“Because I said so.”
“What part of ‘no’ did you not understand?”
“You will be on your best behavior.”
“Hey Mom, can I have this? Not today.”
These are phrases I heard often growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful parents and my childhood was happy, but my mom and dad were strict. There were TV shows I wasn’t allowed to watch, places I wasn’t supposed to go, and behavioral choices that got me in trouble every time. Because of this, I got pretty good at being able to anticipate when a trusty phrase was going to be pulled out of the parental vault. As a teenager, I promised myself I would never, under any circumstances, use any of these phrases on my own kids. They would not come out of my mouth. I would talk things out and explain the reasons for my decisions. I would trust my kids to behave. I wouldn’t need to tell them.
Then I went into ministry for the first time. If you didn’t know, my first call was as a youth minister at a church in St. Louis where I served for six years and within the first 3 weeks of being responsible for other peoples’ kids, I heard my mother’s voice come out of my mouth.
Suddenly it was as if the clouds parted and I realized “Because I said so '' isn't a parental cop-out, it’s a time-saving measure. It keeps you from having to list out the fifteen reasons the young person in front of you shouldn’t go touch an electric fence that they haven’t thought about. Or why they shouldn’t walk too far in the woods at the retreat center in the middle of hunting season. Or why putting a pencil sharpener in the freezer might cause your youth minister to ask, “Why in the world is the pencil sharpener in the freezer???”
Now I know “because I said so” is a way for parents to maintain their sanity rather than go to the trouble of explaining to an audience that probably isn’t listening. Just as I understand as an adult with expenses my mom’s other favorite phrase, “not today” when I asked her to buy me something, was due to how tight the family budget was.
Confronted with similar versions of these parental standbys – the flaky friend who has an excuse every time, that one uncle who never runs out of things to complain about, the community member who habitually calls the church for gas money – the temptation is to throw our hands up and say “tell me something I don’t know.” There are times when this is justified.
There are also times that if we gave our friend a chance to talk, we'd realize they’re struggling with depression. Or we’d understand that our uncle is terribly lonely and doesn’t know any other way to get our attention. And that person who calls the church every month like clockwork is in an abusive relationship and her boyfriend takes any money she’s able to save.
On the surface, it sounds like the same thing we’ve heard before. But when we take the time to listen, to ask questions, and to look deeper, the landscape of our lives takes on new dimensions. That’s also the case with this morning’s passage from Ephesians. These verses sound like exactly the kind of thing you should hear in church, don’t they? As one of my seminary professors was inclined to say, this is the “Sunday School Answer” of scripture passages.
Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t steal. Don’t say dirty words. Don’t upset God. Forgive each other. Love each other. On the surface, this sounds like common sense, like the kind of thing anyone attempting to be a decent human would be able to identify with. Parents could do worse than raising kids who do these things. But as you know, there’s more than what’s on the surface when we read the biblical text.
As we peel away the layers of these seemingly straightforward verses, we first learn that this morning’s passage is an example of a virtue list. Virtue lists are exactly what they sound like, “the grouping of ethical values into lists'' and can be found in diverse cultures “from Iran and India to Egypt and Mediterranean cultures.” These lists made their way into the New Testament due to the influence of Hellenistic (Greek) and Jewish literature. Our passage’s role as a virtue list matters because scholars believe it served a “catechetical function” in the early church.
Catechetical comes from catechesis, a Greek word that means “instruction by formal word of mouth,” so catechesis is a formal way of describing religious education. Anyone who grew up Catholic will be familiar with this language as the Catholic church teaches the Catholic Catechism. This language is less familiar in Protestant churches, Baptist churches in particular, though it would be fair to say that Sunday School is our catechesis.
In the early church, people were called catechumen during their preparations for baptism. That’s why scholars saying this passage serves a “catechetical function” matters because it tells us this passage was used pre-baptism, and Paul’s language about “putting away” or as The Message translates it, “take on an entirely new way of life” can be read through a baptismal lens.
This background also tells us this isn’t just another passage about being a nice person. As commentator G. Porter Taylor puts it, “the works described by Paul are not merit badges set out for us to achieve. Rather they are marks of the new life given to us in Baptism.”
We know, at least I hope we know, that the waters of baptism aren’t magical. If they were I’d be out in the bayou bottling that murky water! Those of you from different denominational backgrounds might disagree with me on this, but I see the water of baptism as fairly inconsequential. It is the act, the ordinance, the sacrament, the in-breaking of the divine during a baptism that matters. For there is a “transformation of those who are in Christ” because “as we enter…the new life of Christ, we enter into a new community and a new culture with a particular way of living with one another.”
And this is the other part of this passage we miss if we’re dismissive and if we adopt a “tell me something I don’t know” attitude. What Paul lists here revolves entirely around community. So much more than the no-brainer, Sunday School fodder they appear to be, Paul’s words exhibit a practicality for living a community-centric life.
For example, Paul tells the Ephesians not to “go to bed angry.” This isn’t because anger is inherently sinful and it’s clear from the text that Paul understands anger to be “a normal part of the human emotional experience.” There are even times when anger is justified. But left unchecked anger can fester. Angry people tend to make rash choices and can endanger themselves and those around them. So, then Paul’s encouragement not to let anger get a foothold is to protect the community. As commentator Brian Peterson observes, “...anger is always disruptive and can quickly become corrosive to the community God is calling forth.”
In the same vein, Paul says Christians must give up thievery. As Jaime Clark-Soles asks, is this “so that one might escape a fiery eternal hell? Because it is debased or unjustifiable? No, [it’s] because [theft] does not allow for contributions to the needy.” Rather than taking from others “the members of the church are called to work so that they are able to pass something along to the poor…[this] is a call to pay open-eyed attention to the needs of those around us, so that we can discern the good thing that our neighbor needs and then do it.”
