Billy stood defiantly at one playground and looked up at the bully with a tear in his eyes and shouted out; “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It was one of those phrases we almost all learned in our childhood. It sounded good at the moment, but sadly it was not true. The sticks and stones might have bruised an arm or a leg for a day or two, but some of those words hurt. They sank deep into our hearts and deep into our souls.
“You’re not smart enough to do that”
“You’re a bad kid”
“That’s a man’s job”
“No dogs or Mexicans allowed”
“You’re too short”
“You’re just a girl”
“You’re a geek”
“You’ll never be one of us”
“You’ll never amount to anything”
Or as I heard a mother say to her young daughter in a department store, “no dear, let’s look over here, those dresses are for the pretty girls.”
Have you had someone utter one of those words your way? You can probably tell me who it was and where you where when it happened. Sticks and stones can break my bones – but those words – they can linger and shape how we see ourselves and how we see each other. Sticks and stones can break my bones – but words can break my heart.
Paul understood that the words we use and the way we treated each other mattered. When he wrote to the church in Ephesus he wanted to help them understand that they were suppose to treat each other and those in their community differently than others because of what Christ meant in their life. They were suppose to strip off the anger and the attitudes that led to broken relationships and broken hearts. He wanted much more for them. He wanted them to understand that God wanted more for them – and for us. He wanted them to claim the kind of attitudes that would lead to authentic relationships with each other and with God. Paul speaks directly;
4:25Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold.
28He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. 29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
Paul begins with a simple point of truth > dump falsehood - speak truth. Truth seems to be the easy casualty of frustrated conversation. If the truth does not fit the need, we watch people twist it and turn it until it is no longer recognizable. A fragment of truth becomes the fodder for rumor – the whisper of gossip– the tool to sabotage one another. Paul wants them to understand that if they want to move past the bounds of broken relationship then they had to learn to speak the truth – not a shaped truth, or a half truth, but the truth. Speak truth because we are inseparably tied together – we are one body – we belong to each other.
Paul then turns to anger. 26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold. One of the things I have come to appreciate about the Internet is that it lets me peer into the writings of people who I might otherwise never have encountered. One of those I have come to appreciate is Dr. William Loader from Murdoch University in Australia. When he hears Paul talk about anger, he reminds us that when anger is “uncontrolled or buried or allowed to build up or fester, is destructive both for the person and for others. Anger gets transferred to others, sometimes immediately, sometimes after long periods of build up until it is explosive and out of proportion. Or it gets swallowed, even forgotten, and we live in a state of self-directed anger, a recipe for depression and a form of self harm.” Medical research tells us that inappropriate anger can not only have profound impact on our relationships, but chronic anger can also impact our health leading to heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems.
Paul wants it clear that an unresolved inappropriate anger could destroy the sense of community that was to define the young church. It could also do significant damage to their witness. He wanted them to deal with anger and conflict before the sun went down. He did not want anger and conflict to become the seedbed of hatred. He comes back to this theme again in verse 31, 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Inappropriate anger turns simple conflict in to a boiling part of hatred and destruction, Anger seems to define some people. They live lives of rage, dumping their anger on anyone within reach. This kind of anger is emotionally abusive and tragically reeks havoc on almost every relationship it touches. Anger and bitterness, slander and malice lead to the kinds of words that break hearts and break lives. It is the kind of attitude that seems to give people permission to demean and dehumanize others. Paul wants it clear that this is not the way of Christ. 29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Our task as a family and a community of faith is to become the kind of people who build people up, not tear people down. We are to be the kind of people who lift people up, not push them down. We are to lift our voices for the people that other people want to keep down.
The impact of unresolved inappropriate anger is so apparent that there has been an historical temptation to misinterpret this passage and define any act of anger as sin. This is not what Paul was talking about. When we witness Jesus turning over the tables in the temple, we see an angry Jesus. “’Be angry but do not sin’… refers to a righteous anger, being mad enough to do something about the injustice.” For Jesus, his righteous anger emerges from seeing the corruption of the temple. The sacred temple that was set aside for worship and prayer, had become a place of religious and economic manipulation. The very people who were supposed to lead them exploited those who came seeking the face of God. It was an injustice that had to be dealt with.
Sometimes we need to follow the example of Jesus and claim a righteous anger - sometimes we need to stop standing on the sidelines and get angry. When the conversation on immigration becomes littered with racist language – it is an injustice that has to be dealt with. When we watch the poor being exploited or the voiceless ignored – it is an injustice that has to be dealt with. When we see children hunger or abused – it is an injustice that has to be dealt with. Paul tells us; "In your anger do not sin". There are moments when it is time to get angry and to move from the sidelines and let our voices be heard.
In a breath Paul moves from the “do not” language that calls us out of our selfishness and claims the kind of proactive language that calls for us to look more like Jesus. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5:1Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. This change in vocabulary is no accident. It moves the reader from a focus on the kind of behaviors that separate us – that break relationships and break hearts to the kind of behaviors that draw us closer together and closer to God.
Paul begins; be kind, be compassionate, be forgiving. These are great words to hear but so often hard to live out. It is easier to claim selfishness. It is easier to focus on ourselves; to focus our wants and our needs. It is easier to feel the rise of self-righteousness and blow other people away for getting in our way. It is easier to judge to judge than to forgive. But we are not called to what is easier but to be loving and forgiving. Paul wants us to know that there is a model for this kind of forgiveness. It is found at the feet of the one we claim to follow and call Lord and Savior. Hear again from William Loader; “The Spirit wants to bear the fruits of love in you and through you. Fundamental to all of this is forgiveness. It means giving, not holding oneself back and holding something against people. Let it go, embrace them; God embraced us.”
Paul gives them, and us, another picture to help us understand. 5:1Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children. I can remember watching my children do what I did and saying what I said. As I stand here a thousand moments run through my mind. Some make me laugh. Others bring me great joy. As their father who loved them, I became a model for how they thought they were suppose to act. It is a daunting task as a dad. I did not want to do or say anything that I thought would be bad for them. Paul told the Ephesians, if you want to know what it looks like to have the right heart and the right attitude, then try to act like what you see God doing. Live lives of love – that build each other up, the draw you closer to each other and to God. It will not be easy. It will demand some major life adjustments. It will demand that we be willing to stand up, speak up, love each other, forgive each other, and sacrifice for each other - just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
So, its time to take an attitude check. Our witness for God and relationship with each other on how we do. What do you say to each other and about each other? Is your anger a righteous anger that lifts people up or anger born in bitterness and rage that tears people down? Do you choose to whisper about others or speak out in behalf of others? When someone acts in a way that you do not approve of, is your choice judgement or forgiveness? It’s a tough test. It calls us to open our hearts, our lives and our mouths for others. The right attitude for living is found in the loving, forgiving, and sacrificing way of God found in Jesus. Our world is hungry for these kinds of people.
- Loader, William, “First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary,” Pentecost 10.
- Davis, Jeanie Lerche, “Seeing red is bad for your health,” available online at http://www.webmd.com/news/20000421/anger-health-effects on August 5, 2009.
- Referenced at http://ministrydepot.com/sermons/2009/07/ephesians-4-25-52-pentecost-10-b-be-angry/ on August 8, 2009.
- Loader, William, Ibid.