Church:  Keepers of Negative Space

06 Jun Church:  Keepers of Negative Space

Church:  Keepers of Negative Space
Ephesians 4:17-5:20
June 3, 2018
Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

To this point in Paul’s letter, virtually everything has been stated with glowing affirmation.  Paul is extravagant in his enthusiasm, unstoppable in his praise. The energy of his verbiage overflows with metaphor and simile, stretching the language of praise to the breaking point.  

So, the negative command in 4:17 feels like a slap in the face.  The colorless, austere, negative words, “you must no longer live as Gentiles,” seem out of character with what has come before.  Why doesn’t Paul just transfer his enthusiasm for what God does to an equal enthusiasm for what this congregation can now do with God?  Why this “downer” when he has just revved them up to say “yes” to Christ’s resurrection life, “yes” to being saints, “yes” to God’s call, “yes” to living in the community called the church?

Perhaps Paul does not trust the Ephesians’ maturity.  Perhaps he is simply all too aware of human nature and the lure of the surrounding culture.   Or, perhaps it is a little of both. These are relatively new Christians, men and women who are coming into the church without the benefit of the rich stories, traditions and practices that give foundation to faith.  It would be easy for them to unconsciously receive this wonderful new gospel but unthinkingly fail to remove the trappings of their old way of life. Out of long Gentile habit they might well continue to assume that faith has nothing to do with daily decisions, relationships, morals, or holiness.  Paul calls this a “darkened” understanding, “alienated from the life of God”, and he now seeks to correct whatever might be missing from their understanding of what resurrection life entails.

Paul is not in any way undermining what he has said so far about grace.  The Christian life does not start with moral behavior. We don’t become good in order to gain God.  But, having been included in the life and activity of God, right behavior is the result of maturing in Christ.  Morality is a form for resurrection life in the sense that a vase gives form to a bouquet of flowers, or a bucket provides a form for getter water from the well to the kitchen, or a trumpet gives form to a compressed column of air so that music can be played and heard.  Moral acts, then, are forms for arranging and giving expression to resurrection which is very different than checking boxes of “dos and don’ts”.

Artists use the term “negative space” to name the importance of what is not present in a sculpture or painting.  An artist has to know what to leave out as well as what to put in. Openness, emptiness, breathing space—what you don’t see provides adequate room to appreciate the created work.  Negative space is as much a part of a work of art as what is seen.

In a similar way, negatives are important as we learn to practice resurrection.  They keep the clutter down in our lives and give us badly needed perspective. Paul is keenly aware of the temptations we face which is why he uses caution as he brings us into the church community.  He doesn’t pepper us with imperatives of what needs to be done and what opportunities are out there just waiting for us to accomplish. He is careful not to give us any encouragement to take charge of this kingdom business.  Instead, he lays a groundwork consisting of what we don’t do: no falsehood, don’t let the sun go down on your anger, no stealing, no evil talk, don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, no wrangling, no slander or malice, no fornication.  These negatives name actions or attitudes that were accepted as commonplace, some of them even sanctioned, in the Gentile culture of 1st century Ephesus.  Or 21st century America.  Things haven’t changed much, have they?

As we’ve repeated again and again throughout Ephesians, the Christian life is a response to God.  God is always the initiator, and we respond to what God says and does. The negatives don’t define our lives.  God’s positives define us. What the negatives do is leave room for the main action, for God’s action. When we talk too much or do too much, we get in the way of what God is doing.  We become a distraction. As we immerse ourselves in church, in resurrection life, we realize that there are culturally accepted practices that we must set aside. We realize that there are things we grew up with that are greatly admired and rewarded by our secularized society but that we must not do.  Even a good thing, said or done at the wrong time or in the wrong place or with the wrong attitude, ends up a bad thing. Becoming mature to the “measure of the full stature of Christ” requires a lot of negative space, a lot of not saying, of not doing.

The premise behind all these negatives is a huge positive:  God is active, incredibly active, active beyond our imagining:  God the Father bringing everything into being and holding everything together by his word.  God the Son entering history, showing us God in action in human terms that we can recognize, accomplishing salvation for all.  God the Spirit present with and in us, inviting us, guiding and counseling us, wooing us into participation in all of God’s ways of being God.  Paul’s theology is thoroughly Trinitarian.

Back in chapter one, the Holy Spirit is spoken of as the promise, the guarantee that all the work of God will include us and will be worked out in our lives as part of God’s plan of redemption.  Here in chapter four the mention of the Spirit repeats the nature of the Spirit’s work, that the Holy Spirit is the guarantee that we will receive God’s redemption and inheritance, but this time it is prefaced by a negative: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”  This is language that catches our attention.

