Close the Loopholes
It is through life's cracks and loopholes that evil dynamics gain entrance. The church must close these loopholes.
Today's epistle reading warns the Ephesian Christians against allowing "room for the devil." A more accessible translation of this text warns against allowing a "loophole for the Devil" (NEB). After all: To worm his way into our lives and minds, the Devil doesn't need much "room" at all -- a little slit of a loophole will work just fine.
Washington state's Puget Sound is a wet, rain-drenched area. Usually, the spongy land is well-suited to absorbing this vital liquid, producing one of North America's great temperate rain forests. But occasionally, torrential storms so soak the soil that it loses its cohesion. An examination of the land after such a storm reveals long cracks running across the top of the soil -- evidence that down below, the process of virtually unstoppable erosion has begun. Now, through these cracks, each rainstorm begins gradually to eat away at the topsoil, until finally, its integrity fully compromised, the ground cracks wide open and half a hillside can wash away in a moment.
Little cracks in our conscience and small fissures in our faith can give evil entranceway into the soul and destructive leverage to the Devil.
For this reason, Ephesians sternly cautions us to guard against five certain behaviors, never allowing them to gain a foothold in the practice of a Christian life.
Loophole #1 -- Lying:
Lying is one of those cultural faux pas that has never gone out of style. Ephesians starts with Christians' need to close this loophole and "put away falsehood" because the pagan culture of the first century taught that lying could be a perfectly valid activity.
"When telling a lie will be profitable, let it be told." (Darius to Herodotus)
"There is nothing decorous in truth but when it is profitable; yea, sometimes truth is hurtful, and lying is profitable to men." (Maximus Tyrius)
"He may lie who knows how to do it in a suitable time." (Plato)
Recently converted Gentiles, it would seem, needed to be told that truth-telling was a pledge and badge of discipleship.
After 21 centuries of Christian teaching, you'd think we'd have just about gotten the idea by now. But the counsel to "put away falsehood" is as timely today as it was then. In fact, in many walks of life, lying is part of the way things work. An early 1997 study of teenagers revealed that 75 percent admitted to cheating at school. Lying is such a widespread social disease that Time magazine did a tongue-in-cheek guide: "How to Tell When a Politician Is Lying." When politicians cite statistics -- don't believe them. The more precise the statistics, the more suspicious one should be. When politicians deny something -- don't believe them. The more precise the denials, the more likely that they are hiding something. And when politicians begin a sentence with "Let me be perfectly frank ..." -- don't believe them. They are telling you they aren't telling the truth ("Lies, Lies, Lies," Time, 9 October 1992).
No wonder M. Scott Peck almost makes lying synonymous with evil in his book People of the Lie. Where you find evil, you find lying. This is one reason why "evil people tend to gravitate toward piety," Peck writes, and "one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church" (People of the Lie [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993], 74). Our text sees "people of the lie" as one of the church's most dangerous loopholes because "we are members of one another." As a unified body of Christ, to lie to one another is to lie to ourselves, and to lie to Christ himself.
Loophole #2 -- Anger:
Why does Ephesians not read, "Never be angry" but "Be angry but do not sin"? We must never forget that there is such a thing as justifiable anger, righteous indignation, enragement over injustice, etc.... St. John Chrysostom taught that "He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. Unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices; it fosters negligence and incites not only the wicked but also the good to do wrong."
Greek philosophy defined anger as "a short madness." Ever try to speak, much less reason with, a person who is in the heat of a rage? Did you ever make any headway? Didn't you have to wait until the person "cooled off"? Only after "sanity" was restored could the cause of the person's anger be safely addressed.
Ephesians warns that our "cooling off" period should not be lengthy -- "do not let the sun go down on your anger" (v.26). It is a tempting loophole to revel in our rage, to relive and reignite the flame of our fury. Anger makes us feel powerful. Anger exhilarates us. Close this loophole for evil. The body of Christ cannot maintain its health if its pulse is always pounding, its adrenalin is always pumping, its fists are always clenched.
