Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts like this make me immediately skeptical.
“Be careful then how you live,” Paul says. Don’t be foolish, “but understand what the will of the Lord is.” It sounds like a stump speech, as the politician bounds up to the stage. And we are told that America is great as long as she is good, or we must protect our values for our children, or our increasing debt means we are going to have to make some sacrifices. And we nod, agreeing, until someone raises their hand: “Which values do you mean? Which thing that we are passionate about must get cut? ” We all want to follow the will of the Lord, just as soon as we know what that is, exactly.
We struggle with this wisdom in the church. A presbytery in Minnesota voted on Tuesday to approve amendment 10-A to the constitution of the PC (USA), putting the total number of affirmative votes over the threshold for passage. This amendment, once it takes effect this summer, replaces some of our church’s language about ordination standards. The present standards speak of officers in the church living in obedience to scripture and our confessions. Then there is a special note about our sexuality, added 14 years ago: “Among these standards is the requirement to live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness…” (G-6.0106b).
Now, we ought to agree that the way one lives in relationship is an important arena in which we live out our faith. We don’t get to wall off portions of our lives that God doesn’t get access to. But the mechanics get tricky. The church actually amended the Westminster Confession of Faith some 50 years ago to sanction people getting remarried, and to grant some grace on divorce. 1 While I am sure there are couples who have gotten divorced too quickly, who didn’t try hard enough to work it out, most of the couples I know did so through deep pain, praying to the very end that things could be otherwise. Paul says, ‘be careful how you live,’ and ‘understand the will of the Lord.’ And then we step out the door, and it is infinitely more difficult.
And Paul’s language sounds like a stump speech because, in many ways, it is. First of all, most scholars doubt this letter was written by Paul. The language and writing style is different. And it might not have been written to the Ephesians. The phrase in 1:1 ‘in Ephesus’ is missing from several early and trustworthy manuscripts. 2 The author repeats a lot of Colossians, and the book lacks any specific mention of problems in the community that prompted Paul’s writing. In so many of his letters the context is unmistakable. Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians who are worried about their loved ones who have died, to assure them of the hope they have in Christ. He writes to the Christians in Corinth because factions threaten their unity. He follows up with a second letter seeking reconciliation, and in gratitude for an offering the church sent for Christians in Jerusalem. Galatians is about circumcision, about identity and being the rightful heirs of Christ’s promise. Paul is in prison and writes to the Philippians to endure against persecution, similar things to Colossians.
But not in Ephesians. Paul, or someone writing in Paul’s name, begins with a long section of gratitude that turns into a prayer, and then calls the people to seek a brand new life in Christ. Its language is rich, with a lot of great stuff about the church as the body of Christ, about being called to bear witness to him in the world. It is filled with exhortation. A stump speech, what many scholars think is likely a sermon that traveling preachers would share, from pulpit to pulpit. Our preacher reminds his hearers that Christ is our peace, that he has broken down the dividing walls between us (2:14); he tells us that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens, saints in the household of God (2:19). He challenges us all to lead a life worthy of our calling (4:1), and not to be tossed about, back and forth, blown about by winds of doctrine, by following our impulses instead of doing the deep discernment to which we are called.
And so our preacher, to this church in Ephesus and to many others, dares to reuse some of his material because he believes it is important. He does this because he believes that how we live in all of our relationships, that how we conduct ourselves as a church, matters profoundly to each other, to the world, and to God. Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. We are summoned to live with intentionality, to live into opportunities for ministry placed before us. All of that can certainly mean different things to different people, just as this vote does for the larger church. There are many who have been blasting away, who would argue that the PC(USA) has given into the values of these evil days, have been batted about by the winds of culture, who are simply following along and tossing scripture out along the way. This wasn’t a debate in the church for many centuries, so why toss all that out?
It is because, I believe, that at the core of our Christian and Reformed tradition is that we are always being reformed by the Spirit of God. That the moment things stay the same, we are in fact heading backwards, missing opportunities to be at work in the world. I am not going to re-litigate this whole thing for you, though I would – either Betty or I – would love to sit and talk with you, would love to sit and listen to you. I do believe, though, that this dynamic Spirit calls us to seek faithfulness in every age, as our church has been seeking for the last 33 years. These new standards do not throw open the door for every broken sinful person to be an officer in the church, any more than broken and sinful people are leaders – pastors and elders and deacons – in the church already. We are they. What the church has done is remove a categorical condemnation that was inconsistently enforced, and that ignored that fact that we all fall short in countless ways. I tend to think we focus on sins of sex because we like to believe that those are sins that other people do. They can’t pertain to us. And we point the finger, ignoring the log in our own eye, when scripture says some pretty powerful things about greed, about idolatry, about honesty and gossip and forgiveness that we don’t seem to worry about so much. This new language, while offering freedom for bodies to no longer exclude gifted gay and lesbian people who have been called to serve the church, more importantly focuses us not on each other, not on your sins and mine, but on the Christ who is the Lord of all.
And the new language points us to God, in ways that the preacher of Ephesians would appreciate. “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000).” 3 We lean on scripture and the confessions, and our local governing bodies – sessions and presbyteries – who will decide for themselves, and for the church, through deep discernment and prayer, who will lead and serve the church. This is what our preacher encourages us to do: to be filled with the Spirit, to seek her everywhere. The Spirit of boundless hope and joy, laughter and love, who is the Spirit of the Risen Christ, who broke down boundaries over and over again, who extended compassion and love to all He met, who called all people to repent, to turn around, to stop following themselves and their own gods, and seek the One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Deborah, Isaiah and Micah, of Mary and Joseph and Paul, of Augustine and Calvin, of Knox and Witherspoon, of our grandparents, of pastors we knew growing up, the Christ that seeks YOU, that seeks ME.
And then our preacher, finally, at every stop in every little coastal town, points the people to worship. We work and study and struggle with these hard issues, then we worship. We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, so we might give thanks and praise. And we do it here, on this day in which we give thanks to God for the musicians that lead us in this central act of the church. It is through worship, through these songs, that we are lifted up, beyond and through our pain, the tedium of our lives, and pointed yet again to the divine. In hospital rooms, as the words come to us… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Through this Lenten season, I would hear myself singing, rejoice, and be glad, blessed are You, Holy are You…as sung by our chancel and junior choirs. Holy Darkness, blessed light…as the choir sang on Maundy Thursday: as we await You, O God of silence, we embrace Your holy night. As we worship with the anthem the choir will sing today, which they sang so powerfully at Mickey Henriquez’s funeral in January.
And we’ll do as we always do, circling back to worship, with remarkable music by such talented and generous people. But even more so beyond and through the music, through our exhaustion and pain, through a world filled with violence, to the Christ who comes among us, who is making all things new. And who fills us with His Spirit, so we might live joyfully, serving in Sunday School and with Habitat, in the choir, at the dinner table and in the shelter line. As we remember, through all things, that in Him, in Christ, we find our hope.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, USA, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1999), “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” Chapter XXVI, 6.133.
- Charles B Cousar, An Introduction to the New Testament: Witnesses to God’s New Work, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p 81. I found additional background in Pheme Perkins’ introductory section in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp 351-355, and 441-443.
- Find out more at http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/10/presbyterian-church-us-approves-change-ordination/