Text: Ephesians 4:25-32 (New Living Translation)
One of the miracles we parents get to witness is the transformation of helpless, completely dependent infants into children who laugh, play, and get into trouble as they begin making their own decisions. Levi has recently begun walking, and the new-found independence is clear in the smile on his face as he goes all by himself, upright, from one room to another, chasing Aubrey and whatever toy that she has. For her part, Aubrey insists more and more on doing things by herself. She is so proud to help stir whatever Emily is cooking, and Emily and I shake our heads at some of the choices she makes for shirts and pants to wear together.
This is the miraculous transition we witness as parents: our children who utterly rely on us to provide their every need gradually begin making their own decisions. They seek more and more responsibility for themselves. And with that responsibility come obligations and consequences. As we grow, we start rebelling against those same obligations and especially the consequences. Adolescence and young adulthood show that we want the freedom to do as we want when we want to do it, but we don’t want the consequences and those obligations that come with that freedom.
The same is true of adults as we pursue our careers. We love the thought of a promotion and the accompanying paycheck, but we often grumble at the additional hours and work that such a promotion brings. We weigh the freedom of the larger paycheck against the chains of the attached responsibility.
So things go also in matters of faith and church. The day comes when the Holy Spirit reaches into our hearts and minds and we know with every fiber of our being our utter helplessness before God. We know that we are completely dependent on Him to retrieve us, redeem us, restore us. We bargain and plead for mercy when we encounter the darkness of life in a fallen world. We throw ourselves at His feet, and as our loving Father, God extends grace and mercy, forgiving us, declaring us righteous through the blood of His Son shed on the cross, and then beginning the transformative work of sanctification that changes us from what we are to what we will be.
Sanctification is long, slow, painful work. It is a growing from infancy to full maturity. And with the change from spiritual birth to full Christlikeness comes increasing responsibility, as any child knows. God commissions us: Go into all the world, make disciples of all nations. He grants us gifts and talents: to some, many, to some only one. He holds us accountable for what He has given to us, a hard Lord demanding much, as the one given one talent in Jesus’ parable describes. He challenges us: you will be persecuted for my sake. If they did not spare me, neither will they spare you. He demands of us: leave father, mother, sister, brother, follow me. Go, sell all your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me. He shows us where to go: Take up your cross and follow me. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.
We listen to these things, and we cry, Whoa! This isn’t what we wanted; this isn’t what we asked for! Were we desperate? Sure. Were we pleading and bargaining for some salvation? Yes. Were we utterly at God’s mercy when we came to Him in our need? Without doubt. But persecution? Laying down our lives? Selling our possessions and giving everything to the poor? No thank you. Give me my fire insurance and Get Out of Hell free card and let me be. Better yet, add to it health and wealth. Enlarge my territory, we pray. Sure, our enlarged territory is for God, we say with a wink and with our fingers crossed.
You see, we want all of the rewards of salvation, but we recoil at the responsibilities that are attached to it. We would rather just work the system to our advantage. Take the benefits and run. We see it often all around us, especially around the holidays, when people will do practically anything to get a free lunch and a free bundle of goodies under their tree.
Paul encountered the same at the church in Corinth. In his first letter there, he says this in chapter 3: “1 Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. 2 I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, 3 for you are still controlled by your sinful nature.” So often are we, long years as Christians, having not grown or sanctified at all because we dare not take up the reins of responsibility God desires to give to us in our maturing.
This is Paul’s point at the end of Ephesians 4. We do not like to admit it, and we certainly do not want to have to live it, but the truth remains. We who are saved by our faith are also responsible in and to our faith. We are responsible on four levels and we are responsible in at least six ways.
First, in our sanctifying faith, we are responsible to ourselves. Paul lists a number of commands for the saints at Ephesus to follow, but he cannot do the work for them. It is up to our own choices and our own actions as to what we do with our anger, what we say with our mouths, and what we do with our hands. Nobody else can live our lives. Nobody else gets to make our choices for us. We are responsible for our own lives. Our sanctification is accomplished by our own commitment to it and our obedience to God. The end of this chapter is a list of things to do that nobody else can do but ourselves. Our actions and reactions are our own, and we bear the full responsibility for them before God and everyone else.
Second, we are responsible to our fellow kingdom citizens. Paul has gone to great length in his letter to emphasize this one idea concerning the church: we are one body. He repeats it again here in verse 25, “we are all parts of the same body.” Each part has its own role to play. If I am a lung, I cannot do the work of an eye. If you are a foot, stop trying to be a mouth. If you are a mouth, stop trying to be an ear. If you are an ear, then by all means, do the work of listening.
We are each of us responsible for the role for which we have been designed and gifted. When we are not doing the part for which we are made, then the whole body suffers. When any one of us chooses to do our own thing or not do our part of the work of the Kingdom, something else suffers for having to make up the difference. We are responsible to our fellow believers for doing the work that we have to do. Likewise, they are responsible to us for doing the work that they are supposed to do. We are responsible to fellow believers, to fellow kingdom citizens. What we do affects the whole church of which we are each a knitted and an integral part.
Third, we are responsible to the lost. It is by our actions, our words, our encouragement (as Paul says in verse 29) that the world hears, learns, and knows Christ. Gandhi has been cited as saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The quote cannot be verified, but the critique of Christians is true nonetheless. Another pithy saying reminds us that we Christians are the only Bible that some people will ever read. So, what are they reading? What we say and how we say it may shape the way those around us think and believe about God. We are responsible for our witness to the world around us. We are responsible for obeying and fulfilling the Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. What we do affects the people around us whom God wants to claim as His own.
