Or you are just plain rude.  And when someone calls you on your mean-ness, your gropey-ness, or your rudeness, you say, “Oh, just lighten up.  I needed to unwind.  I didn’t mean anything by it.  It was just the beer talking.”

But I am not called to be united with the beer.  I was created to be united with you.  How can I know your “you” if you keep hiding in a bottle?

All these behaviors have consequences in the real world, Paul says.  It’s not about being super goody-goody in order to impress the Lord.  Paul says, “Look, you just don’t need these things in your life.  They can interfere with your ability to come together as the body of Christ.  And the Body of Christ has some incredibly significant and timely work ahead of us.  If you are going to be God’s agent on God’s task, then it’s time to give up those behaviors that distract us from those things or lead others to question our willingness to share the journey of faith with them.”

When are you most likely to clean out the physical place in your home?  Usually, it’s when you anticipate a change, right?  You’ve got company coming, and you need the space.  Your child moved out and you’ve got an extra room.  The dog died, and you don’t need all those things any more.  When you sense change, you make room for it by going through your stuff and giving up those things that you simply don’t need any more.

For centuries, Christians have proclaimed that the arrival of Jesus changes everything.  It affects the way we spend our time, the things that occupy our interest, and the way we use our money.  More and more, every day, we say, we are called to grow into his likeness.  To be his Body.  We say that every day we are growing and changing into that Body. As we do that, we need to have space for those new things that God is doing in our lives.  We do that by clearing out the old habits that interfere with our ability to trust each other.

So please, don’t change your behavior because you think that somehow you’ll wind up a little higher on God’s list of favorites, or because you’re afraid that if you don’t, you’ll wind up with coal in your heavenly stocking.  Change your life, address your habits, choose your behaviors because they affect the way that you are able to actually accomplish the things for which God has called you in the first place.  Don’t allow the things that you do, the choices that you make, the behaviors that you have cluttering up your front hallway, to impede the growth of the Body of Christ.

And now, because I believe that a few of you know exactly what I’m talking about, and maybe even are looking around the room thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s about time somebody said something about that.  Maybe you-know-who will finally get the message now that the Pastor has called out that behavior from the pulpit.”, let me close with a warning. Even as Paul names behaviors that are destructive to the body of Christ, and even as he calls on those who engage in these behaviors to end them, he has a word to the larger body: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other as God in Christ forgave you.”

If your brother or sister is engaged in something that is harmful to the body, you have no right either to dismiss that behavior or to nurse a grudge against that person.  You have the responsibility, says Paul, to love that person.  To speak truly with that person.  And always to forgive.

Being in the Body of Christ isn’t easy.  And it isn’t always fun.  We can’t hear these moral imperatives – don’t lie!  Don’t gossip! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! –without having the grounding of the first half of the letter.  The thing we are growing into is better than the thing we are leaving.  As you clean your life, know that it is a life that is more in line with God’s intentions for all of life.  As you walk with someone who is cleaning his life, walk with him the way that Christ has walked with you.  It is a long and costly walk.  But I think that Jesus would say it is a good walk.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Growing Into the Frame (A lot of my friends are wrong, and that’s OK)

This is the message I preached at the Crafton Heights Church on May 8, 2011.  It is the 7th in a series on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  The text is Ephesians 4:1-16

Do you know what a “diptych” is?  That’s not a word you use every day, that’s for sure.  A diptych is a hinged tablet or frame that houses two paintings.  For centuries, this kind of art was useful for a number of reasons.  Travelers might have had small religious paintings that they would carry with them from place to place.  Churches often used diptychs and triptychs (a frame with three panels) on their chancel or altar areas.  In either situation, the fact that the frame folded and closed afforded a pretty good level of protection to the artwork inside.

By the way, I understand that there is a diptych application for your iPhones, whereby you can take two photos and place them side by side in a new image.  Who knew?

At any rate, one of the interesting features of diptychs from the middle ages is that the wealthy patrons of the arts would often commission paintings of both some great religious theme and themselves and place them next to each other.  In this painting from 1486, for instance, you can see the left side depicts the infant Jesus with his mother, Mary. On the right are the three donors who paid for the painting, shown in a posture of worship.

