On most Sundays, preachers like me are likely to take on fairly broad topics in our sermons, often of an historical or theological nature. For example, on a day like today, I might be likely to talk about the complex nature of King David about whom who we’ve been reading for the last several weeks and about whom we heard again in our First Lesson today.
This dominant Old Testament character, the second King of Israel, who later became a model for the hoped-for Messiah, was nonetheless a deeply flawed leader who could be as treacherous as he was compassionate and as rebellious as he was faithful. In today’s Lesson we catch a sympathetic glimpse of him as he mourns the death of his son, Absalom.
On another day, I might have preached on the Gospel Reading, another Lesson about Jesus as the Bread of Life and I would have talked about how he left us the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, this Sacrament of Bread and Wine as a memorial of his life and death, and as a perpetual way of being in touch with him every week until we meet him one day…face to face.
But sometimes, I think it’s important for us to be reminded of the completely practical nature of the Christian faith. For all our history and theology and liturgical concerns, one of the most important things about Christianity is that it instructs us, in very basic ways, how to live a good life — How to conduct ourselves in the world in such a way that we live lives pleasing to God and that we leave the world a better place when we are no longer around.
And for that I turn to our Second Lesson today, the Epistle to the Ephesians (4:25-5:2). This is a magnificent paragraph on Christian ethics! And, in it, we’re told – not only how we are to conduct ourselves, but why we are to live in this particular way! Listen again to these eight statements (you can even follow along in your service leaflets):
1. So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. In other words, we’re to tell the truth, not just because that’s some kind of abstract “good deed” but because we’re members of one human family. And healthy family relationships are built on telling the truth to one another! The author goes on to say:
2. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. So all anger is not sinful! Anger is just a human response to frustration. Everybody gets angry. Even Jesus got angry. The issue is what we do with our anger. We’re not to let it lead us into sin, maybe by hurting another person…in our words or in our actions. We’re not to nurse anger, not even to let the sun go down on our wrath. Get it out, offer it up, get rid of it; and then anger won’t have any power over you.
3. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. And here we’re told not just to make an honest living, but what the purpose of having wealth may be – to share it with those in need! How we need to learn that lesson today…for poor are all around us!
4. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…so that your words may give grace to those who hear. You know, cursing and critical, hurtful language not only degrades the one who talks like that, but it doesn’t serve any constructive purpose. It doesn’t build anyone up but only tears people down. And then the author reminds us that – because we’ve been baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit –we are to live our lives in this world as ambassadors for Christ because we have been marked with his seal, the sign of the Cross:
5. (So he says) do not grieve the Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. In other words, we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that God will be pleased with us, pleased to have adopted us as beloved children. So we are to:
6. Put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. How different would our political campaigns, and even sometimes our life in the Church, would be if we could do away with bitter rhetoric and angry words and malicious slandering of one another, and just have an honest debate…a respectful conversation…even if we disagree. Or, put another way:
7. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. And here, we’re reminded of that fearsome request in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” Those phrases are related, beloved. We can only expect to be forgiven by God in the same measure as we have forgiven one another. Or, put another way, we can only forgive because we know what it means to be forgiven. And so the passage concludes:
8. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…(an)…offering and sacrifice to God. That’s one of our Offertory Sentences in The Episcopal Church “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus loves us…so we are to love one another!
So, dear friends, the Christian faith you and I profess is not simply about spiritual disciplines like daily prayer and weekly Eucharist and Bible study (as important as those things are). The Christian faith is about how we live our lives, how we conduct ourselves day by day, week by week, and year by year in the real world. As that wonderful Episcopalian and African-American theologian, Verna Dozier once wrote: “What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning…In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning!”