This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:17-5:2.
You might remember, if you were here, that two weeks ago I preached from an earlier reading on Ephesians, about what it is to be “rooted and grounded in love.”
Today’s reading carries on in that train of thought, as Paul begins to unpack what that should look like in the actual fabric of the day-to-day life of the Ephesian church. Paul’s argument runs like this: This is how gracious and amazing God is, and as you grow in relationship with God, this is how your own character should be formed to mirror God’s character. And the evidence should be in how you behave.
So Paul draws a sharp contrast; this is what people without God in their lives are like; indeed, what the Ephesians were like before they became believers. But now, his instruction is, don’t be like that but instead be like Christ. His vision is of a total and radical personal transformation.
For those of us who’ve been raised as believers this is sometimes problematic. We don’t have a clear “before Christ” in our lives, and so the idea that somehow we still need to undergo this total and radical personal transformation, when we’ve known Christ as long as we can remember, becomes tricky.
But all of us – definitely myself included – develop patterns of thought and habits of behaviour which really have sin at their root. I recognise, for example, in my case, that I eat badly and fail to care for my body because comfort eating is a quick fix and an easier way to deal with a lot of difficult emotions, than doing the hard work of dealing with why those emotions are difficult in the first place.
There’s a failure to trust God, there. There’s a lack of self-discipline, and so on. But my point is that for all of us, in this lifetime, there is ongoing work of recognising, and letting God be at work to change, what is in us that needs that radical transformation that Paul’s on about here. It’s not just for new converts.
And this emphasis on radical transformation tells us that Paul is doing more than moralising, here. He’s not just telling the Ephesians to be good boys and girls and play nicely together; he’s setting ethical instructions in the context of the grace of God, in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ, and in the context of the Holy Spirit’s work in giving life. It links traditional morality – because Paul’s actual moral instructions here aren’t really anything very original – with the growth of the church, both in terms of conversions and in terms of maturity.
The central claim underlying Paul’s whole argument here is that the grace of God makes it impossible for us to live as if nothing has really changed. It’s not just people who undergo radical transformation, but in Christ, all evil is defeated. In Christ, all darkness is driven back. In Christ, all that is broken is healed and restored. Including us, and therefore, we can’t possibly be the same any more either.
So Paul tells the Ephesians that they entered this process of personal transformation by having “learned Christ.” Not “learned about Christ,” as if you could learn to recite the Creed and then remain indifferent to it; but to learn Christ. To be formed by Christ; to have your character and conduct re-shaped profoundly by who Christ is, what Christ does, and who Christ calls us to be. It’s a dynamic and present Christ, a Christ who still speaks to us today, and whose speech still creates new things and brings forth new life, a new life lived in response to Him.
When Christ speaks today, we hear the truth about ourselves and about our world and about God; and about what God wants for ourselves and the world. We hear the call of God’s good future, and we hear the call to personal discipleship, and we need to realise that these are two sides of the same coin; because it’s in and through our faithful obedience and discipleship that God’s good future is brought about.
To give a live example, I was really struck this week when someone here asked me, “What would we do differently if we thought of ourselves as a church plant?” That is, a newly created congregation who had come here deliberately to establish and grow a church community where there had not been one before. And I was turning that over in my mind when I was at a training day on Wednesday, which had an English bishop and experienced church planter as the keynote speaker.
And what struck me about what he was saying was that he was describing church plants where really quite small groups of people – say 20 people – went somewhere and grew a church very quickly into much bigger membership. And the difference between those groups of 20 people or so, and us, wasn’t that they were all younger, or better educated or qualified, or better resourced, or anything like that.
The difference was mostly one of attitude. Those church planting groups had an understanding that:
- They were on a mission to grow the church by introducing people to Christ, and every person had an essential part to play in that.
- Their mission meant they needed to build relationships with people outside their own group; outside the church.
- Within those new relationships, they needed to create opportunities for meaningful conversation which could touch on matters of faith, and invite deeper exploration.
- And, everything they did as a church needed to be intentionally structured for those who were not part of the church yet.
No magic formula, really; just a very clear and intentional focus on creating a network of relationships around their church community which would allow them to offer people opportunities to explore faith.
The point about that is, those people who took up the challenge to be church planters heard the call to a form of discipleship which pushed them to form relationships beyond the church; and in doing so, they were able to invite people into the good future God had in store for those people.
The call of God’s good future and the call to faithful discipleship, lived out together in ways which transformed communities and established thriving churches. And there’s nothing there that’s beyond us to do, if we were to adopt the same mindset. There’s an example of what Paul means by “learning Christ.”
There’s self-sacrifice in this, of course. There is giving up of our own preferences for the sake of others’. This is why this passage ends with urging us to be imitators of God and reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice.
We sometimes forget, in our culture, how much sacrifice in the ancient world wasn’t really about the personal cost but about how much sacrifice was believed to make things happen. Sacrifice was believed to be effectual. Christ’s sacrifice – as we’ve already noted – was in Paul’s thought the single most effectual event ever in human history; the single event which changed everything forever.
We can’t repeat that sacrifice but we can imitate both the attitude behind it and the effectual nature of it. We can give of ourselves in ways which change lives. As with the earlier part of the letter, to do with being rooted and grounded in love, it’s about the quality of relationships we nurture; and about being intentional in creating those relationships in the first place, so that other people have the opportunity to know the radical transformation into which we are all called.