First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 12

William Loader

Pentecost 12: 19 August Ephesians 5:15-20

The exhortations are coming thick and fast, especially since the beginning of chapter 4. In this excerpt of the continuing instructions the focus falls first of all on wisdom. This comes both in 5:15 and in 5:17. Why emphasise it? What would it mean for the hearers not to be wise? To answer that we need to note the themes of the preceding verses. 5:6 assumes there is persuasion around which could lead them astray, probably in Christian guise (see also 4:14). The verses which follow speak of unfruitful works of darkness, hidden, shameful behaviour. This may be sexual immorality (a theme in 5:3). It may be that this is just a typical warning against false teachers. It was common to accuse false teachers not only on going astray in their thoughts but also in their behaviour. It was probably less than fair, but we see it happening more and more in the later writings of the New Testament and then in the early church.

The instruction to look accurately at how they live and not to fall to foolishness (5:15) arises from the assumption that there are real dangers to faith and that often they need intellectual discernment. Paul took such dangers on in substance and we can know what they were when he writes. In this writing we have no such detail, but only the warning in general. It is nevertheless salutary to be reminded that alertness belongs to faith. Wisdom and understanding does count for something. People need to be able to discern. People need to be taught some theology so that they will have the critical tools to discern what is froth and bubble and what is authentically Christian.

If Ephesians could say that its days were 'evil' and that people should exercise good time management (5:16) and use their heads in the life of faith, that is no less true today. The gravest dangers, even for the Ephesians, seem to be coming not from rank paganism, but from those claiming some Christian authority. They needed to understand what the will of the Lord really is (5:17). Lots of claims are made in the name of Christ. Some of them are just plain foolish and empty; others are downright dangerous. History and our own times are littered with such claims. Within the framework of the priorities which Ephesians sets, namely that love is paramount, anything which puts national or sectional interest ahead of the dignity of all peoples is clearly off track. Anything which divides rather than brings wholesome reconciliation runs counter to a cherished theme of Ephesians. Anything which discounts other human beings, both those now alive and those of future generations who will inherit our planet and whose welfare we affect by our stewardship of it, is contrary to love. Ephesians recognises that the counter forces to Christ are powerful and often find their voice in the Christian community.

5:18 has a playful contrast between wine and the Spirit, which might remind us of Peter's speech at Pentecost, but also reflects a widely used metaphor. If we are to get excited and have some ecstasy, let it not be alcohol induced, but arise from the joy of the Spirit in the community. Wine is not under attack; drunkenness is. Ephesians assumes some enjoyment which arises from sharing the life of God together. It affirms music and song. The author had not learned that true Christian worship requires the equivalent of a pipe organ and century old music! It is all much freer than that. Nor does it sound like a summary of an over planned performance, stilted with formality. It gives praise to God, so that the integrity arises from a shared relationship with God and with one another. From such integrity arises a wide range of possibilities, formal, informal, structured, unstructured - but all giving room for genuine expression Christian 'ecstasy'. Perhaps 'ecstasy' is an inappropriate descriptor, but what Ephesians envisages has something in common with drunken ecstasy. It is not about rolling around uncontrollably, but it is also more than cerebral, wordy acclamation.

The integrity of music and song in faith communities, in their expression of praise, is also an issue which needs some clear thinking, some wisdom. Music engages our hearts as well as our heads, to put it in traditional terms. Emotional responses belong. Poetry must be given its freedom. Images and symbols take us beyond our controlled statements. They take us to boundaries and beyond. We need a wide tolerance for creativity - for the music of poetry. We also need, however, to look carefully at the integrity of what we do. It is so easy for sweet music to wrap up ideas which takes us a long way from where love is heading. Adulation which sees God's most cherished value as anything other than love (for instance, male might) or swooning love which transforms faith into the equivalent of a teenage crush on Jesus may sound Christian, but have little to do with 'the will of the Lord'.

Ultimately Ephesians has as its theme: coming together in a wholeness in which, we, connected to Jesus as one body, seek to fill the whole of reality with God's goodness. That outward motion has its corresponding inward motion, as in all good relationships. This is why Ephesians would not see worship as our movement away from the world and upward to God, but as our open and deep and joyful acknowledgement of the God of Jesus who both draws us close and takes us out in company into the world in which we live.

Gospel: Pentecost 12: 19 August John 6:51-58

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