Jesus got angry. He drove the money-changers from the temple, condemned the Pharisees as a "brood of vipers," declared those who put stumbling blocks before little ones to be better off drowned. But Jesus did not rage at Judas; Jesus did not curse at Peter; Jesus did not blast Pilate to smithereens; Jesus did not scream back at the cursing crowds. On Good Friday afternoon, the sun did not go down on an angry Jesus. The time for righteous wrath had passed; the time for love crucified had begun. Have you closed your loopholes of anger with stitches of love and forgiveness? Are you keeping the body's fabric of faith intact?
Loophole #3 -- Greed:
Consumer culture programs us to believe that "more" is always "better." Our inability to distinguish quality of life from the quantity of things filling our lives has earned us the label of a greedy, grasping people. We guzzle the raw material this world provides and then throw away as "worthless" trash more goods than most small countries can even produce.
Ephesians couples the admonition against stealing with a command: everyone should do work so that everyone will have enough to share. What is it about thievery that makes the thief incapable of sharing? Ever notice how successful bank robbers pull off a string of heists -- hitting three, four, even five branches of a favorite target bank before they are finally caught? What is it that motivates successful thieves to keep on robbing? When they've just pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars, why must they steal again so soon? Greed. Enough is never enough.
Every year ,we piously lecture ourselves against turning Christmas into a consumption ritual. We complain about the Christmas spirit of giving being replaced by the corporate spirit of profit-taking. Yet our crocodile tears rarely slow down our spending. But the true measure of our grasping nature is only revealed on December 26. The day after Christmas, the day after we have just received dozens of gifts and goodies and gadgets -- this is the day that has become the second biggest shopping day of the year for retailers. We aren't at the malls merely to exchange plaid socks or purple sweaters. Lured by the promise of big sales, "50 PERCENT OFF," we whip out our credit cards all over again. Greed. Enough is never enough.
Comedian Paul Reiser (from ABC's Mad About You) admits he is a consumer sucker. He tells the following story on himself:
I was in this stereo store, looking at this VCR/CD player/laser disc/pants presser combination thing. I wasn't even thinking of getting it; I was just playing.
Salesman comes over. "You know, that CD player'll hold up to 20 discs at a time."
He says, "Yes-siree-bob. That's at least 18 hours of music."
"Okey-dokey." And he wraps it up.
You see, he opened my eyes. I hadn't done the arithmetic. Eighteen hours, sure. Who wouldn't want that?
Then I got home and realized, Wait asecond! I'm not up 18 hours. When wouldI use this? The last four hours will actuallybe keeping me awake. This is not something I need.
... You know why I got this thing, truthfully? Because I wanted one more remotecontrol unit in my life. Can never have too many remote controls, I say. I now have 12 of them lined up on the table. I invite friends over and say, "See those? They're all mine. And I don't know how to work any of them. Not one button do I understand, but I know they're mine." (Paul Reiser, Couplehood [New York: Bantam Books], 1994), 318-319.)
Reiser concludes his thoughts by finally recognizing the truth about the compulsive greediness and never-satisfied neediness that marks our culture. It only brings exhaustion and emptiness.
The problem is, they keep coming up with technology nobody asks for. They believe we want Freeze-Frame Search, and Split Screen, and 14-Day Timers. Clocks that make coffee and cameras that talk. We don't want that. You know what I want? I just want to lie down. That's really all I want. If I could lie down for a half-hour. That's really all I want. If I could lie down for a half-hour. I'd be so happy. I've been reading instructions since 1987; my head is pounding. I can't do it.... I want to write a letter.
"Dear Japan, STOP!!! We're fine. This is plenty of stuff. Why don't you stop with the VCRs and work on diseases. Go cure a disease -- I'm going to figure out my cordless phone" (319).
Loophole #4 -- Loose Lips:
The first person to ever recite that singsong refrain "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" was probably crying to himself in some dark closet at the time -- "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart." If words weren't capable of hurting us more deeply and more permanently than any weapon of metal or wood, then there would be a lot of therapists out looking for other careers.