Similarly, this one has King Richard II being introduced to the Holy Child by John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund.  In both of these images, the form of the art reflects the function.  One panel describes something that is true (Jesus was born), and the other panel offers a reaction to that (people worship).  Obviously, Jesus, Mary, John, and the saints lived in a different time than King Richard, and so this painting does not reflect a historical fact; however, it conveys a truth: Richard wanted to be seen as someone who worshiped Jesus.  A diptych brings two images together to tell a greater truth.

As I mentioned last week, Ephesians is like a diptych.  The first half is the great theology of the church – the painting of the way that things are supposed to be, if you will. And the second half is the frame wherein we are invited to see ourselves as we respond to that truth.  The reading we have for today is like the hinge that holds those pieces together.

Paul begins with a plea: that we would lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.  For weeks, we’ve heard about how the church is God’s idea in God’s time and God’s place.  We did not create or invent it, we came to it.  We were given it.  We have been called into it.  At least four times in the first four verses of this chapter, Paul uses the word “calling”.  In Greek, that word is kaleo.  The word for “church” in Greek is ekklesia – the words are related.  The church consists of the ones who have been called.  We are the church, and we are responding to the calling of God.

Because we share this calling, Paul says, we have a fundamental unity.  Seven times from verses 4-6, the writer emphasizes the one-ness that is ours: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.  You may recognize that the number seven occurs many times in scripture: there are seven days of creation, seven Sabbaths of years in a Jubilee, seven times that the voice of God thunders in Psalm 29, and many different sevens in the apocalyptic writings of John.  Seven is not God’s “lucky number”, and it’s not mysterious.  It signifies completeness and fullness.  Much as we talked about last week, seven is the “perfect” number in scripture because it indicates a summation that everything is “just right”.  Paul uses seven affirmations of our unity to make sure that we understand that there is, in the body of Christ that we call the church, a fundamental unity.

Paul is quick to point out, though, that this fundamental unity may not be confused with conformity.  Beginning in verse 7, he quotes from Psalm 68 as he makes his point that God gives a variety of gifts to a variety of people.  Just because we all play for the same team, says Paul, doesn’t mean that we play in the same position.

Think about our little corner of the Kingdom of Heaven for a minute or two.  Tell me the truth: isn’t one of the things that you love about Crafton Heights church also one of the things that irritates you about the people here: a lot of us are wrong an awful lot of the time.

Think for instance, about a political or social issue that occupies your interest.  Look around the room, and think about what you know of the rest of this crew.  Do you actually believe that everyone else here thinks the way that you think about the defense budget or abortion or climate change or Pennsylvania’s educational policies or how we should have dealt with Bin Laden or genetically modified food?  Of course not!  You see?  A lot of us (a lot of you!) are wrong!  Isn’t that great?  Isn’t that frustrating?

Look at the people sitting near you.  How many of those folks look just like you in terms of age, race, gender, or life experience?  Look at who we are! Some of us work hard all the time; others hardly work, it seems.  Some have had wonderful opportunities for education, while others have traveled; some are incredibly generous, while others are a bit more circumspect in their spending; some of us are SUV, some are hybrid, and a few even walk.

Isn’t it a great thing that our unity does not rely on our agreement?!  Our unity is not based on the fact that we can all sign a position paper on a common ideology or even theology.  Our unity depends on the fact that we have responded to the call of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  One teacher has said that when Christians come together, we do so not to create unity, but to confess it.[1]

One of the implications of this is the realization that the church is not an idealized club.  Paul has mentioned this in his teaching about the church earlier in this letter, and now he makes it plain.  The church is full of people who are on the way.

Earlier this week, I had the occasion to be sitting in a dining room over at Carnegie Mellon University.  The room was full of erudite conversation about any number of fascinating topics: one table was discussing the implications of teaching children a second language when they are five years old; another was talking about the morality and wisdom of making further information about the death of Bin Laden public; and yet another was hearing stories regarding international travel.  At CMU, you can know, in large measure, what to expect.  In order to be in the room, the participants have to complete a fairly rigorous high school experience, and then go through a very competitive entry examination, and then survive some very demanding coursework.  It is an elite institution.

