25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil. 28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.
29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
5 Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.
A quick search on amazon.com for “self-help books” has some interesting results. Some of the top results are: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Gifts of Imperfection, Who Moved My Cheese, and Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, and of course books such as 6 Months to 6 Figures. There were surprisingly a lot of adult coloring books that came up, too, many with “stress relief” somewhere in the title. I wonder what that says about us!
We live in a world of “do it yourself.” We can go online and order any number of these books to try to make ourselves better and invest in the multiple ideas out there on “self-help.” There’s just one problem with this mentality, and that is that no one can really fully help themselves. We need a little help along the way from other people: friends, doctors, therapists, family, and the church community.
This section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a “self-help,” or rather, “God-help” guide for churches on how to live in Christian community. In this self-help guide, he gives some practical advice that is still relevant for church communities today. There’s no need for us to go out and buy the latest self-help book for churches or try to reinvent the wheel on how to solve church conflict or strengthen the congregation. We simply need to go back to these words of Paul in order to make sure we are on the right path to continue being the church in the world. Listen again to his words, but this time, listen with these questions in mind: Which of the things Paul says here are now out of date, old fashioned, or hopelessly out of sync with today’s modern world? For which of these have we come up with something better?
Each of us must tell the truth, be angry without sinning, don’t steal, don’t use language that does harm, but say only what is helpful in building up the community, glorify the Spirit, put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way that God forgave you in Christ. And finally, imitate God, and live your life as an example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself up for us. May we be sacrificial offerings for one another, just as Christ was, smelling sweet to God.
As I look at this list, I certainly don’t think that any of it is outdated or old fashioned or irrelevant in the way we are to live our lives together in the church or in the world today. I don’t feel a need to pick up a church self-help book from the shelf and frantically flip through it for an answer when it is right here in front of us in this letter to the Ephesians. What we have here is good practical advice on how to live a Christian life in community with one another with the reminder that we are part of the same body of Christ. But it’s no secret that many people both inside of the church and outside of it do not live together in this way that Paul prescribes. In extreme situations, neighbors seethe with quiet rage at each other, communities are overrun with violence, people attack and kill each other over the most absurd things. Forgiveness is taken as a sign of weakness and aggression as a mark of strength. And we build much of our entertainment and political culture around people trash talking one another and tearing other people down. The more conflict available for us to observe, the better.
In the church culture, I have heard my fair share of ridiculous conflicts that have come up- anything from people leaving a church over the color of the carpet to being upset over something just one person said, to the worship service being too long, the style of worship, or the time of worship. In my previous appointment, I had one person tell me that they would not come back because they didn’t like the way we served communion. A colleague of mine recently shared that there is a group of people in her congregation that are furious because she is doing a sermon series on “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss”!
There are also, of course, the more serious church conflicts over money being stolen or abuse of any kind, or church bullies who threaten the life and health of a congregation. There are things that come up in each faith community. The key is being able to turn to these words of wisdom once again as churches move forward in healthy ways. We need a fresh look at Paul’s self-help guide. There’s no need to reinvent the wheels of community, but rather that we need to put them back in service (Homiletics).
We look around and see that we live in a culture where the wheels, in fact, have come off. Many run their lives on ambition, arrogance, trash talk, judgment, and prejudice, which all disrupt harmony and fellowship in the community. The difference between seeking self-help in our individual lives and seeking self-help as a church community is that the world is watching the church, and let me tell you, we are already on shaky ground. The world expects us to give up or fail, or to be the next headline news story of Christians not being like our Christ. The world expects us to continue on the path of hypocrisy, judgment, and saying things like, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” The world expects us to keep excluding people, to keep telling people what they can and cannot do, and to keep being afraid of change and progress.
So church, we have work to do. It’s time to tell the world a different story. Better yet, it’s time for us to re-tell the world the real story of Jesus in new ways. The Jesus who shows us how to really live in this world and is our ultimate self-help guide. No need to re-invent the wheel, no need to come up with a new story, no need to change the ending. We only need to get back to the heart of it all- to the Jesus who shows compassion, non-judgmental attitudes, and who challenges us to get back to the heart of faith and practice: to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
But no one should be a follower of Jesus in isolation. We need a community to strengthen and uphold us for the journey. And since a community is made up of people, it is inevitable that people will mess up, will treat each other badly, will make bad decisions, and will be angry with one another from time to time. But at the end of the day, we are community. We are family. And we are called to peace, justice, and reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ as one body: the church.
