Summit Presbyterian Church
April 3, 2011
Ephesians 5: 8-14
Living in the Light
This passage is from a letter written to encourage new followers of Christ in the city of Ephesus, although the letter made its way to many towns and cities in the Greek and Roman world. Christians in that ancient world weren't necessarily persecuted, but they were a beleaguered minority, and the temptation to fall back into old ways of worship and old ways of life was strong. So don't, Paul tells them. Your old ways are the ways of darkness. Indeed, Paul says in our passage, "you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, for it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly - but live as children of light, for the fruit of the light will be found in all that is good and right and true."
Light and dark, good and evil, purity and impurity, in Christ or alienated from God -- this is how the writer of Ephesians sees the world, and not just the world but the cosmos. On one side is God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, creator of all things, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name, and who has a plan for the fullness of time (1:3, 10, 3:9); on the other, the devil, and cosmic powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (6:1). The letter (which I love) speaks of cosmic battles and blessings, spiritual warfare and peace. In Paul's vision of the church and the world there's little grey or half light and no half measures. Ephesians is the letter where Paul says to put on the whole armour of God to fight the wiles and the devil. In our passage Paul tells the disciples to live as children of light -- but not to "let live" those in darkness. "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness," he says, "but instead expose them."
Paul's words may inspire us, but they may also make us uncomfortable. There's danger in seeing the world in such stark terms, especially when we believe we're children of light and others are of the dark. Indeed, if you were sneaky and read the verses before the lectionary in your pew bible you may have squirmed, for Paul has some harsh words for those taking part in unfruitful works. "Be sure of this," he says, "that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolator) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." In those words we may hear the strident voices of contemporary preachers judging and condemning those they consider sexually impure or irredeemably rich. We know how easy it is for the church to fall into moral or spiritual arrogance, and to be mistaken. Church teachings have often, unwittingly, lent strength to the forces of darkness, even some of the teachings in this letter. Later in Ephesians Paul tells wives to be subject to their husbands and slaves to obey their earthly masters with fear and trembling and singleness of heart. Now, Paul also instructs husbands to love their wives and for masters to stop threatening their slaves, but his words have been used in recent centuries - and years - to justify slavery or the subordination of women. So as we look at our messy, diverse church and world, the image of light and darkness may seem too harsh or too simple.
Until we really think about it. I don't think people can be put into categories of good or evil (and Paul doesn't either, by the way -- he says later that our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh). But there are forces of darkness and evil in our world, and of light and grace -- and the fruits they bear are very different. Some of those forces are personal - we find them in ourselves and our neighbors and in loved ones. Others are global - threatening peoples and the planet, although the personal and the global are connected and overlap. Among personal demons, alcohol addiction is one of the darkest, as anyone caught up in it can testify. It's not that people who are addicted are evil - far from it - and it's not that alcohol itself is evil, but the powers of darkness can bring the two together with lots of suffering. Conversely, if you've ever been to a twelve-step meeting and heard the truth telling that exposes the unfruitful works of addiction, you've seen the light, and the grace, and the love that comes from such testifying -- and the new life that comes with sobriety, even with all it's struggles and setbacks. Thinking globally, I believe professional climate deniers are taking part in unfruitful works of darkness. When I say climate deniers I'm not talking about those of us who have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of global warming when it's snowing in April, which it did. But the professionals -- public relations experts working for industry organizations, and others, are surely engaged in unfruitful works of darkness as they hack into emails, twist people's words and bandy about lies as our civilizations careens toward disaster. I'm not saying they're evil, and they may believe they're doing the Lord's work -- but their deeds cry out for exposure. Conversely, scientists who quietly and steadfastly report their findings and tell is like they see it -- despite all kinds of harrassment - are walking in the light. You may identify different forces of darkness and light, of evil and good, but it is a cosmic battle.
But the forces of evil and good, light and darkness, are not locked in an unending struggle; Paul assures the Ephesians, and us, that in the fullness of time God in Christ will gather up all things in heaven and earth. And although we're called to take sides, it's not our battle to win (or lose), for the light that shines in the darkness is not our own -- it's God's light, and it's only in the Lord that we live and walk in the light. Most important, the light shined upon those deeds of darkness we're called to expose is not for judgement, condemnation and death. It's for transformation. Listen again to Paul's words: "everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. 'Therefore it says, Sleeper, awake! Rise form the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Just as the Ephesian Christians who were darkness, according to Paul, but became light in the Lord, so the light of Christ can transform anything and anyone and raise them from death and sin - -including us. And although the writer of Ephesians may not have agreed with this, I am sure the light of Christ shines outside of the church, among people and in places we may not suspect, including non-Christians, bringing them into God's light and love as well.
So as this cosmic battle wages, what do we do? Paul is clear, as he says in verse 10: "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord." Prayer, study, communal discernment -- trying to find out what is pleasing to the Lord and doing it. Taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but living in the light, the light that will someday reach all the dark places, in heaven and on earth.