A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 4/8/21 on Ephesians 4:25-5:2 for Proper 14 (19) Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost Year B.
Some nights, I dream about freedom. About walking out the door without a mask, or having friends over to my house to have dinner together. To booking a plane ticket to, well, anywhere really, and being confident that I wouldn’t have to cancel it and add it to my enormous mountain of flight credit vouchers.
In the UK they had “freedom day” a week or so ago, and the world waits with bated breath to see what unfolds. Is this a step towards the normality of the Longago Beforetimes? Or is it an insane gamble which will inevitably set off another wave of COVID, swamping the hospitals and setting the whole process back by months?
I can confidently say that there has never been a time in my life when I thought as much about freedom as I do at the moment.
But what does it mean to be free? To be really free? Free in a way in which the winds of luck in our lives – the good times which puff us up and the bad times which cast us down – can’t affect? Freedom which is stronger and deeper than whether I’m allowed to leave the house to go shopping or not?
What really is freedom?
In today’s reading, Paul begins “So then, putting away falsehood…” This marks a transition from the previous section, which the Lectionary Elves have decided not to include. What is he talking about? Long story short, Paul has been talking about the new believer’s life before they were baptised. They have “learned Christ”, and now need to live in a new way, not like the pagans do. They are no longer “darkened in their understanding” and trapped in the “futility of their minds.” They need to “clothe [themselves] with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
“So, then” what are we supposed to do about living in this “new self”, this free self, that we have been given as a completely free gift by God? Paul, you will be pleased to hear, has some suggestions.
Firstly, he says, “let us speak the truth to our neighbours.” It’s interesting that this goes beyond our sisters and brothers in the church. We are not to be deceitful people, but open, truthful, and honest. This is the clue that this section is not exactly about how to be church as much as how to be a human being.
By living in truth, by putting aside falsehood, we are set free. To live in lies is slavery – always afraid of being caught out.
There’s a further level to the living in truth thing. It’s about how we are in the world – our existential stance towards the world. There’s an old joke: “De-nial is not just a river in Egypt.” Do we live in denial, pushing away confronting truth, in a desperate attempt to live in a valley of comforting lies? Do we cling to a more-or-less mythical fantasy land of “the good old days” and “if only”?
Faith in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead gives us the courage to look reality in the face, because we trust that “God is in the facts, and so the facts are kind.” The world, the universe, the whole created order of things is a gift from the good God who loves us, individually and by name.
And that’s an important kind of freedom. To live in the lie is to be a slave to the lie. To need to push away anything which might reveal reality. Freedom is being able to see, and love, reality as it actually is. As Jesus says: The truth will set you free.
Paul’s second point is about anger. “Be angry, but do not sin.”
Anger is a bit of a problem in our tradition. I have a very serious Christian friend who says that he never gets angry. All he will admit to is feeling “frustrated sometimes.” Paul, it turns out, would not approve. Get angry, he says. There are situations which require anger. After all, Jesus is frequently angry in the Gospels. To take one example amongst many, driving the money changers out of the temple was the action of someone who was really quite angry.
Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Work for reconciliation. Seek to forgive, and to be forgiven. Do not be defined by your anger – do not be a wrathful person, always ready to fly off the trigger at a perceived slight, always walking around under their own personal thundercloud.
I do not think I would be drawing a long bow by extending this idea to our emotions in general. We are angry, sad, happy, amused, frightened – and on and on in a thousand different shades. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these emotions. They are a necessary part of being human at all. It is what you do with them, and do about them, which counts.
Don’t let anger, or fear, or grief, define you. It’s a sort of slavery. Instead of being free to love what is lovable, and be angry at situations which deserve anger, we can be driven along by our anger and fear – like a leaf on a river, borne along by forces outside our control.
Freedom comes from a certain detachment from our emotions. We have our emotions: they should not have us.
Thirdly, says Paul: thieves should find an honest trade. They should “work with their own hands.” I think, again, we are safe in generalising from that – I doubt that Paul could have imagined a world where so little work is done by hand, and so much by having meetings and sitting at a keyboard typing. But the implication is clear: if what we do for work is like being a thief – if we are working against the common good – then we need to find a better way to earn a living.
