Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Partners and Promise: Equipped and Called

Do you remember the book “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten?”  It was first published in 1986 by Robert Fulghum. He was a graduate student at the time. The book was a series of essays, each formed around a simple premise. Do you remember some of them? Here are a few:

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.

This central aspect of this list is relationships. Similarly, the central aspect of what we’ve been talking about as we’ve been working through Ephesians is about relationships. About this vertical relationship we have with God - this inheritance. This gracious gift of life and faith. And beginning last week about our horizontal relationships. About the barriers we place between ourselves and other people. And how Christ is our peace - the one who breaks those barriers down that are between us. The one who reveals the mystery of God’s plan, which is to reconcile all of God’s creation to Godself.

Today, we are reading about our part in this. About how we, as God’s called people, are to live worthy of that call. Kind of like the rules from kindergarten. Basic ideas that are simple, but elemental and fundamental to our entire way of being.

We read today from Ephesians, chapter 4.

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2 Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3 and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4 You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. 

7 God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. 8 That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.

9 What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? 10 The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything. 

11 He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. 15 Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, 16 who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. --Ephesians 4:1-16 (CEB)

They’re pretty simple, aren't they? These rules for the road. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Enter into relationships with a sense of humility. And gentleness. And patience. When conflict arises, to always be looking inward to see how you or I might have been at fault. Or at least partially at fault. 

To accept each other with love. Including accepting one other as we are, understanding that each one of us is a work in progress. And, above all, making an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties us together. One body. A body that is grounded in our baptisms as God’s called people. A body that has been given all of the gifts needed to do God’s work in the world. A body to be trained up in the way of mission - that has been formed with all of the gifts it needs to go out into the world to accompany the Spirit’s work of building the kingdom. And a body that requires all of its parts to function. Where no part is more important or less than the other. It seems so simple, right? And, yet, we know how very hard this can be.

I want to talk for a moment about anger. The verses we are reading today don’t speak specifically about anger. But, if you go just a few verses further in chapter 5, there it is. “Be angry, but don’t sin.”

We have a problem in the church with anger. We don’t do anger well. Often believing that anger is not okay.

The Greek word for anger is orgizmo. It describes an inner boiling that needs to explode out. Generally, we fall into two categories: exploders or imploders. 

With exploders the anger boils and the rage comes out immediately. We shout. We gesture boldly. Perhaps we engage in some kind of violence, whether it’s slamming a door, throwing something, putting a fist through a wall, or shouting a not-so-repeatable string of words.

With imploders, the anger boils, but it boils internally, while the exterior stays calm, even cold. Imploders are silent, but often deadly. You might not know they are angry, but they may be inwardly plotting revenge. Beware of imploders.

Both of these expressions of anger are natural. Human. But both are equally dangerous if left unchecked. Exploders and imploders are capable of delivering great physical and emotional damage, not only to others, but also to themselves.  

So, what does the Bible say about anger? First, Jesus got angry. All four of the gospels record that incident in the temple, where Jesus saw the money-changers extorting the poor. And drove them out with a whip, overturning their tables. 

So, here’s the logic. If Jesus got angry, and Jesus was without sin, then anger is not sin. Going back to Ephesians, there’s a distinction a little further on beyond our reading today - a distinction between anger and sin. “Be angry, but do not sin,” Ephesians tells us.

It’s okay to be angry. God got angry all the time as God watched the people of Israel repeatedly make poor life choices that brought harm to themselves and to the weak, the poor, and foreigner among them. Every good parent gets angry when children disobey and make harmful life choices.

The problem isn’t anger. It’s what we do with anger. The Ephesians writer goes on to say, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” But, the Greek word used here for anger is not the same one as in the first part of the verse. It’s a word that is better translated as wrath.

The longer we stay angry, the more intense the anger becomes. If we don’t deal with it in a healthy and constructive way right away - before the sun goes down - then it will fester into bitterness and lead toward dark and destructive forces of vengeance. And when we act in this way all we do is to repay evil with evil, becoming the evil we seek to destroy.

So, what can we do about our anger?

First. Breathe. Breathing is essential to life. Perhaps that’s why the Holy Spirit is portrayed as breath. When we breathe deeply it calms us down. 

Second. Walk away. Create physical spaces that are calming to you and go there as you need to breathe. 

Then, third, examine your boundaries. Anger is an alarm system that indicates that there has been a breach in the perimeter we’ve established around the things we hold dear. But, what if those things we hold precious are our position, or our power, or our status, or money, or our self-importance. We become angry if, for example, someone makes us look stupid or tries to speak truth to our selfishness. Should this make us angry? Or is it perhaps necessary for us to look inward at the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves and to question whether our boundaries are the same things that God considers precious and worth protecting? This kind of self-reflection can be painful. But necessary. 

Fourth. Communicate clearly and constructively. Anger that is sparked by important things is good anger that should lead to justice and the betterment of our world. This rarely happens through argument or violence. This kind of anger should lead to clear communication that is assertive, respectful, and constructive for the whole community. Conversation that begins with “I feel” rather than “you don’t.” One of the greatest tools for any relationship is to learn how to fight well.

Then, finally, seek counseling. I’ve been there. Grief can cause us to lose control of our anger. Finding someone - a professional - to help us process our anger and our grief can teach us the skills we need to manage our anger and to focus it into more constructive behavior.

There you have it. Rules for the road. Simple, but foundational to who we are called to be as God’s people in this place. Mature adults. Fully grown and measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. Speaking the truth with love. 

May God lead each one of more maturity as members of the body of Christ. Amen.

Preached July 25, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Ephesians 4:1-16, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Psalm 65

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