Ephesians 4:25-5:2New International Version (NIV)
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
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. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
There are times when we get really deep theologically in our sermon time here at Staunton Mennonite Church. We have discussed things like Girardian Memetic Theory of Atonement, the Open [Theology] view of the future, and Just War/Pacifism. We have also spent some time looking at some very political issues, like gun rights, immigration, and race relations. As fun and important as all of those topic are to discuss, today we are taking a step back. This isn’t because I don’t think you have the mental ability to discuss these difficult topics, nor is it because I see you all falling asleep when I preach on them. The reason we step back today is because this is what the Bible does. This is what Jesus and Paul do. We look at challenging and complicated issues, but then we take a step back and look at the building blocks of our Christian lives. We step back because we need to be reminded of the foundational teachings that our parents taught us when we were little, but so many people easily forget.
Several years ago I mentioned the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. With my son starting kindergarten this year, I feel like today’s lectionary text fits perfectly. These are the kinds of things we are trying to teach our 5-year-old! Paul lays out some really basic teaching on what it will look like to be a Christian. Share your toys and your snacks, don’t hit, and pull hair, and don’t call names kind of stuff.
Before we get into all of the specifics, let’s consider the context for today’s text. Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus, which is made up of mostly Gentile converts to Christianity. We know from other texts that the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians didn’t always get along. There were often questions about how Jewish a Gentile convert to Christianity needed to be, what laws they needed to keep. Remember at this time Christianity was a sect withing Judaism. Circumcision? Food laws? Sabbath keeping? In Jesus’ fulfillment of the Torah, a number of these laws were no longer necessary. So the Christians held debates and there were divisions. Divisions were made based not only on nationality, but by whose teachings you follow. Some would say, “I follow Paul.” Others, “I follow Apollos.” Evidently these two men were teaching something slightly different, and it was causing people to break into factions.
This is why Paul uses metaphors, calling the church a body. Some are hands, some are feet, but all are important. Paul also likes to remind his readers that they aren’t Christians based on their own good merits. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul is saying to the church, Yes, you came from different backgrounds, and you may have differing points of view, but you, we, are all sinners saved by grace. Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, you are a part of the body of Christ because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything that you have done.
So after the reminder of where these Christians have come from and an attempt to emphasize that they are only there by the grace of God through Christ, Paul gives some simple, kindergarten-like instructions on how Christians should get along with one another. Kindergarten lesson number one: tell the truth. I probably don’t need to explain this one to you. Of course, if I asked you if you always tell the truth and you don’t you would tell me that you do anyway, so how would I know? Hey you, are you a liar? No? Well alright, then.
But I think that what Paul is talking about here is more difficult than I am leading on. How often do we answer a question that is asked of us in a particular way because we know how the other person wants us to answer? I didn’t tell a lie, but I maybe wasn’t entirely truthful. Someone asked me the other day what I thought about Donald Trump running for president, and I said, “He sure does know how to handle money well.” Inside I was thinking that his comments on immigration reveal him to be a racist and a bit of a fear monger.
Did I lie? Nope. Trump is good with money. But look at verse 25, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” I was intentionally misleading a brother who asked my opinion on a presidential candidate into thinking that he and I agreed. But Paul brings up this idea of the body again. Can a hand mislead a foot?
It is easy to not lie, but Paul is calling us to put aside all falsehood.
Paul does not stop there, though. He gives us Kindergarten lesson #2. Verses 26-27, “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” And let’s jump ahead to 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.”
I think that the first lesson to not speak any falsehood would be a lot easier if we also kept this lesson.
Paul is quoting passages from the Hebrew Bible when he says to not sin in your anger and to not let the sun go down on your anger. I assume that the Gentile Christians have heard this somewhere along the way as well. We learned this in kindergarten, right?
The problem that I see in the church is that some like to do the first and ignore the rest of these commands. There are some people that like to speak the truth, but they do it in an angry voice. And they sure don’t do it to build people up according to their needs. They do it to build up themselves and fulfill their needs.
We’ve all heard the pastor yelling from the pulpit about something that they didn’t like, whether it was a new law or just the ethos of the community around them. And sometimes we hear Christians talking about something they agree with and they just sound angry! Oh, that man is filled with righteous indignation! But as I have asked before, in what other setting is that okay? I got my state inspection done on my car the other day and they told me that I needed new front brake pads. So I stood up, waved a finger in office manager’s face and said, “That’s an abomination! You, sir, are an abomination!”
