Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Theology Of Being Good

Much of what the apostle Paul writes to the churches with which he has a relationship deals with community problems that they are experiencing. Yes, sometimes he focuses on wrong beliefs, but often he is dealing with wrong actions. There's a connection, of course. How can the Corinthians be members of Christ's body yet unite themselves to temple prostitutes? How can the Galatians be set free by Christ yet require Gentile converts to become slaves to the law? Over and over, Paul tells his readers how to behave, not just what to believe, but it's his approach to the relationship between right action and right belief that gives me hope for the twenty-first-century church.

In Sunday's reading from Ephesians (yes, I know most scholars don't think of Ephesians as having been written by Paul, but that doesn't bother me, and I'm going to call the author "Paul" anyway), Paul offers an exhortation that has become the most popular offertory sentence in the Episcopal Church: "live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." We leave out the "fragrant" part and usually say "walk in love," but it's the same thing. Before we pass out alms basins and give the congregation the opportunity to devote themselves and something of value to God's work in the world, we urge them to walk/live in love in the same way that Christ himself loved us, which is to say that he yielded his life as a sacrifice to God. Of course, we have more in mind than the folded-up twenty-dollar bill that you drop into the plate when we say those words. We mean to walk in love with your whole life. But how different would that moment feel on Sunday morning if the presider said, "Love one another in the same way that Jesus loved you when he died on the cross for your sake?"

There's something powerful about making the connection between how we have been loved by God in Jesus Christ and how we are called to love one another. The opportunity for real transformation exists when, instead of saying, "Be good because you're supposed to," or "Be good because God is watching you," we say, "Be good because you are good because that's what God has made you through his limitless love in Jesus Christ." The transformation doesn't come from us. It comes from God. Whenever Paul urges his readers to live a godly life, he makes that clear. God has done the work of making you good, now remember that and live like it.

Look again at the Sunday's reading from Ephesians and notice how Paul's string exhortations is grounded in the transformation God has already enacted in those who read Paul's letter: "Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." - Why should we speak the truth? Not because it's the right thing to do but because we have been made members of one another in Christ. That "members of one another" governs his words about thieves not stealing and no evil talk coming out of their mouths. Paul urges them to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Perhaps summing it all up, he tells them to imitate God as God's beloved children, walking in love.

I spend too much time telling my kids to behave and not enough time telling them that they are loved. I spend too much time thinking that I should do better and not enough time remembering that I have been made good by God. Those two things go together, but one cannot expect change in behavior without a change in identity. How might each of us know so deeply that we have been loved by God into a new life that we live that new life as children who naturally imitate God just as a child naturally imitates a parent?

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