Copying the Master
The captain of a massive battleship looked into the dark night and saw faint lights in the distance. Immediately he told his signalman to send a message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south.” Promptly a return message was received: “Alter your course 10 degrees north.” The captain was angered; his command had been ignored. So he sent a second message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south – I am a captain in the United States Navy!” Soon another message was received: “Alter your course 10 degrees north – I am seaman third class Jones.” The captain, now enraged at the gall of this seaman, immediately sent a third message, knowing the fear it would evoke: “Alter your course 10 degrees south – I am a battleship.” Then the reply came: “Alter your course 10 degrees north – I am a lighthouse.”
Believed by many to be true, this mythical story about the captain and the lighthouse makes a great point: In the midst of our dark and foggy times, all sorts of voices are shouting orders into the night, telling us what to do, how to adjust our lives. Out of the darkness, one voice signals something quite opposite to the rest – something almost absurd. But the voice happens to be the Light of the World, and we ignore it at our peril. Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 5:1-2. “Therefore …” The word “therefore” means that what Paul is about to say grows out of what he has just said, right? So what has Paul just said? Let’s go back to V. 30 of chapter 4 and start there.
Remember, our relationship with God is clearly visible in our relationships with one another. This doesn’t mean that getting along with one another is easy, whether it be in a marriage, or a friendship, or among coworkers, within a family, a neighborhood, even within a church. It isn’t. It’s hard. Relationships are hard work. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, they fall apart. Even among those who know and follow Christ, it’s tough and brokenness and sin separate us. Love is hard. But it is worth it. And in Ephesians 4, St. Paul tells us to get rid of those things that cause unnecessary division among us – bitterness, wrath, anger, shouting at one another, slander and malice. And he tells us to replace those things with kindness and compassion and forgiveness. And then he sums it all up by telling us to “be imitators of God.” Imitators of God? How do we imitate God? That’s what it says. What is he talking about?
Well, he tells us what he means: by walking in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. Now, St. Paul had, in the Greek language he was using, several words to choose from for love. He could have used a form of the word “eros,” from which we get our word “erotic.” It describes sexual love.
He could have chosen the world “phileo,” which is the prefex to the name of our city of Philadelphia – the “city of brotherly love.” “Phileo” has the sense of “being contented with.” It pictures people who have similar interests, and may or may not include the element of choice in the relationship. That’s why it’s often used to describe family relationships. It’s the word Peter chose to describe his love for Jesus when he encountered the risen Christ on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Paul could have chosen the word “storge,” which has the sense of affection and empathy and is often used to describe the love parents feel for their children.
But he didn’t choose any of those words. Instead, he chose the word “agape.” It describes love as commitment, love as an act of the will, love as action. It describes love that does what is best for the other, regardless of cost to self. We sometimes think of it as unconditional love, but agape is far more than that. This word doesn’t even appear in classical Greek. It appears only in religious, primarily Christian, contexts. Greek culture didn’t see human beings as being capable of this kind of love. It was reserved for describing the love of God for us and our love for God – until the sending of Holy Spirit described in the book of Acts. After that, it’s used to describe the love God’s children have for one another too. The Holy Spirit enables us as children of God to love one another with a love that imitates the love of God. Paul’s words are “walk in agape, as Christ agape’d us and gave himself up for us …” Agape one another, as Christ agapes you. The common Greek speaking person reading this or hearing this would say, “wait, that’s not possible. That’s not a word we use for human love.” And they would be right. But that’s exactly what Paul says.
You see, the way most of us view our faith in Christ goes something like this: “I learn about God, I learn about Christ, I start going to church, I make a mental decision to place my faith in Christ, and then I try my best to be a good person.” That’s not a relationship with God. That’s me trying to save myself and putting God’s name on it. I love this quote from Pastor Francis Chan: “Have you ever wondered if we’re missing it? The God of the universe – the creator of nitrogen and pine needles, galaxies and E-minor, loves us with a radical, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. And what is our typical response? We go to church, sing songs, and try not to cuss. Whether you’ve verbalized it yet or not, we all know something’s wrong.”
