August 12, 2012
The philosopher and ethicist, Thomas Hobbes, did not base his understanding of ethics on a belief in the divine. He believed that there were Laws of Nature that could be reasoned out without any divine intervention or interpretation necessary. He also believed that because humans are essentially social animals, meaning that we need social groups and communities in order to survive and thrive, then having clear Laws of Nature was absolutely essential to our survival. In his words, without these laws that allow us to live together in relative harmony, our lives will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hold onto that thought as you listen to this story.
My cousin Rich was the closest thing I had to a little brother. That included sibling rivalry. Rich and I missed each other terribly in the time that we were apart, and we fought like cats and dogs whenever we were together.
Rich went through an intense toy gun phase. He loved to play with guns, collect as many of them as he could and stage battles on a regular basis. So whenever Rich and I got together, we ended up playing with guns, whether I wanted to or not. On one trip to Minnesota to visit Rich and his family, when I was around 9 or 10, Rich convinced me to play some war game with him. We were heading down through the woods in his backyard, guns in hand, when I decided I’d had enough. I didn’t want to play guns. I didn’t want to engage in a battle. I just wanted to go back to the house and read my book. So I told Rich that I wasn’t feeling well and I was going back.
Rich wasn’t happy about this. His toy gun was a heavy wooden play rifle, and when I made my pronouncement, he yelled, “Chicken!” and threw the gun at me. It hit me right in the back of the neck. So I turned around and clocked him. Yep, that’s right, I punched him.
It seemed that time stood still in that moment. We both stood there a little shocked and bewildered at what had just happened. Then in the same instant we took off running toward the house, determined to be the first one there so we could tell our side of the story before the other one got the chance.
The result was that we were immediately separated, sent to our different corners and reprimanded for breaking the rules of appropriate behavior. You don’t hit someone. Not with a gun. Not with your fist. You don’t. And our punishment was to cool off, then apologize.
Rich and I spent a large chunk of our time together as children having to cool off and apologize. There are many pictures of the two of us hugging, but if you look closely you’ll see a pair of hands on each of our backs, pushing us together. But that’s the way it was. That’s how our parents kept some semblance of order. Rich and I fought, we were reprimanded, we apologized. You broke one rule and there was always another rule waiting to help patch things up.
Fortunately both Rich and I haven’t held any grudges from our childhood skirmishes. While we may have fought horrifically as kids, we’re good friends now. The anger we would feel towards one another dissipated quickly (usually through a brief bout of violence, which I can't condone) and didn’t leave room for grudges.
But that’s not always the case. Paul, in this section of his letter to the Ephesians, writes in verse 26 “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Paul seemed to understand that anger had its place. I would bet that every reform movement in human history started because of anger. A person or a group of people grew angry over ill treatment or injustice and began to protest. We are called Protestants because our spiritual ancestors protested and called for reforms in the church. I suspect some anger had to have been involved.
Be angry, but don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Meaning, I think, express your anger, and then get over it. Don’t leave room for grudges to set in. Because when we hold a grudge against someone, it festers. We seek revenge and we work against one another, and none of this builds up the community.
It seems to me that that’s Paul’s real concern – building up the community rather than tearing it down. What builds up? What doesn’t? How can you be angry, express that anger and not do damage to the community? How can you deal honestly and uprightly with one another? How can you build up the community?
Well you need rules. And this passage in Ephesians lists some of those rules. We speak the truth to our neighbors. We get angry, but we don’t sin in our anger – which means we can’t solve disputes the way my cousin Rich and I did, by throwing a punch. But we also can’t let that anger go on and on and on.
If members of the community steal, then they need to stop stealing and work honestly. What they make should be shared with the needy. We can’t let evil, slanderous, gossiping talk leave our mouths, because again that doesn’t build up. It only tears down and destroys. We need to put away bitterness and slander and wrangling and malice. We must be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving of one another as we have been forgiven.
These are the rules. And as my sermon title suggests, they were, are, new rules. I took my title from the passage heading in my Bible – Rules for the New Life.
But these really aren’t new rules are they? We could survey a wide variety of ancient sources and probably find rules for living in social groups that read almost exactly like Paul’s. These other groups would have nothing to do with the early church or the community of believers as Paul knew them. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, Thomas Hobbes did not work from a Christian or religious perspective. But he reasoned that natural laws could be found and were there for a purpose, to keep us from killing one another, to keep our lives from being solitary, nasty, brutish and short.
So these aren’t really new rules? But for Paul they are, not because the rules for living in community have significantly changed, but because what the community is grounded in has. The motivation for community has changed. It is new. For Paul the significance of these communities is that they are formed out of our being baptized into Christ. It is our baptism that makes these rules new. Through our baptisms we have been engrafted into Christ. We have become part of him, part of his death, part of his new life.
That’s what makes these rules new. They are grounded not just in a social contract to keep people in a community from beating each other to death, but in the body of Christ. So if we tear each other down, we tear Christ down. In Paul’s words, we “grieve the Holy Spirit.” I guess one way to say it, is that we not only hurt one another when we break these rules, we hurt God. I realize that sounds overly simplistic, like something my Sunday school teachers would have said to me when I was little. “If you hurt your friend, you hurt Jesus.” But if our relationship with one another is built on the relationship that God in Christ made with us, then it stands to reason that if we hurt one another we hurt our relationship with God in the process.
At the close of this part of the passage, Paul states that the ultimate rule is to be imitators of God. We are beloved children of God, therefore we should live in love as Christ loved us. Perhaps to the casual observer this sounds easy, but living it out is anything but easy. In fact being told to imitate God is just about the most intimidating command I could hear. To me imitating God is a perfect way to set myself up for failure, because there’s no way I can possibly live up to that kind of standard.
But I don’t think Paul is trying to set us up for defeat. Perhaps Paul wants us to consider that God loves us unconditionally, so we need to do our best to love one another the same way. God loves us persistently, so we need to persist in loving each other no matter how hard it is. God loves us, not because we are so completely loveable, but because more often than not we are completely unlovable, yet God loves us anyway. God forgives us, so we need to figure out how to forgive one another. God speaks hard truths to us, but even in those hard truths, we are loved, we are the beneficiaries of God’s infinite kindness, so let us speak the truth but let us be kind to one another even as we’re doing it. These are the new rules for us, the body of Christ. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”