Sunday, August 9, 2015

Phil Kniss: Be angry, but do not sin

In God’s household, we are called to integrity
(Reflections on MCUSA Assembly in Kansas City)
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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Now that you’ve heard today’s Ephesians text,
    it feels like yet again,
    I need to explain that I didn’t cherry-pick this text.
        This is today’s lectionary epistle reading.
            Churches all over the world are using it today.
        And we didn’t choose this Sunday to focus on Kansas City,
            because of this text.
        Today just happened to be
            the first Sunday all four delegates could be present.
    But yes, I know, it looks like it was a plot.

This text speaks to how, as parts of the body of Christ,
    we relate to each other with integrity, kindness,
        compassion, and forgiveness,
    because, according to Paul, we are members of each other.

If you were at Kansas City,
    or have been paying attention to the ripples since then,
        on social media, or the Mennonite press . . .
        you probably know that not everyone
            who engages the tension in the church today,
        does so in the spirit Paul is teaching about here.

Again, I will not be able to do justice to a study of this rich text.
    Because we had a variety of speakers today,
        I will just share a few thoughts from the text,
            and commend it for further study and reflection.
        After we finish today, take this text with you,
            read it again, ponder it, talk to others in the church about it.
        That’s my challenge and invitation to you all.

But in a nutshell, here’s what I want to say now . . .
    Paul makes an important assumption about the church,
        an assumption that I’m afraid we are at risk of losing,
            if we don’t take care.
    Paul assumes that we all belong to each other,
        as members of the same body.
        And that belonging together
            means we share responsibility for each other’s well-being,
                for each other’s flourishing.

    When Paul says “we are members of each other,”
        he does not mean what we mean
            when we talk about traditional “church membership.”
        He does not mean a membership patterned after
            other civic clubs and organizations,
            that if you meet the minimum requirements,
                and sign on the dotted line,
            you can be a member,
                with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.
        Not saying that kind of membership is useless.
        Not saying there isn’t a time and place for it.
        But it’s not what Paul envisions.

    All the apostles were of a mind
        that when we were baptized into Christ,
            we were baptized together into Christ’s body, the church.
        And that baptism signifies
            that we share the same Spirit breath with other members.
            We share the same life-blood, same arteries,
                the same spiritual circulatory system.
        We are attached to each other,
            in the same way hands are attached to arms,
                and arms to shoulders.
        As different as we are,
            we who confess Jesus Christ, and are baptized into his body,
                are comprised of the same stuff,
                and we must reverence all the various parts of the body,
                    for Christ’ sake.

This is why, according to Ephesians 4,
    that we must act and speak with integrity.
    It’s why we must speak the truth;
        must deal with each other honestly and generously;
        must not speak evil, but only that which builds up;
        must reject all attitudes of bitterness and wrath and anger
            and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.
    It’s why we must make every effort to be kind to one another,
        tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
        as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Not because there are a list of rules
    against lying and cheating and violence,
    that we signed on to when we joined the organization.
No, we reject bitterness and malice and dishonesty and manipulation,
    because we are members of each other.
    We are attached to each other,
        and we don’t treat parts of our own body that way.
And we embrace honesty and kindness and tenderheartedness
    for the same reasons.
    We are attached to each other.

Any action directed toward another—
    whether life-giving or death-dealing—
    is an action directed toward a part of my own body.
Acting in ways that separate me from a sister or brother,
    is an act of violence against my own body,
    it is an act of self-injury.
Conversely, an act of love, is an act of self-care.
_____________________

But this brings up an interesting tension in the text itself,
    which you may have noticed.
    V. 26 says, “Be angry but do not sin.”
    But v. 31 says, “Put away from you all . . . wrath and anger.”

So which is it?
    Do we obey Paul’s command to “put away anger”?
    Or do we obey Paul’s command to “Be angry, but do not sin.”

Actually, these do not contradict each other,
    if we accept Paul’s main premise, main concern,
        of respecting the body
        and valuing our mutual belonging in the body.
    No, Paul speaks of different kinds of anger.

    There is a persistent and unresolved anger,
        that together with malice and bitterness,
        drive a wedge that separates us from other parts of our body.
        That is a grievous sin that Paul urges us
            to put away from us, now and forever.

