|Lamp of Wisdom – Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire|
Ephesians 5:15-20 New Revised Standard Version
15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Be imitators of God. That is the message we heard from the previous lectionary reading (Eph. 5:1). As we discovered any attempt to live in this way requires the assistance of the Holy Spirit. As chapter 5 continues, the author (for simplicity we will call the author Paul) calls on the readers, most of whom were of Gentile background, to live as children of light (Eph. 5:8) rather than as children of darkness. There is a bit of “comeoutism” here, as Paul reminds the readers of their former lives that were marked by all manner of disobedience. So, don’t go back to that life (Eph. 5:3-14). Remember, you are a new creation in Christ, so live accordingly. What we have here is not only an ethical imperative but a call to discipleship. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
The reading from Ephesians 5 is brief, but it follows upon what came before concerning their new status as children of life and precedes the household code that presents so many problems to Christians. What does it mean for wives to submit themselves to their husbands? What does it mean for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church? The lectionary creators have chosen to avoid these verses, which gives preachers a break but doesn’t give us the ability to answer that question (for a discussion of the household codes and the idea of mutual submission see my Ephesians’ study guide, pp 71-81).
Here in our reading, the focus is on wise living. So, as Paul writes: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). You will notice a bit of the apocalyptic here with the reference to the days being evil. For a minority religious community whose beliefs and practices stand apart from the rest of the community, this seems like an apt description of the situation. For Jewish Christians, there is a long tradition to draw upon, but for Gentile Christians, this is all new. To be in Christ is to leave behind everything they understood to be true. So, Paul asks them to live wisely. For Jewish Christians at least, the Wisdom tradition might have given them guidance, whether that be the canonical book of Proverbs or the non-canonical books like Wisdom of Solomon. So, guided by Wisdom (Sophia), they should refrain from all foolishness. Instead, seek to discern the will of God. In other words, wisdom and the will of God are parallel to each other.
Paul issues a contrast here. Don’t get drunk with wine because that’s debauchery. No Bacchanalia for these believers, who might have participated in the rites of Bacchus/Dionysius before their conversion. For Mainline Protestants, many of our traditions were at one point committed to a temperance message. My own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, can claim as one of its own Cary Nation, who was known for taking her hatchet to saloons to do damage to their trade. In recent years, we’ve thrown that message off, even if we continue to use grape juice in communion. The danger is to go the other direction in reaction. Unfortunately, we are beginning to see the growth of alcoholism among Protestant clergy. While a sermon about refraining from too much alcohol consumption might not go over well in our congregations, the warning to stay clear of drunkenness is likely worth heading as drunkenness is not a good expression of Christian discipleship. In addition, addictions of any kind can be damaging to the health of individuals and communities.
So, instead of getting drunk with wine, which might have been part of these Christians’ former worship experiences, Paul invites them to be filled with the Spirit. This call to be filled with the Spirit reminds us of the promise we hear in Acts 2, where those who are being saved in Christ will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts2:38). Here in Ephesians, it is the Spirit who inspires and empowers the people of God as they move toward maturity in Christ, gifting the church with persons/gifts that equip the saints for ministry as they move toward maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). [For more on the subject of spiritual gifts see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, 2nd edition, (Energion Publications, 2021)].
This call to be filled with the Spirit leads to the next point in the passage. That point has to do with worship. The worship of God is the foundation of the Christian life. So, as we are filled with the Spirit we gather to worship God, sharing together in singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.” Yes, as we are filled with the Spirit we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. As someone who finds singing to be foundational to my own worship life, I’m especially appreciative of this encouragement to sing to the Lord. Interestingly, the next phrase in the reading takes us beyond the corporate worship experience, though assumedly it flows out of that experience. Paul asks us to give thanks to God the Father As we do this, we can give thanks to God “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
With that, the reading ends, but the chapter does not. Interestingly, the Common English Bible extends the sentence to include verse 21: “and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” So, wise living includes submission to one another out of respect for Christ. That, of course, leads into the Household code that begins in verse 22 and continues through Ephesians 6:9. It is important to note that the verb in verse 22, which enjoins wives to submit to their husbands is derived from verse 21. In that transition verse, the author calls on the people of God to submit themselves to each other “out of reverence for Christ.” [For more on mutual submission see my Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Bible Study, (Energion Publications, 2016), pp. 55-64]
Whether the author (Paul) envisioned this as a call for a form of mutual submission that would overturn the traditional understanding of the household codes is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, however the household codes are understood, the call here is to live wisely as an expression of the Spirit-filled life that shows respect and reverence for Christ Jesus. In doing so, one will be an imitator of God (Eph. 5:1).
For more on this passage and its larger context see my Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 59-83].
Image Attribution: Lamp of Wisdom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54977 [retrieved August 8, 2021]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rowanbank/5815103193/.