No Longer Strangers – Be Christ To One Another

Steve Lindsley
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

For four weeks, we’ve been digging deep into this letter to the Ephesian church; a letter written to a thriving group of Christians that nevertheless were wrestling, as groups of Christians often do, with various challenges and obstacles.  We’ve talked about the need for the family of faith to look upon one another as siblings.  We’ve talked about walls that create barriers in community life, and the need to not just tear them down but move ourselves closer to one another.  And we’ve talked about how we are bound together as one – and the importance of that oneness.

And so today, on this final Sunday of our “No Longer Strangers” sermon series, we are faced with that all-important question every sermon seeks to answer:

So what?

One of my seminary professors used to say that every sermon you preach, no matter what passage it’s on, no matter if it’s from the Old Testament or New Testament, no matter what church season it is or what message the sermon seeks to convey, every sermon must answer the same question, and that is: so what?  It’s one thing to learn some interesting facts about a passage in the Bible.  But it’s another thing to discover what that passage, that scripture, means for how we live our lives as people of faith.   Without that, my professor would say, sermons are nothing more than lectures, theological musings with no real practical application.

It’s almost as if the writer of Ephesians, four chapters in, has already started thinking about this question.  It’s almost as if they sense the reader or listener beginning to ask themselves, all this sibling and moving closer and bound together stuff sounds nice, but why should I care?  So what?

So the writer of Ephesians tries to answer this question by laying out a string of what we might call “moral exhortations” – rubber-meeting-the-road kind of stuff.  Things like:

  • Speak the truth.
  • Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
  • Let no evil talk come out of your mouth – or, as another translation puts it, watch what you say.
  • Put away all bitterness, wrath, slander.

There are some others mixed in there, but those are the high points.

I read these moral exhortations, and I find myself thinking that they sound a whole lot like the kinds of things we learned early on, or should have.  What was that book that came out some number of years ago: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  I haven’t read it in a while but it kind or reminds me of that.

And I guess it is good to be reminded that we should speak the truth, that we should not let anger consume us, that we should put away bitterness.  Even though I can’t help but think to myself, you’re having to remind church people of this?  People you think would already not be doing these sorts of thing?  Is this moral exhortation-reminding really necessary – and if so, why?  What’s happened to the church?

Like some of you, I imagine, I have a friend or two who’ve stopped going to church, this one or any one, because they say they found people there who did not act much like Jesus.  They didn’t speak the truth, they held on to anger, they did not put away bitterness.  Sometimes they’ll even lift up this quote that’s often attributed to Gandhi, even though there’s no evidence it came from him.  The quote goes: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Now I hear that, and there’s a part of me that wants to push back on that a bit, that defensive part; because no one ever said the church’s job is to be perfect; certainly the people who make it up aren’t perfect.  And while it’s unfortunate, the fact is that church can be messy sometimes.  You and I have talked about that before.

But there’s another part of me that gets this sentiment: when people who profess Jesus as Lord do not always reflect the one they profess, it is frustrating and disappointing.  And while we are not Christ – never have been, never will be – we are Christians.  And we do not call ourselves by that name for nothing.

Jill Duffield, who is the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, once said this:

Those of us invested and committed to the church, the institution of the church as an expression of the Body of Christ in this world, lament our decline and irrelevance. We wring our hands over the loss of members and influence and, frankly, we should be concerned about such matters. Not because we need to be large to be faithful, but because our shrinking reflects our reluctance to practice evangelism in the largest sense of that word. We have been the complainers, not the proclaimers.[1]

That last line sticks with me the more I read it – we’ve been complainers, not proclaimers.  We ought to be the ones sharing the love of Christ with the world, proclaiming that love through not just what we say but how we live.  Instead, we often reflect the kind of community that the writer of Ephesians tells us not to be.  We’ve been complainers, not proclaimers.

If you and I are looking to have that “so what” question answered in today’s scripture, my friends, we first need to acknowledge that the message of Ephesians in this fourth and fifth chapter is just as relevant today as it was back then.  And that message is summarized perhaps most poignantly in verse 32, which says:

Be kind to one another.

Now “kind” is a fairly nondescript word – Merriam-Webster’s definition, which reads “of a sympathetic or helpful nature,” is itself not terribly helpful.  But there’s more going on with this word in this passage than we might think.  That’s because the Greek word here for “kind” is chrestos – which can mean good, agreeable, gentle, gracious – all of which work in this context, all of which were surely part of what the writer of Ephesians had in mind.

But if the word chrestos sounds like another word we’re familiar with, that is not by accident.  Chrestos.  Christ.  Don’t you see?  The writer of Ephesians is not simply telling us to “be kind to one another.”  He’s inviting us to “be Christ” to one another.

Be Christ to one another.

So often we think of Christ as an entity, a person – someone apart from us who walked this earth in the person of Jesus; this wonderfully beautiful and complexing “fully human/fully God” thing; a man whose story we read about, whose words we hear, whose life we celebrate and give thanks for, all these thousands of years after the fact…

So often we think of Christ as that spiritual presence still present, what we refer to as the Holy Spirit, sustaining us as if Jesus himself were in the flesh among us; binding us to God and to each other in holy communion and community, in our midst just as he was all those years before….

