Last week I preached about what sort of ministries the church needs. We noticed that Ephesians chapter four lists apostles, prophets and evangelists before mentioning teachers and pastors; that ministries that engage with the wider world get mentioned before those that focus on life within the congregation. I also said that the types of ministries a contemporary congregation needs are not limited to those listed in New Testament letters. So, having considered what sorts of ministries a church needs, we now look at what sort of people it needs.
In his letter to the church people in Ephesus, Paul first explores this via a series of do’s and don’ts, and then points to the model that inspires us do the right thing and live in the right way. We’ll follow the same path as Paul, and that means starting with the don’ts!
Paul says, don’t tell lies, don’t wallow in anger, don’t make room for the devil, don’t steal, don’t talk evil, don’t be bitter, argumentative, or malicious. That’s quite a list of don’ts, and it puts paid to any rose-tinted view we might have about the church in biblical times.
I’m off on holiday at the end of this week. Just imagine if I sent an email to be read out to you, saying, “whilst I’m away, do remember not to lie or talk evil; be sure to give up stealing; don’t be bitter, argumentative or malicious; and don’t let in the devil or grieve the Holy Spirit.” I don’t think you would be impressed. If I felt I have to tell you not to do these things then I must think there’s a good chance that will. Such things must have been going on in the church at Ephesus because Paul felt he had to give them a mention.
Of course, if there were no sinners there would no need for churches. So, a reminder about the things we church people are not supposed to do is not out of place; it’s simply being realistic about human failings. That’s not to say it’s ok for church people to do things that are wrong. That’s why Paul provides this list, – and it’s not an exhaustive one – of things a church people should not be doing.
Simply telling people what not to do, and, by implication, telling them off in the process is pretty dispiriting. Very few people come to church, or are part of church because they like being told off. It’s a good thing, then, that Paul moves on to the positive side – to what church people should be doing. And Paul says that they (and we) should be people who speak the truth to our neighbours; who let go of anger before the day is out; who work honestly and share with the needy; whose words are a pleasure to listen to; people who are kind to one another, tender-hearted, and mutually forgiving.
There’s nothing there to disagree with, and everything to commend, but if I had to listen to Paul, or some other preacher, tell me to do all of that all of the time, I think I would find that almost as dispiriting as being told off about all those things I should not have been doing. Who on earth can be truth-speaking, anger-free, nice-talking, always-giving, and forgiving, all of the time? Not me, for sure. Taken as a whole, this list of good qualities, may be aspirational, but it does not seem realistic. I feel like it sets me up to fail. And just as very few people come to church, or are part of church in order to be told off, so very few will come because they like to have their failures to be good all of the time pointed out to them.
That’s why it is so important that not only does Paul point out what the people of a church should not be doing, and what they should be doing, but also points to the model, inspiration and means that not only enables us to avoid doing wrong, not only enables us to do right, but then also deals with those times where we fail. And here it is. As Paul gets to the end of his list he writes, ‘be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.’ (4:32, 5:1)
We know what sort of people we are meant to be. We know what sort of people we are meant not to be. So, in his letter to the Ephesians Paul lets us know the sort of things we should avoid doing and the sort of things we should be doing. And note how both of these lists are about our actions, not about the about the beliefs that we hold in our heads. But then Paul goes on to point out why we do what we do. We are responding to what God has done for us; what God has shown to us in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are supposed to be forgiving of one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.
It’s about our response to God’s love for us. Knowing that God regards us as beloved children (5:1) inspires us to avoid the bad and do the good. We want to be ‘imitators of God, in whom there is no wrong. Also, its knowing that the God who loves us is also a forgiving God – ‘God in Christ has forgiven you’ (4:32) – that reassures that even when we fail in being God’s people, as we will at times, there is forgiveness, and opportunity to try again.
So, in conclusion, whilst I’m away on holiday, let’s have none of your lying, evil-talking, thieving, bitter, argumentative, malicious ways; things that would let in the devil and grieve the Holy Spirit. And while I’m on holiday I’ll do my best as well. Instead let’s me and you try to always be truth-speaking, anger-free, nice-talking, always-giving, and forgiving sorts of people. Let’s do so because we are trying to be children of the God who loves us. And when you and I fall short, as we may well do, don’t forget, God is not only loving but forgiving God is giving us endless opportunities ‘to live in love as Christ [has] loved us.’ (5:2)
And so we pray. O God fill us with the knowledge of your love so that we strive to avoid the wrong, and seek do what is right. Forgive us for the times we fail, and strengthen us to try again, so that we may live as your people. Amen.