A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min. on August 8, 2021
Turn in your Bible to Ephesians 4 as we look at verses 25 – 5:2 this morning. We are at a point in the letter where there is a significant shift in Paul’s focus. In the first three chapters Paul talks a lot about what good theology looks like; chapters four to the end deal with what good Christian behavior or ethics looks like. Another way to say it is that there is a shift in discussion from orthodoxy (right thinking) to a focus on orthopraxy (right living). We can see and hear this dramatic shift in today’s scripture. Today’s text is a reminder to the Church that if we cannot follow what Paul describes as to how the community of faith behaves with each other, then we can guarantee the larger world will not get it either. Hear the Word of the Lord!
4.25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 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. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5.1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us[c] and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 
It was 1978 or thereabouts. The church was started not too long after the Civil War and through its long history, it had a storied reputation. It boasted almost 500 members, which for a Presbyterian church located in a small mountain town, was pretty respectable. The late 1970s and the early 80s brought a new civil war to the community but this time it was within the church itself.
It’s helpful to know that the Presbyterian Church had a major split back in the 1860’s that separated it into the Southern church and the Northern church. Sadly, the split occurred over the issue of slavery and that split between the southern and northern branches of the Presbyterian Church lasted until 1986 when the two sides finally reconciled and became one again. As the time for reunification drew closer, the church located in the foothills I spoke of a minute ago began to get uneasy. Well over half of the members did not want to reunify the southern church with the northern churches because of, “Those blankety-blank northern liberals.” The big overriding theological issue at the time was the ordination of women as pastors along with the confluence of a gross sense of jingoistic fundamentalism. This is what split the church. It was ugly.
Families were torn apart because of the church split. Brothers who grew up together no longer spoke to each other. Cousins were forbidden to play with one another. There was shouting during church services, and it all led up to the fateful day when literally all hell broke loose.
The pastor got up as he did every Sunday and walked across the street from the church manse to his office at the church. His wife and two little girls would wander over a little later for Sunday school and worship. The day was going fine until the pastor and his family went home to the manse after church. Someone had broken into their home during church services and ransacked their house. Beds were sliced up, walls had holes punched in them, windows were broken. The pastor’s wife had a baby grand piano that had its strings cut and had the poured the contents of the refrigerator dumped into it. Perhaps the most hateful thing they discovered were all the spray-painted epithets and threats down the hallway walls leading to the kids’ room.
Over the course of time, it was discovered that a group of people from the church who opposed church reunification were the ones who broke into the house during church services and did the destruction. The Sunday following the incident, members of the presbytery came to talk with folks in order to better understand what was going on with the church. The pastor and members of presbytery, along with any members who were not against reunification were literally locked out of the church. Chains and padlocks had been put on all the doors and armed men blocked anyone’s entry. A few fights broke out. It was not a good day in the Kingdom. The Holy Spirit was grieved.
Eventually, the court case on church property wound its way to the Georgia State Supreme Court. The church split and the animosity between the two sides forever boiled. Eight years later, I would bring my new family up from Atlanta and begin my first call as a minister trying to breathe life into a congregation that had dwindled down to about 80 people. Listening to the stories of those church members and townsfolk was a sad lesson in church politics you could not learn in seminary. If only they would have heeded the words from Paul’s letter. Paul’s words are not written in some ancient vacuum; they are applicable today.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and if the people could have imitated God and live in love with one another in the midst of their disagreements, the outcomes could have been so much different.
Lies were told. Anger boiled over into expressions of violence. Sides were taken and the church eventually died because the people chose to tear down instead of build one another up. This is what is behind Paul’s call for ethical behavior and Christ-like imitation. Speaking truth is difficult at times. Truth can make a person uncomfortable because it acts as a mirror reflecting back to us a reality we may not wish to see. Truth in a community is vital for its health. As one scholar noted, “Without truth, authentic community fails.” Think about that.
It’s when truth is hard to hear or hard to accept that a person can become angry. The tendency is to fort-up and build a wall between ourselves and the one with whom we are angry with. Paul is telling us that ethically, it is okay for a person to become angry; it is not okay if the anger isn’t addressed, and division occurs. What’s necessary is to be able to express the hurt, the anger, the confusion truthfully so that understanding, consensus, and yes, maybe some compromise, can emerge. Speaking the truth in love is anger’s antidote.
Church, Paul is reminding us that we are to take care of one another. When we are baptized and made members of a church, we are called to help one another in growing into the image of God. We are called to build up and fortify one another. Why? Because if we don’t, Paul reminds us that we afflict pain upon the Holy Spirit. Hence, we have Paul’s call to put away bitterness, wrath, and feelings of malice and intentionally, and sometimes inconveniently, replace them with kindness, with tender and deep feelings for one another, and with forgiveness. (Did you know the word for forgiveness is from the same root word we get our word grace and gift from? It literally means gifting someone.) For centuries, the Church has had to, as Paul says, prevent the devil from getting a foothold inside it. It’s hard work to do that. It requires speaking the truth in love. It means acknowledging our hurt and moving on together with forgiveness, kindness and love. Paul is not being Pollyanna here; he is telling the church that because of what we believe about Jesus, our personal life should reflect that to one another in the church, which in turn, reflects on how to do it out in the world in our civics and in our politics. Listen, Beloved, if people like you and me in the church can’t lovingly tell the truth to one another, we can’t expect the world to future it out either.
Friends, as your pastor, I want you to know that I have witnessed this church’s leadership make every attempt to imitate God as beloved children. They speak hard truth in love to each other. They express frustration and sometimes, even anger with one another, but they always work it out. I see the leadership of this church attempt to build one another up in kindness, forgiveness, and by opening their hearts to one another. I am proud to serve with the members of Session that you have elected by the Spirit’s guidance.
Over the last year, your Session has had to make some difficult decisions in its desire to pursue truth and in its attempt to imitate what Jesus would do. Our conversations have been lively at times. Our conversations have lasted longer than many of us wanted but we always arrived at the place where there was no anger, and we could agree to disagree agreeably. It has wrestled with COVID protocols and adjusting church schedules. It has had to make strategic financial decisions as well as address issues of sexual ethics. I am proud to be pastor of a group of leaders who are living out what it means to imitate God. You need to be proud of them, too. Your leadership knows that in order to change the world out there, we first had better be able to work it out in here, together as sisters and brothers in Christ. The Church is tasked with the responsibility to model for the culture what it means to work things out together instead of becoming fractured and devolving into separatist camps. Let’s all continue to imitate God together and give the world something to talk about! Amen.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, https://a.co/7SeCbxS.
 Charizomai from the same root as charis, Greek for ‘grace.’ It is a word that literally means actively gracing and showing pleasure upon someone!