What you and I are less inclined to see is the Christ that resides in each of us – not the son of God part, not the savior of the world part, because none of us are either of those things.  No, the very essence of Christ, this chrestos that the writer lifts up to the community of faith.  Christ as a reality, a way of being; Jesus in us and through us; just as sure as you and I choose to give our lives to him, because he has already chosen us.

That Christ.  That’s the one we are called to be.  Be Christ to one another. 

Not just live a certain way, not just be nice and pleasant and “good,” but literally, “be Christ” to one another.  Whenever we are with another person, we ask ourselves, “how would Jesus be in this particular human interaction?”  And then we be that.  Be the presence of God in the community of faith.  Be that source of light in darkness; that sign of hope in despair, that steadfast presence of love running against the powerful undercurrent of hate and fear.  Be Christ to one another.

In a way, this passage reminds me of a quote, another famous quote incorrectly attributed, but a quote I imagine you’ve heard before.  It varies here and there but the general gist of something like this:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it still will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

Most people think it was Mother Teresa who said this.  It wasn’t.  The original quote came from a college student named Kent Keith, in a pamphlet on leadership in student government that he published in 1968.[2]   Here is why I find that fascinating – Mother Teresa is a famous person, a person we hold to the highest caliber; and at some level we trick ourselves into thinking that only someone as exceptional as a Mother Teresa could come up with something like this; only someone as amazing as she could aspire to live this way….

…..when all along it was a college student named Kent.  Someone you and I probably have more in common with.  This way of living and being is not reserved for the brightest and best, the exceptional, the super-human.  It is something we all can and should be  It is something we are called to be.

And all that it takes to “be Christ to one another” is not a desire to be perfect, but a longing to be faithful.  To be changed, so we can then carry forth the change.  A change that is marked at our baptism.

Back in the days of the early church, in the days of the Ephesian church, baptism looked different and operated differently from what we are used to today.  Back then,

…in the first liturgies of the church, the baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness.  They then turned to the east at sunrise and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world.  They stripped off their old clothing and put on the new garments of being adopted by Christ as children of God after they were baptized.  They were then brought into the community of faith.”[3]

For them, baptism marked that point when one chose to answer the “so what” question with a commitment to be Christ to one another – not just playing nice, not just being kind.  But being chrestos to one another.  So we are each other’s siblings.  So the walls are broken down and we move closer.  So we are firmly and finally bound together as one.

Now most of us, being good Presbyterians, cannot recall our baptisms, because we were too young to remember them.  Most of us had parents acting on our behalf, bringing us as babies before the community of faith, where commitments were made, promises kept.  Others of us were old enough to remember our baptisms.  And then there are some of us who have yet to be baptized. 

But none of that changes the fact that we are all part of this community on this day – and because of that, today we’re going to celebrate a special ritual outlined in our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, called the Reaffirmation of Baptism for the Congregation.  It reminds us of the baptism we may or may not remember, as it also reminds us of our collective baptism and calling into this thing we call church – and the way of being Christ to and for each other.  For this reaffirmation of baptism, I’ll step down beside our baptismal font, and I’ll ask you to stand where you are and follow along in the bulletin at the appropriate time:

Hear the word of the Lord:
Just as the body is one and has many members,
And all the members of the body, though many, are one,
So it is with Christ.
For in the one Spirit we were baptized into one body –
Jews or Greeks, slave or free – we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 

And so, beloved people of God,
Our baptism is the sign and seal of our cleansing from sin,
And our being grafted into Christ.
Through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ,
The power of sin was broken and God’s kingdom entered our world.
Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom
And freed from the bondage of sin.
Let us then celebrate our redemption
Through the renewal of the promises made at our baptism. 

I ask you, therefore, to once again reject sin, to profess your faith in Jesus Christ,
And to confess the faith of the church in which we were baptized. 

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
Do you turn from the ways of sin
And renounce evil and its power in the world, do you?

I renounce them.

 Who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
Obeying his word and showing his love, will you?

I will, with God’s help.

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; and he will come to judge the quick and the dead.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.  Amen.[4]

Remember your baptism, and be thankful,
And know that Christ is among you and in you.

Let us pray:
God, you call us to “be Christ to one another”
And you remind us in our baptism that we are yours.
Empower us, God, to be a community alive and full of your Holy Spirit,
We – siblings adopted by you;
We – wall-breakers called to move closer;
We – bound together as one
Through our imperfect nature, make us whole
So as the world sees us, they see you.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://bit.ly/2MmAKRw, visited on 8.7.2018.
[2] https://quoteinvestigator.com/category/mother-teresa/, visited on 8.6.2018.
[3] Feasting On The Word, Year B., Vol. 3, pg. 326.
[4] Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, 2018 Westminster John Knox Press, 435-437; 443.