Being Good for a Purpose
by Jack Wald | January 24th, 2016

Ephesians 4:25-32

Did you know the Bible says, “There is no God”?

Psalm 14:1
The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.

Context is so important and although this is a trite example, it can be more serious if we read verses out of context and miss the depth of the truth that is there. It can be even more serious when someone takes a verse out of context and creates a heretical theology.

Whenever we read the Bible, we need to read it within the context of who wrote the part of the Bible we are reading. Why did that person write what he or she wrote? What was the historical context of what was written? How did the first readers of that text understand what was written? What is the connection with the verses we are reading and what comes before and after those verses?

When we do this, the truth of what we read opens up to us.

This morning I could talk about the behaviors in the text for today: don’t lie but speak truthfully, don’t hold on to anger, don’t steal but instead work hard, don’t let unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but instead speak what will build others up. This could be interesting but if we look at these verses within the context of what Paul is writing in Ephesians 4, there is a much fuller and complete understanding of the importance of these behaviors.

So let me remind you of why Paul is writing his letter of Ephesians. This letter is a general letter, meant to be read to the followers of Jesus in the region of Ephesus. Paul is in prison, within a few short years of the end of his life and he is writing because he cannot go in person. He is writing essential truth. It is as if he is saying, “I don’t know how much time I have left on earth, but before I go, I must tell you this.”

The first three chapters of Ephesians contain the theology of the church. There is still more theology to come, but the emphasis in the second three chapters of Ephesians is on the application of the theological truths of the first three chapters.

Chapter four begins with an exhortation to “ live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” This life is a life that is to be characterized by unity because “4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

To help us be unified the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts that are to be used “so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

But because we live in a sinful world where the self is ruler, our human nature pulls us away from the vision Paul has for us. I preached last Sunday about Paul telling us and insisting on it in the Lord that we no longer live as the world lives. Paul calls us to “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

This brings us to today’s text and a list of practical examples of what Paul has just talked about. We are not to lie; we are to speak truthfully. We are not to allow anger to linger. We are not to steal; we are to work. We are not to speak what is unwholesome; we are to speak what is helpful for building others up. We are not to grieve the Holy Spirit. We are to put off bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and every kind of malice. We are to put on kindness, compassion for one another, and practice forgiveness.

We could have a sermon on each of these behaviors but what I want to help you see this morning is that these behaviors are part of a larger picture. If we look at them out of context, they can be part of a self-help course to make us better people, to help us be better neighbors, to help us be more highly respected in our communities. But within the context, Paul lists these behaviors because each one serves or harms the unity of the body of Christ. The unity of the church is still Paul’s main focus in these verses.

There is one more thing to notice. There are sets of behaviors which follow Paul’s teaching that we are to put off our old self and put on the new self. With the exception of the admonition not to let the sun go down on our anger and not to grieve the Holy Spirit, this is the pattern Paul follows for the rest of chapter four.

The first admonition is:
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

When you consider the number of words in English for lying, you have to conclude that lying is a pretty big deal for us. We have lies, half-truths, untruths, exaggerations, whoppers, fibs, misrepresentations, white lies, fabrications, falsehoods, prevarications, distortions, exaggerations, ambiguities, equivocations and misstatements. We tell blatant lies, stretch the truth, get overly imaginative, mislead, twist the facts, overstate the evidence, make factual errors, get momentarily confused, and fail to tell the truth.

Lies do not stand by themselves. Lying is a partner to other sins. We covet something and then lie so that we can get it. We steal something and then lie to cover up what we have stolen. We commit adultery and lie to our spouse and others to hide our affair.

Sometimes we make a mistake and then because we are not willing to take responsibility for what we have done, we lie. So if I have an accident and hit someone on the road, I do not stay to take responsibility for what I have done but flee the scene and lie to cover up my action. Or I might break something and then lie to say I don’t know how that thing got broken.

We lie to get something we want. When you sell something and make it seem better than it is or hide information about problems with what you are selling, you lie. When you campaign for political office and make promises you know you will not be able to keep, you lie.

We lie when we hide part of our past because we are embarrassed by how we were raised or what we did when we were children. We lie when we pretend to be more than we are. We lie when we present ourselves to be more righteous and respectable than we are.

Sometimes we lie to make ourselves seem more impressive than we are. When we write our resume for a job or application for a school, we stretch the truth and make claims that are not true. If I was half a point from graduating with honors, I may put on the application that I did graduate with honors and who is going to check something like that?

What does lying do to the unity of the church? When you cannot trust that what someone says is true, you pull back from that person. When someone lies to cover up what they have said or done, we can no longer trust that person. This loss of trust is devastating in any relationship and it destroys the unity of the church.

