Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 20th Ordinary (Day 3)

Ephesians 5:15-20

15 So be careful to live your life wisely, not foolishly. 16 Take advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times. 17 Because of this, don’t be ignorant, but understand the Lord’s will. 18 Don’t get drunk on wine, which produces depravity. Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: 19 speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; 20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;


Wisdom not foolishness figures large in this text as it did in the story of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom in Monday’s reading. Just as Solomon left the door open to folly by his penchant for improper worship, so Christians leave that door open when we fail to recognize the “evil times” we live in (v.16). That this is a matter of wisdom Paul indicates by warning his readers not to be “ignorant” of this but rather know how we should respond to living in such times (v.17).

Though the contrast between drunkenness and the Spirit has often been taken as a counsel for individual believers to submit to the control of the Spirit, the context all along has been corporate. It seems better to take this crucial contrast here as a word to the community to forsake the foolish ways of their old life left behind in baptism and take up their new life as God’s people in Christ. Tim Gombis says it well:

“The contrast in 5:18 between drunkenness and being filled by the
Spirit is best understood against these ‘two ways’ of life. Paul sets
up drunkenness as the epitome of the ways of darkness and of
shameful, foolish living. It is the very essence of the ‘old humanity’
dynamic, which is to seek pleasure selfishly, indulging in behavior that leads to destruction.”

Throughout this letter Paul has styled the Spirit as the one who builds up the church, the new temple of God (2:21-22). To be “filled with the Spirit” then means to continue participating in the life of this new community, brought into being by the cross (2:13-16) and being equipped and outfitted to carry on Yahweh’s battle against the forces and powers of evil in the heavenly places (6:10-12).

Such participation in the Spirit’s ongoing work of building this people, the new temple of God, into a fit dwelling for God or his fighting force prepared to face off against God’s foes is mediated by the activities Paul lines out in the following participles: speaking, singing, making melody, and giving thanks (and “being subject” to in 5:21 though this goes beyond the limits of our reading today).

This means that being filled with the Spirit is not an abstruse or exotic thing. It is as ordinary and mundane as our daily life in the community of faith. Wisdom, then, is to take pains to regularly participate in the worship and service of the church confident that the Spirit will so “fill us” through our life in and with this people that we will grow into a temple fit for God’s dwelling and a fighting force capable to “stand” against God’s enemies in the struggle.

We may will experience or even exercise some of the more “spectacular” gifts of the Spirit as part of our life in and with this people. But whether we do or do not experience these particular gifts is not a measure of our being filled with the Spirit. God and the Spirit determine and apportion the gifts according to divine wisdom and intention. If we do not experience them, it is likely that our community in its setting does not need them to live out their vocation. It is always possible that a community may be closed to gifts God wants to give them. It is part of the pastoral oversight and direction of each community to help keep it open to the fullness of God’s gifts to it. But assuming that we are open to God in substantial measure, the gifts we have as a people are those necessary for the particular calling we have received from God and the place where we are located.

Paul’s point here, the wisdom he calls us to as God’s people, is to keep ourselves connected to God and each other through the regular practices and work of the community of faith. This instruction assumes even more traction when we include the “be subject” material that follows immediately in this being filled with the Spirit.
It is worth noticing the life in this new temple of God is Trinitarian to the core. We build up one another with “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (that is songs given us by the Spirit). We together sing and make melody “to the Lord” (Christ). And we “give thanks to God the Father . . . in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this way God graciously enables us to participate in his own triune life, a life of endless giving and receiving of love that is who God eternally is. Through Jesus Christ we share in this life and our lives are over time shaped more and more into a way of life characterized by our own giving and receiving of such love to everyone and everywhere we go.

The option to such a life among a community filled with God’s Spirit is a life filled with and destined for depravity (v.18). No wonder Paul insists that we commit ourselves to the former!

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