A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (19/03/23): Live as Children of Light

Ephesians 5:8-14

The church at Ephesus receives words of encouragement.cThey are told:
For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.

The problem for us, perhaps, is that Paul addresses a different kind of church than ours. The churches he knew, like the one at Ephesus, the churches he knew were full of converts. This after all was only a very brief time after the events described in the Gospels. They were still very near the beginning of Christianity. So those churches were filled with people who were conscious of their before and after. Whatever their origins, Jewish or Gentile, they were aware that once they weren’t Christian, and now they were. They had a life before and a life now that is different. And that difference was a great as the difference between darkness and daylight. This letter address people who were very much aware of the kind of difference Christianity could and should be making in their everyday lives.

The vast majority of us don’t have that contrast available to us within our personal experience. For almost all of us, there is no before and after, there is not darkness and light. Our experience was simply not available to Christians of that first generation. No one then was raised, as most of were, with the Church as institution that was just there. And even those of us who have ‘converted’ have only come in from a society and culture that has been profoundly influenced and shaped by Christian values and morals. Much as we might lament the declining influence and authority of the Church, or perhaps question the reality of the commitment to a Christian view of life that used to be held by society at large, there is no denying that the world we come from is not the same as the world the Ephesian Christians live in. We do not live among pagans. And it is easy to underestimate how different the pagans that the Ephesians live amongst are from our neighbours. We in many ways are not like the Ephesians, and our neighbours are not like theirs.

All this is to say that the powerful contrast between darkness and light, doesn’t work nearly as well for our experience as it did for the people who first received the Letter to the Ephesians. In many ways it is much more challenging for us to have a lifestyle and to make ethical choices that are distinctively Christian. How do we live lives that when others see us, they must say: “Those people are clearly committed to following Jesus.” Someone once said that the lives of Christians should make no sense unless the God they believe in is real. Whilst the contrast between Christians may not be as sharply drawn here and now as it once was, there is still meant to be a contrast. We are meant to be a different, a distinctive people.
The principle at the theological college I trained at used to have an abbreviation that he would put in the margin of our essays: Y.B.H. At any point where we made a dubious suggestion, or a shaky proposition, those three letters would appear. They stand for “Yes, but how?” It is all very well to be convinced that Christians living, the things that we do and the choices we make should be distinctive, at the end though we are going to find ourselves asking: Yes, but how?

Fortunately we are offered at this point the means to answer that question. Because the letter continues:
Try to find what is pleasing to the Lord.
In a single sentence Paul lays the foundation of Christian ethics. The things we do, the choices we make grow out of this single root, the search for what is pleasing to God. No one should pretend that being a Christian is easy. And we can’t imagine that finding the life the marks us out as different from our neighbour is simple. Christian living cannot be reduced to the sort of things found in contemporary self-help books: “Seven simple rules for…” Christian living is the challenging, adventurous process of seeking out those thing which will please God. There is not, and there can never be a detailed list of things that Christians must do in all places and at all times and in every circumstance. That is not how being a Christian works. How Christians “do ethics” how Christians live is to ask in each situation we find ourselves in “what pleases the Lord here?” We must constantly ask: How do we act in the light of what we know about God in Jesus Christ, now? This is discipleship. It is unique to each of us, and it will be different in each time and place and circumstance for all us. In time such thinking would become second nature to us. That is certainly what Paul hoped for his readers. It is about the building of character, that has been formed by the sort of contrast which the metaphor of darkness and light represents.

Perhaps we miss it, but there is something else distinctive about this way of shaping our lives. It is positive! Christian living is about what we do do, positively. It is not directly about what we refrain from doing. Often Paul and the other writers do list the vices of pagans which Christians should avoid. And those lists can be lurid to say the least. Seldom are any of the things on those lists the sort of things we or even most of our neighbours would ever likely to engage in. As we have already observed, it is easy to overlook how different the values of pagan society really were. But at this point Paul recognises, actually, how unhelpful such reflections are:
For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly.
He knows that dwelling on the vices which should be avoided really doesn’t help.

And yet it is a temptation which is easy to fall into. It somehow feels like an easier process to mark our how Christians should live by defining the things we don’t do, and defining the things we are opposed to. Sadly the noisiest bits of the Church in the present age define themselves by what they are against. But historically Methodism knows better than most how easy it is to become defined by what you are against. We started out in the 18th Century as a joyful response to the grace of God that is offered in Jesus Christ. We really did lead exactly the distinctive lives that the Ephesians were being encouraged to live. But seeking out “what is pleasing to the Lord” all the time is hard work. It is so much easier to look at what others are doing, and say “we don’t do that!” So Methodists didn’t drink, and they didn’t gamble, and there was some suspicion that they didn’t dance and were generally opposed to fun. We and so many other Christians find ourselves trying to make Christian lives in exactly the opposite way that the writers of the New Testament were trying to encourage.

Christianity does take moral renewal seriously. And we do so by striving for a perfection that does not even need to mention the kind of vices which might typify a life lived away from Christ. Moral renewal among Christians, however, is a positive thing. It is not and cannot be defined by a definitive list things which should not be done. To borrow the metaphor here, it is a movement into the light, rather than a flight from darkness. Perhaps what is hiding in the metaphor of darkness and light is another even more powerful image. The final encouragement we hear in the passage we have read today is:
Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.
The image is that of resurrection! As always in Christianity, what might be thought of as a commandment, albeit a positive one: live as children of light. The commandment is always accompanied by a promise: Christ will shine upon. The life which Christians lead is one which has been brought back from death. Such a life could not help but be different and distinctive.

Another sermon for this Sunday in the Lectionary (Lent 4 Year A) is available here

Live as Children of Light by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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