We are going to do something responsive real quick, and I want you to take it seriously and to answer authentically. I am going to ask you a question and I want to hear some answers. Don’t make them long…just short brief answers.
“If Paul were writing a letter to the Church today what would he say?”
I think the bottom line we can be seen is that Paul may not be so happy with some aspects of the way our church conducts itself sometimes. Paul would probably write letters similar to first and second Corinthians and just tell us everything we are doing wrong and tell us the write way. We are often not very loving, we can be hypocritical, we focus on the wrong things, we don’t help the true need, and we are often more self-centered than outwardly focused.
Now I know this isn’t everybody. I know there are good people in the church, and it is wonderful and a breath of fresh air to hear about them. However, this is not a faith of a few, but a faith that should be followed by many. We are all Christians and we should all show the same faith.
Now on the bright…ish side Christians have been making similar mistakes for thousands of years and while Paul never wrote “The Epistle to the Americans” we can read his letters and understand them not as Paul’s specific letters to each of these cities, but we can view them as Paul’s letters to Christianity. Once we begin to read his letters in a more contemporary context we can see that Paul’s message talks to us even today, and what is one of the major themes that Paul focuses on in his writings?
Paul gives much attention to living the Christian life…and what that looks like for us who claim to follow Christ. This passage in Ephesians is no different. This passage is entitled “Rules for the New Life.” We are not sure whether this is written out of response to something the church was doing wrong or whether it was just a friendly reminder too those in the church that this is the true purpose of life. However, what we do know is that Paul calls us to live out our faith in certain ways.
So then what is Paul teaching us?
Paul, in this passage, is teaching us that we need to be encouragers. We need to encourage each other.
Now I want you to look back at Christianity as a whole in our society. Are we good at encouraging? Honestly sometimes I look out and I see people who are more bent on trying to tell people what they have done wrong than encouraging people in God’s love. I see people who condemn and disgrace. I see a faith who is so focused so much on persecuting those who are unlike them that encouragement in faith was thrown out of the window a long time ago. And they often think that they are doing the right thing, or feel that they have good intentions, but encouraging of others is about thinking about how the other feels. It is not necessarily about us, but is about our relationship with the other person.
I know things like this can be tough to hear, but how are we going to get better if we don’t acknowledge when we are wrong. How can we grow if we don’t acknowledge where we are lacking?
So how do we encourage?
This passage sets forth six ways of encouraging others in both words and actions and in the process we can strengthen our own faith and relationship with God and help other people to see God’s true nature through us. These six areas speak to how we live, how we interact with each other, and how we interact with God. (MinistryMatters.com)
The first way is that “we encourage others by speaking the truth in love.” Speak the Truth in Love. Chapter 4 verse 25, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25) This does not mean that we use our platform as seemingly holier than thou Christians to demean or condemn people because of what they might have done wrong. Rather we use Jesus’ example of love to conduct all of our conversations. We let people know the truth, but we don’t guilt them or punish them for it. We start them on a journey. This is where Paul begins and this is where our internal look begins as well. Are you telling the truth, and in that truth is it loving towards that person? Sometimes even the most well intentioned truth can be destructive for a person. That is not to say we should lie, but we need to be observant about what we are saying.
The second way we encourage others is “by not allowing our anger to become sin.” Don’t allow anger to become sin. Verse 26 and 27, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) Anger can be one of the most helpful, but dangerous emotions in our emotional bank. Anger can be a good way for us to process a tough situation in our lives. However, anger can also lead to terrible events when we react in our anger in bad ways. I have talked about it before, but when I was denied by my District Committee on Ordained Ministry to advance to the conference Board of Ordained Ministry a couple years ago it made me kinda angry. I was angry they had denied me, but I didn’t let my anger take over and cause me to do something bad. Rather, my anger led me to realize my own shortcomings.
Paul does not condemn anger and say “Do not be angry.” Rather Paul says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Paul allows there to be room for anger. However, he notes that it is about not letting the anger encapsulate our lives, but allowing it to help us grow and learn. Not let the sun set is not about a daily thing it is about the place that the anger takes when we allow it to fester and stew. Our encouragement to others occurs in the way that people view us as Christians. When others see how easily we let our anger control us they see a people who struggle to practice what they preach. It is hard to say how much anger is to much anger, but know that that guide of hurting others follows for each one of these points and this one too. Even if the only person hurt by our anger is ourselves it is still destructive.