Christians must close the loophole excuse "It's just talk." Once they escape from your lips, words take on a life of their own. Words of cruelty, hatred and prejudice implant themselves in the hearts of others, where with just a little encouragement, they take root and grow.
A flapping mouth is one of the Devil's favorite loopholes. Tellingly, the term used in verse 27, diabolos is also used to define a "tale-bearer," a "whisperer" or a "backbiter" (see 1 Timothy 3:11; 2 Timothy 3:3; Titus 2:3). These are the devilish expressions of "evil talk," and they work to undermine the basic foundations of community. Hurtful speech tears down and destroys love and trust more effectively than any sledgehammer.
Loophole #5 -- Stinginess of Spirit:
A "Frank and Ernest" cartoon depicts these two buddies sitting on a park bench next to a gentleman reading the paper. As is usually the case, Frank and Ernest are obviously inebriated. Frank says to the stranger: "Long ago, I decided my life would be a success if I could make just one person happy. I picked me."
This is not the "kindness" or "generosity" of spirit that the epistle writer is urging upon the church at Ephesus in verse 32. A stingy spirit or a small spirit used to be commonly referred to as a "mean spirit." It's not a "meanness" that denotes cruelty or abusiveness. It's a meanness that takes no joy in the presence of others. A mean spirit cannot see beyond the drive to satisfy its own needs and desires. A mean spirit hoards away happiness and labels exuberance and laughter as frivolous. The mean spirit is concerned only with keeping itself going day by day, with no time or compassion for the welfare of others. A mean spirit may do no apparent wrong, but neither does it do any spontaneous rights.
A stingy spirit keeps the body of Christ on a mere subsistence diet, refusing to glory in or enjoy the embarrassing abundance of riches God has lavished on us. Such a diet eventually starves the capacity for grace, empathy and forgiveness right out of the body. Using right-sounding loopholes like self-preservation, self-determination and "self-esteemation," the stingy spirit hides the fact that it is really selfish. Such an attitude can never be part of a community that is struggling to fulfill the mandate of being "imitators of God."
We are called to "live in love, as Christ loved us." I ask you: What are the loopholes that we need to close in our lives today?
It is not until the last two verses of today's epistle reading that the positive thrust behind the series of negative "do nots" is revealed. The driving impetus for the Ephesian Christians is to "be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us" (5:1-2).
Ephesians is dedicated to detailing how new and different life in the church as the body of Christ should be from the pagan life previously led by Gentile Christians. Ephesians celebrates the oneness in the Spirit that unifies believers and makes them into a new creation -- a living body with Christ as its head. This exalted vision of what the church should be leads the writer to carefully, almost painstakingly, spell out the kinds of behaviors that new Christians should exhibit to each other and to the world.
Today's text singles out for discussion those attitudes and activities (we are calling them"loopholes") which could splinter the unity of the body of Christ. In the first four verses (25-28), the writer focuses on practices that were not necessarily deemed "wrong" or "bad" in the pagan world. Lying (v.25) was not really condemned but was considered according to the profitability of truth-telling in any given situation. Many pagan philosophers taught that a lie that benefited was better than a truth that was costly. Anger (v.26) and emotional turmoil were staple commodities in the tales of the pagan gods. Anger was what started and sustained wars of extreme duration. Anger made men into wild warriors -- a valuable commodity on the pagan market. Theft (v.28) was clearly a matter of perspective. In the marketplace, the scales were loaded and the watchword was "buyer beware." The established relationship between master and slave practically mandated thievery as part of a slave's expected duties. Stealing from the master was expected.
All the behaviors proscribed here are loopholes for evil, activities which disrupt the unity of the body, destroying the trust and coherence of the community. Likewise, the positive behaviors preached here are intended to be "useful for building up" and to "give grace" (v.29) to members of the church. To be "kind," "tenderhearted" and "forgiving" is the goal set for the Ephesian Christians.
There is only one reason that the writer advocates such strict adherence to bodybuilding behavior. The church exists only because Christ has loved us, forgiven us and given himself up as a sacrifice for us. This is the reason all Christians are unified in Christ and why all believers must strive to be "imitators" of God's love as it was embodied in Jesus the Christ.