The church, however, is not.  Paul says that we are a people who are coming to maturity in Christ.  We are not all there.  Most of us are not yet there.  And so, theologically speaking, the church consists of people who are infants in the faith and of those who are just learning to speak the language.  Some of us have experienced some sort of spiritual growth-spurt, while others are theological bed-wetters – there are just a few things we can’t get past.  We are young and energetic or old and weary or young and weary and old and energetic.  Some of us are sober; some are not.  Some of us are eager to serve; others have to be cajoled.  All of us, however, are sinners.  And all of us, says Paul, should be growing.

I have a colleague who in virtually every conversation I’ve had with him in recent months has lamented the fact that 60% of the babies that the Presbyterian Church has baptized in the last 25 years have disappeared from our churches.

When he states it that way, it makes me think that in his mind, the problem is one of brand loyalty.  If only we did a better job at keeping those babies in the Presbyterian pews, he seems to be saying, then our organization wouldn’t face such financial pressures.

Well, that may be a problem, but I fear something else.  How many of us are in the exact same place we were 5, 10, or 15 years ago?  While I am worried about keeping the babies we baptize, I am more concerned with making sure that the people we baptize and receive as members are continuing to grow in the practice of their faith.  Too many people that I know have come to faith as teenagers.  They get active in a youth group, and maybe even join church in a confirmation class.  They study the bible.  They discuss big issues. They try new things.  And then they join the church…and then they think that they’ve “arrived” and so they stop.  They show up.  But they don’t grow any more.

How are you becoming more mature in the practice of your Christian faith?  How are you growing spiritually?

If you are one of the people who ever has or ever will come to me and say that you’d like me to help you prepare for marriage, you should know that we are going to read this passage from Ephesians.  Why?  Because it talks about deep growth over time.  I don’t want anyone to think that getting married is a one-shot deal.  It’s not an intellectual proposition.  That is to say, when you stand up here and repeat your vows, I’m not asking you to believe that you are married.  I’m not telling you that you’ve got to accept the idea that you are wed.  No, I’m telling you that every day, you’ll have the responsibility to live into that relationship.

I am not the same husband that I was on May 30, 1982.  I have changed, Sharon has changed, and the world has changed.

In the same way, I am not the same Christian that I was on Maundy Thursday, 1974 – the night when I stood up there with the rest of the confirmation class and said “yes” to the invitation of Jesus Christ.  The church is not the same church.  The world is not the same world.

Eugene Peterson translates the text from Ephesians in this way:

 1-3In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.

4-6You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.

7But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift. (Ephesians 4:1-7, The Message).

That’s good advice for married couples, which is why I will make you read it the day you come in and ask me to help you get ready for your wedding.  It is indispensable advice for those who are seeking to be followers of Jesus.

You have been called with a great calling.  Your identity lies in the one body, called by the one Spirit, to one hope, worshiping one Lord, confessing one faith, sharing one baptism, serving the one God and Father of us all.  You have been given great gifts.  What will you do with them?

Remember what a diptych is?  Two images brought together.  What would yours look like if I gave you this to complete?

On the one side is the risen Christ, calling to the saints of the Crafton Heights Church.  On the other side…well, that’s blank for now.  How would you complete this diptych?  That, I think, is the challenge of growing in Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Ralph P Martin, Interpretation Commentary on Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (John Knox, 1992, p. 49).

Learning the Language (the enormity of prayer)

This is the message preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, May 1, 2011.  It is the sixth in a series of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  In addition to the text cited below, we also heard Jesus’ prayer for the church in John 17

After the playoffs and the holiday specials, network television is gearing up for the “May Sweeps”.  This week and next, many of the dramas which were on temporary hiatus are coming back. Only the producers aren’t so sure that you remember exactly where we left off. And so at the beginning of The Chicago Code, you’ve got the voice-over reminding you of key scenes from previous weeks that will bring you up to speed for tomorrow night’s episode.

In that vein, then…ahem… “Previously, in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus…”  That’s right, friends, we’re back to Ephesians, where we’ll spend the next couple of months, right up to the summer re-runs.  So far, this little document has been crammed full of vast theological statements.  Paul has talked about God as the creator and initiator of all that is, has been, or will be; he has lifted up Jesus as both the Son of God and the embodiment of God’s intentions for the world; and he has discussed the fact that the church is the Body of Christ on earth – that it is (we are) a living reminder of God’s presence – in some way, we are the place where God lives now.  The Church, says Paul, is the result of God’s gracious activity in the world, and it requires a new way of life for those who believe.

