Early Christian communities had to figure out the ground rules for being Christian and gathering in community. Of course there were the initial questions of Jews and Gentiles coming together. Do the Gentile men have to be circumcised? What dietary rules do we follow, if any? But in a more general way, there are certain questions that arise when any group of people comes together. How do you treat each other? What happens when somebody gets ticked off? How do you behave in general? I imagine we can relate. How many churches do you know that have never had internal strife? Churches are made up of humans, and humans are flawed. We all make lots of mistakes. That’s one way we learn—oh, I don’t want to do that again.
Conflict is normal. Especially if we have succeeded in creating a diverse congregation, there will be plenty of opinions and ideas, plenty of opportunities to offend each other.
The writer of Ephesians, who may have been Paul or may have been a follower in the Pauline tradition, has some suggestions about how a group of Christians can strive to get along. Here are three of the suggestions that stood out for me from our reading today:
Speak truth to each other.
Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Be imitators of God.
So I’m going to spend some time on each of these and then see how the reading from John relates to what we’re talking about.
Speak truth to each other.
What would it mean to speak truth to each other in Christian community at all times? Some people are good at this: they always let you know right where you stand. Not necessarily in a mean way, but sometimes kind of blunt. And while this can be a bit of an affront sometimes, it can also be refreshing, exactly because you do know right where you stand. I used to direct a handbell choir. One day we were rehearsing, and we were making all kinds of mistakes. One of our ringers said, “That was terrible!” She just named it.
There is speaking truth bluntly, like that bell ringer, but we also have to keep in mind this advice from our reading: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, only what is useful in building up.” Ah. Speak the truth, but speak the truth in love.
There are lots of insincere ways to do this. I remember one pastor noting that people would say terrible things about someone but then add, “Bless his heart.” As if that took away the sting. That can be taken to manipulative extremes.
But sometimes we do have to speak difficult truths in love:
Interventions: loved ones gather to say to someone “Your drinking is out of control. You need help.”
Job evaluations: If the manager does not tell the employee that their work is less than wonderful, the employee cannot improve. It’s not fair to let the poor performance go unchecked and later just fire the employee with no warning. Speak the truth early on, difficult as it may be, so that the employee has a chance to improve.
We speak difficult truths when we let someone know that something they said or did offended us. And we can use “I” statements, for example, “When you said this, I felt this way.” If I as a White person say something that is racist, I will never learn to do better unless someone pulls me aside and says, “When you say this, People of Color can interpret it as meaning they are ‘less than.’” Ah! I’m so sorry. I will not say that thing again.
Some of you have been bold enough to speak truth to me about something I’ve said in a sermon: “When you said this in your sermon, here’s how it hit me.” I appreciate this feedback. It helps me grow and teaches me some things to avoid or to say with greater care.
Speaking the truth in love is hard. But if we are to live together successfully in Christian community, we have to practice resolving our conflicts respectfully, stating our truths even when we disagree with each other.
Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
This is the second thing that struck me from our reading in Ephesians. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. How do we let ourselves feel anger but deal with it appropriately so that it doesn’t fester?
This might mean anger at someone else in the congregation. If we are trying to be a diverse congregation, we might have people from all ages, education levels, economic levels, backgrounds, and so on. We will not always see eye to eye. We might tick each other off from time to time. Anger not expressed can turn inward in corrosive ways: depression, feeling ignored, not heard. When it festers, it can turn into a time bomb. In a church setting, people may choose to walk away from the faith community rather than work through whatever is making them angry. I hope we will always try to work things out. But we can’t do it if we don’t know that someone is angry.
Sometimes the one with whom we’re angry is God. Go ahead and be angry at God—God can take it. Work it out, because the main one who loses out when you walk away from God is you. Part of practicing our Christian faith is wrestling with hard questions and concepts. Don’t walk away from God or from the wrestling. Engage. When we work through our anger at God—when we do that wrestling—we grow in our understanding of God and faith. This is what it means to be a practicing Christian.
Anger is energy for change. But when it festers, it can blow up all out of proportion and sometimes in the wrong places. Anger will out. Help it do so sooner rather than later and in appropriate ways.
Anger is energy for justice. I am angry at the way our planet is being trashed. I am angry at the way immigrants are being treated. I am angry at the ways people of color are still short-changed in our society. Let that anger at injustice propel us toward change, toward building the realm of God.
Be imitators of God.
This is the third bit of advice that popped out at me in today’s reading. Be imitators of God. Not just in intellectual understanding, but in deeds.
This is not permission to pretend that you are God. Some Christians seem to interpret this advice in this way, and they take it upon themselves to inform their neighbor that God hates that neighbor and has a special place reserved for them in hell. Yeah, that’s not what I’m talking about.
