“Be careful then,” writes Paul, “how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Paul intends us to be aware that our faith is not separate from our life. This idea that faith is an intellectual exercise about thoughts we have, beliefs we hold, and not about how we live is anathema to Paul. He says that is absurd, that how we live isn’t shaped by how we believe and by our faith. (See Romans 6 for example.) So, be careful how you live, he says. Let your life bear witness to your faith.
There’s no time to waste, he argues, the days are evil because we are on the brink of the new age. He isn’t interested in fixing what is wrong in this world but preparing us for living in the next one. Consequently, say many commentators, he doesn’t challenge the social order, but asks how we can make it as much like the kingdom of heaven as possible. Wait! Back up for a moment. Think about that idea – not fixing what is wrong in this world but preparing for living in the next one. Is that really what is going on here? Is that really how we’ve come to understand Paul (or Paul)? Or worse, is that how we’ve come to understand the faith? It’s all about getting us into heaven, not about making a difference in the world in which we live?
If that were true, then The United Methodist Church is in big trouble. After all, we are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are looking to make a difference in the world, right? Well, maybe not. Notice it doesn’t say to make the world better, or to make a difference in the world. Yes, that is how we sometimes hear that mission. Leave the world a little better than it was when you found it. Nice idea, but not really the gospel. We are in the business of transforming the world. This text, this author, isn’t interested in fixing the world, but bringing in the next one. We are transforming this world into a kin-dom reality. Knowing, of course, that we can’t do it alone, we can’t do it by our efforts, but we can partner with the Spirit (remember we are in the season after Pentecost), as God brings in this new reality. It is not about going off somewhere to heaven but living in the new age of the kin-dom of God.
So, the days are evil, writes Paul, so be careful. Careful? Meaning we watch out for ourselves? We keep ourselves pure and unstained from the world? Well, yes and no. There is certainly a call to higher living—“live a life worthy of the call”—remember? Yet, this verse needs to say more than just watch out for yourself. It could also be read to say live full of care in a difficult time. There are many who are struggling; there are many who succumb to the demons of this age, to addiction, to hatred, to oppression, to fear, to lies. So, live full of care. Pay attention to the world around you, to the need around you, to the despair around you. Live fully invested in the kin-dom we proclaim, not in fear of the world that is less than that. It is hard to believe that this text, that any of the Pauline texts, are calling us to withdraw from a world in need of the gospel grace. Instead, we make the most of the time, not simply for ourselves. Not primarily for ourselves, but for the world that needs the community of faith to live out loud in transforming ways. In kin-dom ways.
But how? How do we maintain such an intense level of engagement? How do we sing the songs of faith with glad and joyful hearts at all times? These brief verses give us two directions for resourcing our inner strength. First, verse 18: it’s not wine or any substance of this world, but the Spirit that is the source of our joy, of our giddiness. Yes, implied in these verses is the evidence that the Christian should be a person of joy. Not that there aren’t moments of sorrow, times of struggle and of pain. But that the default mode for the follower of Christ is an attitude of joy that grows out of the second source of strength, gratitude.
“Giving thanks at all times and for everything . . .”: This isn’t just a lesson in etiquette, good advice for getting along with people and serving God. This is a core lesson of discipleship. Gratitude is a condition of the heart and a driver for all sorts of action, ministry, and service. Gratitude is the foundation of discipleship. It requires an awareness of our need for grace and an appreciation of the source of that blessing. It is an aid to the entry of the Spirit, lowering the defenses and opening the mind and soul to that divine presence.
While this text points to the gratitude toward God, it is also the method of interaction within the human community. Because of our overwhelming gratitude toward God, we can also begin to appreciate one another and indeed all of creation as a part of that gift and a reminder of that presence. Giving thanks is behind, or underneath our journey of faith. It drives stewardship and mission. It brings us faithfully to worship week after week. It drives us to our knees in devotion and prayer. It opens the living Word of God as we explore the scriptures. Gratitude is the best motivator for evangelism. We tell the story because we are grateful for God’s activity in our lives. When we practice in the life of the church the discipline of testimony, we are reminded to be thankful for blessings overlooked or gifts forgotten. “Giving thanks at all times and for everything . . .” It’s a powerful way to live.
We are called to be full of care as we make our way through the world. What better way to exercise that care than with an attitude of gratitude?