Puddletown, Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 12th August 2018
Ephesians 4,24-52; John 6.35,41-51
I have three places in mind.
Let’s call them: A, B and C.
A is a home to a group of people from all different backgrounds, but where there is no harmony, although they supposedly have something in common because that is how they ended up together.
People slag one another off, they denigrate each other, and offer constant judgment and they are continuously carping against each other.
They allow resentments to breed and grow, then explode with anger at the slightest provocation; they are harsh and unfeeling.
Differences in lifestyle and thought make for divides among the people who make this place their home.
It’s not a place where anyone really wants to be. There are constant fractures, and within the group splinter factions arise frequently as people try to persuade others that they are right at the expense of someone else.
In the espousal of their cause, they attack people personally and find it hard to distinguish between a person and a person’s view.
B is entirely different. On the surface everyone is nice to each other. They ask each other “How are you?” and the reply is always “Fine, thanks.”
They acknowledge one another’s existence. They never argue. They seemingly agree on everything.
Each person does what they are on the rota to do; they never tread on anyone else’s toes or try to take on anyone else’s roles. They are quite happy in their own bounded world.
They have their space and everyone else has theirs and they meet when they have scheduled meetings and they go home and live separate lives.
Difference isn’t really acknowledged. Everything seems lovely.
C is different again. Here people do disagree with one another, but in a way where difference is respected.
People genuinely care about each other, especially those who are different from them.
Dialogue and debate is encouraged but it is always undertaken with a spirit of enquiry and without judgement.
There is a sense of true honesty with each other. When someone is struggling, they are open about it, and others in the community offer support and take comfort from the fact that they are not alone in finding life hard.
When someone upsets someone – often inadvertently – they talk about it in a calm, rational way, and forgive each other for the harm.
Their words are encouraging and spoken in love, even when they are imparting something their hearer may not want to listen to.
People are as honest with themselves as they are with each other. They know they are not perfect and accept that others get things wrong too. There is a great degree of trust among them.
I wonder where you would feel most comfortable – in A, B or C.
I have known churches that fall into all three of these situations. And I think St Paul must have, too, because his words of advice for how Christians should live will be based on his experience of human beings.
In reading and becoming familiar with Paul’s letters to the early Churches, we can see in much of his teaching where things have been going wrong for the early Christians.
The Corinthian church is riven with division. The Ephesian church seems to need reminding about how to be real with each other, how to be honest and true to oneself, to one’s community and in the presence of God.
What Paul wants is a community that is like C.
And that, too, is what I believe God would like to see in our churches.
A place where people genuinely care about one another because they are one. A community in which people use their speech to encourage one another and build each other up. A group of people who know the power of forgiveness.
A church where everyone is “nice” to each other is not enough, because niceness can hide a multitude of emotions and feelings under the skin.
It’s not about living honestly, but hiding one’s true thought and feelings. A real sense of community cannot exist where people are only nice to each other. It’s a surface life with no real depth.
We’re often told that we should aim for tolerance of others – that to me is a deeply unchristian value. God call us not to tolerate but to love.
Tolerance implies that I will accept that another person has a right to live and believe what they want without my hassling them, but it pretty much stops there. We remain different. They in their space and me in mine.
Love is a completely different attitude. It sees the other person not as someone to put up with, but as someone who is like me even though there are things differing.
It looks for shared space where both feel equally valued and is concerned for the other’s well-being.
Love puts the needs of the other before our own. Love listens with open ears and with an open heart. Love shares joys and struggles. Love is kind and gentle and has a genuine care for the other which involves mind and heart.
How do we know what love looks like? What does Paul say at the end of today’s reading: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us”?
That is the pattern – Jesus Christ. He didn’t sit on the sidelines but became fully involved in people’s lives. He wasn’t always nice; he didn’t always tolerate. He knew what it was to be angry. But he did all this without sin.
We will never manage that – unlike Christ we are not divine. But we can work towards it.
When we were born, no one expected us to remain the same. No one remains as they are the day they are born: six pounds three, perhaps, totally dependent on others for our needs, and able to cry, sleep and not much more.
We have grown. We have learned to speak. We have learned to feed ourselves. We understand much more.
We can walk and possibly swim. We can formulate an argument. We can read. We can think.
Our minds can cope with much more than crying when we hurt or are hungry or need our nappy-changing and smiling when someone pays attention to us or gives us a cuddle.
Learning these things takes time and effort, and we are still learning as we go. Growing into ourselves - it’s a lifetime’s work.
When we are born again – to use the metaphorical language of Jesus – we don’t become complete all in one go.
We grow and develop in the Spirit. That too is a lifetime’s work. Our task as Christians is to grow into maturity, people that look like Jesus Christ.
Paul’s advice to the first-century Ephesians stands firm today.
The temptations to falsehood and gossip are as strong today as ever they were.
The results of anger that is not addressed cause damage today as much as in the past.
Malice and bitterness and slander do not honour the one at whom they are aimed, nor do they honour the one who performs them, but - more importantly for Paul than either of those - is that they are not honouring to God.
As Christians we need to ask ourselves, is my behaviour honouring to God? Am I grieving the Holy Spirit in the way I speak to or treat others? Does my attitude encourage unity on the body of Christ or disharmony? Do my words bring grace to others? Are they a gift or a curse?
Much of our behaviour emanates from our minds. If we focus our minds on God, we will find ourselves becoming more Christ-like.
We can only imitate someone, if we watch and listen and give ourselves fully to knowing them completely. If we don’t we’ll get it wrong.
Like the impressionist who can do Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair or the Queen and sound pretty convincing but never quite get that one word or intonation or inflection absolutely right, so we know instinctively it is not Thatcher or Blair or Her Majesty. Each person is unique so impressionists can never become the person they imitate, but they can get pretty close.
We will never be Jesus Christ – after all none of us is a first-century male Jewish teacher, born in Bethlehem, living in the Holy Land, among outcasts, Pharisees, Sadducees, and wandering around with a bunch of fishermen, a tax-collector, an insurgent and so on.
But we can become more and more like him in our thoughts, our words, our actions and our prayers, by always looking to him as our teacher, role-model, companion, friend and God, and by opening our hearts to the transforming power of his Holy Spirit.
Following the guidance in Ephesians chapter four might be a pretty good place to continue our growth in Christ.