Put off lying and put on speaking truthfully. Here Paul refers back to Ephesians 4:15
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Lying destroys trust which pulls us apart from each other. Speaking the truth in love creates bonds of unity.

We all make mistakes. We are all tempted to do what is not good for us. So when we see a brother or sister in a relationship that is not healthy or making decisions that can be destructive, our commitment to that brother or sister compels us to go to them and speak the truth in love. We have to risk our friendship by confronting our brother or sister with the truth. We have to love them enough to speak the truth. The key word here is “love.”  We do not go to each other with moral superiority but with compassion. We do not go to each other to enforce the rules but with love that wants what is best for the other person.

Speaking the truth in love draws us together. It helps us to know that someone has my back. Someone is helping me to stay on the path, following Christ. It helps us to know that we are not alone.

Lying works against unity; speaking the truth in love builds unity.

26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

Anger is a natural response to things not being the way they should be. The injustice in the world should make us angry. The abuse of those without power at the hand of those with power should make us angry. But most of the time we are angry because we are not getting what we want. As one of my sisters said when she was four years old, “I want what I want when I want it.”

Being human, someone will do something or say something or not do or say something that will offend you. You will, likewise, offend someone else. What are you going to do with that offense? I know that there are broken relationships in this church. I have seen people separate because of personality conflicts and  because of miscommunication when two people were speaking in English with English being their third or fourth language. Each person thought the other person understood what they were saying but neither had really understood. For many reasons we are hurt and offended.

When this happens, people feel hurt and if that hurt is not dealt with, if truth is not spoken in love, then the hurt festers and turns into anger. That anger pulls people apart and destroys the unity God wants us to have.

It may take a mediator, but when there is hurt, that needs to be dealt with so it does not fester into anger which disrupts the unity of the church.

Our RIC Covenant, which members recite when someone joins the church, includes this paragraph:
With the Holy Spirit as our Guide, we propose to walk together in Christian love, to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offense but always ready to be reconciled.

“be slow to take offense but always ready to be reconciled.” Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

This is pretty obvious. If a pocketbook or phone is taken during our service or some other function of the church, we look around and wonder who might have taken it. Once again, trust in each other is broken. We are a multi-national, multi-racial church and it is easy for people from one culture to make judgments about another culture. The trust that develops is precious and allows us to have friendships across national and racial lines. Stealing breaks that trust.

So, put off stealing. What does Paul tell us to put on? Work. Doing something useful with our hands. Why? So that we can earn money to have something to share with those in need.

I think this is absolutely brilliant. Rather than stealing from others, Paul wants us to be able to give to others who are in need. Paul does not tell us to work so we can have more things. He tells us to work so we can have more to share with others. Buying more and more for ourselves does nothing to build the unity of the church and may increase the distance between us in the church. But sharing what we have with those in need builds unity.

There are abuses on both sides of this relationship. Those who have and are not generous abuse what God has given. Those who do not have can also abuse the relationship by becoming dependent on others, coveting what others have, manipulating to get more of what others have.

To those who have and to those who do not have, Paul would say, “Work hard. Do something useful with your hands so you have something to share with those in need.”

There is so much more that could be said about this, but let’s move on.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Next week, when Elliot preaches, his text will include a list of unwholesome talk – obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking – but unwholesome talk goes far beyond this.

I was talking with a friend who asked me how a mutual friend was doing. I know details of a marital crisis this friend went through and could have shared this, but why? I simply shared some good news about this friend and what he is doing currently. To pass on the information I have would be gossip. It would serve no worthy purpose.

But it also might be that I do share information about what someone else is going through because that person might benefit from the support that could be given. So if Joe is feeling overwhelmed, I might share this and encourage the person I am talking with to spend some time with Joe and let him know he is loved and supported by others.

We are generally polite when we talk with someone. Our problem comes when we talk with someone about someone else who is not present.

When I was about eighteen years old, I received a tape recorder for Christmas. I turned in on as I was sitting around the kitchen table with some of my family and then had to leave to take my youngest sister to town. When I returned, I discovered the tape recorder had not been turned off and that was an interesting conversation – to hear what my sisters had to say about me when I was not there.

The difference between unwholesome talk and what is helpful for building up is whether what is shared is shared out of love and compassion. When love and compassion are present, the talk that comes out of our mouths will be encouraging and supportive of others.

How much of our conversation builds others up and how much tears other people down?

30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Paul breaks into this pattern of put off and put on to plead that we not grieve the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the seal, the guarantee of our salvation, who is given to us when we turn to Jesus. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. The Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit is at work to make us more holy.

