March 26, 2019

Lent 3 - Ephesians 5:1-10

Synchrony with Our Heavenly Father
1. Based on a Balance between His Work and our Reception
2. Leads to Growth and Development in our Faith and Life

Ephesians 5:1-10 Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person-- such a person is an idolater-- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. 8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord.  

Social scientists who study childhood development speak of a principle called synchrony. As it pertains to development, synchrony is the shared relationship between an adult and a child, particularly at the infant stage. From the very beginning of life, infants are like sponges, soaking up information from adults, particularly their parents. This information sharing is so vitally important to healthy development for children. When adults are distant, emotionless, or absent there are harmful effects for children that linger for their entire lives.

However, the principle of synchrony goes both ways. The reactions and expressions of little babies also have an effect on adults. For example, it takes several weeks, perhaps a couple of months, before an infant smiles. Statistically, most adults don’t smile much at babies until they see a smile in return. Once a child reaches that stage of voluntarily displaying joy, it almost flips a switch in the adult’s behavior and increases their joy and attachment together. This is synchrony at work and it manifests itself in many other interactions throughout life. 

The principle of synchrony is not just a neat fact – it’s part of God’s design to increase and further healthy development starting from the moment of birth – and even before birth as we know how dependent a child in the womb is on their mother. As parents become more disconnected from their newborn child, we can certainly expect to see difficulties that arise in the child’s life – difficulties that can be hard to overcome because they are rooted at the most basic level of human development.

Today, we see that a similar symbiotic relationship is inherent to our faith. The Bible makes many connections between the physical aspects of development and the spiritual. God is called our Heavenly Father and we are to understand and approach Him as such. We are called children of God by faith. Just as a parent provides for, protects, and nurtures the body of a child; so God does all that and more for our souls. And we see the principle of synchrony at play in our faith lives also. The more we interact with God, the more we develop in a healthy way spiritually. The more distant He is, the greater potential there is for harmful effects.

Paul’s words to the Ephesians, which we consider today, explain this relationship. He is talking about spiritual development as believers. Much of what Paul looks at is the fruits that our faith manifests – abstaining from sexual immorality, filthy speech, and greed; following God’s Word carefully so that we aren’t deceived and led astray, and showing gratitude for what God has done for us. These are all markers of healthy spiritual development. But the greater question we ask is: how can I show these fruits in my life?

The illustration of fruit is really appropriate because it speaks to the natural working of faith. Many people think faith is all about these expressions of what a person does. So, the logical thought is that the more I do these things the greater my faith is. But that idea forgets how fruit is produced. The fruit is the result, the end of the work if you will. It’s not the cause of the growth, but rather the product. Once the fruit is produced, all the work has already taken place long before. Therefore, faith is much more dependent on what God does than what we do. If we are in the right place spiritually, fruits of faith will naturally show themselves. You won’t have to be coerced, or guilted, into following God – in fact you can’t no matter how hard you try, because that’s not how fruit grows. Fruits of faith become evident when a healthy atmosphere for growth is present. And when it comes to our faith, the best place for us to be is firmly in the power and grace of God as displayed in Jesus.

So, when you return to that original question about how you can show fruits of faith in your life, you have to start with what God is telling you about Jesus – not with the description of what those fruits look like. We see that in the other verses of our text. Paul writes, walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

This verse is the most important in the section because it governs everything else. The entire purpose behind walking in God’s will, a synonymous thought with producing fruits of faith, is because Christ offered Himself up for us. Paul points to the Old Testament here with thought of a fragrant offering before God. Incense was common feature in the worship habits of the Israelites since it was a metaphor for acceptable offerings and prayers ascending to God in heaven. Similarly, the greatest example of this pleasing sacrifice was in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

One certainly does not think of pleasing aroma or acceptance when death by crucifixion is on the mind. Part of the effectiveness of crucifixion as a means of capital punishment was it’s gory and horrific features. It was slow, painful, agonizing, and frankly disgusting. What made Christ’s death beautiful, fragrant, and pleasing was not what is looked like but what it meant. It marked the fulfillment of spiritual cleansing and renewal. It guaranteed God’s promise to take away our filthy unrighteousness and cleanse us as white as snow.

