The Third Sunday in Lent| February 28, 2016| Rev. Rolf Preus| Ephesians 5:1-9
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet‑smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth). Ephesians 5:1-9
To walk in love is to walk in imitation of Christ. We cannot copy his actions. His life and his life alone was given as an offering to God to take away sin. St. Paul calls the death of Jesus on the cross “an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet‑smelling aroma.” It was pleasing to God. What pleased God was the life and death of our God and brother, Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice quenched all divine anger against us and reconciled us to God. St. John puts it this way in 1 John 4:10-11,
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
To propitiate is to turn away anger, to pacify, to bring peace. Christ is the sweet-smelling offering who makes peace with God, setting aside his wrath, and doing so by bearing it in his own body. Love is hard. It is no sissy sentiment that quakes in fear at the possibility of rejection. It is not the thing of the romantic poets who elevate the feeling of the heart above every concrete action. No, love, true love, divine love, is self-sacrifice. It is laying down one’s life, not only for one’s friends, but for one’s enemies. Jesus bearing God’s anger on the cross while he prays divine blessing for his tormenters is what love is all about. That’s God’s version of love. That’s the love the Christian imitates.
We don’t imitate this love by choosing a cross to die on. The apostle says in Romans 12:1 that we should present our bodies as living sacrifices. We imitate the love of Jesus by living as if we were God’s dear children, as if we were saints, because that is what we are. The sweet-smelling aroma that comes from the offering of Jesus is not just its inherent goodness and perfection, but the fact that it was offered for us, for our benefit, to make us righteous before God. We love God, we imitate God, and we glorify God because of his love for us in Christ, a love that renders us spotless in God’s sight.
To imitate this love sets us in opposition to the standards of the world. The love to which we have been called is a self-sacrificing love. It doesn’t ask, what’s in it for me? It asks how I can help the other. This world’s love isn’t love at all. It doesn’t look to the other’s need; it looks to its own desires. It confuses love with feelings. It advertises its feelings as if such self-promotion is a display of love.
When this counterfeit love captures the affection of Christians, they stop behaving as Christians. When they start living as if they are not Christians they begin to lose their faith. They cling to a logical fallacy invented and popularized by the father of lies. It goes like this. Since our good works don’t help to save us, living in sin won’t damn us. That’s illogical. Our good works can’t help save us because Christ alone is our Savior. As the hymn puts it:
Christ alone is our salvation
Christ the Rock on which we stand
Other than this sure foundation
Will be found but sinking sand
Christ, his cross, and resurrection
Is alone the sinner’s plea
At the throne of God’s perfection
Nothing else can set him free.
Good works cannot help to save us because Christ alone is our salvation. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. God forgives us all our sins freely for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ.
The devil’s logic is that God’s grace in Christ is license to do whatever our sinful flesh wants to do. That’s a lie. St. Paul writes, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” To be light in the Lord means you are enlightened by the Holy Spirit. To live to please our sinful flesh is to deny what we are.
St. Paul contrasts love with actions that are the opposite of love, specifically, fornication, uncleanness, and covetousness. These things have no place in the life of a Christian. Let us consider each of these sins. First, we review what God says to us in the Sixth Commandment:
You shall not commit adultery. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.
What does this commandment say about fornication? Fornication is sexual immorality. It is engaging in sexual intimacy with someone other than one’s husband or wife. God has established marriage, a life-long union of one man with one woman, as the only place where sexual intimacy may be enjoyed in a God-pleasing way. Sexual relations outside of marriage is sin. The fact that it is called making love doesn’t mean that’s what it is. The word love is used in an attempt to cover up the ugliness of the sin. In fact, fornication has nothing to do with love.
Sexual immorality is a very efficient way of committing spiritual suicide. People have the natural tendency to think that what they feel is right is right. As the song says, “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right.” But it can. It often is. To disconnect sexual intimacy from marriage is to take what is good and to make it bad. The argument that a man and a woman may engage in sexual intimacy without first getting married if they truly love each other and are devoted to each other sets human feelings over God’s clear Word. It is the argument of unbelief. Unbelief claims to be faith. It’s not.
What does the Sixth Commandment say about uncleanness? Uncleanness is everything associated with a permissive view of fornication. It includes filthy talk, dirty jokes, filthy books and movies, and making light of sexual immorality by embracing it in word and deed. The mouth that pleads to God for mercy and sings thanksgiving to God for all his benefits cannot at the same time use filthy language that treats God’s good creation as if it were the devil’s playground. If it quacks like a duck it’s a duck. Talking as if the Sixth Commandment isn’t binding on the behavior of a Christian is Christ-denying talk. If confessing the Creed marks you as a Christian, filthy talk that degrades God’s holy institution of marriage marks you as an unbeliever.
What does the Sixth Commandment say about covetousness? Paul identifies covetousness with idolatry. We ordinarily think of covetousness as love of money. The love of money is a root of every kind of evil. In this context the Apostle is speaking of sins against the Sixth Commandment. Covetousness is lust. It is following inner cravings instead of listening to God’s Word. It is letting the passion, the desire for evil, determine one’s course in life – and that is idolatry.
Covetousness is pursuing pleasure for pleasure’s sake. There is no binding authority over the overarching principle of finding personal fulfillment and pleasure. The individual’s desires are the standard of morality. As long as the individual cannot see how his desires directly harm his neighbor, he refuses to yield to his neighbor.
This is a religion. In Paul’s day it was common among the practitioners of pagan religions to engage the services of sacred prostitutes as part of their worship. The same religion is practiced today. Doing what pleasures the body is considered a person’s right and woe be to the one who objects.
If, for example, a man has a sexual desire for another man, instead of confessing this desire to God as sin and begging God’s forgiveness for it, he is told to advertise this sin to the world by making this perverted and sinful lust self-identifying. He calls himself “gay” which is a euphemism for homosexual. He is encouraged to come out of the closet and publicly claim to be a homosexual and to do so without shame, without regret, without repentance, but instead to assert his homosexuality, not as a sin, not as a perversion of God’s creative order, but as a positive good, something of which God himself approves. Woe be to the Christian who objects. He will be accused of hate.
That’s a lie. Christianity is grounded on love. The religion of self-gratification is not a religion of love. It is a religion of lust. It is a Christ-denying religion that falls under the judgment of the prophet Isaiah, chapter five, verse twenty:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;
Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
Love and lust are not the same thing. Love and license are not the same thing. Love isn’t the unbridled surrender to passion and lust. It is disciplined. It is clearheaded. It willingly submits to God’s will. Listen once more to the apostles’ warning:
For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them.
The sweet-smelling savor of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is traded off for the stench of a false gospel. Unbelievers parade as Christians. They think that the gospel entitles them to feed the desires of their sinful flesh. To turn grace into license is to treat the blood of Christ with contempt and to regard as of little account his suffering for our sins.
Self-gratification is not love. It’s selfishness. Christians are called to live a life in the light of God’s Word, a life that honors what God says about goodness, righteousness, and truth. The love that sets us free from the judgment of the law is the same love that calls us to live in the light as God’s dear children. No, we do not claim perfection in this life, except for the perfection of Christ’s righteousness that covers us and presents us as righteous before God. But we do claim to be saints because that’s what God says we are. We do claim to be children of God because that’s what God says we are. And we will not trade this off for lies that appeal to the flesh and end up delivering only misery and death. Amen.