Lent 4: 3 April Ephesians 5:8-14
The image of light and darkness is widespread across many cultures and religions. It has its roots in human experience of dark and light, night and day. It frequently gives expression to a dualism where darkness is on the negative side and light on the positive. It is only an image. Alas, it has become for some much more than that. The related contrast, black and white, easily becomes the prejudice of racism.
But the image is just an image and has its own fragility. Yes, people have feared the darkness; they cannot see and are afraid. The darkness can be dangerous; we do not see what is coming to and we cannot see where we are or where we are going. But light can also be terrifying, blinding, overwhelming, overpowering. Darkness can be restful, beautiful. Life's joys are not all gaudy. Black can be just as beautiful as white.
Nevertheless the balance of the imagery favours light as something positive, life giving and creating, helping us to see where we are going. It needn't be glaring and intrusive. So with these qualifications - making no idols of imagery - we can approach our text which contrasts two different life styles. The unknown quotation with which our passage ends sets the contrast as life and death within the framework of death (sleep) and resurrection. It might be a fragment from a baptismal liturgy.
It all merges together in an exhortation to hearers of the letter to see themselves as people of light and not to engage in ways of darkness. Judaism was fond of the imagery and this was probably the main source for its Christian use. Writers of the Dead Sea sect contrasted children of light and children of darkness. Here the imagery serves as a vehicle for warning against involvement in immorality.
5:6 echoes Paul's tirade in Romans 1:18 against the pagan world which abandoned God's true nature and abandoned their own true nature. That was how Paul understood homosexual behaviour. It is likely that sexual immorality is also a primary focus here. It features as the foremost evil in 5:3 and 5:5. Sexual immorality appears to have been a common theme in warnings to new converts. Perhaps the appearance here in 5:5 of the phrase "kingdom of Christ and of God" reflects such traditional warnings. We find very similar assertions in 1 Cor 6:9 (similarly Rev 21:9; 22:15). The sexual component probably lies also behind the reference to shameful deeds in 5:12. Sexually immoral acts in private are seen by God and will be exposed and the perpetrators judged.
We might be left wondering what the author has in mind. Quite possibly he would disapprove of a range of practices some of which might be seen quite differently today. Some today would not share what would almost certainly have been his understanding of homosexual acts, but recognise that some people do have a homosexual orientation (which is not therefore a denial of their nature) and see its expression in acts of loving as not inappropriate. But equally the author would also have in mind a range of behaviours which went on privately in his time which we would still see as destructive and abusive. He urges the children of light not to go along with abusive and exploitive behaviours, not to turn a blind eye to dehumanizing acts of any kind.
To walk in the light is not to be naive. It is not about being happy. It is about owning a commitment to justice and embracing a stance of compassion for all human beings. We are still very good at hiding injustices or hiding ourselves from them to our shame. They extend from sexual abuse and exploitation to downright poverty and victimisation of the weak and disempowered. Our author mixes the images when he speaks of the fruit of light, but there is no mistaking what he means. 5:9 makes this clear. Light is goodness and justice and truth. It is not about knowledge or spiritual elevation or mystical ascent, as valuable as these may be.
The light is so connected to Christ that it cannot help but be about compassion and care and concern for human beings. Ultimately it is about the light and life of God which generously confronts us with the possibilities of love and goodness and confronts and exposes our seduction to greed and abuse. Baptism is a very big agenda. It means living with the courage to say no to abuse and exploitation and to say yes to love. Such light and life is the gift held out to us in grace.
Gospel: Lent 4: 3 April John 9:1-41
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