The former passionate anti-Christian but now turned convert, Paul of Tarsus, took the message of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen to all the major cities in the Roman world. He believed that following Jesus was not only an antidote to Rome’s corruption and decadence, but also that living the renewed life in the Spirit of Christ would unite all of humanity in a peaceful, loving, and generous kingdom with Christ as King. He travelled to Athens, Philippi, to Thessalonike, and this morning we read from the letter he wrote to the Christian community he founded in the great port city of Ephesus in western Turkey.
He tells the fledgling Christian community to be careful how they live their lives. Do not be unwise in the decisions you make the actions you take, but be wise. People are watching, and they will judge this new religion based on the lifestyle of its adherents. So Paul urges the followers of Christ to live mature, sober, responsible, engaged, and compassionate lives.
The citizens of Ephesus were watching the Christian community not just because it was a “new” religion, but also because it was different. In the ancient world, organized religion was all about making sacrifice. The gods were the sources of power, so you offered the gods a gift, in the form of a sacrifice: livestock, grain, wine, etc., and a priest from that god’s temple burned the sacrifice, then the god might grant you a favor. Think of it, in an agrarian culture, if the god who controls the rain, temperature, and sun manipulates those elements in just the right way to create optimal growing conditions, your field will produce an abundant harvest and you would become rich. So ancient religion was all about offering gifts to those in power with the hope and the expectation that they would use their power to grant you favors. If you think about it for a moment, it might be possible to identify that same dynamic at work in the world today.
One of the principal gods in Ephesus was Artemis. She was the goddess of the hunt and of fertility. Her temple was four times larger than the temple of Athena on the acropolis in Greece and it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Every citizen of Ephesus offered sacrifices to the various gods at their temples in the city…..every citizen except the Christians. Christians did not offer sacrificial animals or grains to their god, Jesus Christ. Oddly enough, they claimed that their god WAS the sacrifice. He had offered himself on a Roman cross, so that all people might live new, gracious, and worthy lives. Believe me, people were watching, which is why Paul is so insistent that they live exemplary lives.
So what did that exemplary life look like, and how did it differ from the lives of other citizens of Ephesus? What the Christians said was that rather than offering sacrifices of animals and grain, they offered sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. Every day, in every action, every encounter with other people, Christians were to conduct themselves in a way that brought praise and honor to their God, which also illustrated the sense of thankfulness they felt for Christ’s offering. For example, they would respect everyone, not just the wealthy and influential, but even the poor, the diseased, and those who lived on the margins. They were willing to help total strangers, not just their family members, or people who might be able to return the favor when and if they needed help in the future. When they gathered to share the body and blood of Christ, they brought offerings of money and food which the deacons would distribute to the poor, the widowed or the orphaned – people who had no means to support themselves. The Ephesians didn’t know what to make of it. They had never seen people behave this way before. In the Roman world you were supposed to find a patron who would coach you and find ways for you to get ahead, even if it meant stepping on others. But with these Christians, it was almost like they didn’t really care what happened to them, whether they were rich or poor, hungry or satisfied, sick or healthy, they continued to praise their God and operate from a place of thankfulness.
Let me offer two real life examples of how living from thankfulness can and cannot occur. Imagine two women, roughly the same age, around 75, and who have many of the same conditions. They are both losing their sight, although neither are completely blind. One is also losing her hearing, while the other has a very sensitive stomach and can only eat mild foods, and only in small amounts.
The first woman complains almost without ceasing. She moans about her loss of sight – she can’t read anymore and she can’t see the TV. She can’t even listen to the news or to music on the radio because her hearing is so bad. She says she is bored all the time and that life is no fun. Why, she asks, won’t God just let her die? After all, she can’t do anything. She isn’t any help to anyone. Every day she says, she prays that God will just take her.
The second woman is also losing her sight, but she says that she never had any right to seeing in the first place. Many people are born blind and never get a chance to see the faces of their family members, or a sunset, or the mountains, or the ocean. But God gave her sight as a gift and she has enjoyed that gift all her life. She loved being able to look at a meadow of brightly colored flowers, or the incredible variety of people and places in God’s creation. But now that she is growing old she is slowing giving that gift back to God with her thanksgiving.
And then there is the matter of her sensitive stomach. Many of the foods she used to love, she can no longer eat. Her husband was a faculty member at a local university, head of the department, and she hosted many faculty dinners at their home. She loved to prepare the food and serve it to her husband’s colleagues as they dined and chatted the night away. She is incredibly grateful for those wonderful times, but now it is time to give the gift of festive dining back to God. She would reflect about all the lovely gifts God had given her, and her efforts to put all of them to good use. And then she would list the gifts she is giving back to God with her thanks. And, she would say, when she has given all the gifts back to God, well, that will be her death.
Consider these two women. Which of them makes the most positive impact on you? Which might you want to take as a role model? Which is living from a place of praise and thanksgiving? Paul urges the Christians of Ephesus to live like the second woman. And I would say, live like her, not just to convert others to the Christian way, but live like her because her life is a better way to live.
The first woman was grouchy, angry, self-centered, irritable, and miserable. Is that the life you desire? The second woman was peaceful, without anxiety, fully present to those around her. She could laugh when things were funny, and she could weep when things were sad. She was balanced and comfortable with who she was and the life she was living. Like faithful Christians from the earliest times, her life was one of praise and thanksgiving.