St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 1st March 2015
Readings – Ephesians 4:28-5:14; Luke 17:1-10
Many, many years ago Christians were very much defined by what they didn’t do. Christians didn’t go the cinema, they didn’t wear make-up, they didn’t smoke and they didn’t drink. And definitely they only ever held hands before they got married.
But society moved on, and while the 1960s were in full swing, too often the church gave the impression it was still living in the 1860s. But eventually, as the number of the faithful declined, it woke up and, if I might put it like this, the pendulum swung the other way. Christians made every effort to show they really were normal human beings like everyone else. They were determined to show that to follow Jesus didn’t mean you had to be miserable and that it was in fact perfectly acceptable to do many of the things that perhaps the older generation still frowned upon.
And what I am advocating today is certainly not a return to joyless, miserable Christianity. I simply wonder if sometimes we are so anxious to fit in, no-one can actually see any difference. We share the same tastes in music, art or fashion, we seem to have the same goals and priorities as our neighbours, and apart from this rather weird habit of going to church we spend our time doing pretty much the same as everyone else.
Yet in his letter to the Ephesians the message Paul gives us again and again is that God’s grace should have a very real and very tangible effect upon us. As we shall see over the next few weeks, it should have an impact upon our marriages, upon our families, our places of work. It should impact the way we speak, the things we think about, even the sort of jokes we laugh at – but not in the humourless, straitlaced kind of way that used to give the church a bad name.
After all, let’s remember once again what grace is. Grace is God’s free, undeserved gift of love shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is about God pouring His mercy and His goodness into our lives even when we were, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:12 without hope and without God in the world. And if you know and understand what grace is, then your life cannot remain unchanged.
Paul tells the Ephesians in chapter 4, verses 22-24: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Or to put it another way, grace is about adopting a new attitude and a new identity as someone who has become a dearly loved child of God. It’s about recognising that despite your many faults and failings God loves you as you are, but loves you too much to leave you as you are. And once you understand and know what grace is, then, yes, it should make a radical difference to every area of your life because you will know there is no greater thing you can do than please Jesus day by day.
So what does it mean, then, to live a life of grace?
Let’s turn to the very practical teaching Paul gives us in today’s passage. Now at first glance a lot of this teaching seems to be full of negatives, and it can sound as if he is advocating a version of the Christian faith which is just about not doing certain things. But if you look more carefully, for every negative command, there is also a positive to go with it. Paul here isn’t putting forward a list of rules and regulations which we have to follow religiously; he is describing what difference grace should make as Jesus works among us by His Holy Spirit.
And the first issue practical Paul tackles is, quite simply, the words that we use.
Verse 29: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Now this word translated unwholesome is only used elsewhere in the Bible of fish or fruit that has gone bad. And of course if you have one bad orange in a bag, or one fish that’s gone off, then it affects everything else. Just like the bad words that we say can have a damaging, harmful effect on those around us. So we could say quite literally that Paul here is telling us not to badmouth other people. Rather before we open our mouths, we need to ask the Lord to show us how He sees them, to pray that we might understand their needs, to say that things that will help rather than harm them.
And of course in today’s technological age we mustn’t simply apply Paul’s teaching to the words that we speak. If like me you are connected to social media, then His words equally hold good for e-mail, text, Facebook, Twitter or anything else that you might happen to use. It’s so easy to type first and think later, both about the words you have written and the effect they are going to have on the person you are communicating with. That’s why I think there is a real need for Christians to be responsible and different about the way they use these media, especially if our message is to be credible and relevant to teenagers and young people today. #Pray before you post.
Our words however are only a reflection of our attitude towards others. So it’s not surprising that this is the second area Paul moves onto.
Verses 30-32: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
I wonder if you have ever thought about the fact it was possible to grieve the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the living, personal presence of Jesus in our lives. We tend to think of Him as a kind of power or force. But He is also God Himself, and it is more than possible that we can make Him sad by the way we behave. We grieve Him when we are unkind, angry or bitter towards other people – not just in the words that we say, but also in our thoughts and our actions. So if we claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to know Jesus as our Lord, then we need to take seriously Paul’s words here. Because nothing undermines the credibility of the Christian faith more than believers who are plain nasty towards each other. And sad to say, I know of too many horror stories about churches where this kind of behaviour has gone on, often for years, without anyone really able to do anything effective about it.
Brothers and sisters, this should not be so. If our faith means anything it means that we should be kind and compassionate towards each other. Which sounds simple in theory, but how often do we make time in our busy, distracted lives to find out how someone else is feeling or what they really need? As I hope has become clear from reading Ephesians, we need to invest in our relationships with each other. Take time to share a coffee, clear your diary to come to a craft day or coffee morning, even just go for a walk together. After all, most of us know from our own experience that the way we came to faith is through someone who was willing to spend time on us and with us.