Isn't "What goes around comes around" another way of saying "Be sure your sins will find you out"?
Sometimes the art of being press secretary is the art of telling the truth slowly.
-- President Clinton's press secretary,
Sometimes, even when we try to close loopholes and be as honest as we can, we end up playing right into the Devil's hands and get in big trouble.
Q: Well, sir, judging from your answer on how you reacted to the emergency call, it sounds like you are a man of intelligence and good judgment.
A: Thank you, and if I weren't under oath I'd return the compliment.
-- Disorder in the Court:
Legal Laughs, Court Jests and Just Jokes Culled From the Nation's Justice System
(National Court Reporters Association, 1996).
Here's an honest criminal:
The COURT: What is your occupation?
The DEFENDANT: I'm a thief.
The COURT: Thief. I see. How's business?
The DEFENDANT: It's a little slow right now.
The COURT: And how do you get along when you are not working at your usual occupation?
The DEFENDANT: I'm usually in prison.
The COURT: I see.
-- Disorder in the Court:
Legal Laughs, Court Jests and Just Jokes Culled From the Nation's Justice System
(National Court Reporters Association, 1996).
Exasperated by the lack of cooperation he receives from Lucy, Charlie Brown asks, "Where do I go to give up?"
How many times has the same question crossed your lips? "Where do I go to give up?" You've done everything you can. You can think of nothing more. Nothing works. So....
"Where do I go to give up?" The disciples went to Emmaus. Where do you go?
Glenn "Tex" Evans was addressing a group of United Methodists in Maryland, trying to explain to them why the Wesleyan movement created such a powerful spiritual awakening in this country, even to the point where the 19th century is known as the "Methodist Age" in American history. He wasn't having much success until they showed him a river near the chapel that Francis Asbury once crossed. It was a river that Asbury crossed at flood tide in order to preach to the people in that chapel.
The Maryland Methodists asked Tex, "Do you want us to tell you how Asbury crossed that swollen, rushing river?"
Tex responded: "No, but I do want you to tell me why he crossed that river. In that "why" is the key to why the Wesleyan movement became such a powerful force for God and the gospel."
-- As told by Hal Brady,
"Making the Main Thing the Main Thing,"
Dallas, Texas, 8 September 1996,
A survey of 6,000 college students at elite schools conducted by Donald McCabe, an associate professor of business ethics at Rutgers University, found that 67 percent admitted to cheating. Business majors were the worst (87 percent), while humanities majors were the "best" (only 63 percent).
-- "Cheating as Basic Course in College," USA Today, 6 May 1991.
Litter the chancel area with papers upon which are written positive and negative phrases. Make some blatantly positive and truthful -- speaking of kindness, gentleness and forgiveness. Use words the older children can read and the younger children can understand. Make the other words and phrases blatantly negative and false with phrases about name-calling/slander, anger, bitterness and malice. Place a trash can in the center of the area where the children gather. Let them throw away all the lies and negative phrases, thus putting away all falsehood and keeping the good and true. Encourage the children to suggest good things they can say and do.
To conclude, get the children to stand as close together as possible and get the congregation to close the gaps between them in the pews as we strive to not make room for the Devil. You might also burn a fragrant offering to the Lord by burning all the falsehoods.
Call to Worship
Leader: Watch what God does, then do it. Like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. (Ephesians 5:1, Eugene Peterson, The Message)
ALL: In Christ's body we're all connected to each other. May we take on a God-fashioned life, thereby honoring the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We come before you, Lord, with repentant hearts. We confess to indulging in moments of worldly mindedness. The cracks in our souls' skin need closing if evil is not to penetrate. The wages of sin is death. Reprogram our hearts and minds, Lord, that we might be continually challenged to put on the mind of Christ and be imitators of you. Amen.
Keep company with God and learn a life of love. Jesus didn't love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.
-- Eugene Peterson, Living the Message (San Francisco: Harper, San Francisco, 1996).
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