"Getting Along and Grieving the Spirit" on Ephesians 4:29-32 by Pastor Sean Baker - July 23, 2023
Ephesians 4:29-32 29 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. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
When I was the pastor of a church in Michigan, I treated Mondays as a Sabbath day. A day of rest, since Sundays were pretty full work days. And on my Sabbath, I would try to incorporate some practices that are kind of like church. For instance, I would download a couple of sermons from other churches. Sometimes, some sacred or worship music. And then I’d go for a walk in a park or more often I’d go to a coffee shop, sit in the corner and listen to those sermons and listen to that music. And right there at the corner table, I’d have a little worship service, just me, my headphones and my coffee, and God.
And you know, sometimes after I’d listened to the music, finished the sermon, and drained the coffee, I’d sit and I’d think to myself, ‘Man, this is nice.’ And then I’d wonder: why does anyone with an internet connection and a coffee shop ever bother attending my church? I have no illusions. There are hundreds, thousands of better preachers than me. And especially since COVID, it’s hard to find any church anywhere without sermons online. On top of that, you can find recordings of some of the best worship bands, the most accomplished musicians, singing all your favourite songs in exactly your favourite style, in the order you want to hear them. If you’re not into Michael’s mandolin or not crazy about Chris on the guitar, or you don’t like the way Mike orders the songs when he leads? Guess what? You’ve got options! When it’s just you and your headphones you can have exactly the worship service you want.
We live in the golden age of self-service spirituality. Especially since COVID. It’s all right there on your phone. It’s insightful. It’s creative. You can pause it to go to the washroom. Or you can just take your phone with you. You can get the spiritual inspiration that you want, when you want it, how you want, and if you ever come across anything you don’t like: a boring illustration, a clumsy introduction, a grating American accent, anything you don’t like, you can just take off your headphones and do something else. In this day and age–when people can get whatever they want however they want it–why is anyone still showing up to worship services like these?
I don’t want to ruffle feathers, but I have serious doubts that there is even one person in this church (or any church for that matter) who likes every song we sing. Impossible. Or that there’s any one person who appreciates every sermon that’s preached here. Not a chance. Why do we put up with so much that is not to our liking by sticking it out with this particular church? God bless Telkwa Church, but you’re not coming here for the really comfortable pews. Why not just hit the proverbial thumbs down button, stay home, and download something more to your liking?
I think this is probably one of the big questions facing the church in Canada in 2023. COVID wound down and people who’d stayed home for a while said, that was kinda nice. And now, it seems, they’re not coming back. Right? Why bother showing up here every week when your playlist at home (to say nothing of your coffee) can be so much more to your liking?
Well, I think Ephesians 4 gives us an answer to that question. I’ve been trying to make the point these last four weeks that Ephesians 4 is giving us a vision of growing up in the faith. It's about moving from the old way of life to the new. It is full of illustrations of how we become more like Christ, how we become better, you might say, deeper Christians. It talks about how, for instance, mature Christians will be humble. How they will be patient. How we’ll speak the truth in love. This chapter is full of examples of mature Christianity.
But I want you to notice something: from the beginning to the end of chapter 4, there is not one illustration of Christian maturity that you can do entirely on your own. Every illustration of Christian maturity has to do with getting along with the people around us. Maturity, according to Ephesians 4, is not about having your fill of insightful teaching. It’s not about worshipping with the music that most inspires you. Maturity in the faith is about getting along with whatever other Christians you’re stuck with in your church. Vs. 1-16 are very explicit about this. Paul talks about how to grow up as what he calls a unified body. But even the verses from the last few weeks and today: these illustrations of taking off the old self and putting on the new one: even these, every one of them, can only really be done with other people.
Two weeks ago: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth but only what is useful for building others up according to their needs.” You can listen to a sermon or a song on your own. But you can’t speak the truth in love on your own. You need other people to do that. Be kind and compassionate, Paul says, forgive each other—Again, you can only forgive people you are in relationship with. Shoot, you can only forgive people who offend you!
It’s almost like, in order to be a mature Christian, in order to fulfill these Ephesians 4 commands, you need offensive people around you. You need people who offend you so that you can forgive them and in so doing, you can see for yourself that you are becoming this growing-up Christian, this new self. If no one ever offended you, how could you become more like Christ?
Dear Friends at Telkwa Community Church, why do we put up with so much that we don’t like by sticking it out with each other? I’m being hard on you to make a point. This church is a beautiful community. We’ve been on the receiving end of so much kindness. You are a thoughtful, compassionate, sincere group. I’ve only been here a few weeks but that much is clear. But of course, a few weeks is also all you need to know that ya’ll aren’t perfect. In that way, it turns out you’re like every other church I’ve ever gotten to know or been a part of or led, you’re kind of a mess sometimes.
Why don’t we just cut bait and walk away? I’m sure there are people in this room who get on your nerves sometimes. I’m not looking at anybody in particular, I just know churches. Why do we stick it out with messy people in messy churches like this? Well, I’ll tell you. We stick it out because this messy, frustrating, not-quite-to-our-liking community that we wish was a little bit, or maybe a lot different, also happens to be the primary means by which God changes us. This is how he makes us like his Son. This is where it happens, in this messy group of people, with all our rough edges. And the rough edges seem to be part of the point.
We put up with the things we don’t like and people who sometimes annoy us, not because it feels great all the time, feeling great all the time is not the point of church. We put up with this, we put up with each other because, quite frankly, without each other, it is not a Christian life we’re living. The Christian life cannot be lived alone in the corner of a coffee shop with your headphones on. The Christian life is a life lived in the context of other Christians. And messy is the only way Christians come.
