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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

The Nitty-Gritty of Christian Behavior

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Eph. 4:25-5:4

I wanted a story to introduce my sermon, one that would deal with what the Apostle Paul wrote in today’s Epistle lesson, and one that would get your attention. I found one in the latest (August 1994) “Time” magazine, in an article titled, “Culture of Deception.” I’ll quote two paragraphs from the article.

“… 29 current and former officials of the Clinton administration… raised their right hands and swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth last Friday… They had already been interviewed by federal attorneys, testified to a grand jury, told their stories to a government ethics board and explained their actions to the White House counsel. In every instance, they had been cleared of wrongdoing.” But – “What emerged from more than 100 hours of complex testimony about the Whitewater Scandal was evidence of a persistent pattern of deception among White House staff members. By last week it was clear that both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill felt they had been misled by the Clinton White House.”

A “Culture of Deception” the article calls it. Reminds me of the little ditty: “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

Deception and, conversely, telling the truth, is the first thing Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle lesson, as he discusses the nitty-gritty of Christian behavior. Telling the truth and controlling our anger, honesty at work and kindness of speech, forgiveness, love, and sexual self-control. All very practical. All still very timely and applicable to us today.

Before we look at Paul’s six examples of Christian behavior it will help to notice three things that are common to all of them.

First, they all concern our relationships. Holiness is not some mystical condition experienced in relation to God, but in isolation from other human beings. You can’t be good in a vacuum; you can only be good in the real world of people!

Secondly, in each example Paul gives a negative prohibition and then a corresponding positive command. It’s not enough to put off our old rags; we have to also put on new clothes. It’s not enough to quit lying and stealing and losing our temper, we have to also start speaking the truth, working hard, and being kind to people.

And thirdly, in each case a reason for the command is either given or implied. Because in the teachings of Jesus and His apostles belief and behavior – lips and lives – always go together.

So, let’s look at Paul’s six examples of Christian behavior:

1) First of all, Paul says, “Don’t tell lies, but rather, tell the truth.” Just avoiding telling lies isn’t worth much, unless we also tell the truth. We who are followers of Jesus should be known in our communities as honest, reliable people whose word can be trusted. We are to be truthful to our neighbor because Scripture tells us to love him. And even more, we’re to be truthful with each other in the church “for we are all members of one body.” And that body is the Body of Christ!

If you were walking through the woods, and you came to a spot which looked soft – or like a hole beneath some leaves – your eye would have your foot check it out to see if it’s safe to walk on. Would your foot tell a lie to your eye? And what if your eye saw a snake in the path, would your eye lie to your foot? Feet and eyes don’t lie to each other because they are members of the same body. So in the church there ought to be honesty and truth among the members. A lie is a stab in the back of the Body of Christ! Fellowship is built on trust, and trust is built on truth. So lies undermine fellowship, while truth strengthens it.

2) Secondly, Paul says, “Don’t lose your temper, but be sure your anger is righteous.” It’s an echo of Psalm 4:4 “In your anger do not sin.” There is such a thing as righteous anger, few Christians either feel it or express it. I’ll even say there’s a great need in today’s world for more Christian anger. We human beings compromise with sin in a way which God never does. In the face of blatant evil all around us, we should be indignant, not tolerant. We should be angry, not apathetic. If God hates sin, His people should hate it too! If evil makes Him angry, it should make us angry too!

But we have to be on guard to make sure our anger is righteous. So Paul immediately qualifies his permission to be angry with three negatives: A) “Do not sin.” Make sure your anger isn’t caused by spite, animosity or revenge. B) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” And that doesn’t mean you can move to Alaska and stay angry for six months! :) It means don’t nurse anger – be reconciled. C) “Never go to bed angry” is a good rule, especially for a married couple.

3) Next Paul says, “Don’t steal, but rather work and give.” It’s not enough for the thief to stop stealing, he also needs to go to work. Of course, you can steal without breaking into a house or robbing a bank. You can steal from the government by cheating on your income tax; you can steal from your employer by doing slipshod work; and you can steal from your employees by being oppressive and stingy. And we’re to work, Paul says, so we can help others in need. Instead of sponging off the community, as thieves do, we are to contribute to the community. And no one but Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor!

4) Then Paul says, “Don’t use your mouth for evil, but rather for good.” He turns from the use of our hands to the use of our mouths. Speech is a gift of God. It’s one of the things that reflects our likeness to God. Because God speaks, and like Him we speak too. Cows can moo, dogs bark, donkey bray, pigs grunt, lambs bleat, lions roar, monkeys squeal, and birds sing – but only human beings can speak! “So don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” Paul says.

Unwholesome talk can be dishonest, unkind, or vulgar. But we’re to use our gift of speech to build people up, not pull them down or damage them. Jesus said, “I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matt. 12:36) That can be a scary thought! If we are truly a new creation of God, we will develop new standards of conversation. Instead of hurting people with our words, we’ll want to use our speech to help people – to encourage them, cheer them, and comfort them.

5) “Don’t be unkind or bitter, but rather be kind and loving.” That’s the next thing Paul tells us about Christian behavior. He gives a whole string of nasty attitudes and actions that we’re to “get rid of”: A) “Bitterness” – having a sour spirit and sour speech. In other words, being a sour puss! Being negative about everything, spoiling things for other people. B) “Rage and anger” – Rage is getting mad quick and striking out; anger is a slow boil and getting even. C) “Brawling” – describes people who get excited, raise their voices, and start shouting – or even screaming – at each other. D) “Slander” – is saying bad things about people, especially behind their backs, ruining their reputations. E) “Malice” – is spite – hurting someone deliberately – on purpose.

And Paul says to “get rid” of all of these vices – there’s no room for any of them in the Christian life – and especially there’s no room for any of them in the Christian church!

6) One more piece of advice in this lesson: “Don’t joke about sex, but rather give thanks for it.” He says there “mustn’t be even a hint of sexual immorality” with “God’s holy people.” And then he goes beyond immorality to vulgarity, dirty minds and dirty talk. That stuff is all out of place, he says. Why should Christians dislike and avoid vulgarity? Because we have a warped view of sex? Because we’re ashamed of it? Or afraid of it? No way! It’s because we have a high and holy view of sex, as being in its right place, God’s good gift. And we don’t want to see it cheapened as the world around us cheapens it. All of God’s gifts, including sex, are worthy of our thanks, not our jokes. To joke about them is to degrade them; to thank God for them is to preserve their worth as blessings from God.

These words of Paul call the church to unity and purity. But they do more than that. They tell us that what we are, and what we believe and how we behave all belong together – they must not contradict one another.

If we say we’re Christians, and we say we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – we’d better act accordingly. Or people will say, “Your actions speak so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying!” What we are governs how we think, and how we think determines how we act. So how we act is an indication of what we are.

May God help us to actively cultivate a Christian life. May He continue to sanctify us that we more and more get rid of our conduct that doesn’t fit with our new life in Christ, and daily grow in a lifestyle that is compatible with a Christian life. May He help us to understand who we are in Christ, for only then will we want to live a life worthy of the name, “Christian”.


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