Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Purity through community.

Something I like to point out rather often is the way that scripture tends to be individualized. We think of the we're given in terms like 'me' or 'you,' instead of 'us' and 'you(s).' As you can see part of the problem is simply that there's not plural 'you' in English. Even when translators try to fix this with phrases like 'all of you' we tend to think of all of us as individuals. But the reality is that scripture almost always talks about things communally rather than individually.

In fact the New Testament views the Christian life as one which must be lived with others. We're told to do mission together. Jesus sent people out in twos so they were never alone. Paul always had a partner to do ministry with. Even practices like fasting were practiced together in the early church with common fasts on certain days of the week. That means that fasting was a communal practice, rather than an individual practice. But one of the most transformation ideas in Paul's letters is the way that purity, integrity, ethics, morality or however you want to call it, is considered a communal practice rather than an individual one.

What's interesting to note is that this communal way of thinking was not the 1st century way of thinking either. At least not in the way Paul takes things to the extreme. Paul saw greed as essentially present in all sin, and greed motivated through selfishness. You might even be able to say that just about all of Paul's ethics were grounded on defeating selfishness in ourselves. That is why communal teaching was so important to Paul. The contrast to thinking selfishly is thinking communally.

Ephesians is one of my favorite letters in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4-5 Paul gives us one of his greatest manifestos on what it means to live in community together. His ideas always rest on the idea that ethics must give up the common cultural ways of thinking and grasp for something else, what he calls 'in Christ.' This stands for not a counter-cultural mindset. A transcendent mindset that views our role not as survival or self-fulfillment, but the fulfillment of a community. In Ephesians 4:17-32 Paul outlines many of these primary ethical issues. Especially this section.

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands,that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." Ephesians 4:25-28

This section outlines several different ethical issues which Paul believes are foundational for proper communal living. Each of them contrasts a new communal way of thinking about ourselves in contrast to a selfish, individual interest worldview that people are used to. These issues are around honesty, anger, stealing, and wholesome talk.

1) Honesty:

People lie or deceive for two reasons, self-reservation, or self-advancement. No matter how you put it, deceit is a selfish act. You may have heard many of the different hypothetical situation in which people may justify lies and deceit as the lesser of two evils. But lets not fool ourselves into thinking that the lesser of two evils then becomes good.

But beyond this, let's remember that it is often the common day to day things in which we're truly dishonest. Also, that this is not about living culturally appropriate lives, but rather transcendent communal lives together. I'm more concerned with the ways we 'every day' lie about and to ourselves about our accomplishments, our failures, our victories, our strengths and weaknesses. We lie about how we're feeling, but more importantly about why we're feeling that way. And this distorts the reality of each other to the community we're trying to live life with.

What are the lies that you often tell yourself?
What is the truth that you're ignoring?
Where do you need to practice honesty better?

2) Anger

Many have said that anger is a choice we make. I find it hard to be convinced that our initial feelings of anger are a choice. However I think that we can make a distinction between 'feelings' of anger that happen in a moment and 'chosen anger' which is the anger that we hold onto over time. We choose to live in anger by choosing to dwell on it, but more importantly by choosing not to act on it.

The solution to anger is not happiness, that's the trap we often find ourselves in. Trying to be happy in order to defeat anger just doesn't work. The solution to anger is forgiveness and reconciliation. In the passage above Paul says "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry," I think that this is a great line at weddings but can be used in a better way. I would paraphrase this as "It is better to try and stop the sun from setting (an impossible act), then to live your life in anger (again, an impossible act)."

Share a time when you have experienced anger in your life?
How have you dealt with your anger in the past? How could it be different?

3) Stealing

It's unlikely that this passage is speaking of young children stealing food in the marketplace, or organized crime. It is impossible, by the language, that he is speaking our crippled or disabled individuals who are unable to work. Paul is speaking to members of the church who are taking advantage of Christian generosity in order to live life easier for themselves.

This is one of the greatest problems in the North American church today. Individuals and families seem to feel that their very presence, attendance, at a church gives them the right to all the privileges and programs that church has to offer as well as anything else their minds can conjure. Most churches are run by the power of a small minority struggling to keep hold of the vast majority who, at the drop of a hat, could up and leave for another church. This attitude in the Christian reeks of selfishness, and could be considered nothing less than stealing energy, resources and time from those who keep church ministry and administration running.

Have you ever felt frustrated, or taken advantage of by your church?
Have you ever been guilty of coasting through church life at the expense of others? How do you reflect on that time now?

4) Wholesome talk

Encouragement is something which is meant to push others further towards good. It is true that this does not always mean positivity in our encouragement. However it dos mean a positive outcome as our goal, and that means truth. This means that we need to give true credit to where we've been, where we, are and where we're going to be. This means that it may take a great deal of thought and consideration before we ever open our mouths to those we hope to encourage or criticize.

Does your encouragement or criticism tend to bring you the results you are hoping for from others?
Do you tend to give a lot of thought before you speak? How can you improve this?

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