Let me give you an example from today’s passage in vs. 31: “Bitterness.” Bitterness is such a classic problem in churches. Now to be honest, it’s hard to be bitter on your own. But when you’re in a community, bitterness is very easy. It usually starts like this: somebody offends you or fails you, but rather than talk to them about it, or address the issue, you just stuff it down. Someone’s like, “Hey, are you okay?” and you’re like, “I’m fine.” Which, of course, is not true. What ends up happening, is that offence sticks with us. We say there’s nothing wrong, but there is a bitterness growing inside us. And that bitterness festers. And pretty soon we are a walking vs 31: You do not want to be a walking version of vs 31. You look at that verse and it’s like bitterness is followed by rage, and anger, we start assuming the worst of the other person, we avoid them.
Which is all to say: Bitterness is not a personal problem. It’s a community problem. So Paul says, instead of being bitter, be kind and compassionate. Now some of us think to be kind and compassionate means: get over it, don’t say anything, smile, stuff it deeper and be nice, pretend like there’s nothing wrong. That’s how we want to be kind and compassionate. But Paul says in vs 32 that kindness and compassion look like what? Forgiveness! I get it. We’d rather hold a grudge. We’d rather write them off. We’d rather find another church. Be done with them. But Paul says forgive each other.
I’ve had to forgive people for things. Probably not as much as I’ve been forgiven, but this is not a contest. Anyway, here’s the thing about forgiveness. I’ll just be honest: it’s not super fun. It’s not. But you know what is fun? Bitterness is fun. Bitterness is great. Just to soak in your resentment and luxuriate in your self-righteousness. It feels so good to know that you are right and they are wrong. Anyone with me? Know what I’m talking about? I love that.
But forgiving someone? You forgive someone, you’ve got to get out of that luxurious tub of bitterness. And now you’re dealing with the mess of the relationship. Maybe some repair work is needed. Now, I won’t lie. That is not fun. But do you know what forgiving someone can do?
My main work is working with conflicted churches–so I’ve got some experience here…and I can tell you, it’s not fun work, but when you forgive someone, or when you are forgiven, you know what that is? It’s like ... change your life kind of stuff. An experience like that – can show you, like no sermon ever could, it can show you what it must be like for God to forgive you.
There is no podcast in the world that can explain that to you. You’ll never even get close to understanding God’s forgiveness, until you’ve been stuck in a community where you’ve had to do it yourself. But then you know what happens next? It’ll change your life. It’s not fun, but it’s about the most beautiful, powerful thing you can experience as a human being. And it starts with being in messy communities like this.
If we want to grow up as Christians, if we want to mature, we need each other. But there’s one more thing before we end…It’s another thing we work at our own maturity. And it’s verse 30. Paul says, in vs. 30, that when we don’t work on our maturity, on real, flesh and blood relationships with other Christians: when we don’t speak the truth in love or bear with each other or give generously, when we sin: he says, “We grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”We grieve the Holy Spirit. That’s a powerful word: grieve. It’s a relationship word. What I mean is: we only grieve the things that we love the most. Paul says the Holy Spirit grieves for us when we sin.
I think of this grief kind of like a parent. I can remember my parents saying to me, when I did something wrong: they’d say something like: “It’s not that I’m mad. It’s that I’m disappointed.”
They’d say, “I’m not angry. I’m sad.” Parents are the worst aren’t they?
But seriously, the Holy Spirit is maybe a bit like that. He wouldn’t be grieved if he didn’t care. If he wasn’t invested, you think he’d be grieving when we sinned? Would he just say, ‘Forget it. They’re not worth it.” And move on? No. He can’t move on because he’s stuck with us. Or more precisely, he’s stuck himself to us. We are his chosen community. That’s what this language about sealing is all about in vs 30. (how we’re sealed for the day of redemption). It’s about ownership.
In Paul’s day, when, say, a King sent an official letter he sealed it with wax and a unique stamp, usually a ring or a necklace. And if the letter had the seal on it, it proved that the letter belonged to the King. And Paul says, the Spirit does that with Christians. The Spirit is this seal: when we see evidence of the Spirit, especially in the way we love one another, that’s the seal: it is the proof to whomever is watching us that we belong to the king.
This is part of what made my parents not mad, but sad: I carry my parents’ name. I’ve got their seal on me. I belong to them. They have invested their life in me. . And so when I do the wrong thing: hit another kid at school; talk back to a teacher; it’s not exactly that they’re mad; it’s that they’re sad: they feel that sense of failure themselves. It is because it is your child, bearing your name, invested with your energy. That’s why your response is not just anger, it’s grief. Because the child belongs to you. He’s sealed with your name.
Earlier in Ephesians 1:6,13, Paul says that when we put our trust in Jesus, God adopts us as his children and sealed us with his Spirit. This is why we seek to put to death the old life and take on the new life: because he has attached himself to us. He has adopted us. He has given us his name. So when we sin, we don’t just rouse God’s distant anger. Paul says when we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit.
If God is grieved by our sin, that means that God is deeply, personally invested in you and when you are casual or flippant about your sin, you don’t just hurt other people: you break God’s heart. It’s the heart of a good, good father: God wants you to grow up; and he has given you his Holy Spirit to empower you to change. And every time we fail to do so, it’s grief. But just as surely, every time we do it: every time we love one another, bear with each other, are kind and compassionate to one another—every time we do it, it is evidence that we belong to him…and it is not grief, but the joy of a parent that God feels.