A fun and engaging way to get to know others, whether in a large group or passing time on a long road trip, is to ask each other a series of questions beginning with the phrase “Would you rather?,” giving two choices and inviting the responder to share why they picked one over the other. Let’s try it for a few rounds. I’ll let you point to the designated side of the sanctuary, and make a short comment to your pew-mate after each pairing. Ready?
- Would you rather . . . go on vacation to the mountains or the beach?
- Would you rather . . . be completely invisible for one day, or be able to fly for one day?
- Would you rather . . . give up watching tv or movies or give up going out to eat for a year?
- Would you rather . . . always be 10 minutes late, or always be 20 minutes early?
- Would you rather . . . know all the mysteries of the universe or know every outcome of each decision you make? [i]
Every day, we are faced with an almost endless number of choices to make. What to wear, what to do, how to respond to any given situation. Our choices might be easy and quick, or require more information or deliberation. Some of these choices give us more options than others. Sometimes we are choosing between two things and neither of them is particularly appealing. And, of course, different choices carry different levels of meaning or importance in our lives. That is sometimes, but not always, reflected in the time we take to make them. I might, for example, only take a few moments to select which shoes to wear, but take longer to decide that I want to spend the rest of my life married to another person. Ultimately, what we choose can say a lot about us, whether it is simply a preference for an activity or lifestyle, or a reflection of a deeply-seated belief.
This morning, our text from Ephesians prompts us to reflect on the choices we make as we think about how we are “living our lives,” and whether or not they are in line with the “calling” we have as God’s people. This letter is often believed to be a kind of circular letter written by an associate or student of Paul’s, and includes exposition on the centrality of Christ, including a grand vision of what God has done and what is given to and through the church. Then, in this passage, the writer turns from the big picture to answering the “so what?” question of how this new reality might play out in the everyday life of the church, with discussion of the unity of the church and the ongoing sanctification of believers. That is, the ways in which our lives reflect God’s holiness. Ephesians, like many of the epistles, takes on a moral character and instruction for life. Not because it is what wins us God’s favor, that much is made clear in earlier verses, but because it matters how we respond to God’s grace. In essence, much of the letter, including these verses, shout that message we may have heard from a parent as we climbed onto the schoolbus or got out of the drop-off line, or shared by a homeroom teacher as we began our day: “Make Good Choices!” Our lives as Christians should be those that reflect the good news we believe. The large theological catchphrase for this is “embodiment” – which simply means that the beliefs we hold and witness we give can and should be reflected in our words and actions. The smaller acronymn that fits on a bracelet is something like WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – implying that before we say or do something, we’ve put some thought into whether or not it is in line with the teachings of the one we claim to follow. It’s tough work, even for the most faithful, who seem to clearly be called for God’s purpose.
Ask David. His story is one marked from the beginning as being chosen by God, shepherded in unlikely ways to become king. But by 2 Samuel, the story takes a turn. To say David does not make good choices is a vast understatement. Chapter 11, just before what we read this morning, reveals more than just a series of bad choices. It is a devastating story of as repugnant a series of events as perhaps may be imagined, from his rooftop voyeurism and sexual exploitation of Bathsheba to his deception and attempts to cover it up by manipulating her husband Uriah to his savage final resolution of not only arranging for Uriah’s death, but the death of all who serve under his command. His actions are reprehensible and beyond excuse. They are difficult to stomach, and almost impossible to preach, because as tempting as it is to skip ahead to the ways in which the narrative redeems David, these verses are atrocious. So why attend to these chapters today, or in the 3 year cycle of the lectionary at all? One commentator notes:
This lection is one of the greatest passages in the entire Bible, for it not only makes a devastating statement about the moral priorities of God, but it also abandons sentimentality and romanticism to portray the human condition as it actually is[ii].
God’s response to David, if you keep reading into chapter 12, is to hold David accountable for these decisions, sending the prophet Nathan to condemn him and call him out for the choices he has made, prompting a confession and cleansing. In fact, it is believed that Psalm 51, which we often read on Ash Wednesday and which inspired our Prayer of Confession today, was David’s repentance and plea to God following his visit with Nathan. And it should be noted, since we will not continue to read this part of the text in the coming weeks, that while David goes on in continued service to God, his life is not all magically rosy. It is still fraught with pain and difficulty, related in part to his poor decisions. From this overall context, we learn that in the midst of grace and forgiveness, David’s choices still have real consequences. Life is lived in between these two truths.
The prophet Nathan exposes that David’s behavior is driven by self-interest and impulse, rather than a focus on God. He did not engage in some sort of discernment for how his faith and trust in God might guide him; he simply did what looked and felt good for his own gain. Such decision making methodology is often short-lived, and certainly falls short of the calling God has placed on God’s people. David’s story reminds us that “making good choices” is about much more than just selecting things that make us the happiest. They involve an attentiveness to something bigger than us. That is what the writer of Ephesians is getting at, too. As a people of faith:
We confess that there is a purpose other than our own that is being worked through our life. Our growth is to become more responsive and attentive to, and congenial with, that larger purpose on which we do not get to vote[iii].
This larger purpose connects us to others. David missed this mark, to say the least. To frame it in light of of Ephesians:
he is not “worthy,” because he did not yield his gifts to his community. He refused to live by God’s gifts, trying to seize a peculiar destiny for himself[iv].
It is no coincidence that the writer of Ephesians uses the word “one” seven times in just two verses in chapter 4. This passage drives home the idea that our decision-making happens not just on an individual level in isolation, but in community with others with whom we are supposed to live in unity. The writer continues to talk more about what this unity looks like, and presents a few core aspects to help readers understand unity, which hopefully inspires us to make choices that seek to build others up into this unity that comes in the body of Christ. G. Porter Turner notes that:
The tools for this body are humility, gentleness, and patience. Humility keeps us grounded in the reality of who we are as creatures formed from the dust by God. Gentleness reminds us of our corporate identity . . . Finally, we are patient because we live in time. [with an awareness that] the kingdom of God is a gift from God, not a work achieved by humans[v].
These tools, among the others that are revealed throughout the letter to the Ephesians, all point to a unity that binds God’s people together in love through Jesus Christ. This is the high calling of those who follow Christ, and the decisions that we make should always be oriented around this purpose. It is not some accidental phenomenon; it requires ongoing, active work to make it happen. Remember those choices? They’re going to come each and every day. Ephesians serves as that homeroom reminder of the importance of attending to them, not just cruising through life without thought. People of faith are called to live with the intention of building each other up in love and charged with the extraordinarily difficult task of being knit together as one.
The good news is, we have been prepared for this task, because of the one who unites us – Jesus Christ:
“Christ’s body” is that place at the intersection of divine and human life where sovereignty, brokenness, and communion are held together in God’s grace[vi].
That is the unity we celebrate with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, gathering around this table not as individuals, but as the body of Christ, made one through the bread and the cup. Here, at this table, we come to proclaim that we are one, and declare our intention to follow Christ, making decisions that might contribute to that unity, until he comes again. So may we celebrate this feast together in unity, asking God to fill us once again and equip us for the lives to which we have been called, going from here to live and serve in Christ’s name, with choices that match. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
August 5, 2018
[i] Questions taken from https://conversationstartersworld.com/would-you-rather-questions/, accessed 8/4/2018.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
[v] G. Porter Taylor, “Theological Perspective: Ephesians 4:1-16,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[vi] Richard E. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective: Ephesians 4:1-16,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).