If we are to imitate God, it helps first to define how we think of God. What I just described was more about the God of judgment and condemnation. But let’s look at some other images of God.
The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word.” In my Italian Bible, the word for “Word” is verbo, like our word “verb.” In the beginning was the verb. This phrasing suggests God as motion, action, flow moving within and all around us. God as love—can’t keep love just as an intellectual exercise. We have to get it out in the world, make it interact, grow. In the beginning was the flow, the action, the loving, the creating. Let’s imitate that God.
Imitate God as a force for love, as power for change, as a practice of abundance, as the voice of welcome, as the voice of forgiveness for those who seek it. God gives us the opportunity for second and third and 100th chances. How do we imitate that God?
Jesus as bread of life
So how does our reading from John resonate with all this advice? Jesus says he is the bread of life, and whoever believes in him will have eternal life. We could, of course, have a whole sermon just on this passage, but today we’re focusing on how it relates to the message in Ephesians.
God calls all of us to come eat the bread, which is the connection with the Divine. Steep yourselves in that connection. Jesus is one way for us to experience that connection, and that’s what he’s saying here. Come, experience the holy, eat and drink that holy essence. Practice it. Soak in it. Connect with what is bigger than yourself. Connect with what is eternal.
That’s a big piece of what it means to live in Christian community. We don’t gather just once and that suffices for a lifetime. No, we come together regularly to re-experience this connection with the Divine and with each other. We come together to feed our souls with that bread of life, to connect to God and that flow of energy that touches eternity. We practice that connection because it helps us to put things in perspective: how many things in our lives are small ripples, not worth getting hung up on. So someone sat in your pew. Okay—deal with it. Small potatoes. Rejoice that someone new has wandered in our doors. So your choice for paint colors in the sanctuary got voted down. Okay—but we will still gather in this sanctuary to worship our God, to feed our spirits, to practice being imitators of God in everything we do. To practice being Christian.
Some of you may recall a number of years ago when there was some disagreement within this congregation about whether you could still afford a full-time pastor. And you learned a technique called listening sessions, where you could gather to hear each other without judging anyone’s opinion. This is a wonderful technique for practicing how to live in Christian community with each other. Everyone gets heard, including those with differing points of view. No one is left out.
So keep coming. Because your voice matters in this community, even if we don’t always agree. Because your wrestling with God matters, not just to you but to all of us and certainly to God. Keep participating in this congregation. Keep practicing what it means to be Christian: trying, loving people you may not always even like, making mistakes, ticking each other off, asking forgiveness, trying again. Keep practicing abundant love. You need it. I need it. This congregation needs it. So does our broader community. And our world. We are not perfect Christians and we don’t pretend to be. We are not holier-than-thou Christians. But how great it is if we can be authentic, practicing Christians.
There are plenty of role models for bad behavior and how not to get along with each other. Hateful behavior is becoming the new normal. Turning people away at the borders, separating immigrant families, deporting people even when they are in the midst of court hearings—this is all happening. This week we mark the one-year anniversary of the gathering in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was run down in an act of pure hate. Our headlines are full of news about corruption scandals, people in high places who have lied and cheated and stolen. And childish, dishonest behavior from the highest levels that goes unchecked gives permission to everyone else that this is okay.
Well, it’s not okay. We can do better, and we need to do better. Practicing Christians can demonstrate ways to live together in harmony. Practicing Christians can tap into that eternal flow of love that is God. Practicing Christians can get angry about things that matter and still talk to each other and work things out.
Imagine if we became known for how we practice being Christians. Imagine if people said, “I’m not sure what they’ve put in the water over at Prospect UCC, but those people have something good going on, and I want to find out more about it.”
At our block party on Tuesday night, we met some of our neighbors on this block. They practice community with each other. And I think some of them are also looking for a place that will feed their souls. A lot of people are looking for that. What if we let them know they could come practice with us?
Judy told me this morning about an article in today’s Seattle Times about a concept called “Make America Dinner Again.” People gather from all parts of the political spectrum and practice engaging in civilized discussion, getting to know each other. One woman said, “Conservatives call for bigger walls, while liberals call for bigger doors, when what we need is a bigger table — not to just keep people out or let them in, but to know and nourish each other.”
Idriss Mosque is having a barbecue this afternoon and inviting all the neighbors. Come and get to know us, and you’ll discover we’re not terrorists. What if we practiced getting to know each other like that—over a barbecue?
What if that’s what we were practicing in our community all the time, and what if word got out farther afield? In the midst of all the name-calling and hateful behavior evident in our world today, what if people got word of a way to practice living together in love? So we have to practice with each other, practice out in the world, practice letting people know that such a community even exists. When we practice connecting to God, and God works through us, anything is possible. Stand back, world: practicing Christians coming your way. Amen.