April 19, 2009

The Church in Action: Be Filled with the Spirit
Ephesians 5:3-20

A lot of things have changed in the nearly 2,000 years since the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians. He sent a hand-written letter, for one thing. We send e-mails. He traveled primarily by boat, horseback and on foot. We drive cars and board planes. He kept up with the news through traveling emissaries and local town gatherings. We read newspapers, watch CNN and surf the web. He wrote to people concerned about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Our doctors talk to us about food that is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Paul spoke about principalities, powers and demons. People today often refer to market forces, structural evil and personality disorders. A lot has changed since the Apostle Paul moved about from place to place preaching the Gospel. But some things haven’t. Like people in Paul’s day, we lie down to rest at night, work at relationships, search for happiness in money and possessions, try to earn God’s favor, and often obsess about sex.

That was kind of direct, wasn’t it? But then, Paul was rather in-your-face as well when it came to Christians and sex. He set all generalities aside on this subject. Did you notice? In 4:1, he wrote, “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called...” In 5:1, he added, “…be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us…” But here, when he raises the matter of sexual conduct, he skips the formalities and goes right to the main point: “Clean up your act!” “Don’t be morally sloppy.”

Now, it goes without saying, even with respect to sex and the temptations that we Christians face, that much has in fact changed since Paul’s day. On the upside, for example, we don’t use sexual rituals as part of our corporate worship here at the Grantham Church, and that’s a good thing. Various religious groups in the ancient world, by way of contrast, did. In some cases, sacred prostitutes provided a way for genuine seekers to experience God in more intimate ways. So, when Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians, he was in part instructing them not to make such pagan sexual practices part of their church life.

On the downside, however, we also face a massive onslaught of sexual stimulation that would have been unthinkable to the average person in Paul’s day. Billboards, newspaper and magazine advertisements, song lyrics, internet pop-ups, unwanted e-mails—you name it. I’ve commented here before at just how sexually charged our culture really is. When I get off of the plane in Zambia, for example, I often feel like I am in a totally different world, and not just for the reasons that you might understandably think of. The sexual energy in the air lessens, and you can actually sense the difference.

So here we are, reading a text that instructs us to live sexually responsible lives, yet living in a world that depicts sex rather like food at Old Country Buffet. What are we to do? Paul offers four simple but profound principles here in Ephesians 5:3-20, principles that in reality apply not only to sexual conduct, but to all areas of morality as well. Look at them with me.

Paul’s first principle is this: live as children of light (v. 8). If we sit for a few moments with verses 1-9, we get a sense of what Paul means by this. For one thing, living as children of light requires that we shift our focus away from the dehumanizing and degrading sexual practices so prevalent in our sexually-charged culture (vv. 3- 4). “Don’t do these things,” Paul bluntly states, referring to corrupt sexual practices of every kind. “In fact,” he continues, “don’t even think or talk about them.”

Importantly, please note that Paul never suggests that our physical bodies are evil and that sex is wicked or dirty. Some people in Paul’s day believed that, but not Paul. Some people in our grandparents’ day—and in our day—believed that, too. But not us. Not me. Our sexual drive is a gift from God that serves a wonderful role when monitored and expressed within its proper context—a loving marriage between a man and a woman. But like so many things, our sexual urges, if left unchecked, can overwhelm us. We take this wonderful gift from God and trivialize it—casual sex among so-called friends, extra marital affairs, emotional affairs through pornography—you name it. Before long, what is itself a great thing becomes our downfall.

And so, Paul firmly states, “Don’t give even a hint of impropriety.” “Stop talking about sex in suggestive ways. Stop telling and retelling dirty stories and jokes.” And if Paul were writing in modern culture, I’m quite certain that he would extend the instructions in order to accommodate more contemporary forms of communication. “Stop looking at sexually arousing pictures, TV shows, and films. Get rid of racy books and magazines. Block inappropriate web sites.” In short, “Stop throwing fuel on the sexual flames.”

Living as children of light, furthermore, involves resisting the empty words that people sometimes throw at us in their attempts to entice us (v. 6). We hear all kinds of stuff, don’t we? “If you really loved me, you’d do it!” Yeah, right. Just respond, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t ask!” Here are some others. “It will feel good, and no one else will ever know.” “There really isn’t anything wrong with it. Would God give you such a powerful urge and not want you to enjoy it?” Or the impressions that we are sometimes fed through ads, pop-ups and even billboards by the side of the road. “Here is the antidote for loneliness. Here is the cure for our personal insecurities.” Or this one is really insulting: “Adult entertainment.” We are never told in advance, of course, about unwanted pregnancies, debt, broken trusts, or shame. Don’t believe such empty words, Paul instructs us. Be more discerning—less gullible!! Live as children of light.

