We celebrate God’s incredible gift of grace. That amazing grace overcomes the worst of our humanity and brings us into a relationship with God. The new life described in Ephesians goes beyond following a simple list of rules. It’s all about transformation. Following rules limits both our capacity for growth and God’s ability to exceed our wildest expectations. If we know the rules and follow them, life is pretty simple.
The rules in the Bible are different. When we read a rule in scripture, the intent is rarely as simple as following the letter of the law. The metanarrative is about who God is and how we can relate to our maker and one another. Since the story goes beyond what we can see, everything, including the rules, is about our transformation. We change, and the rules we read help us understand what that inner change looks like.
Admiral William McRaven told a story that’s similar to this kind of change. His story was about reimagining a situation and making it better than anyone could have pictured. During the commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014, he told a story about an experience he had while training to become a Navy SEAL. The ninth week of SEAL training is called Hell Week, and through sleep deprivation and constant physical exertion, the instructors try to weed out the weakest trainees.
On Wednesday of Hell Week, he described a scene on the Mud Flats between San Diego and Tijuana. It was cold and wet and they had been out on the flats for 15 hours when his training class broke some rule. As the sun went down, the instructors ordered the men to get into the mud. Each one was consumed until nothing was visible but their heads. As they shivered in the mud, the instructors said they could get out if just five people would quit. McRaven said,
Looking around the mud flat, it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours till the sun came up—eight more hours of bone-chilling cold. The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night—one voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing—but the singing persisted. And somehow, the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
McRaven described the lesson as one of hope. I would call the singing transformative. The song, whatever it was, allowed the trainees to see the world a little differently. They were no longer just stuck, freezing in the mud. They were part of something. Our epistle lesson today invites us to be part of something. At first, it sounds like a laundry list of rules.
Ephesians is part of a tradition of forming people into disciples. We think of Ephesians as a letter, but it was more likely a product of the early church, probably written by one or more of Paul’s disciples. It was so formative that the church was studying and copying it as our ancestors of the faith figured out what it means to follow Christ. [put up Papyrus 49]
In 1931, some people found a fragment of our reading from Ephesians in Cairo, Egypt. The origin of this ancient papyrus is likely somewhere in Egypt, but the exact location is unknown. The original scribe had legible handwriting and scholars date it to the third century. The fragment is badly frayed but it shows how important these instructions were to the life of the early church.
Our reading begins by reminding the readers to speak the truth to one another because we are part of one another (4.25). Like the singing sailors in the mud, we are members of one another. This verse includes a reference to Zechariah 8.16, which says, in part, “Speak the truth to one another.”
Singing in the mud didn’t change the cold reality the sailors faced. It changed how they processed it and how they approached it. This is same thing that happens when Jesus transforms our lives. We still have problems and struggle, but with a new life in Christ we process what we face in a new way.
After the opening about being honest with each other and the reminder that we are members of one another, the passage launches into a rapid-fire list of seven rules: Be angry, but don’t sin, which is from Psalm 4.4. (4.26), Thieves, stop stealing (4.28), Don’t say anything evil (4.29), Put away bitterness (4.31), Be kind to one another (4.32), Imitate God (5.1), Live in love (5.2)
When John Wesley preached a sermon about this passage, he highlighted the significance of knowing that it’s the Holy Spirit leads us to truth and holiness. Each of these ‘rules’ embody living a Spirit-led life. Still, the rules do not stand on their own. Each one has a deeper implication. It’s not enough to simply follow the rule. The rule provides some guardrails so that we can better understand what transformation can look like.
“Be angry” is not an injunction or command. The author of Ephesians recognizes that people are going to get angry. It’s will happen because even though we accept and embrace God’s amazing grace, we are still human. The ‘rule’ is about what to do when we get angry. It might have been clearer if it said, “I understand that you will get angry, but when you do, don’t sin. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give into your anger.”
This reminds me of the dilemma for jedis in Star Wars. There’s the duality of the light and dark sides of the force. A repeated theme in the Star Wars movies is, “Don’t give in to the dark side.” If Star Wars can help illustrate a point from Ephesians, then I am happy to invoke the gospel of George Lucas. When you’re angry, don’t turn into a sith lord.
In Ephesians, the order to keep looking to the light, even in anger (4.26), connects with the instruction a few verses later to not say anything evil (4.29). We don’t refrain from evil speech for the sake of not saying anything mean. The rest of the verse shows the depth of this ‘rule’. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (4.29). People have always struggled with whether or not to do the right thing. Ephesians 4.25-5.2 pushes us to be better, not just by following the rules. It drags us toward embodying Christ in our daily life.
Consider the ban on stealing. “Thieves must give up stealing” (4.28). This verse says nothing about private property and, if we read the entire verse, it barely implies that the criminal activity is the problem. Many of the early followers of Christ were poor, and since early Christians shared things in common, they still had enough to eat. This led others, especially those who were antagonistic to Christ-followers, to accuse them of stealing. The prohibition against stealing includes honest work so that the former thieves can “share with the needy” (4.28).
It’s not just about not stealing. It’s about honest work to be able to participate in sharing things in common. This ‘rule’ takes a person from thief to benefactor, from greed to generosity. The early church didn’t simply want its members to follow the rules. They wanted their members to find a new life in Christ. They wanted to see people transformed. They wanted the kind of people who could be in freezing mud up to their necks and start singing. When one starts, others join, and more join. The transformed church can change the world. This is the power of Christ. It’s the power of hope and transformation.
One person—Washington, Lincoln, King, Mandela, Malala, or you—can change the world. Now it gets personal because we put ourselves in the story. We picture the situation in our lives where we’re up to our necks in mud and just trying not to quit. A new life in Christ means that we start singing. And, if someone else already started a song, we join in and raise our voice strong.
There are people who need you to help them see that these ‘rules’ are just an invitation to new life. Take this passage this week, pick one verse and imagine how you could go beyond simply following the letter of the law. For example, if you focus on 4.29, then you don’t just refrain from evil speech. You will concentrate on words that build others up.
That’s just an example. If you listen to the Spirit and read and reread this passage, God will show you your path. Each one of us has a change we can make today to more fully let the light of Christ shine in our lives. Let’s follow God and make the world a better place. Amen.
 William H. McRaven, Commencement Address for University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin, 2014).
 William Henry Paine Hatch and C. Bradford Wells, “A Hitherto Unpublished Fragment of the Epistle to the Ephesians,” Harvard Theological Review 51, no. 1 (1958): 33-34.
 John Wesley, “On Grieving the Holy Spirit (Sermon 138),” in The Sermons of John Wesley (1872 Edition) (1733).