The last item on this virtue list I’d like to unpack is this idea of, as The Message phrases it, saying “only what helps.” Between us, my hackles are instantly raised when someone says they need to “tell me something in love.” I know it’s biblical, I know it’s how Christians are supposed to communicate, but I’ve seen people use this concept as a weapon.
I’ve also had the “telling me something in love” weaponized against me in the form of a woman at that church in St. Louis. I won’t mention anything descriptive about “Dot” (not her real name) beyond telling you that she was what you’d nicely call an “experienced” member of the congregation. We knew each other but didn’t have reason to interact with each other much beyond the Wednesday night Bible Study we both attended.
So, I was surprised when she made an appointment with me, though her reasons for doing so quickly became clear. Dot didn’t hesitate, demanding to hear my conversion story before she was even fully seated. I was taken aback and tried to explain that I didn’t have a conversion story, I grew up in church and had always believed in God. That answer was obviously not up to snuff, but Dot continued describing her deep concern and anger that I’d mentioned in a Wednesday Night Bible Study that there are two creation stories in Genesis. My explanation that I’d said there are two creation stories in Genesis is because scholarly research shows that they come from two different traditions within Judaism was met with scorn about “what they’re teaching in seminaries these days.”
It was about this time I realized Dot had come to this meeting armed with a list of complaints as she continued rapid fire: I wasn’t doing enough to get the youth baptized, how could I even teach them if I didn’t have a conversion story? I surely wasn’t doing enough to teach them about the Bible! Had I seen what they were wearing to church on Sunday, particularly the teenage girls? And was I sure I didn’t have a conversion story? You aren’t a true Christian without one.
On and on Dot went for almost 2 hours. Being new to ministry I was hesitant to end the meeting and ask her to leave. If I had it to do over, I would have ended things when she compared me to Satan, but even then, as a baby minister I’d had enough when these words came out of her mouth, “And then there’s what you’re teaching the kids about the gays. I know how much you love them…”
At that point, I cut Dot off and told her we’d have to agree to disagree about gay people. That wasn’t a conversation she and I could have productively. Then I stood, thanked her for coming, and showed her out. She left saying she would pray for me and my salvation because she was very concerned.
And do you know what, of all the times I’ve been told people are praying for me I know Dot follow-up. She did pray for me and my salvation. If she’s still alive I might still be on her prayer list. I also know to my bones that she was sincere as a heart attack about her concerns. Dot meant every word she said and all these years later I can honestly say our singular meeting is one of the most memorable of my ministry.
But I hope it’s clear that Dot was not saying “only what helps.” She came into that meeting knowing she was right and that she could and would fix what was wrong with me. And though Dot was sincere, sincerity should never be used to tear someone down. There’s no excuse for “speaking truth in love” as a vehicle for expressing our frustrations or anger. And when our goal is to put someone in their place or make them feel small, there is nothing loving about our words or actions.
Rather as commentator Susan Hylen describes it “speaking truth in love” should be “a healing strategy…such speech identifies the situation for what it is, calling others into account, giving voice to feelings, and confessing one’s own participation in wrong doing…when love is the framework, healing can result.”
Throughout this passage, Paul sets up contrasts: avoid destructive behaviors like lying, stealing, and harmful language that can tear a community apart. Embrace behavior such as telling the truth, contributing your resources to the community, and acknowledging your part in times of conflict.
Be gentle with each other, sensitive, and thoroughly forgiving. Certainly, none of this is easy, but the biggest challenge in these verses is one Paul doesn’t mention. The biggest challenge of these verses is what happens when we lay down behaviors that damage our community. When we are mindful of others’ needs and strip away the armor even the most open among us have around our internal self. When we become vulnerable. But it is in this vulnerability that we “finally have a real shot at intimacy, at knowing and being known.”
Beloved, the good news this morning is that we are a community and as a community, we are called to love as Christ loves. Paul tells us that Christ’s love isn’t “cautious but extravagant. He [doesn’t] love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us.” As God’s children, “we do not just love God, praise God, worship God, thank God. We also aim to imitate God, minding and then closing the gap between God’s behavior and our own.”
God’s love becomes vulnerable in the person of Jesus and Jesus makes that love intimate by sharing his life with his others. We in turn embody this love when we take the time to get beyond the external self, we each present to the world. When we treat our community as a beloved, living thing formed by children of God each with their own stories, their own abilities, their own needs.
Each of us has a place of our own here, each of us is necessary, and each of us is wanted by the God who created us all. With this in mind, I want to challenge you this week to make yourselves vulnerable to someone sitting around you. To open yourself up to the intimacy that forms and stabilizes a vibrant community. Plan a time to share a meal, send someone a card, or tell someone you’ve known for years why you value their friendship. Come clean with someone who hurt your feelings and don’t end the conversation until you’ve healed the hurt. Ask your spouse or partner what their favorite hymn is and why. Get your children or grandchildren to tell you their favorite thing about church and share yours with them.
And if all else fails, turn to someone you don’t know that well and say, “Tell me something I don’t know.” I promise they won’t roll their eyes.
 Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, Dictionary of New Testament Background : A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000). S.v. “Vice and Virtue Lists,” by J.D. Charles.
 Robert A. Bryant, “Proper 14, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Exegetical Perspective,” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 3. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009. Pg 326.
 Susan Hylen, “Commentary on Ephesians 4: 25-5:2” from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=374
 Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Ephesians 4:35-5:2” from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2547
 Hylen, ibid.
 Peterson, ibid.
Jaime Clark-Soles, “Proper 14, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Exegetical Perspective,” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 3. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009. Pg 329.
 Peterson, ibid.
 Hylen, ibid.
 Clark-Soles, 331.