A relationship with God in Christ goes something more like this: “I see Christ alive in someone I know, and realize that my life is headed toward a dead end and I need what they’ve received. So I begin to spend some time with them and learn about Jesus Christ through their words and actions. And I decide to place my faith in Christ. And then Christ takes away my old life and washes me clean and replaces that old life with his new life, and God fills me with Holy Spirit, which is Christ alive in me, living his life through me.”
Now, that is my own attempt to put words to what God does for us in Christ, and I am quite sure it falls well short, but can you sense how different that is? That’s grace, God’s work in my life that I don’t deserve and can’t earn. I receive it because God loves me. And suddenly “agape-ing” one another as Christ “agape-s” us doesn’t seem so impossible, because Christ is alive in me, living his life in me. As dearly loved children of God, forgiven in Christ, we imitate God by loving one another and forgiving one another when we do things that bug, irritate, annoy, even hurt one another.
Then Paul lists three things that serve as counterfeits for the real love that God asks us to have for one another. Look at Vv. 3-6. The first thing Paul lists is sexual indulgence. Now, you have to understand, Paul is not condemning sex here. The church is often pictured as being anti-sex and anti-pleasure. We as Christians have more often than not contributed to that stereotype. Here’s the thing though – God created sex. And he created it for more than just making babies. God created sex to be the means by which a man and a woman come together as husband and wife, uniting themselves to one another and maintaining that unity throughout their marriage by enjoying one another. Don’t believe me? Read the Old Testament book of Song of Solomon. Sometimes its called Song of Songs. “How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O noble daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (SOS 7:1-3). Someone’s out there going “That can’t be in the Bible.” It is. And then down a few verses, “Come, my beloved, let us go out into the fields and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love” (SOS 7:11-12). Ok they aren’t even in the bedroom anymore. And this isn’t some smut magazine. This is the Word of God. God created sex, and sex is good. Can I get an amen?
But pastor, I’ve always heard that this book is an allegory for the love God has for us. I mean, doesn’t it say that “his banner over me is love?” That’s obviously talking about God’s love for us. Yes, it is. I studied under the great Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton when I was doing my undergrad work at Asbury University. And I’ll never forget the time he spoke on this book of the Bible during chapel. He said “Is this talking about the love God has for us? Of course. But that isn’t all it’s talking about! Yes, it means his banner over me is love. But it also means
“And when I touch you
I feel happy inside
It’s such a feelin’ that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
Yeah, you got that somethin’
I think you’ll understand
When I say that somethin’
I want to hold your hand.”
That’s why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:5 says “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
You see, Satan can’t create anything. All he can do is take the good things that God has created and twist them in our minds, in our thinking, in our behavior. And what Paul tells us to put away and avoid isn’t sex, it’s sexual immorality and impurity. Sexual immorality is our translation of the Greek word “porneia,” from which we get the word pornography, and it pictures sexual indulgence. Not sex as a uniter in marriage and an expression of married love, but anytime, anywhere, with anyone sex.
Impurity is our translation of the word “akatharsia.” It’s related to the word from which we get our word “catharsis,” only it’s formed in the negative. Catharsis cleanses. Something that is cathartic cleanses me. Leaves me feeling mentally and emotionally cleansed, gets the bad stuff out, right? “Acatharsis,” “akatharsia,” is that which pollutes. Instead of cleansing, it pollutes. Those things that we see and hear, that become what we think and do, and so they pollute us.
I was surprised to find this research in the Journal of Family Psychology (and later in the January 22, 2011, edition of The Economist), because it provides hard data that goes against the flow of popular culture. The study surveyed 2,035 married couples and asked them about their initial sexual experience together (before or after the wedding). Of the 2,035 couples, 336 couples reported waiting until they got married to have sex. The largest group of couples had sex within a few weeks of dating, and 126 couples had sex prior to dating. (This prompted a psychologist who reviewed the study to note, “I guess I’m not sure what constitutes dating anymore.”) After analyzing the data, the three researchers concluded that waiting until after marriage improved the relationship (for both men and women) in four key areas: sexual quality, relationship communication, relationship satisfaction, and perceived relationship stability. According to the study, people who waited until marriage
rated sexual quality 15 percent higher than people who had premarital sex,
rated relationship stability 22 percent higher,
rated satisfaction with their relationships 20 percent higher.