    But there is also, clearly, a sinless anger.
        It is an anger that respects the body.
        It is an anger that moves us to act,
            but not to acts of violence against our own body.
    This kind of anger, a truly righteous anger,
        is a realization that something isn’t right,
        and a willingness to do something about what isn’t right,
        and to do so with a passion,
            and with a full and appreciative awareness
            of the well-being of the whole body.

    When we speak out of sinless anger,
        we do so in ways that do not tear down, or tear apart,
            but, according to v. 29,
        in ways that build up,
            “so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear.”

    There is plenty of anger throughout the church today.
        Not just in Mennonite Church USA,
            but in many other church bodies.
    I don’t lament that there is anger.
        Anger is ordinary.
            It rises from particular experiences and perspectives.
    My lament is,
        that many of the expressions of anger we hear these days,
            are not motivated by the desire to build up,
                and give grace to the hearer.
        Thus, they add to our sins.

    The question for us all is,
        how can we be honest and truthful about our anger,
        but express it in ways that do not deepen the injury,
            but give grace to those who hear?
    That is what it means to be angry, and not sin.

My heart-felt appeal is simply to act like the true body that we are.
    I don’t expect a suddenly sinless body,
        any more than I expect my physical body
            to suddenly attain perfect health and fitness.
    We will continue to sin against the body of Christ,
        against other members of the body of Christ.
        I know that I have. I confess it.
    That’s where the word of grace is essential.
    We have caused each other pain in the body.
        We will likely do so again.
        Let us extend grace to each other
            as we express what we are passionate about
            in sometimes less-than-perfect, or even sinful, ways.
        But then let us also turn, that is, repent,
            and turn toward each other in the body,
            and speak as Paul urges us—in ways that build up,
                and give grace to the hearer.

I have utmost confidence and hope in the future of Christ’s body.
    Because, quite simply, it is Christ’s body, not mine.
I believe that our struggles and conflict are but for a season.
    I believe that we all have at heart,
        the faithfulness of the church of Jesus Christ,
        and that we all have love for each other.
    We are tempted, always,
        to treat the body of Christ
            as if it were a partisan political body.
        And as the presidential election cycle ramps up,
            and the debates and talking heads get louder,
            we will be tempted to talk to each other like they do.

    Let us not.
    Let us, in protest, in righteous anger,
        refuse to join in that kind of rhetoric.
    When speaking in the church,
        let us always, before every speech act—
            whether face-to-face speech with a sister or brother,
            or self-published speech on Facebook,
            or letters to editors,
            or any other form—
        let us always assess before we speak . . .
            am I speaking to build up and not tear down,
            do my words give grace to those who hear, or read?
    And when we fail at that, because we will,
        let the rest of us extend grace to those who didn’t.

And the God of love and peace will be with us,
    and will see us through.

Because, as the ancient hymn text says,
    Where God is, there is love.
    And where love is, there is God.

Turn in the blue Hymnal Worship Book to #452.
    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

This hymn text is believed to date back all the way to the early church.
    “Where there is charity, and love, there is God.”

We will sing it together a couple times,
    then as I lead in a prayer,
    we will respond by singing it a few more times during the prayer.

Let us sing, then pray.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

Lord of the church,
    we thank you for bringing your church into being,
        and breathing life into it through your Spirit.
    We confess our sins against your body,
        we confess the ways we have injured members of your body,
    And we thank you for your abundant grace and forgiveness,
        your persistent life and breath.
    And we thank you for being with us, in charity and love.
        Ubi caritas, et amor.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

So we ask for strength and courage
    to put away all falsehood,
        speak truth to each other, as members of one another.
    We ask for the wisdom to know how to be angry, and not sin,
        to not make room for the devil.
    We ask for ourselves a spirit of honesty and generosity.
        That no evil talk come out of our mouths,
            but only what is useful for building up,
            so that our words may give grace to those who hear.
    We ask for the will to put away from us
        all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,
            together with all malice,
        and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted,
            forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.
    Thank you for being with us, in charity and love.
        Ubi caritas, et amor.

    “Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est.”

—Phil Kniss, August 9, 2015

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