This is the fifth in our series looking at Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. So far we have been soaring with Paul as he has used amazing language and profound concepts to lift our gaze to seeing some of the awesome truths of God’s work and love in the world. He has written of the immense spiritual blessings we have in Christ, of the mysteries that God has made known to us, of his love that surpasses all knowledge – its width, length, height and depth, of the unity of the church with Christ as the head. His letter makes inspiring reading.
But now in the second half of his letter, his focus changes. Having reminded the Christians in Ephesus of the amazing nature of the Christian faith, he begins to ask: well, what difference does it make? How do these amazing truths about God affect our day-to-day lives? Another way to put it may be to say: coming to church on a Sunday may inspire you, bring you hope, joy and comfort, but what difference does faith make the other 167 hours in the week?
Paul, in our passage this morning, says in these three practical areas, this is how our faith makes a difference.
Firstly, it affects how and what we say. You may have noticed from the news that we are in the party political conference season at the moment, and huge emphasis is placed on the speeches, especially the leader speeches. I remember back to the days in the 1980s when conference speeches really seemed to matter – Margaret Thatcher’s “this lady’s not for turning”, or Neil Kinnock’s speech of Militant driving round Liverpool in taxis handing out P45s, really seemed seminal moments. But even now, the speeches are deemed important, analysed for what they tell us about the leaders – their values, their principles, their beliefs.
But the reality is that what our leaders say in their unscripted moments, what they say in their day to day conversation tells us much more about them. And that is true for us too. What we say and how we say it in normal day-to-day conversation, not just in those more formal moments when we know we have to be on “best behaviour”, reflects massively on who we are – what we value, what we believe.
And that is why Paul urges us on all occasions to speak truthfully, to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths but only what is helpful for building others up. Our speech should be for the good of others, wherever we are, whoever we are speaking to. If what we say is gossip, or about denigrating others, or putting people down, we need to really think about what we are saying. Do our words reflect God’s love?
James’ letter, that we looked at over the summer, wrote of the power of the tongue, to do good or to do evil, and gave the advice: “be quick to listen and slow to speak”. It is good advice. How do we think we are doing?
A second practical area that Paul turns to is anger. We’ve been reminded this week of how quickly people can become unreasonably angry with the fights breaking out at petrol stations, with forecourt attendants being attacked as if they had some control over the national fuel supplies. I can watch on feeling a little bit superior, but then realise I too have my trigger points, in my case dealing with what feels to me like petty bureaucracy though to the other person on the other end of the phone or the other side of the desk, its an important part of their job. I confess anger gets the better of me at times – I become rude and aggressive – which neither helps the situation or communicates anything of the love of God. Paul’s words are for me: “get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander.” I have found acknowledging those trigger points ahead of time and praying and just reminding myself of how pointless anger is in those situations has helped.
Paul also advises about anger: “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.” In other words, don’t let anger or bitterness fester. Resolve it and resolve it quickly. And even if you cannot reach resolution with the other person – for it does require both of you to achieve that – we can come to a place where we are not harbouring anger within ourselves. Let the anger go, even whilst holding on to the desire for change.
Thirdly, Paul speaks about work. He says: “Thieves must give up stealing: rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” These words weren’t just directed at thieves, though it says something about the rich diversity of people that the message of Jesus was attracting that there were thieves in the church, but the words were for anyone whose work caused dishonest gain, who were making a living by exploiting others.
It is a good question for us all to ask. Does my work, or indeed how I spend my money or use my time, exploit and take advantage of others? Am I working in a business which preys on the vulnerabilities of others? Do I work for an organisation that pays fair wages to all? Do the goods and services I buy value appropriately the labour of those who have worked to produce them? These are important questions to wrestle with, even if there aren’t always simple or immediate answers.
And note Paul’s understanding of the purpose of work: “so as to have something to share with the needy”. For those of us who work, and for those of who draw a pension from the results of our working life, it is a challenging thought – that with the privilege of work (and as I speak to those members of our community who are unemployed and are struggling to find work, I realise it is a privilege) comes a responsibility to share what we receive with those in need. That’s why our church mission partners, who we give to financially throughout the year as a church, include those working with the needy in our own city and in other parts of the world. And that’s why it is good to regularly think about and review our personal giving, not just to the church, but to organisations and charities, and to individuals that we may know. It is good to be generous and compassionate.
All of this, and indeed much more, can be summed up in the final verses of our passage: “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
I love those words. In our speech, are we kind and compassionate, building one another up, encouraging, supporting, affirming, valuing one another? When we are riled and angry, are we ready to forgive, and to do so before such anger can fester? In our work and in the use of our money, are we guided by principles of kindness and compassion, thinking how can what we do be of benefit to those in need?
As Paul reminds us, we are to be “imitators of God, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us.” May God fill us with his Spirit, may He help us to become more like Him; may we grow in love.