Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost 2018 — Preaching Notes

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LIVE ...In Love Worship Series, week 2
August 12, 2018

by Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore

We like maps. We like to be able to see a plan. We like to know how to get from here to there. Even the stereotypical male who doesn’t like to stop to ask for directions still likes a map. He wants to know the plan; he just doesn’t want to ask for help to get the plan.

For Christians, our map begins in baptism. Recall the references to baptism in last week’s passage, both indirectly by way of the quotation from a baptismal liturgy and directly by way of the reference to our “one baptism” (in fact, there are references to baptism throughout Ephesians). This week, the author brings baptism to mind by noting that we are “marked with a seal” (v. 30). This leads into the following two verses in which the author carries forward the old-self/new-self language of 4:17–24, language that refers to baptism because the baptizand were believed to “put away” the old self by dying with Christ upon entering the water and then quite literally “put on” a new self as they emerged from the water and were clothed in a white robe, the “garment of Christ.”

In today’s passage, the old self that we are to put away is marked by bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. Notice that all these things intend to work like a suit of armor (we should hear portents of the passage for our last week here!) to protect or insulate the self from harm. And all of these things are marks of unhealthy communication.

Conversely, the new self that we are to “put on” (though this language is not explicitly used here, following 4:17–24, it would be implied by way of contrast) is marked by kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. That which characterizes the new self should remind us of that which characterizes building up in love (humility, gentleness, and patience/forbearance) from last week’s passage. Note how we are to speak truth to our neighbors, but truth alone is not enough. We are to speak only what is useful for building up. The truth must give grace to those who hear—in Wesleyan terms, it must be a channel or means of grace! All these characteristics nurture community/communion. And all of these things are marks of healthy communication. As in last week’s passage, the map for the new self, for living in love, that the author of Ephesians lifts up here is not about law—natural, moral, or otherwise—but about building up community.

This week’s passage comes to a climax with the imperative “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.” Here we return full circle to the image, if not the language, of “calling” from the beginning of chapter four, as well as from 1:4–18. Calls to imitate Christ are common the New Testament, but calls to imitate God are rare (though there is some hint in that direction in Mt 5:44–48), and the rarity of such a call should capture our attention.

The language of imitation can be dangerous. Even in today’s passage, which calls us to imitate God, that imitation is directly linked to living like Christ who gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice. From the perspective of much contemporary theology, we occupy a very precarious position here, for we appear to stand on the brink of the glorification of suffering for its own sake. For centuries, the glorification of suffering and the admonishment to imitate Christ and be conformed to him, to his sufferings, and to his self-sacrificial love has been used to justify the suffering and oppression of generations based on the idea that suffering has salvific meaning in and of itself.  Feminist and womanist theologies, in particular, have been right to point out that a theology that spiritualizes suffering supports victimization and abuse. Moreover, many feminists and womanists believe that language such as this passage can easily lead to the kind of abuse that ends in the destruction of the self. This is, perhaps, most often the case because Christ’s “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” is often identified solely with the crucifixion. Are we, then, to allow ourselves to be subjected to suffering as Christ was?  To put it another way: If it was Christ’s desire to demonstrate his affirmation of the will of God by his willingness to be persecuted even to the point of death, and we are to imitate Christ, are we, then, to imitate him by our own willingness to be persecuted, even to the point of death?

Several things are important to keep in mind here.

First, as Robert J. Daly warns, “to project our human and thus inevitably flawed (at least inevitably finite) juridical thinking…onto God, and then to take the resulting image of God as a model both for understanding God’s actions and for us humans to imitate, is simply bad theology.”1

Second, there are some things that only God can do in the way that God can do them to get the results that God gets. Take, as one example, the Incarnation, in which God is united with humanity in Christ. While the goal of all humanity is union with God, and we are to imitate Christ, we certainly can’t imitate the Incarnation. Our union is categorically different, and therefore the character of our imitation will be categorically different.

Third, the language of sacrifice here is, in the context of the epistle, reminiscent of 2:13 where the author mentions the blood of Christ. But 2:13 is suggestive of the peace offering with which Moses sealed the covenant (“those who were once far off are brought near”), not the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement.

Finally, if we are to be imitators of God, then we cannot disregard the fact that God, as Trinity, is constituted by loving relationship and thus exists in community, which includes the Father, who forgives in order to restore right relationship, and the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.

Rather, we might see this call to imitate God as a restatement of the Great Commandment. As children, our love is not simply to be directed to God, but, as imitators of God, toward others, too. The verse immediately preceding the call to imitate calls us to forgive one another as God has forgiven us, an injunction that might bring to mind the song “Freely, Freely” (UMH 389):

God forgave my sins in Jesus’ name,
I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name,
And in Jesus’ name I come to you,
To share his love as he told me to.

He said, “Freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give.”

Even more poignantly, however, “forgive as God has forgiven” might better be stated, based on the Greek (charizomai), as “be gracious as God was gracious.” Forgiveness is a discrete act, elicited in the face of (and as a response to) a particular offence. Graciousness, in keeping with this week’s theme of living in love, is a way of being, of walking. In Wesleyan terms, we are called to a life marked by works of grace and mercy.

If forgiveness is the imitation of God, kindness is the virtue, not holiness or righteousness. Indeed, righteousness and holiness are the climax of the passage immediately preceding this one (v. 24), but they are what constitute the likeness (image) in which we were created, not the way in which we are to walk. The way back to this likeness is the way of love. As with last week’s passage, if a great part of the law is dedicated to explicating what constitutes holiness, a great part of the gospel is dedicated to explicating what constitutes love. That which is required of us, the manner in which we are required to walk in imitation of God, cannot be separated from the way in which God has acted toward us in Christ Jesus. German offers wonderful play on words in this regard in which all the moral requirements (Aufgabe) in the New Testament are grounded in what God has done for the world in Christ (Gabe). The focus is on the actions of God (love) rather than on God’s natural state of being (holiness).

In considering the call to live in love, it is important to remember that Ephesians is addressed to those who already claim to be Christian—and, more importantly, to two factions that, though they have very different views, have been united in one body. These are the hostilities Christ has reconciled, and the church will be the first to be judged by the ethic of love and abundance God has made known in Christ (cf. 2:14–22). If the Incarnation really is the basis for our reconciliation, and therefore the paradigm by which we are to understand the task of reconciliation, then the union/reconciliation must be, in some way, irreversible and inescapable.

We are “members of one another.” The call to live in love is a common theme of last week and this week, as is the call to build up. This is no disembodied, conceptual exhortation. It is, rather, an injunction to an embodied, incarnate response. We are called to live and love, literally to walk, as Christ lived, loved, and walked. Conformity to Christ (to be formed with) does not mean uniformity (one form). There are many paths, just as there are many gifts. In a sense, Paul is not giving us a map, a path to holiness and righteousness, which, once we know the way, we can simply apply it to our lives; rather, Paul is telling us the way to walk, no matter the path. This is a way of being, of participation rather than application, a way of living in love.

 


1 Robert J. Daly, Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 108.

 

 

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Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore, OSL (M.M., M.Div.), is an elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church currently serving as the senior pastor for St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, Texas. For the past two years, he has served as the Creative Director of A Ministry of Congregational Singing & Worship, an extension ministry in the North Texas Conference devoted to helping congregations strengthen their voice and deepen their worship life.  He has previously served on the staff of churches large and small in Dallas, Texas, including Highland Park UMC, Lovers Lane UMC, and Walnut Hill UMC.  Rev. Moore is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University and currently serves as the President of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and as a member of the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee.