“Teaching Children to Get Along” – Ephesians 4:17 – 5:1
Introduction – kids and summer
This is every kid’s favourite time of year, isn’t it? Summer!! – when you can sleep late, hang out with your friends, do pretty much anything. We don’t have small kids at our house anymore, but we can hear the splashing of the children kiddy-corner across our back yard as they enjoy the pool that was installed last year. When we were at Katepwa Beach a couple of weeks ago, the children were having the most fun – building sand-castles, running into the lake, and generally just having a good time. Last Sunday, we attended an outdoor concert in Abbotsford. The children were having a blast sliding down the grass on toboggan sized hills on their stomachs. (I’m not sure their parents were going to have a blast doing the laundry the next day.) Last month, the children at our Bible Camp had a lot of fun singing, playing games and learning about Jesus.
This is a great time to be an adult, too. Things are easing up after an 18-month long exile in a pandemic. Work might be happening on a more relaxed schedule, and not always and only on the computer. You can do things. You can meet up with family and friends once again. You can load up the kids in the van and go places. You don’t HAVE to wear masks anymore. The weather’s been… HOT!!
As you watch children interact with each other, it’s interesting isn’t it? Sometimes they cooperate and play well together… sometimes not so much. After all, they are sinful, just like everybody else. What wouldn’t we give to find the formula for children to get along with each other! As with most things, there are two different views when it comes to raising children – the permissive approach and the authoritarian approach. Wise parents look for something in between the two.
1. God our Father, we His beloved children
Our heavenly Father is the wisest parent, and in our Epistle reading this morning, He teaches His children to get along. He knows the best of all teaching methodologies, and that means neither extreme, but the strength of both approaches. Human parents can draw some very good advice from this word of God, but God isn’t really speaking to us as parents. He’s speaking to all of us as children, His children.
That is evident as Ephesians chapter 4 transitions into chapter 5. Paul writes, very briefly and clearly: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.” We are children of God – all of us, at every age. As I mentioned last Sunday, that was clear in the first 3 chapters of Ephesians where Paul wrote that we are adopted children of God, that we are forgiven, and blessed, and made alive, and saved by God’s grace, that we are not strangers and foreigners but members of God’s household, and that we are named with the very name of our Heavenly Father. We ARE children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. At the end of chapter 4, Paul adds one more detail: we are sealed as God’s children. The Holy Spirit did that in our Baptisms. You may not remember it for yourself, but you have probably seen it in other Baptisms… that a child or an adult is marked – on the forehead and on the heart – with the cross of Christ to show that God puts His seal of grace and blessing on us.
2. Our Father teaches us
By that act, God also takes responsibility for raising us, for teaching us those things a parent teaches a child… like how to get along with one another. The first three chapters of Ephesians were theology – what we believe about God, and who we are in Him. The last three chapters are about putting that theology into practice. They emphasize how we are to live with our fellow Christians, the rest of God’s children. You see, just like kids, we sometimes get along well, sometimes not so well. Kids may argue about who gets to bat first, or who gets the best seat in the car for the first leg of the road trip, and kids may complain and cry because they got surprised with a water balloon right on the chest with water splashing all over their face. Adult squabbles are similar but take on a more mature (or is it a less mature) trajectory. Instead of shouting over who gets to bat first, adults may hurt another person’s reputation by gossiping. Instead of fighting for the best seat in the car, adults fight for the best job in the company. Instead of soaking each other with water, adults find it easy (and tempting) to soak someone else with verbal abuse. Those kinds of behaviour are no more acceptable among adult Christians than they are among kids on summer vacation. How does Paul say it… “Don’t live any longer as Gentiles do.”
[Side trip: “Don’t live as Gentiles do.”]
[Now, this really merits a little explanation. Ephesians 2 was about God in Christ breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Jewish people generally had this us/them mentality – us, the Jews, the chosen people of God, and them, the Gentiles, the wicked and unbelieving and rejected ones. Paul wrote that Jesus made peace between the two through His blood shed on the cross. In Christ, there was no longer any distinction – they were all God’s children. So, why say, “Don’t live as the Gentiles do,” when in fact the Ephesians were generally all Gentiles – that is, not Jewish? The answer is that Paul really created a third grouping of people. There were still Jewish people who followed the Old Testament rules and regulations, people who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. Then there were followers of Jesus – both of Jewish and Gentile origin. The third group was still called Gentile, but called Gentile because they were immoral, unbelieving and far off from God. Paul is saying, “Don’t live like them,” which is really saying, “Don’t live like you Gentiles used to live before you became children of God through faith in Jesus.” He goes on to say, “Put off your old self, your corrupt and deceitful self, and put on your new self that was created to be holy and righteous like God, Himself.” I guess that’s like saying, “Like father, like son, like daughter,” or “Be imitators of God as His beloved children.”]
3. Not the permissive extreme
OK… so God intends for us to be like Him – kind and forgiving instead of bitter and angry. How do parents make that happen with children in the context of their household? How does God make that happen in the context of His family?
Remember there are two approaches. In the extreme permissive approach, the parent gives a lot of responsibility for development to the child. The parent lets the child learn on his or her own how to get along. The idea is that independence lets the child develop his or her creativity to the fullest. Every day becomes a summer free for all. Unfortunately, children who grow up in such totally permissive homes often develop an egocentric “me first, me always” view that leads way past water balloons. What’s more, children in such environments often develop resentment for parents who don’t seem to care enough to provide guidance and parameters for behaviour.
a. He cares, and He grieves
God certainly doesn’t take this laissez-faire “anything goes” attitude with His children. He cares. He really cares for His children. Paul says that the Holy Spirit can be grieved by God’s children when they sin. The Holy Spirit teaches us God’s will, and He grieves when we ignore it. The Holy Spirit shows us God’s love, and He grieves when our lives don’t reflect that love.
Human parents grieve: when their son or daughter intentionally hurts someone else’s child; when their child rejects the morals and values of their home and everything the parents have done for him, storming out of the house at age 18, vowing never to come back; when their child takes a self-destructive path in life, abandoning God and pursuing addictive behaviours and life-styles.
In the same way, the Holy Spirit grieves when God’s children hurt one another physically or emotionally, when we reject everything God has done in creating, redeeming and caring for us, when we hurt ourselves by falling into self-destructive sins. God cares about us too much to sit back and see whether we’ll learn how to get along on our own. He doesn’t take a “children will be children” attitude when Christians hurt one another.
b. Some “dos” and “don’ts”
He definitely has some dos and don’ts for getting along. Listen to the end of Ephesians 4 again: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another…”
It is inconsistent with the Christian faith for believers to fight, to carry grudges, to talk evil about other believers. God does not permit these things. A couple of verses earlier, Paul stated a great principle for any marriage relationship, any family relationship: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” If you go to bed angry with your spouse, you will both stew about it, lose sleep, and probably wake up still angry with one another tomorrow morning. Resolve any ill feelings before you close your eyes for the day. Then you can sleep with a good conscience. Those are the don’ts. The dos are: be kind and compassionate and forgiving. Practically that would be caring for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, supporting those who are feeling weak and those whose lives are floundering, and bearing with the sins and failures of a Christian brother or sister. God is no “sit back and watch” permissive parent. He cares, He longs, He aches for us to be kind and compassionate. By His commands He actively teaches us to get along.
4. Not the authoritarian extreme
On the other hand, neither is God a parent of the other extreme approach – a strict authoritarian. You know what that approach is like – lots of rules… “do it because I said so,” and “if you don’t, you’re going to get it.” This approach gets outward compliance but inner resistance, and more resentment than the permissive model. As soon as the threat is gone, the compliance stops.
a. The Family Map
When I do marriage preparation classes with a couple, one of the pages of the report includes their responses to statements about the family they grew up in. Have a look at this Family Map.
Along the bottom axis is a set of words that describe how close the family was – from the overly connected extreme, doing everything together, to the disconnected extreme, with four or five pretty separate individuals just living in the same house. Along the left side are words that describe flexibility, and this is really the permissive / authoritarian continuum. Overly flexible along the top refers to a lack of rules, with the inflexible row at the bottom being about lots of rules, very defined roles of the parents, with very little change. It’s desirable – according to the psychologists who developed the statements and the chart – to be in the middle section on both axes: close but not too close, flexible but not too flexible.
b. Not rules that lead to resentment
God doesn’t want grudging outward action, a resentful following of the rules, so He doesn’t adopt the extreme authoritarian approach with only rules. He wants hearts, so He brings about loving outward action by working inwardly… on our hearts. He showers us with huge doses of love. We are called BELOVED children. He proved His love for us when Christ gave Himself up for us as a sacrifice. That’s the greatest demonstration of love, isn’t it? – giving up one’s own wants and desires for the beloved, giving up one’s own life for the beloved! And that’s what Jesus did – dying on the cross for us because God loves us. Jesus’ death and resurrection removed and forgave the sin that separated us from Him. Oh, when it comes to dos and don’ts, we DON’T have to do anything for our salvation, because Jesus DID it all on the cross.
c. A fragrant offering
Paul calls that sacrifice of Jesus a “fragrant offering.” What is your favourite smell? Apple pie fresh from the oven? Clean laundry from the drier? A just-bathed baby? Coffee? Bacon? A steak on the grill? The smell of wet soil after a rain?
For people familiar with the Old Testament Jewish faith, a fragrant offering may remind them of the smoke of incense that was to represent the prayers of the people rising up to God, or maybe the smoke of burnt offerings that were sent up to God as a pleasing aroma. Jesus’ offering of Himself as the sacrifice for our sins was a pleasing aroma to God.
5. Imitate God / God’s love
That love of God for us teaches us to love one another. We are called to imitate God, to imitate His love. The Greek word for “imitate” is where we get our English word “mimic.” That’s the way children learn, isn’t it? They hear their parents speaking and they learn to mimic the sounds. They see a brother or sister sharing, and they begin to share. They see Dad saying sweet things to Mom, and they learn to encourage and compliment. They see family members helping each other around the house, and it rubs off on them. We learn by imitating.
God uses that same technique on us. He teaches us by example how to get along. He wants us to love, so He loved us first, and richly, lavishly. He wants us to forgive, so He shows us how by first forgiving us. Even more important, God’s love and forgiveness motivate us to love and to forgive and to get along.
They say that a child learns what they live. If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn. If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight. If a child lives with ridicule, she learns to be shy. If a child lives in a house of ill will, not only will he not learn how to love, but he won’t want to. The anger he’s received will be anger that has to come out. That means that the corollary is also true – a child lives what they have learned.
But a child who grows up in a loving family wants to be nice to other kids, wants to love other people. We Christians are all growing up in the most loving family – not a perfect family, but a family with a perfectly loving Heavenly Father. In spite of all our sins, we are loved. In spite of our unworthiness, we are blessed every day. In spite of our “bitterness and wrath,” “anger,” “clamor,” “slander” and “malice,” all who put their trust in Jesus and His fragrant offering have eternal life. That kind of love motivates us to get along nicely with our brothers and sisters. Amen.