There are two questions that are essential to religion. They are: the theological question, and the the ethical question. There are two questions which any religion must provide an answer to. First: What is God like? That is the theological question. And second: How should we live? That is the ethical, or moral question. Though of course the order those question are asked in might be reversed. Religion must give some kind of an answer to the question of God, though each religion may frame the question differently. Each religion must answer the ultimate question of being, why there is something rather than nothing. What is it that stands behind everything that we see and experience and can know. Without answering that question we wouldn’t really be talking about a religion. But the other question is every bit as much as important. What shape should human life take? What is a good life, what is it that makes life worth living, as individuals, and how do those lives added together make a better world? Without answering that question any answer to the question of what God is like becomes so heavenly minded that it is no earthly use. So there are two questions: What is God like? And, how should we live?
Paul, at this point in his letter to the Ephesians is focused very much on the second of those questions. Typically in the second half of his letters he turns to moral instruction. And this is very much the case here. At this point he gives some good advice to those who receive his letter. And indeed to begin with his advice does appear to make any reference to God. This is the kind of moral instruction which anyone might give. The first piece of advice is:
Let us all speak truth to our neighbours.
There is probably no one who would dispute the importance of truth telling. No one disagrees that, in principle, we should always tell the truth, even thought, in practice, we sometimes find in hard to accomplish. What Paul has in sight is the community of his readers, the church, and the mutual connections between its members. It doesn’t take a Christian or a theologian of any kind to see that community can only be maintained on the basis of truth telling amongst its members. Without truthfulness nothing can be relied upon and so the cohesion of a community would quickly dissolve.
Paul’s advice remains practical, and to begin with seems to lack the kind of radically demanding edge which he and Christian writers more broadly often demand. What he says, and how he says it almost echoes the gentle encouragement that our grandmothers might have given us: “Never go to bed angry.”
In a way Paul’s teaching on anger here is almost surprising:
Generally we would have to say that Christianity is very much against anger. Jesus himself suggests that those who are angry are virtually equivalent to murderers. Perhaps Paul is just more pragmatic. He acknowledges that in a world in which there is injustice, both at a personal and a societal level, anger is unavoidable. But, with Jesus, Paul demands, for the sake of the community that anger should be resolved as soon as possible through reconciliation, probably in part though that insistence on truth telling which he has already urged.
Do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil.
It is not just that you are going to get a better night’s sleep that way, what Paul recognises is the danger that anger might but become a settled disposition within us. The risk is that if we persist in our anger we may become angry people, and community is impossible amongst people like that. Which, in Paul’s mind is exactly the opportunity that the devil is looking for.
Continuing Paul begins to sound even more like my Gran. “It is a sin to steal a pin.” Though curiously he seems to assume that some of those he is addressing, members of the church, are thieves:
Thieves must give up their stealing.
Perhaps Paul has a broader category of theft in mind than burglary or street robbery. What makes a thief is that they take profit from the labour of others. So not not just taking the possessions of others, but exploiting them too. Early Christianity, perhaps more so than later Christianity in practice, was deeply egalitarian. Paul encourages self-reliance on the one hand, but sees that the purpose of such efforts is to benefit the community as a whole, and he leaves no room for the exploitation of the weak by the strong:
Let them labour and work honestly with their own hands so as to have something to share with the needy.
Something my Gran might well has said is: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Beyond telling the truth, there is speaking in a way which builds the community up.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouth but only what is useful for building up as there is need.
This is another of those pieces of advice which no one disagrees with, yet sometimes proves rather hard to actually put into practice. But none of us would deny that a community of mutual encouragement is a much happier place to live than one of back-biting, criticism and dissension. And we are perhaps uncomfortably aware of how often even Churches can slide towards the latter. It is easy for a community to tear itself apart and for its members to harm one another and themselves by the way they speak. Another of those conventional pieces of wisdom is in fact false: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” We know from experience that just isn’t true!
All that Paul says here, and indeed everything that our grandmothers encouraged us to be is summed up in a single phrase:
Be kind to one another.
In a way this is the most startling thing of all. Christian ethics, Christian life, comes down to as something as simple as this: be kind to one another. When Jesus says: Love your neighbour as yourself, we know he doesn’t mean “entertain warm feelings about them.” When he says that he means nothing more than be kind to them. In the end the Church in itself as a community of mutual support. And the church as it faces the world is nothing more than a kind neighbour. It is not more complicated than that, even if we find it really difficult in practice.
Of course with Paul ethics and theology are never very far apart. What we have hear him say up to now is not in any way distinctively Christian. What he says, and even the manner in which he says it, can be found in the writings of Jewish Rabbis (as you might expect) but also among pagan moralists and philosophers. What is distinctive about Paul and about Christianity is the way in which ethics, life, is connected to theology. The two questions we started with: What is God like? And, how should we live? Are profoundly interconnected. As we answer one we find the answer to the other. Paul further summarises his moral advice with a theological declaration:
Be imitators of God, as beloved children and live in love as Christ loved us.
The Christian answer to the question of God is what we see in Jesus Christ. The Christian answer to the question of how we should live is what we see in Jesus Christ. If we look over again the advice Paul offers, we would see that it reflects the qualities of God we find revealed in Jesus: Truthfulness: Jesus never shies away from making absolutely clear the reality of our circumstances, he tells us the truth about ourselves as he tells us the truth about God. Righteous indignation: Jesus is indeed angry about the unrighteousness and injustice that exists in the world. But as God’s answer to those things Jesus cannot be seen overall as an angry response. Theft: Perhaps in contrast to pagan gods, the thing which is clearest about God in Jesus Christ is that God is not one who takes, but one who gives, and gives absolutely. Encouraging speech: In the end everything God says in Jesus Christ is not to condemn the world but to set it free and build it up. Paul’s summary Christian ethics could stand also for his summary of the character of God: kind, tender hearted and forgiving. The Christian view of life, of creation itself, is the glory of God. We live to give glory to God. Honouring God and glorifying God can only mean one thing, following God, imitating God, by having our lives shaped and determined by Jesus’ life. Either we become like God or would do not glorify and honour God. Without imitating God both our ethics and our theology break down. For Christians what we say about God determines how we live, and how we live reveals who God is.
Be Imitators of God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0