While we are certainly responsible to ourselves, to fellow kingdom citizens, and to the lost, primarily, we are responsible to God. Paul tells us in verse 30, “Remember, he has identified you as his own.” We have been bought with a price, and the price was the blood of God’s only begotten Son. Because we have been bought with a price, we are no longer our own. We are God’s, completely. We are his servants, which is our nice, less offensive way of saying that we are His slaves. Now, remarkably, God has decided to adopt us who are His slaves as His children. But we are His. Our white robes of the redeemed are His white robes. Our righteousness is His righteousness. Our eternal life is His eternal life given to us not because of anything we have done, but because of the great love with which He has loved us. God has done all of this for us, so we are responsible to Him for what we do with it. What we do affects God. We can hardly believe it, but we cannot deny it.
So what do we do in our responsibility? What are the means of behaving and living and doing by which we can live up to our responsibility? Paul mentions six specific deeds or actions that the Ephesian saints – and we saints who live everywhere – need to be sure to obey.
First, we are responsible for what we do with the truth. “Stop telling lies” Paul says. Lies are so easy, convenient, and sometimes even apparently helpful. They can get us out of tight spots. They can save some angst and anger on other people’s parts. When I was serving as a chaplain, the hospital staff decided to wait to tell a pregnant woman that her father, who had come to the ER in the middle of the night, had died. The staff wanted to wait until other family members were present so they could help comfort the woman. They were concerned the shock would send her into pre-term labor. Despite our best efforts, the woman figured it out anyway. In the end, it would have been better if we had told her the truth at the beginning.
Lies are never helpful. They are only harmful. They may seem helpful in the moment, but that is only a ruse of Satan. We have the truth, in two very important meanings of that word, and we are responsible for what we do with it. Do not bear false witness. Stop telling lies. Live in the truth, and wield it well. Sometimes, this means that you just don’t answer when someone asks, “Does this make me look fat?” But neither do you have to lie your way through. Handle the truth responsibly so that when it comes time to share with others the Truth with a capital T, there is no doubt in their eyes that you are being completely honest with them.
We are also responsible for what we do with our anger. Paul quotes Psalm 4:4 and says, “Don’t sin by letting anger control you” and then goes on by telling us to not let the sin go down on our anger. I have often heard Christians say that we believers cannot be angry, that it is our anger that is sinful. But anger is an emotion. Even God gets angry. I don’t think Jesus overturned the tables in the temple in a calm, serene fashion. It is not being angry that is sinful. It is what we do with it. Be responsible, even in your anger. Always choose reconciliation, as far as it depends on you. Work diligently always to resolve difficult situations rather than perpetuating or exacerbating them. In our anger, it can be tempting to lash out. Do not do it! Give yourself the opportunity to calm down, as Psalm 4:4 goes on to recommend, but then work quickly to make peace, especially among the body, as Paul advises us to not let sin go down on our anger. Holding grudges against someone accomplishes nothing. Let your anger pass and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in all things. Be responsible in your anger.
We are responsible for what we do with our hands and our time. We cannot be idle. There is a reason that Paul says elsewhere that if someone does not work, they were not to eat. God has given you the gifts of your body, your abilities, and your intellect so that you can use them well. So use them well. Work hard, but work hard not for your own self and your own gain. Rather, work hard so that you can, as you are generous to others, reveal God’s generosity to all of us. Be a blessing to others as God has been a blessing to you. Be responsible with your hands and your time.
We are responsible for what we do with our words. Words can be biting, caustic, and more harmful than any injury. Choose how you use your mouth. Seek always to edify others. Edify means to build up. If we are building up, it is not helpful to cut someone down simply for the sake of “cutting them down to size.” Truly, it is often necessary to prune and to cut before building up can begin, but the goal is always building up and improving. Speak always in love, not out of spite, anger, or vengeance. It is out of our heart that our mouth speaks, so our mouths should reveal a heart that has been transformed by Christ. Does your mouth do this? Be responsible with your mouth and with your words.
We are responsible for the way that we live our lives. “Do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live.” Our lives matter. The way we go about our business matters. Ask Herman Cain, Tiger Woods, or any other fallen from grace celebrity or politician. Our past can haunt us. So leave nothing that can haunt. But again, the way we live our lives isn’t merely about how it might come back to bite us. Remember, we are bought with a price. We are claimed by God. We are called His very own. We are not our own, but Christ’s. What we do reflects on Him. It goes back to that quote attributed to Gandhi. People look to us to see Christ. They look to us to find out what God is like. We are a mirror, a reflection that others use to judge and to know God. We must give them an accurate portrait. We are responsible for it. Be responsible in your living.
Finally, we are responsible for what we do with others. Paul lists a whole range of tempting responses: “bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander.” “Can you believe what she did to me?” “I can’t believe they would consider him after everything I’ve done for that company!” “They will never know how deeply that hurt me.” It is not difficult to flip through our own memories and recall when we have had similar confrontations and emotions. But what does harboring and nursing our bad feelings accomplish? Not a thing. Listen to Scripture here: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.“ Once again, God’s response to us is informative for our own responses.
If we are honest, we have to admit that we do not like responsibility. We do not want to be held to any standards. We do not want someone else’s future to ride on our choices and our actions. But they do. Like it or not, our lives are no longer our own. We are now as believers responsible for not only ourselves, but for each other, the lost, and even God. And there is much about our lives that must be carefully navigated because of the responsibility we have as growing, maturing, sanctifying believers.
Paul tells us many things about who we are as saints and believers in this letter to the Ephesians, and here he tells us: we are responsible. We must take these reins that God has given to us in our salvation and maturity. He has already let go. Let us wield them well.
Pray with me.