Grace Presbyterian Church
August 8, 2021, Pentecost 11B
What to Put Away, What to Keep
Do you renounce all evil, and powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?
I renounce them.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love, to your life’s end?
I will, with God’s help.
These words are found in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Common Worship as part of the recommended liturgy for a baptism, as part of the liturgy known as the “renunciations.” The questions are asked by the minister presiding at the baptism, and then answered either by the one being baptized or the parents or guardians of the one being brought for baptism. Presbyterians are hardly unique in this; some version of this is found in the baptismal rite of pretty much all the churches that have baptismal rites or liturgies.
The very idea of renunciation of evil and sin is what is at the heart of today’s scripture reading, as the author of Ephesians continues with the practical instruction portion of this epistle.
In all honesty there are portions of this passage that leave one wondering just what is going on in the churches to which this letter is addressed. The instruction about “putting away falsehood” is strong enough. The instruction about anger is actually useful (more about it later). The instructions about “evil talk,” “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” coming in a run-list like this, begins to raise the eyebrows and provoke wonder about a possible reality show about the church in question. But really: “Thieves must give up stealing”??? Is theft a major problem in this congregation? Has “thou shalt not steal” not come up by this time? Or was that regarded as a regulation from the Jewish side of the Jewish-Gentile split in this congregation and therefore to be disregarded by the Gentile converts? Seriously, what is with this?
As curious as this insertion may seem, what is even more remarkable about it is how it is used as an instructional point. “Thieves must give up stealing,” not because it violates the Ten Commandments or because it’s against the law or because it’s not nice; instead, the correction is “rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” “You need to stop stealing so that you can make money to give to the poor.” If you’re thinking that this sounds a little bit nuts, you’re not alone. It’s been a head scratcher for centuries.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be, though. Maybe our definition of “stealing” is too narrow. I was reminded this week of an article I had first found a year ago, a report produced by Heifer International (the same group we support with those aluminum cans we collect and other offerings) on the worldwide coffee industry. (Yes, Heifer International does more than provide animals for families in need.) By the calculations of this report, the coffee industry internationally is worth over 200 billion dollars. (I can’t even fit that number onto my calculator on my phone.) Those peoples around the world who grow the beans that make the whole idea of coffee possible see maybe 5% or (if they’re lucky) 7% of that. To put it another way, say you by a Grande Latte later today as a treat. You might spend around $3.65 (that’s a rough average for such a drink). Of that $3.65, the farmer who grew those beans might receive $0.02, maybe $0.03. To add insult to injury, the sleeve likely to be sheathed around your cup costs about $0.05. That piece of cardboard is valued more than the labor required to grow the beans that make your latte even possible. And this is only one of dozens of possible examples of the exploitative nature of our economy.
Indeed, perhaps our definition of “stealing” is too narrow.
Anyway, while we have no idea how Robin Hood – the “steal from the rich, give to the poor” character of English lore – would respond to this bit of instruction, we can at least draw from it a lesson that applies across this instructional fragment. In this episode of “don’t do this, do that” across these passages, the “do that” responses have a very clear purpose. The hearers and readers of this letter are being taught what it looks like to live in Christ, just as much of the previous part of the book calls us to do.
We put away falsehood; we speak truth.
We are angry, but we do not sin.
We give up stealing, if that’s been a thing; we work to care for the needy.
We don’t talk evil; we use our words to build up and give grace.
We don’t “grieve the Holy Spirit,” we are brought together and marked for redemption by the Spirit.
We lay aside bitterness and wrath and anger and all those things; we are kind and tenderhearted and forgiving with one another (the way God has, in Christ, forgiven us, in case we’ve forgotten).
Now as if these instructions weren’t provocative enough, not to mention plenty challenging, the first verses of chapter 5 drops the bombshell: “Therefore, be imitators of Christ, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…”. Once again, it all comes back around to love, in some way or other. And again, all of the instruction of this mini-lesson is at the last caught up into this main point. To live in love is not to talk evil or to engage in lies or to steal or to do the things that grieve the Spirit that is all about holding us together. To live in love is to speak truth (even when it’s not all that pleasant to do so); to live in love is to keep your anger (which will happen, and even should happen sometimes) from leading you into sin, and not to let that anger fester and divide us; to live in love is not to steal, but to do honest work so that you have something to share with those in need; to live in love is to lay aside speech and action that tears us apart, and to take up the words and deeds that hold us together.
There is challenge here, in that (for example) sometimes it is really, destructively wrong not to be angry. To be indifferent to the injustice that runs rampant in the world around us (think of that example from the coffee industry, for instance), or even to seek to profit from it or take comfort in it or otherwise to justify its existence, is literally damnable. It is the stuff of Hell. And yet we see an awful lot of “Christians” doing exactly that in the headlines every day, do we not?
And yet, we are charged here not to let that anger lead us into sin, nor to let it fester and wreck relationships within the body.
Part of the answer is easy enough to figure out: fight against that injustice, resist the prejudice against race or gender or orientation or anything that dehumanizes and demeans any of God’s creation. But even then, there will be those within the body – or at least calling themselves “Christians” – who resist that fight tooth and nail. Where, then, would our author direct us; to do God’s will and resist the injustice at hand, or to make peace?
The tricky part about moral instruction, such as the author of Ephesians has undertaken, is that sometimes it leaves you in a quandary like this. At such a time we’re called to remember that Ephesians, or any such part of scripture, is not the whole of scripture; more than a few words of Jesus, for example, should answer this quandary for us without too much difficulty: fight the injustice, do unto “the least of these” as Jesus says in Matthew 25.
Nonetheless, the basic theme of this lesson holds: put away those things that do harm, keep those things that build up. Leave behind the destructive; continue with the constructive. Lay aside what harms, take up what heals.
Sometimes, I guess, the challenge is to know which is which.
And I still don’t know what Robin Hood would say about this.
For the guidance of the Spirit in learning these things, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #739, O for a Closer Walk with God; #444, Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive; #729, Lord, I Want to Be a Christian
 Statistics from Cory Gilman, “Rooted in Racism: Dark Profits in the Coffee Industry,” https://www.heifer.org/blog/rooted-in-racism-dark-profits-in-the-coffee-industry.html?msource=SIBLH20FB0003&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=blog&utm_term=post&utm_content=SIBLH20FB0003, 3 August 2020 (accessed 5 August 2021).