August 10, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
In her short story “The River,” Flannery O’Connor depicts a child who actually drowns when trying to baptize himself in a river. After this startling story was published, someone asked O’Connor about this grotesque depiction of baptism. O’Connor’s critics thought this story was too extreme. But her goal was to remind her readers of how vividly powerful baptism is, that the Bible really does tell us it involves the death of the old self and the resurrection of a new self in Christ. So when people criticized her for such a startling depiction, O’Connor replied, “In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.”
In John 6, and particularly in this snippet of verses from the Year B John 6 marathon, Jesus is also drawing a really big caricature to make his point. As I mentioned in the Sample Sermon on John 6 that I posted on this website a couple of weeks ago, Jesus seems quite determined to magnify the shock value of his words here via the specific vocabulary he used. Up until verse 54 he had used the more ordinary Greek word for “to eat” (phagein) but in verse 54—seemingly in reaction to the questions being raised by the crowd—he toggles over to the lesser used verb of trogein, which appears to have carried with it the connotation of “chewing with your mouth open.” Picture a cow chewing his cud. Picture an elementary school child smacking up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, her mouth yawning open widely between each smacking chew.
Commentator Raymond Brown says that across the centuries, a few commentators have disputed the idea that there was anything particularly distinctive about trogein over against the more common phagein. But Brown and others are convinced that this is very intentional on John’s part, magnifying the vividness of the real “feeding” that takes place in the Eucharistic meal (and that Jesus/John so clearly intends here). If you chew with your mouth open, there is no doubting the food that is in your mouth. You cannot pretend to be chewing something if people can see into your mouth. That kind of eating shows you the real deal, the actual substance of what’s in a person’s mouth.
So in one sense Jesus may have been purposely exaggerating the “Yuck!” factor here. He has already knocked people off kilter by suggesting something that sounds vaguely cannibalistic and now seems intent on making that already gross-sounding scenario more intensely repugnant. Jesus is not bandying around empty words or rhetoric.
No, what Jesus is talking about really is a matter of life or death. To have any Life worth talking about, you really do need to enter into the Life of the Father through the Son. What Jesus is offering here is nothing short of an access to the Life of the Triune God. Think of that! Jesus is saying that union with him (signified by Eucharistic participation in Christ) allows us to enter into the rhythms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, into the Life that existed before anything like the Creation existed and that even now is the bright center to everything in the universe.
Most weeks when we come to church and when we take to ourselves the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper, our thoughts are far too small. We cannot exaggerate what we’re getting through that meal. Mostly our imaginations are simply not big enough, our expectations are pedestrian and trivial. What Jesus is offering us is a slice of Life Eternal, of the very Life force that pulses as the heartbeat to everything that exists, that ever existed, or that ever will exist.
In his commentary on John, Frederick Dale Bruner points out that Jesus does not want to entertain us with interesting ideas or thoughts. He wants to touch us, to become part of the whole human person because making us into whole new human beings is precisely what Jesus is all about. This in turn led Bruner to remember the John Denver love song in which Denver croons about having his senses filled up, giving his life to his lover, drowning in laughter and being consumed with love (this is “Annie’s Song” and you can view it here: Annie’s Song ). Something of that total filling-up and getting engulfed by something (or Someone in this case) is just what Jesus means.
That’s why he didn’t cash out his own rhetoric here by smirking a bit before finally saying, “OK, OK, folks, I know you are scandalized by what I seem to be saying here. I know you’re thinking I am talking about a big backyard barbeque at which people will be gnawing not on chicken wings and pork ribs but my own arms and these here ribs under my tunic. But listen here: I am talking SYMBOLICALLY! Haven’t y’all ever heard of a metaphor? What I want you to envision here are little wafers of bread and little cups of wine that will stand for my flesh and blood. So calm down. I’m not talking about anything REAL here!”
No, that wouldn’t have helped. Not really. In truth, the last thing we’d want Jesus to do is scale all this back so as to make it neat and tidy and acceptable. We do a pretty good job of that on our own as it is (as mentioned above, just witness the average communion service today, which has about all the wonder of making out a grocery list some weeks). What we need is to be stretched, to be pushed out of our comfort zone, to be shaken out of our complacency so as to see again the radical nature of faith and of the union with Christ it makes possible by the grace of God.
I wonder if there is a lesson here for us preachers. It seems that we are forever doing exactly what we should be glad Jesus did not do here; namely, we domesticate the gospel, we make what is hard apparently simple, we reduce the grace of God to a little helper added to our own efforts. In the legal realm, a cardinal rule for lawyers in a courtroom is “Never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.” I myself do not think that is a very good idea for preachers. In the mysteries of faith, I believe we do now and then need to ask questions to which we don’t know the answer because there are some things we need to leave in the hands of our sovereign God.
Or as Fred Craddock noted in one of his last sermons some years ago before becoming ill with Parkinson’s Disease, too many sermons give the distinct impression that the preacher had walked all the way around God and had taken pictures. Too many sermons are neatly folded, all the ends tucked in, no mystery, no grandeur. And hence such sermons leave no one scratching their head or with mouth agape over the awesome nature of God’s glory.
Those of us who preach maybe need to pay more attention to the Savior whom we proclaim and take a cue—at least now and then—from his own willingness to radicalize the gospel in words chockfull of the mind-boggling things of God.
When John reports that Jesus’ offer of his flesh to eat provokes the Jews to “argue sharply among themselves,” Raymond Brown suggests that the Greek “suggests a violent dispute.” This, then, is no gentle disagreement. We almost get the sense that the Jews are ready to physically attack Jesus for making this shocking claim. Might this be another hint of Jesus’ coming passion?
I believe it’s the most amazing piece of cinema I’ve ever seen, and my friend, Roy Anker, who is an expert on cinema, agrees. It is the final scene of Robert Benton’s lyric film Places in the Heart.
Set in the 1930s, the movie portrays Edna Spalding, who is suddenly widowed in the film’s opening scene when a drunk young black boy named Wylie accidentally shoots Edna’s husband (the town sheriff) to death. Wylie is quickly lynched by the white townsfolk even as Edna is left with a load of debt thick enough to choke a horse and two very young children to raise. Eventually Edna meets Moze, a black migrant farmer who knows how to raise cotton and is hired by Edna to make enough money to save herself from foreclosure at the hands of the local (but very heartless) bank. And it works. Edna does make enough money to save her farm. But the white townsfolk are not happy that Moze is around and so, dressed up in their Ku Klux Klan outfits, they come to the farm one night, beat Moze up, and force him to flee.
As Edna watches Moze leave—and as the question of whether she could be successful again next year without Moze’s help hovers in the air—it looks like the movie is over. But then there is one last scene, in church. It’s Sunday morning. The pastor delivers a sermon on I Corinthians 13 and then they serve communion.
And that’s where the film becomes surreal and deeply, deeply theological. First you notice that the church—that had been at best half full in earlier shots of the congregation—is now quite full. But then, to the startlement of us viewers, suddenly we see the bread and wine being taken by a woman who had died in a tornado earlier in the film. The town prostitute is there, too, sitting next to the banker who had been so unfeeling in the face of Edna’s fear of foreclosure. Then we see members of the KKK taking the Lord’s Supper and, what’s more, they pass the trays of bread and wine to no less than the black man, Moze, who is suddenly sitting there in church with Edna and her family. Finally, Edna takes the bread and wine and passes it to . . . her husband who is suddenly sitting next to her again and, next to him, Wylie, the young black boy who had killed him and been killed himself as a result. As the sheriff and Wylie eat the bread and drink the wine, they look at each other and say, “The peace of God.”
It’s a mystical and mysterious but moving glimpse of the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks in our text. When these people share in the Lord’s Supper, they begin to experience something of the eternal life Jesus promises to those who somehow eat his flesh and drink his blood. And yes, the film seems to be saying, this sacrament really just IS this amazing, every time, if only we have the spiritual eyes to see it.
Watch this arresting scene here: Places in the Heart clip
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
My wife tells me I think too much about The Godfather, and if you have been paying weekly attention to these sermon starters in the Summer of 2015 here, then you know this is indeed the second time in as many weeks that I have mentioned Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark 1974 film. But really, even more than last week’s Old Testament lection from 2 Samuel 18, parts of the first chapters in 1 Kings very much remind me of this movie.
Oh, not the parts the Common Lectionary would have you read but the really interesting texts that surround these two snippets from 1 Kings 2 and 3. Because if you know anything about the plot of the original Godfather film, then you know that at one point late in the movie and after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, had been murdered, the Don (Marlon Brando, of course) decides to let bygones be bygones and makes a peace deal with the heads of the other 5 mafia families in New Jersey and New York. Corleone wants his family to be safe for the rest of his days on this earth and so vows that if the rest of them don’t undertake any acts of vengeance for a recent series of mob warfare incidents, then neither would he. “I swear on the lives of my grandchildren that I will not be the one to break the peace we have made here this day” (which is exactly what he is saying in this photo).
And he didn’t. But that didn’t mean his son, Michael, couldn’t settle all family business as soon as the old Don was dead, and that is, of course, exactly what Michael does. Days after his father’s funeral, Michael choreographs and executes the murder of the heads of all 5 mafia crime families and even arranges the murder of his own brother-in-law who, years earlier, had been the one to help set up Michael’s brother, Sonny, to be murdered.
1 Kings 2 and 3 is all about Solomon settling all family business on behalf of his father David once David had breathed his last. As death approaches for King David, he calls in Solomon and gives him a list of old scores to settle—literally, of people Solomon is instructed to kill—seeing as one way or another David had gotten himself into situations in which during his lifetime he could not take action himself.
I hate to say it, but this is the Old Testament at its most brutal. Yes, we can carve out the verses the Lectionary has chosen and focus on David’s peaceful death and Solomon’s prudent selection of wisdom as the gift he most wants to receive from God but all of that is nestled in the midst of some real-world violence and sin and mayhem that is about as tough to swallow as it is finally to ignore.
As preachers we can elect just not to mention all that, of course, and hope that during our sermons folks’ eyes won’t wander over to other parts of the biblical text. But maybe there is something to the idea of acknowledging all this political intrigue and even the violence as a reminder that on the human level—even among God’s chosen people and anointed leaders—even the best and the wisest (and Solomon may well have been the wisest) are so deeply flawed that ultimate salvation will never emerge from them. Indeed, in the same chapter in which we read about Solomon’s laudable selection of wisdom as the gift he most wanted from God, we are told a few verses earlier that although he mostly walked by the laws and statutes of God, nevertheless he “offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places” (1 Kings 3:3). Yes, “high places” here is code for Baal worship and all the leftover Canaanite superstitions the people of Israel were supposed to have eradicated from the land in the first place.
Apparently it’s possible to be simultaneously wise and yet fairly dumb on some matters, too.
David and Solomon represent the apex of Israelite history. It would be all downhill after these two as the kingdom splits, good and godly kings become about as rare as a $3 bill, and the whole project of Israel as God’s Chosen Nation runs pretty well off the rails thanks to the faithlessness of the one generation after the next.
But God was faithful and so brought to this earth not a king like Solomon who now and then managed to display some pretty profound wisdom but rather Wisdom incarnate, a living and talking and walking and breathing instantiation of all that is right about life in this world as God set it up in the beginning (indeed, as that Wisdom of God who is also the Word of God set it up in the beginning). It may be a little tough to spy the Gospel in a text as saturated with bad news and violence as the early chapters of 1 Kings are, but it’s surely not too tough to spy the need for a Gospel of Good News and Grace in these chapters and, given the prominence of wisdom in these same chapters, it’s also not too tough to spot that just probably Wisdom incarnate is going to be exactly what this tired and violent old world will need in the end.
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 160-61):
“Solomon was famous for his great wisdom. There wasn’t a riddle he couldn’t crack with one hand tied behind him, and he tossed off so many bon mots in the course of a day that it reached the point where people figured that if anything clever was said anywhere, it must have been Solomon who originally said it, and the whole Book of Proverbs was ascribed to his hand. His judgments in court were also praised to the skies, the most famous of them involving a couple of chippies each of whom claimed to be the mother of the same child, to which Solomon proposed the simple solution of slicing the child down the middle and giving each one half. When the first girl said that was fine by her and the second girl said she’d rather lose the case, Solomon awarded the child to the second girl, and it got all over Jerusalem within the hour. But wisdom is more than riddles and wisecracks and court-room technique, and in most things that mattered King Solomon was among the wisest fools who ever wore a crown. He didn’t even have the wit to say “Apres moi, le deluge” in Hebrew and was hardly cold in his grave when revolution split the country in two. From there on out the history of Israel was an almost unbroken series of disasters.”
Author: Doug Bratt
While God’s modern sons and daughters sometimes seem in a hurry to learn what the Scriptures expect of people, Psalm 111 focuses our attention on the Lord. In fact, only its verses 1 and 10 even directly speak to or about people, while only verse 2 even alludes to them.
That’s certainly appropriate. After all, it’s most proper to always ask first what the Scriptures say about the Lord of heaven and earth. The Scriptures are primarily the inspired testimony to God’s character and actions. Only secondarily do God’s children ask what the Scriptures say about people. Yet even when the Scriptures speak of the Lord, they also speak about people. Human ethics are always shaped, after all, by God’s character and actions.
As it focuses worshipers’ attention on Yahweh, Psalm 111 praises God for God’s faithfulness and enduring righteousness. So while human beings, when we remember to praise God at all, sometimes only praise God for what God has done, this psalm also praises the Lord for who God is, for God’s character and nature. That’s part of the reason why we might say that Psalms 111 and 112 properly belong together. After all, while Psalm 111 praises God for God’s great work, Psalm 112 praises the way of life of those who fear the Lord by imitating some of God’s glorious work.
While in verse 1 the psalmist declares God’s praise, both privately and publicly, she goes on in the rest of the psalm to describe just what’s so praiseworthy about God’s work. Among her list of God’s character’s highlights is God’s enduring righteousness. While human righteousness is spotty and temporary at its best, the poet asserts that God’s righteousness has neither a beginning nor an end. In fact, in light of the New Testament Christians understand that God’s righteousness endures even into the new creation.
When the psalmist asserts that God is gracious and compassionate, worshipers must certainly have heard echoes of God’s description of himself at Sinai in Exodus 34:6-7. There, even in the face of stubborn human rebellion, God speaks of himself as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God.” In verse 9 the psalmist adds that God’s name, God’s character, is holy and awesome. God is, in other words, by nature, radically different from even the human beings whom God created in God’s image.
Yet candidly, the poet spends even more time in Psalm 111 praising God for what God has done than for who God is. However, biblical scholars note that all of God’s memorable works for which the psalmist praises God are either aspects or results of God’s great work freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and leading them through the wilderness into the land of promise. In that exodus God transformed a motley group of Hebrews into God’s sons and daughters whom God equipped to serve as God’s servants. That event is, in fact, the Old Testament’s defining, central event.
From Egyptian slavery, the psalmist remembers, God provided redemption for God’s beleaguered sons and daughters. In the unforgiving desert God provided food for the hungry Israelites and everything that travelled with them. God remembered his covenant there, leading Israel into others’ lands.
The psalmist notes that among God’s memorable and great works are the provision of God’s “precepts.” We, however, don’t naturally think of God’s commands as praiseworthy. We naturally chafe against God’s law. However, the psalmist sees that law as among God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Those precepts, after all, remind worshipers of their desperate need for God’s grace and provide a reliable guide for God’s sons and daughters to responding to God’s grace with their faith.
In using some form of the word “forever” four times in the psalm, the poet provides a perhaps subtle comfort. So much in modern life is, after all, transitory. Everything around and within us seems to be constantly changing. In fact, change sometimes seems to be accelerating. In the face of that sometimes disconcerting change, the poet asserts that God’s righteousness, works, covenant and praise are forever. God is completely reliable in part because God is the same yesterday, today and forever.
The psalmist reminds worshipers that God’s praiseworthy and character invite a faithful response. In fact, God’s works and nature invite a response not just of amazement, but also of faithful obedience. Certainly among the most appropriate responses is that of full-bodied, public worship and praise of God. However, God’s works especially invite a “pondering” of them. To what such pondering precisely refers is unclear, but Richard J. Clifton suggests that it means that God’s works are so great that they stimulate both a study of and generous response to them.
The psalmist adds that those who worship such a great and glorious God also fear that God. Worshipers honor, serve and love the Lord who so faithfully makes and cares for them. God’s sons and daughters also follow God’s precepts, recognizing in them the best guide for a grateful response to God’s countless great and glorious works.
Yet God’s great memorable works also invite worshipers to closely study and meditate on them as well as respond in imitation of them. So for example, as God’s children ponder God’s provision of food for hungry things, they ask themselves how they might be better stewards of their food and drink so that hungry and thirsty living things may flourish. As God’s children meditate on God’s grace and compassion, they not only confess their lack of those attributes but also open themselves to the Spirit’s transformation of them. As worshipers ponder God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness, they ask themselves about their own faithfulness to their promises.
In verse 10 the psalmist asserts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When describing our first parents’ fall into sin, Genesis 3:6 reports that Eve saw that the “fruit of the tree” was “desirable for gaining wisdom.” She seems to have wanted to be as wise as God. The context seems to suggest that Eve saw in the serpent’s offer to help her “know good and evil” wisdom.
Is there a parallel in some modern searches for wisdom? Is there a kind of arrogance in assumptions that if we just learn enough, we’ll be like God, as wise as God?
The biblical conception of wisdom has little to do with high IQ’s. Biblical wisdom is, instead, an understanding of the way God has ordered the world. It begins with a proper reverence for and awe of God. Biblical wisdom lives itself out in a life ordered by God and shaped by love for God above all and one’s neighbors as oneself.
Author: Stan Mast
This text is a kind of hinge between the black and white moral exhortations of 4:1-5:14 and the relatively grayer areas of personal relations in the family and the workplace in 5:22-6:9. Paul’s fierce condemnation of pagan lifestyles and his no nonsense commands for the Christian life have come to a head in the immediately preceding words about light and darkness. Christians are children of the light, even if they were once part of the darkness of paganism. Things are very clear for the children of the light; we know how we are supposed to live. However, in the realm of husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave, employer/employee relationships, things are not quite so easy to spell out. Yes, submission is a key principle, but what does that mean for the tangled relationships of a typical family or business? To live in a uniquely Christian way in the murkiness of marriage or the whirlwind of family requires wisdom. That’s what this text is all about– how to live wisely in the complicated world of human relationships.
“Be very careful, then, how you live…. “ Although that is a decent enough translation of the Greek, it obscures several salient points. The word “live” is really “walk,” (peripateo in the Greek). This is the fifth time Paul has used this word in this ethical section of Ephesians, each time signaling a shift of thought. Further, the Greek says, “Look (blepete) how you walk.” Keep your eyes peeled as you walk, because these days are evil. The word “carefully” (akribos) modifies walk, not look. We must keep our eyes wide open, so that we can walk carefully in this evil age. Paul’s word choice might seem to suggest a rather pinched and paranoid approach to life, but that is not at all the picture Paul draws in verses 19-20. Careful living, in fact, results in an intoxicatingly joyful life full of song, thanksgiving, and healthy relationships. But more on that later.
For now, Paul spells out what careful walking looks like. Using two different words, he calls us to wise living. He defines wise living in two ways. Because our eyes are wide open as we walk carefully through a treacherous world, we can take advantage of opportunities. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t talk about avoiding pitfalls, which we might expect since “the days are evil.” Instead, he puts a more positive spin on wise living. Wise living involves making the most of opportunities.
Paul doesn’t spell out what kind of opportunities he is talking about here, but the context suggests something other than business opportunities. The idea is that the culture can lull us into living the way everyone else does, so we have to be alert for those moments (the Greek is kairos) when we can exhibit uniquely Christian living. The word for “making the most” is exagoradzomenoi, a commercial word. Think of a sharp realtor snapping up suddenly cheap property during the housing bust of the Great Recession. Being wise, then, means looking for opportunities to snap up parts of life for the Kingdom, since every square inch already belongs to the King (Abraham Kuyper).
Secondly, living wisely means understanding what the Lord’s will is. In this letter, Paul has spilled much ink in describing God’s great cosmic purposes as well as his will for everyday living. Thus, Christians should know both what God is doing in the world and how we should respond in our everyday living. The great temptation is that we become (a better translation than be) foolish, that we forget the unique things we already know about the Lord’s will and just drift along with the current of the culture. We are seeing that happen today as Christians abandon long held biblical ethical standards and theological truths and go with the flow of the secular culture.
But it is ferociously difficult to resist the tide of history. How can we live wisely in a foolish and wicked age? Paul gives a simply profound answer—“be filled with the Spirit.” What does that mean? Paul helps us understand with a stunning analogy. It’s like being drunk on wine. Paul doesn’t include this prohibition on getting drunk because that is such a terrible sin, but because it is such a helpful comparison. When you get drunk, you are under the influence of alcohol. You lose control of your mind and your body, so that you act differently than you would if you were sober. Your speech slurs, your eyes roll, your feet stagger, your libido rages, etc. That doesn’t happen all at once; you have to keep drinking to come under the control of alcohol. And being under that control doesn’t last forever. Once you sober up, you’ll have to drink again to get drunk again and come under the influence.
That’s what it is like to be filled with the Spirit. It doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t last from day to day. Yes, we do receive the Spirit all at once and forever, but to be filled with the Spirit is an ongoing process, thus, the present tense of the verb. We must be repeatedly and progressively filled with the Spirit, so that we are under the influence of the Spirit, indeed, controlled by the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit is the opposite of DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence). It means LWI (living while influenced by the Spirit) or LUI (living under the Spirit’s influence). Only the Spirit of Jesus can lead us into all the truth, so that we can spot the opportunities and understand the Lord’s will in the complexities of life.
Paul does not tell us here how we can be filled, but he is clear about the results of being filled with the Spirit. Earlier I said that Paul’s opening words about careful living might seem to suggest a pinched and paranoid to life. But Paul’s words in verses 19-20 point to a radically different version of a careful, wise lifestyle. He uses five words to describe a Spirit filled life. The NIV translates them as imperatives, but they are descriptive participles: speaking, singing and making music, giving thanks, and being submissive.
(Our lectionary reading cuts off that last participle, but that is a real mistake. This is one long sentence and upotassomenoi is a key part of the Spirit filled life. I don’t know if the lectionary stopped short of verse 22 because submission is such a politically charged term in our day, or simply because it seemed to be out of step with the rest of Paul’s description of a Spirit filled life. But it is as important as the other descriptors; indeed, it leads directly into the gray areas of relationships.)
Those who are filled with the Spirit speak to one another in a distinctive way—with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. What an interesting idea! We speak not with kindness or with charity or with honesty, though those virtues are obviously important as well. We are to speak with music on our lips. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 says that we should teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and then mentions singing to God. Is Paul simply being poetic here? Is Paul suggesting that our speech with fellow Christians must be harmonious and beautiful, like music? Paul’s language here is more impressionistic than precise. We can’t say exactly what he means, but we get the impression. Our conversation with each other should be like music.
And our relationship with God must literally be filled with music—“singing and making music in your heart to the Lord.” What a wonderful way to characterize our walk with the Lord—not grim duty, not costly sacrifices, not reluctant reverence, not fearful distance, but heartfelt singing. Those who live wisely are filled with joy that overflows into song, even if we can’t carry a tune in a bucket. We make music first of all in our hearts and, then, if the Lord so blesses, with voice or instrument.