This acceptable offering before God is the basis of our faith. It is the nourishment that feeds our souls and allows us to produce fruits of faith, without any effort of our own will. In the fertile soil of Christ’s atonement, the seed of the gospel message can take root in a person’s heart and lead to this spiritual life. Christ’s death on the cross is the foundation for synchrony by faith. Faith is a mutual relationship with our Heavenly Father that grows and develops based entirely on what He does for us.

That’s a vital principle of synchrony, everything hinges on the parent. When fathers and mothers are reclusive and inactive with their children, development suffers and growth is stunted. When parents take the initiative and are active from the start, it ignites a fruitful relationship that can grow and produce vibrantly for life. Everything for our faith starts with our heavenly Father, but in order for it to be truly synchronous we do need to receive His love. The expressions of a receiving faith are pleasing to God. When we seek to conform our lives to His will and to listen intently to His Word, as described at length in specific situations by Paul, He is glorified and we are blessed. There is a response in our relationship that is directed to God. This response is not the cause, or basis of our faith. It’s not even the starting point, but it is important and does affect our growth as a Christian. 

And so, Paul expresses the importance of receiving by faith with some unique terminology. Verse 1 says, Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children. Some translations use the word “imitate.” This word doesn’t just mean to follow someone, but it’s pointed more at becoming like them – almost like a mirror image. It’s common that many people think of God as more of a model for decent living than a divine being who saves. Many people in the world consider the things that Paul encourages as good and moral things, but also that if someone believes differently it’s their prerogative. A model is a broad guide, where people can pick and choose how to specifically follow. God is calling for more than that when it comes to imitating Him through faith. The very meaning of imitation means that there’s an unchangeable standard which you adhere to; imitation is not a subjective expression which each person chooses for themselves.

Here is where the idea of synchrony is important again. Just as a child learns by imitating their parents, so also, we learn by imitating God. An infant does not decide how to act or what to do. They a molded by what they see their parents do. The same principle applies to faith. A child of God does not seek to choose his or her own course of right and wrong in life. We follow what God has shown us. Children of God do not rely on their own efforts for spiritual development; we pay attention to what our Father in heaven has done.  

Paul also indicates synchrony in the last verse when he writes, find out what pleases the Lord. The thought here is to exercise discernment to understand something. This involves learning from the Lord and receiving the products of His grace. This testing is never done without a purpose though. Within this discernment is also the intended goal of accepting what is pleasing to the Lord. It shows us the purpose of our synchronous relationship with the Lord. He desires that we both understand and accept what His Word says.

If you ever feel out of sync with God, perhaps you’ve been forgetting what He says here. Ask yourself if you’re imitating Christ. Remember that this is more than just following Christ. It is letting Him be who He is – God and Savior, and then learning for your life from that. If God is a Savior, it means we need saving. If God provides what we cannot one our own, it means we shouldn’t choose our own path in life. Just as a child does not imitate mom or dad by changing them, so also we follow God when we listen to what He says and who He is, without trying to add our own change into the mix.

Furthermore, ask yourself if you are discerning the Lord’s work in your life. Again, much like imitating, there’s more to this than what is on the surface. Understanding something by faith also involves trust and belief. It is knowing the truth and also accepting it as your own.

These are the reasons why God reveals Himself to you. He wants you to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” as He tells you in 2 Peter 3:18. He shows Himself to you in His Word and Sacraments so that you can grow in your faith – so that you can develop in a healthy spiritual manner as a follower of Christ. And when you see and trust God, there is a response. You can imitate Him. You can discern His wisdom. This synchrony keeps your faith strong until you reach heaven with God for eternity.  

Do not be deceived by empty words that promise life, meaning, and fulfillment without Christ. Rather, see your heavenly Father and what He has done for you through His Word, and the synchrony of faith will happen. Amen.

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