The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on Sunday, August 19th, 2012.
A Sermon on Ephesians 5:15-20.
Sunday, August 19th, 2012.
Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word
Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you
Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.
What is the relation of the Christian to time? Perhaps this is a funny question to ask. I mean, on the one hand it’s not likely a question we typically ask ourselves and on the other hand, time just seems so ubiquitous that we hardly give it a second thought. Obviously, time is one of the contours of our existence. Human creatures exist within time. Humans are bound by time. Life can often feel like a succession of moments, one after another, which leads to the feeling that we are just sort of drifting along. Time can be overwhelming. “What will happen will happen,” we tell ourselves. Or, if we are a little bit more optimistic we might say, “everything happens for a reason”. Either way, we get the sense that life is just endlessly moving past us and so, day to day, we keep ourselves busy so as not to get swept away in the current.
In our reading from Ephesians this morning, the Apostle Paul highlights two things that are important for wise living, “making the most of the time,” and “understanding what the will of the Lord is”. Christians are to see every day, every hour, every minute, as an opportunity for serving the Lord, for understanding what his will is and getting on and doing it. This isn’t about being obsessive, meticulously calculating and mapping out every minute. Growing up in the Christian circles that I grew up in I often heard talk of God’s will. It was spoken of as if it were some sort of hidden road map for each of our lives, that if we could only discover it then we would know exactly what God would have us do with our lives, generally speaking, or do in any given moment or situation more particularly. This exercise, as you can maybe imagine, was quite an anxious one! For most of us, though, this probably isn’t the danger. The danger for many of us is on the other side: of not taking each day and hour as a gift from God, to be used for his glory, but instead letting them wash over and pass by, like water down a river, never used, never to return (N.T. Wright). For those of us like this, verse 16 serves as a wake-up call—these are evil times we live in, and we as children of light have a chance to do something about it because Christ has already done something about it and he lives and reigns, inviting us to join in on it all.
Talk of time as a commodity bothers me. As if time exists only for us to buy and sell it, to use for some sort of capital gain. Time is precious, not because it is some rare and elusive commodity, but because time is the sphere within which we human creatures find ourselves in relation with God, the maker of time. Time is part of God’s good creation and as such we must understand it first as a gift. Time is something entrusted to believers for the purpose of doing good as Paul wrote earlier in his letter: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life,” (2:10). This becomes even more important in a fallen and chaotic world where the days are evil. A friend of mine wrote in a recent blog post, “After a bliss-filled reflective Father’s Day a couple months ago, I decided to take stock of my life and worked out that I have about 10,000 good working days left…10,000 days to enjoy the extraordinary family I’ve been given. 10,000 days to soak in the beauty of the earth. 10,000 days to leave a mark on the planet.” Part of my friend’s morning routine has been counting down the days on his whiteboard. This reminds him that his time here is not endless, that he is not a machine that can do it all, and thankfully so. He continues, “Wouldn’t that next kiss, that next conversation, that next bit of human contact, be phenomenally different if you knew it was your last?” Jonathan Edwards, the well known preacher and theologian, wrote in the seventieth of his famous Resolutions just before his twentieth birthday: “Resolved: Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.” And so Paul urges the believers in Ephesus to make the most of their time, for the days are evil.
“Making the most of the time.” The phrase, “making the most” comes from a Greek word which literally means to “redeem” or to “buy up”. It is the same verb Paul used in another letter of his, Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… (3:13). How is it that the church, the Body of Christ, can redeem the time, can see and understand that the days are evil and that we must urgently use every opportunity for good? Well, we must first understand what the will of the Lord is (5:17). The will of the Lord here, is at least two fold. On the one hand, believers can do this because in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ Jesus something has changed once and for all. For Paul, in Ephesians, what has happened in Christ Jesus can be summed up in the word “reconciliation.” For one, the covenant that was established between Israel and YHWH has been opened up, as was always the intention, to the Gentiles: “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth…remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” (2:11-13). In Christ, forgiveness and reconciliation have gone out from God’s chosen people into all the world. Furthermore, not only have Gentiles as well as Jews been reconciled to God in Christ, but Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled one to another: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” (2:14). In place of two divisive groups, God has made “one new humanity” (2:15), thus making peace between the two. Finally, Paul does not state this explicitly here but I think we can add one more dimension to the cosmic reconciliation that has happened in Christ, that is, the reconciliation of human creatures with the non-human creation. At any rate, all of this and more has occurred in Christ Jesus, for this is the will of the Lord. The resulting effect is the creation of a church that thereby already exemplifies the beginnings of the cosmic reconciliation and peace that is to come.