The data showed that premarital sex doesn’t necessarily doom the future marriage to failure. On the other hand, based on this research, there is no validity to the idea that premarital sex is needed to “test” and possibly improve the future marriage relationship. The authors stated that waiting until after the wedding day (what they call “commitment-based sexuality”) “is more likely to create a sense of security and clarity between partners … about exclusivity and a future.”[i]
The second thing Paul lists as a counterfeit to the real love that God asks us to have for one another is “covetousness.” Chuck Swindoll calls this “materialistic madness.” It pictures an insatiable desire for “more,” for “better.” Have you ever had dinner at a friend’s house and then gone home and suddenly been really dissatisfied with your own house. Or you get a look at a friend’s new car and suddenly your own car doesn’t seem so nice anymore. But what does materialism have to do with love? It takes our love and places it on an object that may be just fine as an object, but isn’t worthy of our love. And in the process, we start to see other people as means for us to get what we want. ? Covetousness, materialistic madness, is lust run rampant outside of the sexual realm.
Now, we need to notice two things here. First, covetousness, wanting more and more stuff, is placed on the same level as sexual sin. The church has often harped about sexual sin, and we do need to offer our culture a different narrative about sex than the one it’s following. But we also need to offer a different narrative about greed, and materialism, and covetousness. Both are equally polluting to the soul. Power, possessions, the praise of other people, that car, that house, that boat. Whatever. The second thing we need to notice is that Paul equates covetousness with idolatry – the worship of anything other than God. Covetousness makes a god of whatever it seeks to possess.
And third, Paul lists impure speech. Look at V. 4. Geez Paul, back to speech again? You’ve already covered that one. We get it. Why the emphasis on our words? Remember the words of Jesus, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). What is inside of us will always come out. We might be able to fake it for a while, but eventually, what is really inside of us will come out. If we are filled with filth, filth will come out. If we are filled with Christ, Christ will come out. Does this mean we can’t tell jokes? Of course not! Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And Proverbs 17:22 says “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” As children of God we should be a laughing, light-hearted people! What Paul is talking about here is degrading obscenities – words and name-calling that rob people of their dignity as human beings. And he’s talking about course joking – innuendo that takes the innocent and makes it seem immoral, like a twisting of words. It is inappropriate joking or appropriate joking at the wrong time. Distasteful words. Disciples of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, are growing in their ability to master their mouths.
Paul is also talking about what would literally be translated as “moronic” talk. The Greek word for “fool” is the word we get our word “moron” from. But Paul isn’t talking about intellectual stupidity, or low IQ. He isn’t talking about those times when we all inadvertently say something stupid. He’s talking about genuine foolish talk, genuine, biblical foolishness. And what is that? Psalm 14:1 says “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” In the Bible, to be a fool, to be a moron, is to deny the existence of God, or the reality of a God who will judge injustice. Foolish speech is the speech of those who say there is no God, or if there is a God, he will not judge anyone for the wrong they have done. On the flip side, Proverbs 9:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, (that’s reverence and love for God) and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Wisdom says “we will all one day stand before God, and we will stand there either with the blood of Christ having atoned for our sins or without it. We will all either answer for our own sins, or Christ will answer for us, having taken our sin on himself on the cross.”
“This is a lighthouse. Divert your course 10 degrees north.” Any captain worth his salt would heed the words of the lighthouse. Why? Because he knows that the lighthouse signals danger, something to be avoided. The voice of the lighthouse is to be heeded. In John 10, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We know – and heed – his voice. And what is he saying? “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Settle for nothing less.
Not sexual immorality, which sometimes looks like love, but isn’t. It is always selfish, and never sacrifices self for the good of the other.
Not covetousness, which tries to redirect our love toward something that may be nice, but not worthy of our love.
Not degrading speech, which reveals that what is in our heart isn’t love.
May we receive more grace from God to walk more deeply with Christ into his love. Let us pray.
[i] Busby, D.M., Carroll, J.S., & Willoughby, B. J., “Compatibility or restraint? The effects of sexual timing on marriage relationships,” Journal of Family Psychology (2010)