In this lesson on kindergarten Christianity, Paul is saying that it is important to speak the unequivocal truth, but don’t be angry in the process. Don’t speak any unwholesome talk in the process. To speak the truth in anger is to give the devil a foothold. It opens up the door to temptations.
When we speak the truth in anger, the first thing that we do is to divide the body of Christ. We don’t want to be associated with those kinds of Christians. We don’t want to be confused for Calvinists or Baptists. We aren’t like those guys who baptize babies or those who have flags in their sanctuaries!
When we speak the truth in anger, we divide into groups. It is us and them, the in group and the out group. Speaking the truth in anger leads to unwholesome talk. Speaking the truth in anger undoes this unifying of Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, men and women.
One of my friends posted an article this week on Facebook, and for some reason, I read it. It was about Desmond Tutu, a retired bishop from South Africa. Tutu gained fame in the 1980’s because of his work to bring an end to a government-sanctioned racial segregation known as Apartheid in South Africa. Tutu has done some excellent work with reconciliation and forgiveness from a Christian perspective. He takes Paul’s words in today’s passage seriously when Paul writes in verse 32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
The article that I read was written in response to something that Tutu had said several years ago. So the first thing that I notice is that this is taken out of context. Let’s just be honest, it is never a good idea to write an entire article about one sentence someone said several years ago. The article attacked Tutu and in my opinion the author didn’t even really understand what Tutu was saying. This is what we call “a hatchet job.” But what was even worse was the responses that people were leaving. I don’t know why I read the comments. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
Person after person, commenter after commenter shared how they agreed with the author of the article. Many made statements about how Tutu will spend all of eternity in hell because he held a different view than they did.
I was like, Really? The Archbishop of South Africa who helped bring an end to Apartheid and has since worked tirelessly to be reconciled with his former oppressors is going to hell for all of eternity? And you are getting this from one poorly-written article?
I wondered if these Christians had ever read the book of Ephesians. For it is by right theology that you have been saved… especially so that you might boast! No, if our salvation is contingent upon getting every last aspect of God exactly correct, we are all in trouble. Nobody has it all figured out, and this is why we must speak truthfully, and do so without anger.
The story about Tutu is an example of speaking truth in anger, rather than in love. This is an example of unwholesome talk and giving the devil a foothold. I think that the devil is never happier than when we turn on our own.
Let’s look at verse 32 again, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Kindness and gentleness keep coming up in Paul’s writing. This is our third and final Kindergarten lesson. Be kind to each other. I know that this sounds kind of simplistic, kind of childish even. Please, just be kind. But when you are not kind and gentle, when you are angry and untruthful, we are told that you are grieving the Holy Spirit. I found that very interesting as kindness and gentleness are two of the Fruit of the Spirit that Paul names in Galatians 5. Kindness and gentleness are right up there with love, joy, peace, and patience.
I know of a pastor who was invited to a conference a couple of years ago. He was asked to be a part of a panel talking about God, but the panel was going to be made up of religious leaders from different theological backgrounds. This pastor was the leader of a mega church. Also speaking on a different the panel was Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. If you aren’t familiar with the Dalai Lama, he is a Tibetan monk in the Buddhist tradition. So far this sounds like a bad joke: an evangelical pastor, the archbishop of South Africa, and a Tibetan monk walk into a bar…
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu do not have the same theological beliefs. Anglicans and Buddhists don’t see eye-to-eye on many things. But 83-year-old Tutu and 80-year-old Dalai Lama have been friends for years. So this conference was not their first meeting. The guests were introduced before each panel discussion, so the pastor was introduced early as a part of one panel and Tutu and the Dalai Lama were introduced as a part of the last panel.
So what happens when two respected and powerful men come together on the stage and see each other for the first time in a while? What would you expect from two Nobel Prize winning religious leaders? They reached out their hands and embraced. They then began to tickle each other, because that’s what Nobel Prize winners do.
Just before our passage for today we read this in Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” And one of my favorite passages from the 1st epistle of Peter, chapter 3, verse 15, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Tell the truth, my friends. We sometimes beat around the bush, covering our true opinions because people get angry and push us away. I’m not sure which is worse: not telling the full truth or getting angry at someone who does. Truth-telling must be accompanied with gentleness, peace, and kindness. You better believe that a Tibetan monk and an Anglican archbishop have disagreements. And we are talking about some serious disagreements. But when they come together, they don’t lob insults and spew anger. No, they save that for our politicians. The two Nobel Prize winners embrace one another and have been known to share a tickle.
If that isn’t Kindergarten Christianity, I don’t know what it.