Reality Bites

Passage: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Date: August 13, 2006
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Aimee Moiso

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Today's scripture lesson comes from the letter to the church at Ephesus. The letter has traditionally been attributed to Paul or a follower well versed in Pauline thought, and it is addressed to a church which, like many of the churches in the New Testament, continually finds itself in conflict, particularly over the issue of reconciliation and unity between Jews and Gentiles. The writer of Ephesians pays specific attention to the importance of unity in Christ and of commonality through baptism. It is at the beginning of the fourth chapter that we hear the familiar, "there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all."

The writer of the letter also puts special emphasis on new life in Christ. Contrasting the old ways with the new, the writer calls the congregation to be living testimonies of a changed life, visible examples of what God has done and is doing. I'll begin reading at verse 22; listen for how God might be speaking to you this day.

Ephesians 4:22-5:2
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

So, then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry [if you must] but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. 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. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 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 us. Therefore be imitators of Christ, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Friends, the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.

One of the many strange things that happened to me while in seminary was that I found myself spending a lot of time trying to relate the obscure information I was learning in class to the realities of the contemporary world. I did this in the grocery store, at the movies, in line at the bank.

As a result, I now think of John Calvin whenever I'm in an airport.

Calvin, who was one of the pioneers of the Reformed tradition (from whence cometh Presbyterism) wrote that, "All of us born of Adam (that is, who are human) are ignorant and bereft of God, perverse, corrupt, and lacking every good. Here is a heart especially inclined to all sorts of evil, stuffed with depraved desires, addicted to them, and obstinate toward God" (Institutes, 1536 Edition, I.B.2.).

I'm not in an airport five minutes before I start to believe Calvin was absolutely right.

"This area is for active loading and unloading only. Unattended cars will be ticketed and towed. Do not leave your luggage unattended. Please report any unattended luggage to airport security. Unattended luggage will be confiscated and may be destroyed. Remove your shoes and overcoat and put them through the x-ray machine. Laptop computers must be removed from their cases and placed in a bin by themselves."

Assuming we make it to the plane, reminders of our selfish and obstinate nature continue on board.

"When you have found your seat, please move out of the aisle as quickly as possible to allow other passengers to board. Please place coats and smaller carryon items under the seat in front of you in order to leave the overhead bin space free for larger items."

Air travel is like a microcosm of Calvinistic thought: it is clear that we are all completely corrupted by our selfish and immoral natures, and if left to our own devices, we'd likely stuff the overhead bins with all manner of rubbish with no concern for other passengers whatsoever.

Things got worse this week, of course, when destructive use of God-given creativity led to airport chaos now that mundane items such as baby formula and hand lotion are suddenly too threatening to be allowed on board.

Appropriately, NPR reported yesterday that Lloyds of London, one of the biggest insurance companies in the world, is now including things like global climate change and risk of terrorism in how it figures its rates. The world is more dangerous than it used to be, and Lloyds of London will be setting their policy rates accordingly.

As someone boarding a transatlantic flight in less than two weeks, I am actually a big fan of airport safety and security. But the truth is, it's a terrible reality to live in world where we're constantly figuring out how to protect ourselves from each other. It's not just the inconvenience of increased insurance rates, or the annoyance of extra safety measures, or even the very real fear of tragedy and loss. Underneath it all, there's something else: a deep-seated feeling that things are not what they should be. If we are all children of God, created by God for communion and fellowship, all the ways in which we protect ourselves stand as evidence of our common brokenness. Beneath the noise of the traffic, the world groans with the weight of all that might have been and isn't.

One of the hardest things to understand about the Christian faith is the idea that we have been forgiven and redeemed by God in Christ, healed and freed from our sin, and born into a new life, yet we're still broken people in a broken world. Centuries after the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, we're still in a pickle, and the current one may be the worst yet; for the first time in human history we have the capacity to either blow up the planet or make it so warm and smoky that only *bleep*roaches will want to live here. It seems a losing battle: for two thousand years we've been forgiven and loved, but we still haven't figured out how to get along. It's no surprise, says Calvin, "No perfection can come to us in the flesh" (33).

Someone on the news this week was talking about terrorism and tough new security measures. Toward the end of the story, the expert said in a very authoritative and pragmatic way, "This just is the way the world is. It's the reality we have to live with." With those two quick sentences, he stated the obvious: This was the way it is; the world is an evil place, and we have to suck it up and respond accordingly. Reality bites; get used to it.

I believe that the biggest, most dangerous temptation for followers of Christ in this time and place is to believe that report, to begin to agree that our current reality of war and terror and sin is just the way the world is. It is perilous for people of faith to buy into the idea that the world cannot be changed, or that the most sensible among us are the ones who have already figured out that we must fight fire with fire, and that the price of security is high walls and big bombs. Such realism may seem prudent, but it is in fact abandoning our faith in God for a reality of despair.

As followers of Christ, we are accountable to a different kind of realism, one rooted in a mysterious, often nearly invisible, desperately elusive and doggedly tenacious hope of something more, something better. In the face of all that is terrifying, violent, ugly and dark in this world, we cling to the belief that there is more good at work than what we can see with our eyes, and regardless of fear and failure, we live as if change is possible and redemption real.

It's not easy. Tastes of redemption sometimes seem so small and insignificant that they're hardly enough to sink our teeth into. During my seminary internship, I was helping to lead a Tuesday morning Bible study attended by brilliant women mostly over the age of 70. One morning we were talking about how we had been changed by our faith in Christ. Though they all agreed that their lives were different because of their faith, most of them had a hard time coming up with a concrete example of how. One woman finally spoke up and said very sincerely, "Well, before I became a Christian I had the worst road rage. I was just furious at other drivers. But now I'm a lot better at keeping my temper in traffic."

It seems ridiculous to think that such a simple, little thing as keeping one's temper might be an indication of change in the world. That one person's honesty is a match for terrorism, or one act of kindness might end a war.

On the other hand, it was one person's act of nonviolent resistance on a cross that changed the course of human history and will one day complete the redemption of the whole world.

Perhaps that's why in the fourth chapter of Ephesians we get these absurdly simple guidelines for living out new life in Christ. These are the manifestations of a Christly life, standing in defiance of a broken world until full redemption comes. Tell the truth to your neighbors because you belong to each other. Be angry if you must, but don't let it drive you to sin. Do honest work, sharing your bounty with those who don't have enough. Use words carefully and remember that each sentence is an opportunity to share grace. Let go of revenge and bitterness and malice. Be kind. Forgive as you have been forgiven in Christ. Love as you have been loved by God. These tiny bites are a new reality, calling the followers of Christ to live lives of honesty, integrity, and intentionality in defiance of a world that says such things are ridiculous. These are the things that will change the world, and we know it - because we ourselves have been changed by them.

And that's the point. For all the brokenness of the world that undergirds even our airport security, for all our struggles and failures, for all the times we are ready to abandon hope that things will ever change, we have already been changed. Be it road rage or redemption, all of us have been and are being changed by God every day - not completely, not perfectly, not without stumbling, and sometimes without our notice - but always lovingly, as we are molded into the image of Christ, the Bread of Life; the new reality, bite by bite.

Calvin was right: we are and we remain sinners. But he also wrote, "Through [Christ] we are renewed from day to day, that we may walk in newness of life and live for righteousness" (18). In Christ, we are new creations, continually being forgiven and freed to challenge and resist the present reality while holding on to the promise of future redemption and wholeness. Bit by bit, or bite by bite, God's new reality will become the only reality. Until then, says the writer of Ephesians, remember, "Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light - for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true."