It’s no wonder that people are hesitant to get involved in churches today, especially since they never know what kind of community they will walk into. A friend of mine shares her story of the hesitancy she felt when entering into a faith community for the first time. She was invited to a small group gathering in someone’s home where a meal was had, people shared joys and concerns openly, and a Bible study was had where there was a discussion of God’s story and what it might mean for us. She was uneasy as they broke off into prayer groups, feeling that this whole thing was getting too personal. When someone turned to my friend and asked if they could pray for her, she agreed. The group thanked God for her life and for her being there, and asked God to her show that she is beloved and how God is involved in her life. Unanticipated tears filled her eyes. She wondered what compels friends to stand with a stranger and ask that grand love be poured upon her. She left, only to return the next week, and the week after that.
Entering into the church or faith community can be intimidating and challenging, usually because we just don’t know what kinds of people we will encounter or what version of God we will hear about or experience. The idea of getting involved fully in a community will challenge our sense of independence. Many of us liken our spiritual journey to a personal quest because we live in a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency. Think back to our amazon list of self-help books! Even as I ventured onto my own faith journey in the midst of asking questions about Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, I often found myself thinking that this was something I needed to do alone. I found myself thinking that I needed to keep my questions to myself or not share my fears or hesitancies or doubts about Jesus and the church, or the people that made up these places of worship and fellowship.
But I was wrong. I needed to reach out and be a part of a community- a community that would sit with me in my doubts, hear my fears, and answer my questions with an open mind that left room for invitation and welcome. Oftentimes, we fail to understand that community is a part of God’s design. This is what Paul is trying to remind and reassure the Ephesians about in this self-help guide for them-that even when times get tough and they want to go it alone, that they are, at the end of the day, called into community. Our Trinitarian God exists in one continuous community of being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is the source of our being, and we are made in God’s image, despite our imperfections and the times we do not act as the community we should be. We are beautiful, gifted, imperfect, and often belligerent human beings who are God’s agents on earth. May we be reminded that in the midst of all this, God still works through us (Becoming a Disciple, Ch. 4).
Paul’s self-help guide also reminds us that the church ought to be a place where the truth can be spoken: the difficult truths about our world and about ourselves, and the gracious truth about the God who has redeemed us. But we have to be careful about how we do this, because we are pretty good at using excuses of speaking the truth as a way to manipulate and tear down other people. Paul’s words speak a challenge to only speak words that build up the community of believers and will result in the church being strengthened.
As author Rachel Held Evans points out, “We long for our churches to be places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when its uncomfortable.” If we are honest with ourselves about church, we might say that it feels more like a country club than an AA meeting, more like a place where we are hesitant to bond more over our shared brokenness than our shared beliefs. We are not people who attend church because we are shiny and perfect, but because we acknowledge our sin and sin in the world. We acknowledge the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. Church should be a place where we can tell the truth about the human condition and say that we are not okay, yet we acknowledge and worship a God who works to transform and redeem us as individuals and as a community.
This is the good news of Paul’s self-help guide in the letter to the Ephesians: that although we are an imperfect human institution, we are fueled by a loving and sacrificial God who sets out to redeem and transform us through the healing mercy of the grace of Jesus Christ. We are given guidance on how to make the faith community strong and healthy, on how to resolve conflict and to love one another even in the midst of anger or disagreement, and then we are to acknowledge our brokenness before God and accept that we have the chance to shape a new reality, a new story with the help of the Holy Spirit. We are given a chance to create a safe haven for all and a sanctuary of hope and peace, and maybe a little healthy discomfort along the way.
We come to church “with our fear of death, our desperation to be loved, our troubled marriages, our persistent doubts, our preoccupation with status and image. We come with our addictions- to substances, to work, to affirmation, to control, to food. We come with our differences, be they political, theological, racial, or socioeconomic. We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed our masks and exhale. We come to air our dirty laundry, to tell the truth, to be ourselves before God and everybody because when we do it together, we don’t have to be afraid” (Evans, Searching for Sunday, 71).
So may we not be afraid to follow this self-help guide that Paul gives us, even now, thousands of years later. May we not be afraid to glorify God and invite others to be a part of this beautiful and messy and loving place called the church, where we are reminded once again to tell the truth, put aside our anger and bitterness, to be kind and compassionate and forgiving. May we remember that we are to imitate God in all things, who sacrificed all to be one of us in order to show us how it’s done. What other self-help guide do we need? Amen.