A very perceptive person said to me quite recently that the letter to the Ephesians is substantially saying “Come on fellas, lift your game”. And there’s a lot of truth in that. Ephesians has a lot to say about how to live the Christian life so that we will be distinguishable from others. Scripture always encourages us not to accept the standards of society as our own, but to aspire to lives that really have the stamp of holiness on them. We’re not talking about being ‘holier than thou’, scripture never sanctions that kind of attitude. In fact Jesus labelled that hypocrisy. We’re talking about genuine humanity which is deeply touched by the transforming power of God.
Let’s get straight down to one of the most basic problems we all have to deal with: anger. Notice at the very start that Ephesians does not say that anger is a sin. Rather, we are told “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” We sometimes need to remind ourselves that anger is a basic part of our human make-up. We all get angry at times. We all know that anger can do a lot of damage to relationships, if it’s not handled appropriately. As Christians, we realise that it’s what we do with our anger that makes the difference.
We know that what we need to do is to pick the right time and place, and to use the right words, to put our anger out there “on the table”. That’s where the skill lies, that’s the tricky part. We can find ourselves so cross that we “lose it”, and say things that, on reflection, we would much rather not have said. And let’s be honest, family life can be the place where that is most likely to happen. The people who we live life with most closely are the most likely to be the recipients of our anger when things go wrong.
When we look at it, that makes perfect sense, not only because of proximity but because the people we love the most are the ones who bring out the strongest reactions in us. Parents worry about their children, and when those “children” become adults it doesn’t necessarily diminish the amount we worry about them terribly much. And worry can express itself in anger. We just need to work on accepting that their lives are their own once they are adults. Some of us need to work on it, again and again.
Surely the most important thing is not to try to hide our anger from ourselves. If we do that, it is highly likely that our anger will brim over in a way we don’t want it to. Isn’t it strange that when we relax and accept the limitations of our humanity we may be closest to reaching the very best of our humanity? We don’t reach the best that we are able to be by anxiously reaching for perfection and berating ourselves for every wrong move and every wrong thought. We achieve the best of our humanity by realising that we are never going to be perfect, and by accepting God’s love for us with heartfelt gratitude. When we allow God’s love to work on purifying our hearts, making peacemakers of us, making us prophets of hope, we are moving towards achieving our full humanity.
Ephesians also talks about putting away falsehood, speaking the truth to one another, because we are members of one another. It’s clear that this view of speaking the truth is about supporting relationships, it’s about working at mending relationships where necessary. We have all seen times when people use what they see as the truth to attack others. And we all know that our faith asks something very different of us. We are asked to use the truth in the service of reconciliation and peace between people. That is speaking the truth in love.
Which brings us to the serious recognition that there are times when people need to say that they are suffering abuse in a relationship. We may wish that this truth could be used to begin to mend the relationship, but more often than not this is not possible. Things have gone too far for that. What are we to say? What does scripture lead us to think about such things? Scripture upholds human dignity. Isn’t that what this particular passage is all about? Treating one another with respect, valuing one another’s humanity, not to mention forgiving one another.
So what does one do, if we are not respected, and our humanity is not valued as it should be? These are hard questions, but I don’t think we can avoid them in the context of this passage. Doesn’t there come a point where for our own sake we need to say that we cannot survive, let alone flourish, in this context? Given that we believe that God understands what we have been through, can’t we say that God in mercy carries us, as we go through what is necessary for us to do in those circumstances? There is no greater understanding or mercy towards us than is found in the heart of God. In which case, don’t we need to show mercy and understanding towards ourselves, and others?
Perhaps we have come full circle back to the question of what holiness is. Doesn’t it involve a sincere understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, and a willingness to come to God so that God can work transformation in our lives? Holiness is a matter of allowing God to work on our hearts and minds, and in our lives. It’s a matter of identifying within ourselves those things which shut God out of our lives. It’s also about having the courage to let God deal with those things.
Holiness has nothing to do with perceiving ourselves as being better in God’s sight than others. Holiness has to do partly with our openness to the needs of others, and our willingness to do something towards meeting those needs. Holiness is about understanding and compassion, about humility in the sense of being willing to be led and taught by God.
In this passage from Ephesians we have a list of ways in which we, as Christians, need to be discernibly different from others. No bitterness, wrath or anger, no slander or malice. Instead being kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another. We probably have there enough for us to work on for the rest of our lives. May we, by the grace of God, be willing to do the necessary work. Amen.