As I’ve mentioned before, Ephesians is the only letter to a church in the New Testament that does not seem to have been precipitated by some sort of a crisis of faith or behavior.  This is some of the most straightforwardly theological writing that we have – Paul is attempting to describe a whole system of reality that may be surprising to those in Ephesus.

That part of the letter is winding down.  If Ephesians 1-3 is the “Here’s how it is” section of the letter, then Ephesians 4-6 is the “so what” portion.  And so Paul, in our reading for today, begins to put a little bit of a bow on what’s come so far.  Listen for the word of the Lord:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, (Eph 3:14-15, RSV)

Paul says, “So……..because of all this – on the basis of this reality – I am going to pray for you…”

When we lived in New York, we had a neighbor who made a habit of keeping a guest book.  Whenever she had a visitor, that person was expected to sign her little register.  What made that book so interesting, however, was the fact that she asked everyone who signed it to answer the same question: “if you could have dinner with any two people, living or dead, who would you choose?”

I used to like reading the entries, even as I wondered, “What would Thomas Jefferson and Jimi Hendrix find to talk about?”  More than that, I wondered about what it would be like to be, say, Ghandi and Moses, come back from the dead, and then discover that the reason we’d come back was to have a BLT with someone like you.  Well, OK, probably neither Ghandi nor Moses would have had a Bacon, Lettuce, & Tomato sandwich, but you get my drift.  I can understand me wanting to have lunch with Mozart.  I cannot fathom him being interested in me.

Yet Paul says that this amazing reality is true – and he is having a meeting with God, and – get this – they are going to be talking about us!  Wow!  I wonder what Paul will say on our behalf?  What’s he going to ask God for (because really, deep down, that’s what we assume prayer is, don’t we?  Asking God for stuff we want?)?

I pray, says Paul,

that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; (Eph. 3:16-17a, RSV)

Paul’s prayer is that the Spirit of God would lead us into growth in the “inner man”.  For most of my life, I’ve thought of that as a little bit of cultural sexism on Paul’s part.  When I read “the inner man”, I thought that Paul was referring to “my true self”.  If that assumption – which I’d not doubted before last year – is correct, then Paul’s prayer is that somehow, I might be more authentically “me”.  That I might be in touch with my own self – prayer is a way, therefore, to grow in my knowledge of who I am.  I am reminded of an old Bill Cosby routine wherein the comedian describes talking with someone about using illegal drugs.  The man replies, “I take drugs…to intensify my personality” – as if he could not really be himself without the cocaine.  Cosby’s response is priceless: “intensify your personality?  What if you’re a jerk?”

Markus Barth, a scholar who has written extensively on Paul’s letter to Ephesus, suggests that we’ve misunderstood this reference.  Instead of “inner man” referring to the individual self or core being, Barth understands the phrase “Inner Man” (with capitals) to refer to the person of Jesus who is living in each believer.  Barth’s translation of this passage, then, is as follows:

Rich as he is in glory may he grant that through his Spirit you be fortified with power [to grow] toward the Inner Man [i.e.] that through faith the Messiah may dwell in your hearts.[1]

Do you see the difference?  I think Barth is right – Paul’s prayer is not that somehow I might be more in touch with my own self, and growing in my ability to know that self and be true to it – as if prayer is centered on me.  Prayer is understanding my identity in Christ, and growing into the reality of Christ as he is present in my every day world.

It gets better – because it turns out that Paul is praying for the impossible:

that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17b-19, RSV).

On the one hand, says the apostle, I pray that you will know the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ – and then in the next breath, he says, but on the other hand, I know that is impossible.  Nobody can really know that.  I pray that you are filled with the fullness of God – or, as Barth translates that passage, that you “may be become so perfect as to attain to the full perfection of God.”