Why does the Holy Spirit do this? To make us more holy? Yes. But don’t forget that we were created by God to be in community, sharing the unity that is experienced by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We are created to be God’s beloved daughters and sons, living in community, and preparing for our heavenly existence.

When we behave in a way that disrupts the unity of the church, we grieve the Holy Spirit because we are working against the work of the Holy Spirit. When we break relationships with others in the body of Christ, we grieve the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps Paul meant this to be a concluding verse, but now he jumps back in with a string of more things to put off and more things to put on.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander. Do you know people who exhibit these qualities? They are not pleasant to be around when they are like this. Do you ever exhibit these qualities? Then you know first hand how disruptive it is to be like this.

Have you ever been part of a church where the members and leaders are alienated from each other because of bitterness and holding on to anger? Church fights can be the most painful of fights because we expect better of each other. Have you ever been part of a church or fellowship where some members have slandered other members? It can get very ugly.

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you

The time to repair the damage caused by hurt feelings is at the very beginning, before the hurt festers, turns into anger, and then becomes a situation the devil can use to destroy what the Holy Spirit is trying to build.

In an international church we have such a high rate of transition that it can sometimes be easy to let things slide because we know the other person will soon by gone. But it is for your own sake, as well as for the sake of the other person that you need to resolve the hurt and reconcile – before that person leaves. If you fail to reconcile one relationship, it will become easier to not reconcile the next relationship and soon you will have a string of failed relationships in your wake.

Let me conclude with three exhortations:

First, I want you to remember that your growth as a follower of Jesus, your cooperation with the Holy Spirit to become more holy, the discovery and use of your spiritual gifts is not just for your own benefit. It is true that God loves you as an individual. God wants you to grow in faith. But you are connected to others in the body of Christ. What they do and what you do affect each other.

When you are lethargic in your faith you harm yourself but you also harm others who need you to work at your faith. When you give in to temptation you harm yourself and you also harm others in relationship with you. When you do not put off destructive behaviors and fail to put on positive behaviors, all are affected, not just you.

We see this in sports teams. Successful teams work for the success of each player on the team because when one player performs well, the whole team benefits. We too are a team and your brothers and sisters need you to grow and mature in your faith.

Second, we need to be kind and compassionate, forgiving others, and we need other people to be kind and compassionate with us, forgiving us.

John Watson, a nineteenth century Scottish clergyman wrote: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

When I first heard this, many years ago, this was attributed to Philo of Alexandria who lived at the time of Jesus, but regardless of who said it, it has helped me immensely in my relationships with others.

You know the battles you face. You know the remnants of your childhood that continue to affect you. But you do not know the remnants of the childhood of other people you meet.

There are not many people who are intentionally mean, but there are many people who act out of their own pain and insecurity. When someone says or does something that offends us, we need to look to see why that person acted as he or she did. When we take the time to see the person who offends us, we can begin to see the pain they are experiencing, have compassion for them, and pray for them. When we discover why people act like they do, because we understand, we find it easier to forgive.

We need this ourselves. It is easy to be kind and compassionate to nice people, but we are not always nice people. It is when we are not nice, when we are acting out of our pain and insecurity that we need people around us who will love us, speak the truth in love to us, and help build us up into wholeness.

Third, remember that we follow Jesus. We need to look to Jesus and follow his example. Rather than turn inward and remain focused on our hurt feelings, we need to turn outward and have love and compassion for those who hurt us.

Next week Elliot will preach from this text. (Ephesians 5:1–2)
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

When Jesus was attacked by the religious leaders, he did not hold on to the hurt of their rejection of him. Jesus knew he was loved. He walked in the way of love so that his response came out of love and compassion, even for those who attacked him and hurt him.

Jesus is our example. We need to have his love and compassion so that we do become absorbed in our own pain or indifference.

I preached sermons in the beginning of 2015 about being God’s beloved daughters and sons. Jesus knew he was God’s beloved son. He heard this at his baptism and again at the Mount of Transfiguration – and perhaps many other times not recorded in the Gospels. Jesus knew he was loved and this is what allowed him to absorb the hurt and rejection and have love and compassion for those who hurt him and attacked him.

This is not easy, but this is what we are called to do.

Do you have relationships in the body of Christ that have been cut off? Is there someone with whom you need to reconcile? Is there someone you need to forgive? It is not possible or necessary that you be best friends with everyone at church, but when there is a broken relationship, then that needs attention. Work for the unity of the body.

How are you encouraging others in the body of Christ to grow and mature in their faith? Work for the unity of the body.

What do you need to put off and put on? Work for the unity of the body.

Ephesians 4:3–6
3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.