Because it is in this way that we learn what grace really means in practice. Yes, I can tell you what grace is and how you receive it. But it only remains so much theory until we allow the Holy Spirit to shape and mould our attitudes towards others. That’s why Paul talks here about forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Because ultimately the kindness and compassion we show one another flows from the kindness and compassion we have received from Jesus through His death on the cross. That’s one reason why I am at the moment writing 40 days of Lent reflections on Jesus’ command to love each other, as I have loved you (John 15:12), and if you haven’t yet begun to use the material I’ve prepared, may I commend it to you this morning to take away and use – not just as a spiritual exercise, but to really help us put all this teaching of Paul into practice.
I shall return to the theme of grace in a moment, but I just want to jump a couple of verses for now to verses 3-4. Because our words and our attitudes towards others ultimately stem from the desires of our hearts.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
To which all I can say is I wonder Paul would make of our society today? Because even in this age where we seem to have made so much progress towards equality, the tawdry fact remains that sexual immorality remains big business. It’s what sells films – I don’t need to remind you what’s playing in cinemas at the moment – it’s what makes money for online companies, it forms the subject of most comedians’ routines up and down the country. And as Christians it is so easy to be influenced by all that we see and hear around us. What was given as a wonderful, beautiful gift from God has become a source of impurity and greed, the subject of foolish and course jokes, and for many people a cause for great sorrow and shame.
So what is the positive alternative? Paul, I believe, would take us back to the greatest commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30). Because if we truly love God like this, then we will be focused on Him, and we will be filled with thanksgiving for all the good that He has given us. We will want to please Him, and we will give Him the deepest desires of our hearts.
How, then, do we keep on focus on God with all that we have going on?
Three brief points come out from this reading:
First of all, remember what Jesus has done for us.
Verses 1 and 2: Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
After all, we all need role models we can look up to and admire. It’s one reason why celebrities, for instance, attract just so much attention. The media set up them so we can follow their example, listen to their advice, even dress like them, if we should so choose. Yet as Christians we should follow one role model above all else: not somebody who sought attention; not somebody who many held in high regard – rather someone who refused to play along to public demands and did not court the rich and famous; someone who was prepared to suffer the agony of the cross and die the most unimaginable death possible. He is to be our role model, even when nobody else around us is prepared to own His name.
That is why learning to walk with Jesus day by day is so foundational to our faith, so we can know Him, love Him, and discover His will for our lives. Because unless we do this, we will never truly be able to say that we have loved as He first loved us. And if today you are not sure how to spend time with Jesus each day, then please speak with me afterwards, for it is the most important thing anyone of us can do as His disciple.
Secondly, remember why a life of grace matters.
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no-one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
These are pretty strong words, aren’t they? Yet it’s important that we take them on board if we want to remain faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. After all, the history of the church reveals too many examples of Christians who thought that, just because they claimed to be saved, they could live exactly as they pleased. Let’s get one thing straight: the Lord Jesus will judge us on the evidence before Him of a saving faith. If we simply follow the crowd, if we our language is bad or we mistreat others, or even engage in sexual immorality, then where is that evidence? Can we really say we have owned Jesus as Saviour and made Him Lord over our lives?
And, by the way, don’t let anyone convince you that actually all this teaching of Paul is outdated or irrelevant in today’s world. One major reason why the church in this country is so weak is that many leaders in particular no longer see sin as sin, that what would have been considered unacceptable behaviour throughout most of the church’s history is either condoned or celebrated. What they say may seem reasonable or clever or sophisticated, but Paul calls their teaching empty words. Why? Because it represents a compromise with the standards of the world, and all the evidence suggests that such empty words lead in the end to empty churches.
And thirdly, remember who you are.
Take a moment to think how Paul describes us in verse 3, as: God’s holy people. Or again in verse 7: children of light. Whatever else these phrases might mean, they do indicate that we are not called to be some cosy religious club, as perhaps the church was many years ago. Nor are we to be just another voluntary organisation doing good in the local community, as perhaps too often the church is today. We are called to be holy, that is imitators of Christ Jesus as we go about our daily lives. And we are called to be light, making the grace of Jesus Christ known to others.
So this week wherever you go, whatever situation you face, ask the Lord to make you more like Jesus. Pray for the wisdom to say things which build up rather than badmouth others; to show the same grace to others as Jesus has shown you on the cross; to desire all that is good and true and right in accordance with God’s will. In short as Paul puts it in verse 10: find out what pleases the Lord.