Usually, when we think of something as being “perfect”, we think that means that it is flawless; it is exactly right.  But I came across another use of the word when I was moderator of the Presbytery.  Someone would make a motion, and then someone else would amend the motion, and sometimes we would amend the amendment.  Eventually, however, the motion would have to be declared “perfected” – that is, we were finished with it.  It was complete.

I think that Paul’s prayer here is that we might be full, complete, finished in Christ.  That we might become who we are supposed to be in the heart of God.

And if that’s true – then this is really a different kind of prayer, isn’t it?  I mean, most of the time, most of us use prayer as a means to get stuff done.  I hate to be crass about it, but the reality is that we come to God, and we’ve got a lot to do, and you know, God, it would really help me out if I could get that job today.  I don’t want to be pushy, Lord, but I’m pretty busy, and I can’t be here all day, but it sure would be nice if grandma wasn’t suffering so much.

This kind of utilitarian prayer language is not necessarily bad – but it’s just so much less than prayer could be.  If, when I have access to the power of God in the universe and I am growing into the Christ that lives in me, I spend all my time delivering a shopping list to God (OK, I’m only gonna say this once, because I’m in a hurry – I need these kids to quiet down for a change, I need my dad to get rid of that cancer thing, I need to figure out if I’m supposed to be taking on that new project at work, and, oh, yeah, a parking place in the next block would be nice, too) – then I sell the power and mystery of prayer short.  I am using prayer as opposed to sharing prayer.

When I think of prayer in this way, I’m reminded of the 50 year old man who found a lamp and rubbed it, only to discover a genie who offered to grant him one wish.  The man looked at his wife, asleep on the sofa, and said, “You know, I think I’d like to be married to a woman half my age.”  The genie said, “Really?  That’s it?” The man nodded.  Poof! The guy with the lamp turns into a 100 year old man.  We have to be careful what we pray for and how we pray!

Paul, by modeling prayer here, reminds us that prayer is fundamentally relational, not utilitarian.  Paul begins his prayer in the humble position of one on his knees – a defenseless, vulnerable posture.  He crawls into the presence of the Father and asks that we might have the power of the Spirit so that we can grow more perfectly into the likeness of the Son.  This is the kind of prayer that Jesus was talking about in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed that we might be so united with the Lord that we are one – complete and filled and perfect – the image and body of Christ in the world today.

But…and this is a big but – do we really want that?  Is that the kind of prayer we want to utter?  Do we want to become One with Christ?  One with each other?  Or do we want something easier…something cheaper?  One man put it this way:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
 Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, 
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
 or a snooze in the sunshine. 
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man 
or pick beets with a migrant. 
I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. 
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
 I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.[2]

The language of prayer, as we find it here in Ephesians, is bold and deep and risky.  It is diving into new depths – it is a surrender to God’s being and an acknowledgement that God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, gets to tell me who I am.  Eugene Peterson explains it this way:

At prayer I am not myself by myself before God: the Inner Man is there, a partner in my praying, speaking the word of God.  Prayer transcends ‘me, myself, and I’ by bringing me into attentive participating relationship with the Inner Man, with Jesus, who reveals the Godhead….It is certainly true that in weakness and thirst and desperation we reach out to God, but the larger and more encompassing reality is that God is already reaching out to us.  Prayer has its origin in the movement of God toward us.[3]

So here’s my challenge for the week to come: think about your life.  Think about the things that you are praying about.  In what area of your life do you long for completion, or perfection, or fulfillment?  What would that look like?  Why do you want it?

And after you think about that, can you do two things?  Can you, first of all, share those thoughts with another person?  Find someone else and, in the practice and presence of relationship, can you name your dreams and pain and hope and fear?

And second, can you give those things to God?  Can you accept the fact that God is moving towards you in these places, and ask God to help you grow with the strength of that Inner Man?  You have a partner in prayer already – God the Father longs to be with you, God the Son is living within you, and God the Spirit is giving you power for this day.

If we are able to re-define our prayer lives in this way, then we might be able to join with Paul in the affirmation that ends our reading of the scripture today:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21, RSV).

This is the Word of the Lord:

Thanks be to God!


[1] Ephesians 1-3: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Doubleday, 1974) p. 367.

[2] Wilbur Rees, Three Dollars Worth of God (Judson Press, 1971).

[3] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdmans, 2010, p. 162)