Here’s a test question: Who has heard of Saint Simeon Stylites? He lived around the year 400 near Aleppo, Syria. He was very famous because he lived on a stylite, or pillar. for most of his adult life. At first, the pillar was 6 feet tall, but eventually, he perched above a pillar that was 50 ft. high. He remained up there, exposed to the elements, standing or sitting day and night, on a tiny platform. He became so well known that many people went on to live on pillars and emulate this saint.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who seek such extreme lifestyles in their devotion to God. There is a long tradition of desert hermits who live lives of extraordinary deprivation, spending their whole lives alone in prayer. What does God think about this? Does God answer their prayers more readily because they come from a place of such suffering? Frankly, I think God would have preferred Simeon Stylites if he got off his pillar and cooked a meal for a hungry person.
In our reading from Ephesians today, the teaching is not about living alone but about living a Godly life in community. We all know that living with one another, much less loving one another can be quite a challenge. But that is the challenge made to the church at Ephesus today. The church at Ephesus was particularly divisive as it was composed of Jews and Gentiles with many deep religious and cultural differences. I bet planning a church supper to please the whole congregation was just a nightmare.
As we enter election season (both local and national) our culture seems to get increasingly polarized. There are many ways today that we are divided: liberal/conservative, rich/poor, red state/blue state. Let’s examine this 2000 year old letter to the Ephesians, where the author is giving this divisive congregation rules for living as followers of Christ and see if it applies to our society as well.
(Two notes on this text: although it is attributed to the Apostle Paul, it was probably written after his death but it is so in keeping with his style that it is accepted as “Pauline”. I used a few different translations to find the clearest wording.)
First, he deals with lying: No more lies, no more pretense.
Tell your neighbor the truth. “Tell your neighbor the truth.” There is such hunger in America today for truth telling that even someone as outlandish as Donald Trump can gain great approval because he “tells it like it is.” Interestingly, a lot of the people who like him don’t agree with what he says but they like that he is not afraid to blurt out what he really thinks. He tells HIS truth. This rare quality has him leading in Republican polls.
But I’m not sure Mr. Trump gets the next part of our text:
In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself. Now this is a radical thought: ‘In Christ’s body we are all connected to each other.’ Wow. We are Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We ARE Christ’s body. We are so interconnected that if we lie to others we are lying to ourselves.
But all this living in community will lead to inevitable anger. We are human. How do we deal with that?
Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.
Get mad, get over it. Don’t stay angry. Now I didn’t know this next thing was in the Bible, I thought my mom and dad invented it: ‘Don’t go to bed angry.’ This was a cardinal rule in our household. Today we are encouraged to be angry by both Democrats and Republicans because I guess that anger gets us to vote. But I wonder if all this anger really is ‘giving the Devil a foothold in our lives’.
Our next advice is clear: Don’t steal. Get a job. Help others.
This was good advice in the first century and it’s good advice now. I like that the purpose of getting a job is to help others.
Now comes my favorite part: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
I need a tattoo with that on my arm so that I can look at it all day long and try to live it. Phew. This one is tough. Does anybody else have any anger or malice? I know I can be pretty good as slandering others. This is hard for us and I bet it was hard for the Ephesians too. But if God in Christ can forgive us then surely we can forgive one another.
Daniel Clendenin writes; “Who would not long to live in a society where "bitterness, rage, anger, slander and every form of malice" were rare exceptions, and where "kindness, compassion, and forgiveness" ruled the day?”
And now the Ephesian congregation is really challenged when they are told to:
Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.
Isn’t this a beautiful letter? Surely this congregation in Ephesus, this congregation of Jews and Gentiles heard it and found ways to resolve differences.
We can examine this letter and see a lot of difficult rules to follow or we can see them as ways to transform our lives. This letter is chock full of good advice for our times. It is amazing that life has changed so little in 2000 years.
Trevor Hudson writes: “Our times cry out for a mass movement of compassion. This urgent need coincides with the goal of the Christ-following life, for unless our faith makes us compassionate, it can hardly be called Christian. Following Jesus means moving out of our privatized, isolated, and self-enclosed worlds into a compassionate engagement with our suffering neighbor.”
We are called on by our Christian faith to become open hearted, compassionate vessels God can use to bring healing to our broken and divided world.