Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:15-21
The image of someone drinking alcohol alone – often drinking to excess – is not a happy picture. But the moderate use of wine or alcohol in a group, on social occasions, can often contribute in a positive way to the cheerful atmosphere of such a gathering.
Psalm 104 declares that the Lord, in his loving providence, “causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man.”
The events of the wedding of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine – good wine, no less – so that the celebration would not be ruined, come readily to mind in this respect.
It is a sad fact, however, that the abuse of alcohol, and drunkenness, are major problems in our country. The misuse of alcohol can have a devastating effect on family relationships, on the health of the person who drinks too much, and on public safety – in view of the many accidents on the job and on the roads that are caused by intoxicated people.
And these same sorts of problems are becoming ever more common, through the misuse of drugs and chemical intoxicants other than alcohol. The moral and ethical problems associated with substance abuse are evident in any kind of chronic intoxication, not just intoxication from alcoholic beverages.
These are not new problems, either. That’s why St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Ephesus, 2,000 years ago: “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation…”
Do not give your mind, soul, and body over to the control of a chemical! It is dissipation. In other words, it causes the disintegration of your moral, intellectual, and physical life.
It is also a form of idolatry. It is a violation of the First Commandment, which requires you to place yourself under the ultimate control and governance of God and the Word of God, and not under the control of an addictive substance, or of anything else in this world.
And it is a violation of the Fifth Commandment – which forbids murder, and the infliction of harm on human beings – because of the bodily and psychological damage that substance abusers bring upon themselves, and upon others who are impacted by their addiction.
It is interesting to see the contrast that St. Paul presents in his Epistle to the Ephesians, between drunkenness, which he forbids, and the proper spiritual alternative to drunkenness, which he recommends. This is what he writes:
“And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
The most appropriate time to have some wine is when you are having it with friends, during a wholesome social occasion. Think again of the wedding at Cana.
Likewise, the supernatural reality of Christians being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that is best understood and experienced when Christians are with fellow believers, and not alone.
The Christian religion certainly does recognize the personal dimension of faith. Each of us has his own faith in Christ as Savior. We are not saved by someone else’s faith, or by the faith of a group.
But, this does not make Christian spirituality to be a private thing, that can properly be cultivated and brought to maturity outside of the fellowship of the church, which Jesus has instituted for his people to be a part of.
Christians certainly want their thoughts and actions to be directed by the Holy Spirit at all times. We would seek to be always under the influence of the Spirit of God, and not only when we are in church.
But St. Paul would want us to see that the focus and foundation of the Spirit’s work in our lives, is connected most essentially to what happens when God’s people are called together by the gospel: for the preaching of God’s Word, and for the administration of the sacraments that Jesus instituted for his church.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit is doing something that only he can do, when he causes our faith to be molded and shaped by the gospel that we hear together, in such a way, that we then collectively respond to God’s Word and Sacrament with the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and with the offering of heartfelt thanks to God for all his gifts.
And please notice the apostle’s emphasis on the fact that this doesn’t happen when we are by ourselves, but when we are joined together, to build one another up in our most holy faith. He writes that we are to be speaking “to one another” in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
One commentator has suggested that these three kinds of congregational singing can be roughly distinguished in this way: “psalms” are songs that are sung about God; “hymns” are songs that are sung to God; and “spiritual songs” are songs that are sung about our experience with God.
Whether or not this is exactly how it breaks down, the various hymns that can be found in our hymnal, and the canticles that constitute our liturgy, do tend to fall into one or another of those three categories. All three of these types of songs have their proper place in the overall worship life of the church.
Sometimes, Christians who don’t think they can sing very well, sit in silence when the other members of their congregation are singing a hymn. And because they’re not singing, they often don’t see any reason to have a hymnal open in front of them, either.
But, whether it is intended or not, such a decision not to participate in worship, can give the impression that we do not want to be included in what the Holy Spirit is doing in worship: when he is teaching us through the words of a psalm; when he is lifting us up in faith through the words of a hymn; or when he is bringing encouragement to us through the words of a spiritual song.