The point of work, according to Paul, is not self-enrichment, but to have something to share with others. The eighties are definitely over, and we know that greed is not, in fact, good.
The point goes even further than honest versus dishonest work. What is at play here is freedom versus slavery. To find yourself stuck in a situation where you need the well-paid job to afford the expensive holiday which, in turn, you need to cope with your very stressful well-paid job is to be stuck on the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s called the “golden handcuffs” for a reason. Work, taken in the right spirit, is an avenue of freedom and responsible service. Taken in the wrong spirit of greed and selfishness, it is another avenue of slavery.
Fourthly, “let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up.” For me, this is perhaps the hardest of Pauls’ instructions. It is so easy to find oneself saying something spiteful, to run someone down. Perhaps this is particularly the case in an organisation like the church where we have very long-term relationships with one another. In regular life, if you have conflict with a co-worker you probably won’t still be in some sort of relationship twenty years later. But in church-world, conflicts can drag on for ages, long after the original reason is forgotten.
Sometimes I hear the words which come out of my mouth, and immediately wish that I could take them back. Who am I, I ask myself, that I apparently think this badly of my neighbour – the neighbour who Jesus commanded me to love, the neighbour for whom Jesus died? That I take active pleasure in belittling them?
This, too, is a sort of slavery. I long to be free of whatever it is that causes me to be so unloving to my neighbours. To be free to love them as I genuinely want to love them – that would be freedom indeed.
Paul brings all these concerns together with the famous phrase “and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” Here is the problem, and the solution, on full display. We all grieve the Holy Spirit. We all lie, we allow anger and other emotions to define us, life selfish, materialistic lives, and allow evil words to come out of our mouth. We all grieve the Holy Spirit.
But, and this is the Good News, we are not defined by our sins. We are, first and foremost, defined by our baptism. The ones “marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.” The ones saved by grace, not by works. The ones who put their faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, not in ourselves and our own failed attempts to make ourselves right with God and one another.
We are increasingly free. Free, not all at once, but as the Holy Spirit works within us. There is no point in asking where our work stops and God’s work starts. It’s entirely God’s work. It’s entirely our work. It is based on the fundamental fact of our lives that we are the ones who Christ love, the ones who Jesus gave himself up for.
It’s a contested word, “freedom.” What does it mean? One way of thinking of it is “freedom to be ourselves.” Freedom to allow unfettered expression to our wants and desires. Free to say what we want to get our way, to express our anger and our greed, to run down those who oppose or annoy us. To “let it all hang out” as the hippies (apparently) used to say.
But in this reading, we see completely different image of freedom. Freedom to be who we were created to be – freedom to love as we ourselves have been loved. Freedom to fulfil our fundamental nature, and the freedom of knowing that, no matter how much we fail to live into this freedom, we are safe as the beloved children of God. Not because of what we have done ourselves, but because of what has been done for us.
There is something deeply paradoxical here. Freedom, it turns out, is not complete self-expression. That is, in fact, a sort of slavery – slavery to anger, to deceit, to dishonesty and to slander. It is slavery which takes us further, and further away from who we were created to be.
This freedom – the true freedom, freedom which is real even under COVID lockdown – comes rather from a clear knowledge of what is going on, that what we do with our desires, emotions, and speech matters because it moves us towards, or away from our true identity as beloved children of God and imitators of Christ. This freedom is based on the fundamental reality of our lives that God loves us, and Jesus gave himself up for our sake, so that we could “learn Christ”, put on our new identities and find our true, free selves in love for one another and the world.
We are invited to be part of God’s mission of love and reconciliation in the world and no matter how often, and how dramatically, we fail to do that, even when it is our own deliberate fault, God does not send us away. Instead, God works continuously to make us part of his good plan for the world.
 Obviously the usual caveats apply. I mean here the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians, whether it was Paul himself, or a skilled Paulinist. Cf. Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 4). SPCK. Kindle Edition and Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition and many, many other commentaries.
 I think I get this from contemporary American spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser, but I can’t quite lay my hands on the exact source.
 John 8:32.
Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash