When I was a kid, one of the most frustrating questions I would be asked by some of my more fundamentalist classmates was this one: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” Even as a teenager, I wondered how one’s relationship to Christ could be based on individualism. Over and over, we are reminded in readings, like this excerpt from Paul’ letter to the Ephesians, that Christ dwells in community with us and calls us into community with each other. This reading reminds us that when we hurt others, we not only hurt ourselves, but we do violence to the life we are called to live as Christians in deed, as well as word and affirmation. Of course, that’s the hard part.
People who could isolate fractions of verses to regulate the behavior of others seem to forget passages such as these, which talk about our behavior as more than being an individual matter between us and God, also calling us to transform how we behave with our kindred and neighbors. The first rule of that is to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s funny how we don’t judge our neighbors as we judge ourselves, either, all too often. When we talk about our individual relationship with God, we may forget about the unity that has repeatedly been emphasized over the last several weeks we have been reading Ephesians.
This reading, subtitled “Rules for the New Life” in my NRSV Bible, includes a list of rules for living as a Christian community. The rules come from the example of life that God has decreed and that Christ himself set before us during his earthly life among us. This is made clear in 5:1-2 “…be imitators of God… and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….”
This reading from Ephesians is about how we are called to be transformed once we accept Christ into our lives. It is not enough simply to believe in God and believe in Jesus, or even to have a “relationship” with Christ. Rather, we are called to live according to the example that Christ set for us, as hard as that may be.
That transformation starts with walking in love—in kindness, humility, and compassion for each other and this beautiful earth upon which we all depend. Why be kind? The very next sentence provides the answer: because being kind is integral to who God is, and as God’s children, as Christians, imitating God must be central to who WE are, if we are living the resurrection life called for in this passage and in our gospel. It also means paring away things which are damaging to our relationships with other members of the Body of Christ—lying, holding onto anger or grudges, bitterness, or slander—all things that have become all too common and sometimes even admired in our common lives together.
There are some, especially in this continuing pandemic, who are very fond of talking about freedom—especially when they are talking about themselves, without any concern for the fact that freedom is always balanced by responsibility and duty, especially to others, because all political freedom comes by being members of a body politic. Somewhere along the way too many seem to have confused freedom with selfishness. And the problem with selfishness is that is ends up making us LESS free. Hear me out: in freedom lived out in selfishness, everyone else becomes not a neighbor but a competitor and even possibly an enemy, and no one feels free when surrounded by enemies.
Paul insists, “We are members of one another.” True freedom is built upon peace and amity. When those around us care about us, when we work to decrease anxiety and increase feelings of contentment and satisfaction—these are the foundations of true freedom and peace. And the letter to the Ephesians here provides practical advice about building that kind of Beloved Community—one that is centered on the abundant grace, love and hope that we lift up every time we lift up our hearts and offer ourselves around this altar to God. Together in love, imitating Christ as his disciples.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.