When I study a passage of scripture I like to read the whole passage together multiple times – try and take it as a whole chunk of communication rather than being too quick to search for sound-bites or one-liners, but in this Ephesians passage I kept wanting to stop after a phrase in the very first verse. That verse, Ephesians 4:25, reads: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” It was the last part of that line that had my attention. “For we are members of one another.” The writer of the letter throughout has been developing this image of the church as a body – and not just any body – the body of Christ – and now this verse takes that idea deeper with this provocative phrase – “members of one another.” Us.
Usually when I’m struck by a phrase like that the next step is to try to find the right question to ask. One question we could ask is “Do we really believe that?” and if so, what does that mean for us? If we’re going to buy in to this body image of the church, one body, us being components of that body, then do we believe that we are indeed members of one another, connected in such an organic kind of way? This is an OK question, but I think there may be a better one. Since we are talking about the body, with all its senses that tell it is alive and that it is connected to a whole ecology of life, maybe the question should be “Do we feel that?” Do you feel that we are members of one another? The “we” here being the church both local and global. Do we sense and know in a way that surpasses intellectual assent, feel in our gut, this to be so?
My answer to that, I find, straightforward and unambiguous person that I am, is “sometimes, to varying degrees.”
“Connected” is a word that gets a fair amount of useage these days. For good reason. The technological advances of the last 10-15 years have brought about a condition that allows for amazing opportunities for connectivity. The writing of this sermon is an example. The bulk of this sermon was worked out on Thursday afternoon, sitting at the Red Tree art gallery and coffee shop in Oakley. With the laptop I was able to work on the sermon, be constantly connected to email through the wireless connection, go online to check a couple commentaries on the Ephesians passage. I had my cell phone right beside me, able to almost instantly reach and be reached by anyone. Over the speakers various folk/rock artists from around the country were singing their best songs to us as I drank good coffee that probably came from half way around the world.
Even when I myself was half way around the world a couple weeks ago, in Paraguay, there were still opportunities for such connectivity. Only a couple blocks from my hotel was an internet café that I visited every evening to keep up with the flow into the inbox – and this itself is pretty old school. Others there were able to keep up through Blackberries and I-phones in their pockets.
Does this connectivity, or hyperconnectivity some would say, make me, make us, more spiritual people? More conscious of being members of one another? Less?
Ephesians is thought to be a second generation Pauline letter, which means that Paul himself most likely did not write the letter, but a student of Paul who would have had a similar theological orientation. It was common to write in the name of a mentor or master, so when the letter opens with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” it is most likely a student honoring the master. The best way I’ve had this explained to me goes this like: In our time, if you have been deeply influenced by the thought of a certain teacher, and you claim to write something under their name, you get in trouble. In certain settings of ancient times, if you have been deeply influenced by a master and have been a student of their thought and you claim to write something under your own name, you get in trouble. Since the author of Ephesians identifies himself as Paul, I’ll also call him Paul, but you may want to keep in mind that scholars would prefer to put quotes around the “Paul” who is writing this.
So these are second, third, fourth generation Christians who are reading this letter – those who had not known Christ in bodily form. Now being told that through the power of the Holy Spirit they are the Body of Christ. Really? If we haven’t had the original revelation or experience of being with Jesus, of seeing how he embodied the love of God, how are we to feel this to be true? How do we experience being members of that body? Members of one another. Connected with one another through spiritual ligaments and blood flow and nerves – knee bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the hip bone.
Here’s a thought: if this much is true – if we have through grace, through the abundant mercy of God, through the steadfast love of God, been brought in, been welcomed into the body of Christ – then a significant part of the journey from here on out is learning to feel one another. Learning to feel our one bodyness, and to let that shape who we are becoming.
I think there is an element of risk in all this. If we start to develop and grow in this type of relationship with each other, it changes things.
