So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
My sermon from the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2018) on Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
Over the last few months, my brother has been figuring out our family tree. We know a bunch about my mom’s family and some about my dad’s mom’s family. But when it comes to my dad’s dad, my grandfather, we knew practically nothing. Every few years, we searched various genealogical websites, trying to find something about him and his family. Nothing ever came up until this year. We found this: a copy of my grandfather’s registration card for the military during World War 2. Now that’s a pretty neat and helpful thing to find. It’s got his age, a birthdate, a birthplace – Silver City, New Mexico, and my grandfather’s job: he was a farm laborer. The card also recorded the name of someone who knew where my grandfather was at all times. And that person, Sylvester, is my great-grandfather. This image was our first tangible encounter with our great grandfather – and we both wanted to find out more. My brother spent days looking at census records, newspaper clippings, and whatever else he could find. But it was a struggle because my great-grandfather’s last name kept changing. Even on this draft card, you can see how the printed last name of my grandfather doesn’t exactly match his signature at the bottom. And my great-grandfather’s last name is missing a letter. This problem only gets worse when we look at this image from the 1930 United States’ census. I discovered that my great-grandfather spent time in California and that census takers deleted the first 2 letters of his last name. Sylvester’s first name, in the census at least, retained its Mexican spelling and it showed that he, and many of his children, were born in Mexico. They moved to this country at some point but I didn’t know when or where until we found this: an index card recording their border crossing. On February 7, 1917, my great grandfather, my great grandmother, and their kids crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico. I don’t know why they entered the United States. But they are, on the card, listed as refugees. In 1917, a Mexican Civil War was tearing up Northern Mexico. So it’s not hard to imagine my great-grandfather and his family wanting to escape the bloodshed and violence all around them. They, as family, sought asylum and safety in the United States.
Now, if you look closely at the border crossing card, you’ll see that my great-grandfather’s last name is, once again, spelled differently. And that’s annoying. Yet these constant changes in spelling provide an opportunity for us to engage with these documents in a different way. My encounter with my great-grandfather is bounded by these written words. To uncover the fullness of his story, I need to recognize how the changes in spelling matched his life as an immigrant, and a Mexican, in the United States. To really understand who he was, I needed to see all his words, including their English and Mexican spellings.
This exercise of looking at how we encounter someone and expanding what that might mean, is a helpful exercise for our faith. For many of us, our encounters with Jesus are bounded by words. These words are the ones we hear on Sunday morning and the ones we read and feel when we open our bibles and our daily devotionals. We know that Jesus is the Word but our words can sometimes limit what we think Jesus might be like. Instead of seeing Jesus as this expansive, inclusive, and amazing event, we let our words box Jesus in. And I’m saying “our words” because we need to be mindful that when we encounter Jesus in scripture, we’re encountering him in our language which wasn’t originally his. Jesus didn’t speak 21st century English or Spanish. He didn’t know our figures of speech, our idioms, or what emojis we like to end our text messages with. Instead, he spoke Aramaic. And he probably knew Ancient Hebrew and maybe Ancient Greek. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, made sure that his words were written down and shared through that Ancient Greek dialect that we no longer speak. Our encounters with Jesus’ story happen through a holy, and Spirit guided, translation. But that translation is built on an interpretation of what Ancient Greek and modern day English means. Sometimes, to fully see Jesus and what our life with him might look like, we need to read his story in a different translation or see his story interpreted in a language not our own. We might even need to step into that Ancient Greek text itself. This exercise isn’t always necessary but it’s sometimes helpful. And it makes a difference today – with this text from Ephesians, where we see the author telling us to be kind.
Now being kind is more than just being nice. Being kind requires us to empathize, care, and serve each other with love and respect. Being kind takes work, sacrifice, and is sometimes a struggle. So there’s something good, life giving, and loving about being kind. But when we look at this text in English, is there much here that is Christ specific? The actions and behaviors that Ephesians describes as good are pretty standard, regardless of our religious beliefs. Not lying to each other, working through our conflicts, and not stealing from each other is good advice for any community, religious or not. Much of these ethical teachings in Ephesians can be reduced to the golden rule: where we treat each other the way we want to be treated. It’s not entirely clear how these kinds of actions, when they include Jesus, make a more unique and holy difference in our lives and in our world.
So it’s at this point when reading the Ancient Greek text becomes helpful. As you can see on the screen, this text from Ephesians in Greek is interesting. And I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t read it. But, with a little help, I was able to place red boxes around two important words in this text. The first box surrounds the word for kind. The second box is for Christ himself. The words in those two boxes look similar. And they are because the words translated as kind and Christ are closely related. When the Ancient church heard this passage in Greek, they smiled because they recognized the wordplay being done through the words kind and Christ. They would, through this more expansive engagement with the text, understand that they were being asked to do more than just be kind. They were, at the same time, being asked to be a Christ to everyone they knew.
Part of being a Christ to each other is going to look like we’re being kind. But there are times when being a Christ to each other means we’re going to need to change our point of view, our expectations, and maybe even our way of life. Being a Christ means we have to be with Christ, spending time with his story, with his words, with his world, and with his people, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. What makes our actions as Christians different from everyone else, is that our service and love for each other is wrapped up in a savior who lived and died so that all people might discover God’s love for them. When we see our faith as an expansive act of love, we uncover a core part of our own story. And that story is not limited by our experiences, our thoughts, what’s happened to us, or even what we found on ancestry.com. Our story is Christ’s story because we are Christ’s people and so we love ourselves, each other, and all people as Christ loves us.