Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, December 16th 2018
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.
Upon the death of his father King George V, Edward VIII gave an interview in which he reminisced about his time as a boy. “Whenever any one of us children had done something wrong”, Edward recalled, “the King would take us aside and tell us—‘my child, you must remember who you are’”. The point being that if Edward only remembered his identity as a child of the King, and an heir to the throne, he would live a good life that brought honour to the king.
In the passage before us this morning, Paul addresses a set of communities in Ephesus—modern day Western Turkey— that was similarly wrestling with its identity and how it lived out that identity in the world. Now, this passage is filled to the brim with moral instruction. It is rather tempting when reading such a passage to respond with despair at ever being able to fulfil what is laid out for us. The bar often seems just too high. So, before we get to the passage, let me briefly set the scene so that we might read it through the right lens.
Paul’s message to us this morning is simple but profound—what we do flows out of who we are. This reminder is as timely now, as it was then. And who are we? Paul tells us, “You are light in the Lord”. It is on the basis of that identity that we are to live. In other words, we do what we are. Our identity defines our action, and our action flows out of our identity. If we fail to remind ourselves of who we are, then we might, like Edward VIII, risk losing sight of what we are to do, and why we are to do it.
The question I wish to raise for us this morning is deceptively simple—who are you? What defines your identity, your sense of worth?
Who are you?
In our Western culture, we are so often defined by what we do—our career, intellect, talents, family, socio-economic status, nationality, political leanings and so on. And our present moment deepens this existential angst in some profoundly unsettling ways. The emphasis in our western culture on body weight, for instance, has contributed to the astronomical rise in eating disorders. The thought that we cannot be sure that we exist from moment to moment without proof from one of our social media profiles (be it Instagram, Twitter or Facebook) has created widespread insecurity. At the heart of this anxiety—and this is the crucial point—is the creeping fear that we constantly need to prove ourselves…What we do so often defines who we are.
Of course, each of the aspects I have just mentioned do play a role in shaping our identity, and there is nothing wrong with that in itself; and yet, each factor—money, facebook profile, job or whatever it might be—fails to really get to the heart of who you are, fails to plumb the depths of your identity. And part of this, I think, is because all of the things I have mentioned are fundamentally centred on ourselves and what we do…
Now, the passage this morning casts a totally different vision for how we might think about who we are—and the key to that vision is God himself. You see, we cannot understand who we are and what we are to do, without first reflecting on who God is and what he has done. A simple point, I realise, but one we are in desperate need of reminding ourselves of.
Here’s the simple point that bears repeating: God defines who we are. The beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes this point beautifully, with a stunning cosmic vision of God’s initiative in the world. God lovingly adopts, lavishly loves, powerfully redeems and beautifully equips us. It’s a breath-taking passage (quite literally because it consists of a single 202-word sentence in the original Greek). But it’s also breath-taking in the simple assertion that it makes: God defines who we are. God takes the initiative, relentlessly pursuing us, in spite of ourselves. It is God’s gracious action that defines who we are—children of a loving father before we could even respond. This is who we are. And this is whose we are.
The same message emerges throughout the letter: we live in light of what God has done for us and in light of what God says about us. The structure of the letter to the Ephesians follows this very move from identity to action. The first part of the letter deals with what we might call the indicative of faith—this is who we are in light of who God is, and what God has done. The imperative of faith—the activity of being disciples of Christ—follows on in the second half of the letter. It is only if we get the indicative of faith straight that the “imperative” of the Christian life makes sense. We live as children of light not to earn our father’s trust or favour—rather, we live as children of light because it is who we are.
In the passage before us this morning, Paul continues to tie our identity to what God thinks of us. And there are three parts to this. First, Paul describes the congregations as light in the Lord. The words “in the Lord” are not a pious afterthought, or an add on to make the text read a bit more appropriately. No, to be “light in the Lord” gets to the heart of who we are and why we do what we do. You see, the source of light is the Lord himself. The phrase “in Christ” or, as here “in the Lord” permeates Ephesians, appearing no less than 13 times. To be light in the Lord means that the source of all that we are and do is Christ. Let us take hold of that this morning—we will fail and fall as disciples of Christ, but is he that is the light. We cannot go it alone—we rely on him. You are light in the Lord. The same truth is expressed differently when Paul calls the Ephesians “children of light”. Here, he again reminds his audience, and reminds us today, that we are who we are because of who our father is. Third, Paul is emphatic that the identity of the audience is a present reality. He does not say “you are becoming light in the Lord” or “you were light in the Lord”; in the Greek, the phrase is literally, “you were darkness…now light in the Lord”. In other words, this is your identity here and now. Of course, this needs nuancing. Following Christ is an ongoing process; it involves walking and waiting—and Advent reminds us that we await Christ’s return when all will be completed and light overcomes darkness at last. But in terms of what God thinks of us, it is decided now. If we are following Christ, we are light in the Lord. You are light in the Lord.
In light of this identity, there come responsibilities. You will note that Paul uses the metaphor of walking to describe being disciples. “Walk as children of the light”. As a consequence of this new calling, this new identity, the people of God are called to live differently. You are light. Now live it out. Earlier in the letter, Paul calls for the Ephesians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. The image of walking fundamentally gets at the direction of our lives. Where are we heading? Who are we following? Who’s calling the shots? What’s guiding us? Who or what is defining us?
To walk as children of the light takes wisdom. Paul lists some broad virtues in v.9—goodness, righteousness and truth. It takes discernment to know how to apply these in the complexities of life, as Paul admits in verse 10—“and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord”. But Paul has already spelled out what it means to live lives of goodness, righteousness and truth in the previous section—and it means telling the truth, not lies; not allowing ourselves to become consumed with anger, bitterness, malice, but rather being kind and forgiving. In fact, the character of this new community is to match the character of the God who had made this family a reality. “Be imitators of God”, Paul says at the outset of the chapter. How we live not only flows from our identity but is thoroughly shaped by that identity. We forgive as those whom God has forgiven in Christ. Because God our Father is light, we are to be children of light exposing the unfruitful works of darkness. And so, we have come full circle—we live out of who we are—children of our mighty and loving Father God, children of light who represent our father in the world.
So, this morning, may we know who we are in Christ—children of light, beloved children of God. And in this season of Advent, may we walk as children of light…for it is who we are.
Image: Kaitlyn Heriford, “The Light Shines Through”. Website.