Further, and not surprisingly, a Spirit filled life is filled with gratitude. It is the level and extent of the gratitude that is surprising. Paul says that if we are filled with the Spirit, if the Spirit is really in control of our thoughts and desires, we will give thanks always for everything (panta huper panton). How can that be? Somethings are so obviously awful that we can’t give thanks for them; maybe we can give thanks in them (I Thessalonians 5:18), but not for them. But Paul does say “for.” We can do that only when we are wise enough to understand what the Lord’s will is (verse 17), when we believe that the Lord is our Father and intends good, even in the bad, when we believe all that because of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Such an extravagantly thankful life is only possible when we are filled with the Spirit. A Spirit filled life overflows not with complaint and dissatisfaction, but with thanksgiving.
Finally, a Spirit filled life is an ordered life. The word upotassomenoi means “to order oneself under a leader,” as opposed to the kind of individualism and independence that leads to disorder. It is hard to hear this word positively in our culture, because of the abuses we’ve seen in marriage and family and the wider society. I mean, how can anyone think it is a good thing when men dominate their wives, when parents abuse their children, when masters abuse their slaves (indeed, when there are slaves at all)? It is only when we read these “house tables” against the backdrop of a brutally hierarchical society that they will sound like a positive word. When we hear Paul say that there must be mutual submission and when he then defines a husband’s headship as sacrificing his entire life for his wife, we can begin to catch what a revolutionary piece of good news the word upotassomenoi really was. A Spirit filled life is a life of mutual love and sacrifice and concern for those above and below us on the social scale.
What does such mutual submission look like in real life? There’s no legislating it, no way of spelling out in detail what it means for this or that relationship. That must be worked out with the leading of the Spirit, “out of reverence for Christ.” Or as the Greek says, “in the fear of Christ.” Sometimes we soften “fear” to “reverence” or even softer still to “respect.” But as one scholar said, this means much more than respect, but not quite as much as terror. The idea is that Christ is Lord, and we’d best remember that as we order our lives. We too quickly abuse our positions and roles in life, so we do well to remember that we will answer to the real Lord, even Jesus Christ. Here’s a strong reason not to lord it over others, but to be as sacrificially loving as our Lord was.
Overall, this text calls us to the kind of living that will move people to ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us—carefully wise, always looking for opportunities to live for Christ, deeply in touch with the purposes of God in the world, but not in an overly punctilious way. Rather, the Spirit will fill us with joy and gratitude, creating relationships that are musically harmonious, demonstrating our closeness to God with hearts that overflow with song, and showing the world what marriage and family and work can be if we are willing to put others before ourselves. This is how we should live by the black and white commands of God in a world that is fifty shades of gray.
To help folks get a picture of how to be filled with the Spirit, here’s a cute, maybe even true story. A little boy came to his father with a problem. His hand was stuck in an expensive vase. His father didn’t want to break the vase, but no matter what he did, the boy’s hand remained stuck. Suddenly, something occurred to him, and he said to his son, “Hold your fingers out straight.” To which the boy replied, “I can’t. If I do, I’ll drop my penny.” If we clutch the penny of sin, we can’t be filled with the Spirit. We must repent, so that the hand of faith is empty and can receive that filling.
A number of years ago, well-known sportswriter Mitch Albom became more widely famous for a moving little book entitled, Tuesdays with Morrie. It was about the Tuesdays Albom spent with his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as Morrie died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In one conversation about what Albom would do if he had only one day to live, Morrie says, “Our culture doesn’t encourage us to think about such ultimate things, until you’re about ready to die. We’re so wrapped up in egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it’s broken—we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get in the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, ‘Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?’” He paused and said to Albom, “Mitch, you need someone to probe you in that direction.”
We all do, and that’s exactly what we have in this text—Someone probing, pushing us to look at life more carefully. “Be very careful then how you live, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”