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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 9, 2015

 Gospel Wisdom

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

              My friend Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, is regarded as one of the finest preachers in America today. Mention a place or a setting where well-known, “name preachers” are gathered, and I will bet that Craig has been invited to preach there. So when Craig Barnes says something about preaching, you do well to listen to what he says. One thing he says is that too many preachers and too many congregations enjoy what he calls “Bad Dog!” sermons. The “Bad Dog!” sermon is the one that scolds, one that articulates a moral standard clearly, then wags a finger, a pointed finger at the congregation, and in effect, says, “Bad Dog!”

             I have had members in congregations I have served through the years who wanted me to preach more “Bad Dog!” sermons. One saint, a man named Dozier Ragsdale, used to say, “Preacher, you need to step on our toes more! We need you to tell us where we’ve gone wrong, and then tell us what we need to do to get it right!” Some of the most devoted Christians love and want to hear “Bad Dog!” sermons. They come to church to be scolded, to be told that they are “bad dogs,” so they can then be better ones. “Don’t gossip!”, or “Do not be judgmental!”, “Don’t cheat on your income taxes!”, “Don’t be greedy”, “Don’t criticize or abuse or argue too much with your family”. These texts can be positive “Bad Dog!” sermons: “Love everybody”, “Pray all the time”, and “Be better church members than you already are!”

             “Bad dog!” Well, if ever a passage lent itself to a “Bad Dog!” sermon, this morning’s passage in Ephesians is such a text. It provides a catalogue of moral vices and virtues, and I suppose can be read as one kickin’ “Bad Dog!” sermon. “Stop lying, and tell the truth. Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Is there ever better advice you have heard, or advice any harder to follow?!) “Do not steal, work honestly, so you can give to those who are in need. Only speak words that bless and build up.” “Put away.” (I love that phrase!) “Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice.” Then it gets positive. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” “Imitate God, be God’s beloved children, and walk in love.”

             Like the general outline of the Ten Commandments, it starts with the negative – the “don’ts” or “thou shalt nots” – then moves to the positive (the “do’s.”) And it can end up sounding like moralism, or good advice, rather than Good News or Gospel.

             The only problem with reading this passage in this way is that the author of Ephesians would never presume to do such a thing. And he would never waste your time with a “Bad Dog!” sermon. No, the author of Ephesians, most likely Paul, though many argue it is not, begins by commending the Gospel as our only hope. (By the way, no less than Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, and Irenaeus believed that Paul wrote Ephesians, so that is why I believe that he did as well!) But even if Paul did not, Ephesians is as “Pauline” as any letter Paul himself ever wrote. And in Ephesians 2, verse 8, Ephesians tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, lest anyone should boast.”

             This is where Paul’s argument, or where Paul’s faith, always begins – In grace, by grace, and through grace! Grace is not, first of all, something you can do. It is only something you can receive, like you would receive a gift. It is something that someone else always has to give you. And Paul is always crystal clear about who this Giver of grace is. For Paul, it is always God in Christ who is the great giver of grace, and the one alone whose Spirit can create faith in us. And the proper response to a gift, is gratitude. Thanksgiving is always the appropriate way to respond to the receipt of any gift.

             So Paul is not hammering the Ephesians or us with “shoulds” and “oughts” and “musts” in this passage that offers moral instruction. He surely is not saying, “Do all these things I tell you in order to be good Christians.” No, he is telling them to do all these good things because they already are Christians! They have been saved from their sins by grace already. God has acted first to forgive and free them, just as God has acted to forgive and to free us. God did not wait for us to get it right. Romans says, “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

             This text does not say, “Do good things so that God will love you.” It says, “Do good things because God has already loved you, believing that you will be good.” This text does not say, “You ought to act like somebody.” It says, “You already are somebody. So act like it.”

             This passage says, “You are precious to God. You are the ones God has loved, the ones for whom Jesus died. You are not homeless or unloved nobodies. You are not nameless. You are recipients of the greatest gift God could possibly ever give. So act like who you really are.” Be who you truly are in Christ Jesus – a beloved son or daughter, a treasured child of God the Father. This is what we affirm every time we ever baptize someone, whether an infant or an adult. We call them by name, believing that God calls them personally into the family, God’s own family. We do not earn this. We cannot. But if we understand the gift that it is, we receive it with glad and generous hearts.

             And we let that baptismal understanding of who we are inform how we understand ourselves and all of life. We see that we are beloved, forgiven, adopted, cherished and called to be a blessed son or daughter of God. And knowing that this is who we are, we want to act like it. We do not want to behave like someone else, or someone less than who we really are in Jesus Christ.

             The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1562, understands this. It consists of three parts. They are labeled “Our Misery,” “Our Redemption,” and “Thankfulness.” We are sinners who have been redeemed by God’s grace. Loved by God in our misery, redeemed by Jesus’ horrible death, we respond in thanksgiving. Gratitude is the basis for all Christian ethics, and the main reason we want to be good.

             The early Church Fathers called it “the wonderful exchange.” “He became what we are, in order that we might become what He is.” It is all about grace, and all about Jesus. And grace has the power to change and to shape us like no amount of scolding ever will. You are loved. You are cherished. You are God’s adopted sons and daughters, called to be Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ witnesses. So be who you really are called to be.

             “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” May our lives smell like we belong to Jesus, because we do!




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