Sun, 26 November 2023
[We're still having audio issues - the mic cut off half-way through. I re-read the second half but you'll notice the change. Thank you for your patience as we continue to work on this.]
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Ephesians 4:1-6
St. Paul was a great theologian. He had trained the lowest part of his mind (instincts, gut) through his ascetic submission to the Law and working through the constant temptation of the “thorn in the flesh”; he had trained his intellect by training under great teachers before and after his conversion; and he had trained his nous or heart through direct and awesome encounters with God.
Most importantly, St. Paul was a pastor. He lived according to the same standard that he taught: that all things be done so that some might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
As St. John Chrysostom describes it;
It is the virtue of teachers not to try to win the praise or respect of those under their authority, but to do everything with the single objective of their salvation. This is what makes them teachers rather than tyrants. After all, God does not give them authority so that they could enjoy rewards for themselves, but so that they might disregard their own interests in order to build up the flock. This is a teacher’s duty. Such a one was the blessed Paul, a man who was free from all manner of vanity, and was contented to be not just as those whom he taught, but even as the very least even of them. It is for this reason that he even calls himself their servant, and so generally speaks in a tone of supplication. Observe how he writes nothing dictatorial, nothing imperious, but everything as one chastened and subdued.
Today we hear the first of such words that he was directing to his flock in Ephesus, a coastal town in what is now western Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from Greece. These words were directed to the Christians at Ephesus almost two thousand years ago, but they could just as easily have been written for us here in the Upstate.
St. Paul begins by describing himself, saying,
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord.”
St. John Chrysostom composed what most have been an entire hour-long homily on just this line. It is well worth reading, and I recommend it to you. The thing that I would like to bring out of it today is that he was reminding his readers that St. Paul had what is sometimes called “skin in the game.” He was not just someone who was giving the people he served good advice, he was someone who considered what he was telling them so important that he was willing to suffer for saying and living it. St. Paul was brilliant. He could have had a career doing anything involving knowledge or leadership, but he chose and stuck with being an evangelist even though it took him to prison and martyrdom.
Psychology shows that we take people more seriously when they have skin in the game. When leaders don’t have skin in the game, they come off as hypocrites and, even if their intentions are good, untrustworthy.
As St. John points out, St. Paul had skin in the game. We can trust him. He is not a hypocrite. He is worthy of our attention.
St. Paul goes on to say;
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called,”
What is this calling to which we have been called? To tithe? To come to church? To give to the poor? To be nice to one another? These are all worth doing, but they are not our calling. As St. Paul writes in the very next chapter, our calling is much greater than these; we are called to be members of god’s holy council (Ephesians 2:22) and to reign with Him on high (Ephesians 2:6)! Could there be any higher a calling? No.
In this, we are raised up to live and serve with the very angels and all the hosts of heaven.
Knowing the magnitude of the calling, how can we walk worthily? By putting on airs? By acting as though we were deserving of so great an honor? By lording it over one another? Surely this is our temptation. Experiments have shown how power goes to people’s heads and changes them into monsters. Is this how we can walk worthily? No! St. Paul knew this temptation and he had mastered it in his own life. He saw it threatening his flock, so he shared the secret of “walking worthily”, juxtaposing it with both the honor we have been promised and the great temptation it brings.
How can this be done? How can we avoid the temptation that brought even the greatest of all the created host of heaven – Lucifer to ruin?
Answering this, St. Paul continues;
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness”
How can we be lowly when we have been raised up so high? Because we know that we are not worthy of it. We appreciate the difference between what we have earned and what we have been given. We recognize that we have been bought with a price, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Lowliness and gratitude work within our hearts to make us worthy through humility.
It is this that then leads us towards the next way that we walk worthily;
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness,”
Gentleness. How often are we gentle with one another? Is it a habit of our hearts, or is it something that we only do when we are in the mood for it and when others behave in a way that is worthy of our kindness?
I think we know the answer, and we should be heartbroken, repent, and walk this better way.
If we can gain enough humility to see and be grateful for all that God has done for us despite our sin, then the next step on this walk is to imitate His beneficence in our relations with others, no matter how much hellfire their wicked actions and evil hearts have earned from us [sic].
After all, you and I deserve the hellfire. We are certainly not worthy of God’s gentleness … and yet He is gentle and kind. Kind enough to do everything within His power to protect us from hell and all its torment.
But what about us? Is this how we treat others? Or do we instead create our own sort of hellfire and vengeance to inflict on those who dare to cross us? Again, is this how we walk worthily? Is this how we show that we truly belong in God’s grace and in His heavenly kingdom? Where is the love? Where is the virtue?
Do I even need to point out that the offenses others commit against us pale in comparison to those we inflict on God? And that their offenses are inflated through the distorting lens of our own pride, if not created altogether out of whole cloth? We must do better; we count the slights of others to justifications for vengeance.
Rather we must do as St. Paul says, calling us to walk;
… with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love,”
St. Paul tells us to put up with one another. Again, we are showing we belong with the Lord by imitating Him. He suffered persecution, the horrible passion, and death on the cross for us.
We walk worthily as God the Son’s brothers and sisters and as God the Father’s sons and daughters when we suffer for one another. And most often this suffering takes the form not of physical pain, but by offering patience and kindness when our instincts tell us someone deserves a rebuke.
We walk worthily when we are willing to suffer in silence when others seem – or may even be - worthy of actual suffering.
Do you see how this works? Do you see how much it goes against our fallen instincts?
But this really is the way of the Christian – it is our high calling.
And we should suffer “longly” not in weakness, but in strength. The Lord could have obliterated the Romans and Jews that attacked Him, but for their salvation, He held His power in check… knowing that the best use of His power was to willingly endure sacrifice so that they could be saved. He knew that the greatest victory did not come with winning the immediate battle with His oppressors, but by winning the war against all oppression through His lowliness, His gentleness, His longsufferingness, and His love.
We can and must do the same.
All these things require incredible strength. They require incredible courage.
But if we do them, they bring the reward of the places in the kingdom of heaven that God has set aside for all his saints and; to circle back – the reward of good teachers - that of drawing others towards the same.