At the same time, the continuing presence of the risen Jesus with the church through his Spirit with which we are sealed (1:13) means that we are somehow mysteriously caught up into this once-for-all act, invited in as participants. There is coming a day when Christ will return and usher in the kingdom of God in all of it’s beauty and fullness. This is a day when sin and death will be no more. When human creatures will no longer be held captive, but will experience the fullness of liberation from sin and death which Christ won on the cross. This is a day when human creatures will finally be reconciled to God, to one another, and to the non-human creation. There will be no more strife, no more division, no more environmental degradation. We will see all things in their true light, in the light of Christ, and will see that we were made for God and for one another, made to be caretakers of God’s good earth.
And here’s the important bit. This future day has already begun to dawn. Although, to be sure, it has not yet fully arrived in all of it’s splendor. Regardless, it is not stuck in the future a ways off from where we are located now, within time. No, it is here, it is arriving, and the church is the community in which we see the first-fruit of this begin to play out. The church is like a group of pilgrims on a journey, upon whose faces the sun from the dawning day is beginning to shine. Others who see the sun shining on the faces of this group of travelers are not invited to stand and gawk, but rather, are invited to turn around and see for themselves that a new day is dawning.
It is no wonder then that John Stott subtitled his commentary on Ephesians, “God’s New Society.” Yes! Indeed! The church is God’s new society. St. Paul goes to great lengths to stress this to his readers: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” (1:11); “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit,” (1:13); “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…But God…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (2:1, 4-5a). This is so. Therefore, Paul can urge his readers to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” (4:1), to “put away your former way of life, your old self…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self,” (4:22, 23-24).
To be sure, this is not something we can do on our own. We cannot “clothe ourselves with the new self” simply by deciding to do so, or by trying harder than before. Thank God. All of this is to be understood in light of Paul’s main exhortation from today’s reading: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,” (5:18). “Be filled with the Spirit,” says Paul. This is not a one-time event, unlike our being sealed with the Spirit. Paul’s exhortation is to be continually filled with the Spirit. Furthermore, “be filled” is in the plural, meaning it is addressed to the whole Christian community. Not only that, but the verb is in the passive voice, meaning it may be better translated, “let the Holy Spirit fill you.” When Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” it’s as if he is saying, “you, all of you (y’all!), get out of the way and allow God’s Spirit to fill you up continually.”
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,” (5:15). So, we’re back where we began. For Paul, wise living consists in “making the most of the time” and in, “understanding what the will of the Lord is.” To be wise then, is to see and understand that in Christ Jesus all things have been reconciled to God and that because this is so a new way of life has been opened up to those who have been sealed by, and are filled with, the Spirit of the living God. The church is, so to speak, God’s new society–a foretaste of what is to come for all of creation. Time then, is a gift given by which we may take the love of Christ lavished upon us and give it away to one another. To live in any other way is unwise because, for those who are in Christ, this is our new reality. This is our new identity. Therefore, to live in any other fashion would be to live in a state of self-contradiction. “For we are what he has made us,” proclaims the Apostle, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life,” (2:10). May we see and understand that this is so and, being filled with the Spirit, may we together live our lives in this new reality that has been opened up to us.
Allow me now to close with a prayer which St. Paul prayed for the church in Ephesus. I pray this for us here, at St. Matthew’s in Riverdale, today: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask of imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen,” (3:14-21).