Dear friends, if you think that you cannot sing well, then sing quietly. But don’t refrain from singing altogether!
And if you think that you are not able to sing at all, then at least read the text that others are singing, while they are singing – and perhaps move your lips just a little bit. In this way, you will be showing your desire to be blessed by what the Holy Spirit is doing for God’s people, through God’s people, in church.
And in this way the Holy Spirit will actually accomplish a holy work in you: as he strengthens your faith through the Christ-centered message of the song; and as he – by the same means – strengthens your connection to Christ, and to Christ’s people who are seated around you.
A Christian worship service is not a place where people come to perform for each other or to show off in front of each other. Rather, it is where weak and needy people come to hear God’s Word; to be enriched in heart and soul by God’s Word; and to share God’s Word with others.
Those who are struggling with substance abuse, and with similar harmful addictions, will find – in the fellowship of God’s church – the help they need to resist temptation and to find liberation from what is enslaving them.
And this is not just because of the positive psychological effect that comes from being with people who care about you – although that is also a part of what being in church brings you. Rather, the reason why the gatherings of God’s people are so helpful is because God’s people are gathered around the means of grace that come from God, and that are filled with his saving power.
Truly, the gathering of God’s people in God’s house is the premier time and place when the Spirit of the Living God fills and refills them with the life of God.
The Holy Spirit convicts and humbles us, when he reminds us of our sins and failures and prompts us to be honest about those failures before God and man. But he then brings hope and joy to us, and restores us with his healing grace, when he causes the message of Christ crucified to be preached to us – for forgiveness, and for peace with God and man.
Paul continues: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
“Giving thanks always and for all things” sounds a lot like what is going on during the Communion Liturgy, when I as pastor address these words of prayer to our heavenly Father, on behalf of the whole congregation:
“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The Holy Spirit is prompting that prayer, too. And he is thereby getting us ready to listen, with devout attention, to the sacramental Words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
By those sacramental words, spoken by the Lord on the night in which he was betrayed, the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood was instituted. By those sacramental words, spoken by the Lord to his true disciples of all times and places, that Supper is now brought to us: right here, in this place, where the Holy Spirit has called us together in the name of Christ.
You are indeed giving thanks for “all things,” when you are giving thanks for the greatest gift. This greatest gift is the gift of God’s own Son: whose body was offered up for us on the cross, as the atoning sacrifice for all our sins; and whose blood was shed for us, to cleanse us of all shame, guilt, and fear.
The Holy Spirit always works through the Word of the gospel. And the Word of the gospel has power to save and forgive precisely because the Holy Spirit is always working through it.
It is the Holy Spirit, therefore, who carries all the blessings of Christ’s death – and of Christ’s resurrection – to each communicant.
Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word, the Holy Spirit supernaturally places the body and blood of Christ into the blessed bread and wine. Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word – in and under those earthly elements – the Holy Spirit supernaturally delivers the now-living Christ to each communicant’s lips, and into his soul.
This is a very special kind of “filling” that the Holy Spirit brings to us. He fills us with Christ and with all the benefits of Christ. And he fills us with the faith by which Christ and his benefits are received and embraced.
In our participation in this sacred meal, we are very definitely not drinking, or eating, alone. Indeed, we become aware of the fact that the circle of those who are intimately united to Christ with us, extends beyond the people we can see at the communion rail.
We are, in this sacred mystical moment, “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.” The “communion of saints,” which transcends even the barrier of death, is very real to us in the communion with Christ that we experience in this sacrament.
When people get together to drink alcohol to excess, they thereby drag each other down, and contribute toward each other’s harm and destruction. But when the Holy Spirit calls us together in the fellowship of Christ’s church, he does just the opposite for us.
He lifts us up in Christ, by filling us with his own forgiving and restoring presence. He strengthens us in our Christian faith, and renews us in our Christian love, by uniting our hearts and minds in the singing of God’s praises, and in the joyful celebration of all that God in his grace has done for us.
“Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Amen.