Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:41-51
It’s not often that I choose one of the readings for Sunday to be from the Epistles, the letters in the New Testament. That’s partly because I’m really keen on not excluding the Old Testament from our tradition, and feel it’s almost always appropriate to include a gospel reading; but there’s also a sense that the Epistles are generally so context specific – written to a particular people at a particular place facing particular problems – that they are better studied in depth, systematically, than picked at in a sermon.
But today we have one of the most universally applicable passages from the letters that I can think of – Paul’s description, summary, of what it means to live as God’s people in the new era that Jesus had ushered in.
Now there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Paul was the author of this letter. I tend to conclude that he was, but if not, the author was clearly someone not unlike him: schooled in Jewish thought and tradition, but passionately committed to the new way in Jesus. So I’m going to use the name Paul – please feel free to imagine the footnote “or whoever the author was”.
The passage we have heard today is about how we should live. And for someone schooled in the Jewish tradition there is an absolutely unambiguous starting point for having that conversation. For any discussion in a Jewish context, the question of right living started with the Decalogue, the ten commandments.
So I think it’s really instructive, as we read a letter of the early Church – written a generation or two at most after Jesus – to explore how the Church’s understanding had moved from that starting point.
And of course, the first thing to notice is that there is much in this passage which simply echoes the commands we read in Exodus and Deuteronomy: put away falsehood and stop stealing are pretty much directly derived from the ten commandments.
But there are three ways in which this passage seems to me to go beyond the letter of the Jewish law (although, let it be noted, they are all very much within the spirit of the Law and the Prophets, foreshadowed by much of God’s revelation through the people of Israel).
Firstly – well, last week I alluded to the Garden of Eden caricature of God’s rules: “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree, because I say so”. And as everyone knows, especially anyone who remembers being a parent or grandparent of a toddler, there is absolutely nothing that makes an activity more attractive to the basic instinct of human nature than being told not to do it.
And of course, with a toddler, the golden rule is distraction – less forbidding, and more offering of an alternative. And that’s not just true of toddlers (just more obvious) – one of the most consistent pieces of advice given to those who want to break a habit is to create a displacement, an alternative: not “I will not smoke”, but instead “when I feel like a cigarette, I’ll chew a piece of gum instead”.
And one of the striking things about this passage in Ephesians is that, unlike the ten commandments, every prohibition, every negative, is paired with a positive alternative.
Give up stealing – work so you can be generous to others.
Put aside evil talk – instead, say those things that build others up.
Don’t lie – speak the truth to each other, for we are woven together.
Put aside bitterness – be kind to one another.
And this observation leads directly into my second: that all of those positive alternatives are based around the welfare of the community of the followers of Jesus, around the health of the Church, if you like.
Speak truth to your neighbours because we are members of each other.
Don’t steal, but work honestly so that you will have something to share with those in need.
Don’t speak evil, but build one another up.
Put aside malice, bitterness, anger, slander and instead by kind to one another, forgiving, tender-hearted.
The Jewish Law was given to enable the people of God to live together as a community, and ultimately, as a nation, who were living in the service of God. It was the code of laws for a nation, a people, who had their own state, their own system of government, their own land.
The law for the people of the Kingdom of Jesus, on the other hand, was written for a rag-tag band of misfits, rebels, losers and visionaries who had in common nothing but a passionate commitment to the person of Jesus Christ.
And so, boiled down to its raw essentials, the command of Paul for write living is really “be nice to each other. Be kind. Be gentle. For you are all broken people, saved by the love of God. Forgive one another, for you too need forgiveness; remember that the others in your community are fighting their own battles, wrestling with their own demons, struggling with their own temptations and difficulties and personal complexities. So be kind, as you might hope they will be kind to you when you need it.”
And of course none of this, as I said before, is new to the people of God, it all finds echoes in the law and (especially) the prophets. But perhaps the biggest change lies not in the rules, the laws and instructions, but in the motivation offered.
The Ten Commandments have a prologue: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt”. The basis for the Law, the reason that the people of Israel are expected to obey the law, is this: God is the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, and who saved them by acts of great power.
Our passage in Ephesians ends: you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us – again, at its heart the law is “because God has saved you” – but not by mighty works, not by plagues and miracles, not by parting the sea and throws Pharaoh’s army into the water.
Instead Christ loved us and gave himself for us.
Which, being my third observation, brings us to our gospel reading. Now our gospel readings in the past few weeks have taken us slowly through the conversation that followed on from the feeding of the 5000. And it’s worth noting that in John’s gospel, the miracles that he records all have quite strong theological meanings. Here the author is clearly linking the feeding of the 5000 back in history to the giving of manna in the desert to the people of God, and forward, to the establishment of the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of communion.
And the thread that links through those stories of bread is the common thread of the giving nature of God: giving food to the people in the desert and on the mountain, but most completely of all, God giving Godself for us in the death of Jesus that we mark in the meal we share.
It’s a shame, really, that this sermon doesn’t coincide with communion. So I’m going to take a raincheck on my final few paragraphs today, and come back to the bread of life next Sunday!