The third way we see from Paul is that “we encourage others by working hard.” Work hard. Look in verse 28, “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.” (Ephesians 4:28) Again people look at Christians and see God in us, and when the see people who conduct themselves in bad manners they react with distrust and anger toward a God whose disciples conduct themselves in such a manner. Paul focuses in on thieves because this would, and still could be considered, the cheaters way out in most situations. Instead Paul calls to be honest again. To live our lives and work in honesty. Again encapsulating God’s calling into every facet of our lives to reflect who God is to us.
The fourth way of encouragement is “by speaking positive words.” Speak positive words. Continue to verse 29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29) This is not the only time we have heard words akin to this. John and James in their letters tell us the dangers of the tongue. Our words are powerful. Believe it or not when we speak someone is often listening, and our words might hurt. The tongue is a dangerous tool because any number of things can come from our mouths. This is why we have to be careful with the words we say. Our words, while seeming well intentioned, can actually harm. People often say that being “politically correct” is a load of hokum, but think about it. The reason that some of the phrases have worked their way into this circle is because they do damage to people who hear them. While we may think it is a load of crap we have to imagine how people are hearing them. We may think it is trivial and a pain to keep up with, but we have to recognize how we are reflecting the God we believe in to others. And when we allow our words to hurt people we again show people the true nature of who we see God as.
The fifth point is we “encourage others by forgiving them.” Forgive others. We jump to verses 31 and 32, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32) Forgiveness is one of the toughest things for us to actually grasp in our faith. We are quick to always ask forgiveness from God, but we are often so slow to forgive others around us. This forgiveness shows no boundaries, but encompasses our entire lives. Unforgiveness can lead to anger and hate. Forgiveness shows Gods unconditional love, and maybe we should focus more on spreading forgiveness, even when it is super difficult, instead of harboring that anger and hate towards each other.
The last way of encouragement is “by walking in love.” Walk in God’s love. Paul ends this exhortation by saying, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) Our encouragement for others stems from our love and relationship with God. When we allow our love for God echo into our relationship with others we show others God’s true nature.
Paul lays out the fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22b-23a) Paul lays these out in talking about the work that we do. Tony Jones, a contemporary theologian, writes, “Paul is saying that you can tell something about people’s faith by how they behave in the world…it doesn’t matter how logically airtight some doctrinal system is if it results in an army of jerks.” (Jones. p. 26) Walking in love means ensuring that you are producing the fruit of the Spirit. When we live our lives the way Jesus calls us we ensure that those fruits have the opportunity to come out and for others to recognize them.
These six ways represent the God we are called to follow and show in our lives. Our perception of who God is in our lives reflects how we treat people, and how we share his word. So often in our society we are so quick to judge, to condemn, to persecute, and to harm that we do not even think that the whole purpose behind our faith is none of those things. Rather we are a faith that is called to encourage others. We are called to lift people up and to help them see God and learn more about who God is in our lives. The God we believe in is a loving God who loves and forgives unconditionally, and when we fail to reflect that we show society the God that we do believe in. When we do that we turn people off to God, because they cannot believe in a God whose followers behave in such a manner.
As you hear these words from Paul I call you to take a long hard look at your life and your faith journey. You may not even think you are hurting people, but examine it from the other persons perspective. Can your words or actions perceived as harmful? Is what I am doing or presenting going to hurt somebody? Even things we think might be well intentioned can have harmful effects on people we try to reach out to. This is why the careful attention to our faith and interactions are important.
It is for these reasons that our churches are suffering. This is part of the problem of why people are flocking away from churches and away from Christianity in general. Churches are becoming less about encouragement and lifting people up, and more about judgment, condemnation, and persecution. And we have come to a “if you are not for us, you’re against us” mentality that leads people who are against, even some who want to be for us, not want to be a part of a faith that can do such acts.
Sometimes the God that has seemed to pop up in our society is a God who we don’t even want to believe in because he can be so hurtful and calls people to hurt others by condemning and judging them. No the God in the Bible, the God that Paul talks about, is a God who calls us to be encouraging and loving. God is a god who loves and calls us, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do the same. To not look at what makes a person bad, but to the fact that the person, whatever they may have done or whoever they may be, is a beloved child of God and deserves to be treated as such.
So examine your life. Where are ways that you could be more encouraging? What are ways in which you can reflect God in your life? Use those six ways Paul talks about in this passage. Allow those to be your rules of life. To govern the way you interact with not only God, but with all of God’s Children.
Always be encouraging and lifting people up.
1.) The 6 points used in this sermon are from http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/2988/sermon-options-august-9-2015
2.) New Revised Standard Version Bible
3.) Jones, Tony. Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.