Before going to Mennonite World Conference I knew very little about the Democratic Republic of Congo. I knew they were having a drawn out civil war, but didn’t know much about it or have any personal connections to it. I still know very little about the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I have a few more connections that make me more aware of being a part of the same body as Congolese sisters and brothers. This happened in a few different ways. One of the preachers during the worship sessions was a leader from the Congolese church. He spoke passionately about the importance of doing justice and living the gospel of peace. It sounded like a fairly standard social justice sermon. He included the importance of empowering women to be leaders. And then at one point when he was talking about the women in his country he started crying and said that some of these women have experienced too much pain that they will never fully heal. He spoke in French and I was listening to an English translation over headphones, so I didn’t pick up all the nuance of what he was saying. A little later in the week I ran into James Kraybill who works with Mennonite Mission Network and has spent much of his life in French speaking Africa. He asked me if I noticed that the speaker from Congo had cried. I said I had, and he said that there are women all throughout the Congo who are being raped as an act of war. Many of the women are then shot afterward, and some of them survive. He said this is what Congolese pastors have on their plates when it comes to issues of pastoral care and why the speaker had mourned that some of these women will never fully heal. At another point in the week I was able to listen in on a group of US and Congolese leaders who sat together to follow up on developing deeper ties between the two churches. Ed Diller, as moderator of MC USA, will be a part of this work in the next couple years. Before leaving the conference I visited the artisans’ booth that had handcrafts that people brought and were selling. I purchased from a Congolese woman who had made a piece of fabric art on burlap that portrayed a proud African woman holding a jar of water on her head that she was carrying to her village, wearing a pearl necklace and pearl earrings and a bright colorful dress. This is now hanging on the wall in our kitchen.
This might be a risky move. I don’t know what these connections mean, but I know that as a result of being able to travel, and hear these stories, and meet some people, I have a deeper sense of being members of one another. And I hope that I can be more prayerful toward the people of the Congo.
Closer to home, we know that we are given opportunities to live out being members of one another. When our Belle was stillborn in May and you surrounded us with prayer and thoughtful cards and meals, we experienced a piece of what it is like to be members of one another. When we hear that Margaret Penner, not yet 25 years old, is now undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, even though she is now living in Tucson, we know that we are a part of one body. When we followed Jared Hess’ blog entries, we feel that we are members of one another. And in our joys, when we celebrate our youth coming of age, when we cheer someone completing the hard work of a master’s degree, or an anniversary, we share in being members of one another.
This is our gift and challenge of being the church. In Romans Paul describes this as “Rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn” (12:15). As humans we have this amazing ability to feel things that we don’t personally experience, or put another way and maybe a little more accurately, we have the ability to enter into an experience that is not initially our own and make it our own. Part of the risk, I suppose, involves being changed by one another in ways we can’t control as the experience of one member is sensed by other members.
Well, that’s the first verse of the passage – Ephesians 4:25. Only nine more to go. What follows after this verse is a series of instructions. In this context of membership in one another, these instructions go beyond individual moralism. Righteousness, holiness, takes shape in relationship. It concerns the whole health of the body. It’s not just a matter of I don’t do these bad things or I do these good things, but that we are a part of the same body, and that Christ is present here with us, and so we are trying to be a healthy, flourishing body together.
I like the NRSV translation of v. 26 – “Be angry, but do not sin; don’t not let the sun go down on your anger.” I like it that we’re allowed to be angry, and maybe being in touch with the sins or the sorrows of the world will give us some needed anger. There’s this great line that Bono from the band U2 has said. And I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect that he had heard that having kids was supposed to mellow you out, give you a more settled down approach to life. But, he said, for him, it made him all the more fired up and angry about all the evils in the world. And so he has taken on this tremendous campaign of essentially asking people to consider that the poorest of the poor children of the world are also our own.
Be angry, but in your anger, do not sin.
I’m just going to go ahead and read through this whole passage now and then end with a thought. Some instructions of body members relating to one another: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry 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 labour 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, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
A closing thought, on the way this passage concludes: Lest we feel that all this happens at our initiative, that we are the ones who must create out of nothing this bond of love with one another. All of this is couched in the overarching love of God. Rather than an act of initiation, ours is an act of imitation. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. Live in love.” God has dearly loved us before any of our loving occurs. God has risked creating this bizarre dust creature with breath and consciousness and a strong will and we are loved despite our fragmented, disconnecting tendencies. God has already forgiven before we can bring ourselves to forgive. And Christ has already blazed a trail. We are imitators. We receive what is freely given, and we allow ourselves to learn to imitate this love. We catch a wiff of that fragrant offering of Christ wafting around us and we try and let some of that stick to our skin. We already live in love. We are members of Christ’s body. We are members of one another.