Some moments remain imprinted in our minds as signposts of radical shifts in our lives. When I heard my daughter cry for the first time, and realized, “Oh that crying, that is now my responsibility,” I knew my world had shifted. My body had long since ceased to be only my body. No longer was my time my time. My energy, my resources, even my habits were now impacted by the arrival of this small human. I was now bound to and devoted to the care of another being in a way that would prove to be all-consuming, at times unbearably frustrating, and yet mercifully transformative. Everything has changed. The old order has passed; a new order has arrived, diapers not included.
In a similar way, with cosmic implications, the Christ event has changed everything. It has unveiled a new reality as God’s new order has burst into the old order of Sin and Death.
In the first half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the apostle has painted a beautiful and complex picture of what God has done for humankind in the person of Jesus, namely gathering all things up in Jesus, in both heaven and earth. All things are now under Christ, who is the head of the Church, Christ’s body. In this radical act of self-giving love embodied in Jesus, God has torn down the walls that formerly divided humanity, making one people for God’s very self. And the most shocking of all? This new humanity is now the temple of God, the dwelling place of God’s very Spirit.
As one who has been immersed in American Christian culture my entire life, the concept of a person (or people) as the “temple of God” immediately calls to mind countless youth lessons (and even sermons!) about my individual physical body and the importance of avoiding specific behaviors that might damage that body, such as drinking, smoking, illicit sex, overeating, etc. But, Paul’s vision is larger than individual morality. His eyes are fixed on a much grander image of the temple of God with eschatological implications.
In Judaism, the temple of God was understood to be this sacred, mysterious intersection point between the realms of heaven and earth. Somehow, in that sacred place, the Reign of God was breaking into the kingdoms of this world. Paul now boldly asserts that the sacred intersection, the breaking-in point of the Reign of God into this realm, is no longer a building in Jerusalem, but a people, and not just any people, but the unified-yet-diverse people of God, Jew and Gentile together inextricably bound together by the salvific work of Jesus. Through God’s saving action in Christ and through the resurrecting power of the Spirit, God has created this new people to be the hub of God’s presence in the world. This unlikely community is now the intersection of heaven and earth.
Powerful imagery and bold assertions, but with practical implications. What Paul is describing is a calling, a vocation to which the people of God must devote themselves as they seek to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
At first glance, this week’s pericope seems to be a laundry-list of moralisms, positive behaviors to embrace and negative behaviors to avoid. But in light of the vocation laid out by Paul in the previous chapters, these verses are anything but a laundry list. To the contrary, Paul is less prescribing as he is describing how God’s people, the new temple, lives and moves in this world as it is empowered by the Spirit. Paul refuses to hang out in the rafters of his high Christology and ecclesiology and brings it down to earth, down to the dusty soil of everyday life lived with one another.
Paul presents a series of contrasts: do not lie, rather tell the truth. Do not sin in your anger, rather be angry at appropriate times and express it in appropriate ways, with your heart set on reconciliation. Do not steal, rather contribute. Do not slander, rather build up. Do not be bitter or full of wrath, but be kind and forgive. Stark contrasts, all juxtaposed against one another to highlight the ways in which the people of God, the temple, are called to embody the Reign of God way of being not someday in the great blue yonder of the eschaton, but this day in the market, on the street, in homes, in our most intimate relationships, at play, and at work.
The way of being Paul describes is a depiction of New Creation, of Resurrection Life embodied in human beings now, as they (and we!) await the consummation of all things. He is extending an invitation to leave behind the old way of life and live into their citizenship of the coming Reign. He reminds them that they have been marked by the Holy Spirit, by the very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. They are marked as citizens of the coming Reign and are summoned forth into Reign-reflective living.
It is worth noting as we wrestle with the implications of this text for our congregations that the primary expression of faithful Reign living as presented by Paul in this passage is healthy interpersonal relationships. Our Reign of God citizenship is most clearly demonstrated through our commitment to right relationship to one another, through honest speech, generous contribution to the needs of others, a spirit of kindness, and a determination to forgive as we have been forgiven.
In. 5:1, Paul summarizes the challenge well: in light of all this, just imitate God. Consider the generosity of God toward you, God’s self-giving love on your behalf and practice living in that same way with one another.
Perhaps every generation says this, but it would appear that there could not possibly be a more timely word for the Church at this season in history. In a culture that currently seems to pride itself on violent speech, on meanness, bitterness, and vengeful retribution against those different from themselves, the call to be the Temple of God as described by Paul in this passage stands in sharp relief. What could happen if the church rejected the siren call of culture to crawl down into the muddy pit of vitriol and hateful speech and instead embraced the call to kindness, to forgiveness, to generous truth-telling even when it is costly? What if the church embraced its sacred vocation as the harbinger of the Reign of God? Might we bear witness to an ever-increasing awareness of the Reign of God breaking into and healing the broken, sin-sick kingdoms of this world? May it be so, and may it begin in our pews.