Paul’s second principle is this: find out what pleases the Lord (v. 10). We don’t just set aside whatever sidetracks us, but neither do we concentrate on the religious “Dos” and “Don’ts” that we are perhaps familiar with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m an ardent supporter of living our lives within God’s parameters. But life with God is more of an adventure than an organization with a strict code of conduct. Rather than simply asking questions like, “Is this legal?” “Is this allowed?” or “Is this a violation of one of God’s commands?” we begin asking “Does this please God?’ “Does this bring God pleasure?”

Think for a moment about healthy relationships of various sorts. Do we simply do what the other person asks and avoid doing what they prohibit, or do we operate according to a higher principle? As we grow in love for someone else, we ought to find increasing excitement in discovering what pleases them and then putting it into action. Take a white-iced donut from Emmaus bakery, for example. My wife is hopelessly addicted to them—so are our children and I. Whenever I drive anywhere near Allentown, I swerve south and stop at the bakery in Emmaus. Why? Because it pleases my wife and children. “Find out what pleases the Lord,” Paul writes, and let that guide your life.

Paul’s third principle: understand what the will of the Lord is (v. 17). Paul links this word of instruction with another one: “make the most of the time (v. 16).” Now let’s be as clear as possible here. It is not primarily God’s will that you be happy all of the time. It is not God’s will that you have fun all of the time. A significant part of our struggle with sexual temptations, and others, at times results from our infatuation with pleasure, our preoccupation with this life and all that it purports to offer. But most of this stuff is hardly God’s will.

In God’s view of eternity, this period of time that you and I inhabit is but a bleep—an important bleep, to be sure, but a bleep nonetheless. And while it is true that he wants us to experience his blessing and joy, it is not true that he created us to play around all day and night. Each of us has been entrusted with only a certain number of days, weeks, months and years—and we don’t know in advance how many!—and we bear a measure of responsibility for choosing how to use them. Here, Paul reasons, use them well. Make the most of your days. Use your life, not just to have a good time, but to make a difference.

And, in a nutshell, what then is the will of God for each and every one of us? It is certainly difficult to improve on the answer that the prophet Micah offered some 2700 years ago. “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet asked of the community. “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” When Jesus himself was asked a similar question, he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then he added, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).” Or, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

And finally, Paul’s fourth principle is: be filled with the Spirit (v. 18). Here in Ephesians, Paul does not so much present a theology of the filling or baptism of the Holy Spirit. He is not talking about the gifts of the Spirit or the fruit of the spirit, nor does he get into such tantalizing subjects as to whether or not there is a so-called second work of grace following conversion in which we Christians receive a particular outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Paul isn’t opening theoretical cans of theological worms here. Instead, he is telling us how to live out the Christian life, how to face our struggles and temptations, how to stand up for Jesus in this modern world. And for us to do that, he concludes, we must be filled with the Spirit. We must live, first and foremost, under the influence and power of the Spirit.

Interestingly, Paul phrases this as an imperative—a command. We typically imagine, do we not, the Spirit of God coming upon us and filling us. Jesus, after all, promised to send the Spirit, and we picture just that—God pouring out his Spirit upon us, just as the prophet Joel described it a long, long time ago. Such depictions, needless to say, are valid. God does send his Spirit to fill us. We don’t call the shots.

Nevertheless, Paul’s instructions at least suggest that we are involved in determining the type of reception that the Spirit receives in our lives. We can, if I might put it this way, extend or refuse hospitality to the Spirit. Elsewhere in Ephesians, for example, Paul encourages his readers not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God (4:30.” Now, he provides the positive alternative: “…be filled with the Spirit.” We grieve the Spirit when we ignore him, refuse to follow his promptings, and fail to nurture our relationship with him. We extend hospitality to the Spirit when we wait on him, seek his counsel, fill our hearts and minds with the things of God and, as Paul so powerfully points out here in vv. 19-29, worship God together with others who long to follow Jesus. What a transforming thought. In the same way that we can extend hospitality to neighbors, family and friends, we can extend hospitality to God’s Spirit.

We live in a sexually charged world. I hardly need to convince you of that. And yet, God calls us, his Church, to honor him with our sexuality. How are we to do that? By living like children of light. By discovering what pleases the Lord. By understanding what the will of the Lord is. And by being filled with the Spirit. Sounds overwhelming? Here are just a few steps that we can take to do this:
Name one thing that fuels our sexual fires in inappropriate ways and remove it.
Name one sexual lie that we are at times tempted to believe and reject it.
Name our most nagging sexual struggle and share it with someone we trust.
Name our deepest, God-given longing in life and purpose to follow it.
Name our desire for God’s Spirit to strengthen and guide us and trust him to meet it.