One of the writers in The Upper Room Devotional this week shared a question he had run across one day in his own devotional time. “What did your hands do today?” It’s a fantastic question, is it not? So much better than the typical, “How was your day?” or “Did you have a good day?” That question, “What did your hands do today?” it actually makes you stop and think. First, you have to remember all that your hands did, and then you have to acknowledge whether the work of your hands was useful or wasteful; whether it was uplifting or harmful.
We have a choice every day about how we will spend our time, about how we will go about our work, about how we will interact with the people with whom we come into contact. And what we hear from the writer of Ephesians this morning is that, as Christians, there are certain qualities that should be reflected in our life, there are certain choices we should make that reveal our faith in the living Lord. Living into our call involves certain ways of being; specifically, behavior that enhances relationships and enriches Christian community. Last week, we heard from the beginning of chapter four and the call to unity. As we continue our look at Ephesians this week, what we have before us now are the particular practices that help us achieve such unity in the body of Christ.
Now, we may easily assume that what we have before us today is a list of rules. But that’s not the case, which is made clear in the very opening of this passage when it says we are to “[get] rid of lying.” The same idea is expressed a few verses earlier, “change the former way of life,” the writer says. We have this new covenant, you see, which requires of us a new life; the “old ways” are no longer acceptable. Jesus Christ has come and brought a new order. As a result, the writer is now making the point to his readers that believers are to strip away the old self so that we too are made new in Christ. Thus, the works described here in this passage are not merit badges we are trying to earn, or boxes we are trying to check on a “to-do list”; rather, they are marks of our new life in Christ. These actions and behaviors are signs of Christ’s work in our lives.
First, the letter says, we should “[get] rid of lying” and speak the truth to one another. Also concerning our speech, the writer tells the Ephesians that evil talk should not come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up. Again, the ultimate aim here is building up the body of Christ, “we are parts of one body.” Thieves should give up stealing, and instead they should work honestly, “using their hands to do good” so that they will have something to give to the needy! “What did your hands do today?” Every day we have a choice. Certainly, as those saved by Christ, our lives should reflection the new life we have found in God, but whether that ultimately happens or not is entirely up to us. We have to choose to put away our human nature. We have to choose to tell the truth, to encourage others with our words and actions, and to use our hands to do good work for the Kingdom. If we don’t consciously make that choice, then we will very easily find ourselves slipping back into the “old way” of life, disconnected from the body of Christ.
In fact, our constant connection to our Lord is so important that the writer next tells us not to “make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy.” Basically, that’s a roundabout way of saying, “Don’t sin.” Just think for a moment about how very easy it is for us to slip into our old habits, to be swayed by the culture around us. Have you gossiped this week? Are you holding a grudge against someone? Have your hands been idle? Have you been angry? Have you spoken harshly to someone? These are the “old ways,” you see. These are characteristics of our lives before Christ. What did you do today? In all things, we are to put aside our former selves and behave like the new persons we are in Christ.
The final imperative of this passage relates to anger. The topic of anger comes up at different intervals throughout this section. We are instructed to put aside all bitterness, malice, anger, shouting, and slander. We should not let the sun set on our anger, nor should we dwell in our anger such that we hold grudges or in a spirit of vengefulness are led to sin. When our anger is selfish or uncontrolled, it becomes a sinful and hurtful thing that tears down and rips apart the body rather than building it up. We have to make better choices.
I heard a story out of New York City not too long ago about a taxi that clipped a little red Beetle while veering across four lanes of traffic to pick-up a fare. The two drivers got out to examine the damage. The cabbie was a short and rather feeble man; while the Beetle driver could aptly be described as a hulking giant. As the cabbie approached, the Beetle driver grabbed him by the shirt and hoisted him off the ground. There, at eye level with the cabbie’s feet dangling in the air, the Beetle owner began incessantly screaming at the cabbie, with every third sentence or so being, "This is your lucky day!"
Eventually, the cabbie was lowered back to solid ground, but then the Beetle driver asked, "Don’t you want to know why this is your lucky day?"
Before the cabbie could even get his mouth open to respond, the Beetle driver answered his own question, "Because I’m on my way to anger management class and I don’t dare show-up with blood on my shirt!"
I’m sure that each of us can think of times in our lives (probably several times) when we have been consumed by anger. Our faces get red; we clench our fists until our knuckles turn white, and in cartoon-like form we can almost feel the steam shooting out of our ears. Anger is a natural human response. No matter how hard we may try to avoid it, there are going to be times in our lives when we get angry. Perhaps we were angry about something just this week. I can hardly imagine that any of us have made it through the entire last month without getting at least a little angry about something at some point. Anger in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, anger at injustices can inspire us to do good things. But what we always have to be careful about, as the writer is saying here, is how we handle our anger. Like all those other behaviors we are to leave behind us, we should not allow anger to consume us such that we act in sinful ways.
Each day, we have to heed these words and strive to put aside all “bitterness, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.” And each day we must work instead for the good of all members of the body; to be tender and kind to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us. That’s what all of these instructions to the Ephesians are leading to, we are to imitate God; to offer ourselves in sacrifice as Christ sacrificed his own life, and above all else to love as we are loved by God in Christ Jesus.
Throughout history, Christians have been faced with difficult choices every day, and how they chose to respond made all the difference. When Martin Luther saw the Catholic Church was feeding on the vulnerable poor and using indulgences to line their own coffers, he wrote his 95 theses and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. When millions of Jews were being thrown into mass graves, hundreds of people silently hatched plots to hide their Jewish neighbors and to remove Hitler from power. A tired woman in Montgomery, Alabama, decided one day that she would remain seated at the front of the city bus rather than standing in the back so that a white man could have her seat. Just over a decade ago, a few passengers on a commercial jet bound for D.C. discovered that their beloved country was under attack and they were captives on one of the weapons. “Let’s roll!” they said, saving the lives of countless masses, even as their plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
This world changes when we choose to act according to our calling in Jesus Christ. And if one thing is for certain, there is still a lot in this world that needs to change, so many who need to be touched by the love and grace of our Lord. That’s the heart of this message from Ephesians this morning. We can chose to let the world continue on its current trajectory, or we can chose to be Christ’s change-agents in the world, acting with kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. We cannot sit idly by and expect that things will just magically change; that all people around the world will have access to clean water, or that AIDS will just suddenly disappear. We cannot in malice hurl insults and slander at one another and suppose that is going to do any good. We cannot simply assume that when school starts here in a few weeks, every child will climb onto the bus each morning well-fed.
We must unclench our tightened fists and put our hands to work. We are to imitate God and love as Jesus loved. We should use our words and our abilities to work at addressing the pain and injustice in this world, just as Jesus himself did. We should use our own resources of time, gifts, and money in this community to help those in need. And above all, we should seek to shape our whole lives after the example of Christ – to forgive as Christ has forgiven, to love as Christ loves, and to strive for unity and wholeness in the body of Christ until that day when God’s name is proclaimed with joy the world-over!
What did you do today? How you answer that question really does make all the difference!