Thus far, all the moral and ethical imperatives Paul has set down have to do with the way we conduct our lives with one another, and all of them come in the form, “don’t do this, but do this.”  First a negative, then a positive. But the imperative regarding the Spirit stands alone. All the others are directed to how we behave with others; this one is directed to our behavior toward God.  And it is the only one not complemented by a positive. It is worth pondering why.

Grieve is a personal, relational verb.  Remember, we are being oriented in behaviors that provide appropriate conditions for growing up in Christ, for developing a mature life.  These behaviors are containers that the Holy Spirit uses to give witness to the ways that God is God through the church, to the world. The containers, that is, the behaviors, in themselves are empty until the Spirit provides the content and energy that fills them so that they become vessels of righteousness and holiness.

This is exactly the point at which so many people get tripped up.  If we understand these containers, these actions and behaviors as impersonal rules that we can keep or break with no consequences other than what happens to us, we are oblivious to the reality that there are deeply personal consequences to God.  The Spirit of God suffers, grieves. If we use moral behaviors on our own terms—truth-telling, working honestly, sharing with the needy, being kind, loving, and all the rest—if take them over and use them as scripts for a personal performance we, in effect, reject or ignore the Spirit.  We are blasphemous, turning our back on God’s Spirit, taking charge of our own lives and concocting our own version of righteousness and holiness. And that grieves the Spirit.

Despite that, the Spirit will not coerce us.  There is no forcing or manipulation. The Spirit treats us with dignity, respecting our freedom.  The Spirit is God’s empowering presence and what he empowers in us is a life of blessing and salvation, a life of resurrection.  It is most definitely not a life of self-will, of self-righteousness, of using God to get what we want. If we live on those terms and with that mind-set, we most certainly grieve God’s Spirit.  

No one who is serious about growing up to the “measure of the full stature of Christ” wants to grieve the Holy Spirit.  Instead, we want to be imitators of God which means specifically to imitate the way God loves. To make sure we don’t miss the point, Paul uses three grammatical forms of the word “love”—as an adjective, as a noun and as a verb.  We are defined as loved, as beloved children. We are commanded to live in love. Paul’s action word is “walk” (peripateo in the Greek), a boots-on-the-ground kind of love.  This love is the kind we see acted out on actual streets and sidewalks, in real history and told in the story of Jesus, the kind of love that we experience firsthand in Jesus, who loved us.  These grammatical forms cover all the bases: our baptismal identity as beloved, the kingdom of love we live in, and our experience of being loved by Jesus. Think about how different this is from the way “love” is spoken of, understood and practiced in our technology-driven, post-modern culture.

The love that we practice in our resurrection life originates in God and only in God.  All love originates in God’s love. God’s love permeates all expressions of grace from Father, Son and Holy Spirit, It is always personal, never impersonal.  It is always “on earth as it is in heaven,” never an abstraction or idea. It is always particular in person and place, never a misty, sentimental generality.  Grounded in God, “I love you” is a life-transforming, life-deepening, life-saving sentence. But with its God-origins and God-content removed, it is hollow, hopelessly trivialized, endlessly cliched.  

God is love.  Love is the core of God’s being and we, made in the image of God, are also at the core, love.  This is who we were created to be, men and women who love and who receive love. When we love we are most ourselves, living our very best, mature.  But here is the supreme irony: love is who we are, what we want and what we want to practice, but it is in loving and being loved that we accumulate the most failures.  We are repeatedly disappointed in love. We realize that we are hopeless inadequate in love, and Paul recognizes it, too, which is why he ends this section of his letter by calling us back to worship.

Worship?  Why worship?  Aren’t we talking about love?  We are and what Paul knows is that worship is fundamental to the practice of love.  Love is not a solitary act; it is relational. Love is not a general act; it is always specific, local.  Love is not self-starting or self-defined; it is always “as Christ loved us.” So how do we acquire maturity in the practice of love that respects the relational, the local and the way of Christ?  We go to church. We take our place in Christ’s body and together we worship God who “first loved us.”

Worship reorients us to the truth that Christian maturity is not a matter of doing more for God.  It is God doing more in and through us. We are not adequate to life a life of love out of our own will or resources.  Trying harder doesn’t do it. Instead, God provides the Holy Spirit to live the life of God, the life of love, in us. We mature in love by entering a time and place where we can rub shoulders with others who are serious about the practice of love the way Christ loves.  The church at worship is that time and place. And when we are dismissed by the benediction we go to live out there the resurrection life we practice in here. May it ever be so. Amen.


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