One of the benefits of using the 1662 Prayer Book for the Eucharist on Wednesdays is that the range of readings from the Epistles is different from the Sunday series, and the selection is often a bit longer. As well, because the atmosphere on a Wednesday is more devotional (as opposed to celebratory, which characterises Sunday) there is more time to contemplate the meaning of the Epistle. Often, I preach on the Epistle because it has had such an effect on me.
So let me share three selections with you that have impressed themselves on me. Ephesians 4.28 says “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.“
When I first reads this I was arrested by the logic. I was expecting Paul to say ‘Stop stealing and start working because working for a living is morally better’ or that ‘stealing is a sin’. But Paul does this amazing thing. He always expects more of people than the ‘first step’ would suggest. Why does Paul think that stealing is wrong? Because the thief does not have the opportunity to give anything away to the needy! Paul’s default position is that everyone should be giving something away to help the needy. I can imagine the conversation St. Paul “You should stop stealing you know and get a job’ Burglar “Why should I, the rich have so much and I have so little” St Paul “But how will you give to the poor if you don’t get a job?” This is an amazing welfare policy.
I am thinking about governments who try a ‘welfare to work’ scheme. They are not as imaginative as St. Paul. They simply say ‘If you want to get benefits, you have to be looking for a job’ But imagine if everyone by law had to give some money to the poor. Then the government would say ‘Get a job, so that you can be generous’. This is just an amazing turn around, it blows me away.
The next quote comes from 1 Corinthians 6:1 – 5 It goes. When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?
Here Paul is talking about Christians who are taking each other to the magistrates court. He reproves them because he says ‘How come you are going to court to get a judgement when you yourselves are going to be judges, and of the angels at that!’
Again Paul sees the people very differently from the way that they see themselves. They see themselves as in need. Paul sees them as having skills and capacities to offer. This is the same logic as he applied to the thieves in the passage in Ephesians. He does not say ‘Going to court for Christians is bad because you should not be in dispute’ Instead he says ‘You are all judges!’ It would be like an examiner of electricians calling an electrician to fix his lighting! Paul does not expect his congregations to see themselves as in need, but as skilful, having something to offer.
The last passage that struck me recently was from last Wednesday. Paul in Ephesians Ch 5 is listing a group of attitudes and behaviour that serve to disqualify a person from the reign of God. This in itself is strange to our ears. In an age of consumerism we tend to see ourselves as customers of religious goods and services and not willing to be ‘reproved’ about anything because the customer is always right. But St. Paul is talking about things that are done ‘in secret’ but that by naming them, those things that are done secretly will be made known by ‘the light’ and seen for what they are. This is for most congregations a step too far. But hen he goes on to say “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
Do you see the little piece in brackets? Covetousness is idolatry! How does that work? If I covet something, I just feel in need of something that another person has. It is surely a matter between me and them. It has nothing to do with worshiping false gods or not worshiping the one true God, surely? The whole of our consumerist economic system is based on the fact that advertising and ever changing styles make us shop, not because we need new clothes but because we covet being like other people, and do not want ‘last season’s’ things. The desire for new cars and new clothes all depend not so much on our genuine need but on advertising generated covetousness, so that the economy can keep circulating.
But how is this idolatry? Worshiping an idol is about ‘giving worth to’ something that in fact cannot bear the weight of the ‘worth’ we put on it. It is expecting something from something else that can’t deliver! St. Augustine says ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’. Only the one true God and Father of Jesus, our lord, can truly ‘deliver he goods’ and only God is worth worshiping. Desiring things that can’t deliver what we desire of them is giving those things false ‘worth’ that is false ‘worth-ship’ which is idolatry.
Paul’s insights here follow the same logic as his previous attitudes. He does not just go ‘one step’ and say ‘covetousness damages human relationships’ but says ‘Life is lived first and foremost before God. Sort out that, and your human relationships will have a proper perspective. ‘
These things are instructive to me because they challenge who I think I am. According to St. Paul, as a Christian I am not a person who is in need, but a person to whom everything has been given, so I should ‘give thanks’ in everything. Then, because I have been given so much, I should see myself as making a contribution as a first step. This applies when we come to Eucharist (to offer, rather than to receive) and in life lived extensively in ‘the world.’ It makes a difference to how I respond. I am seen by god through St. Paul’s eyes as much more capable than I see myself.