Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. Those of you who speak Spanish will understand that phrase, but may not understand its context. Those of you who speak Disney will understand that context, but may not understand the phrase. As a child, my family of origin’s big vacation every 4-5 years was a trip to Disney World. We have lots of memories of the place, but also of the preparation for the trip. It was fun to plan the trip with my parents, to count down the days until we left, and to pack the car. Well, maybe not packing the car. But even the trip down to Florida from Virginia, over the 17 hours as it took, was filled with familiar landmarks that meant we were getting closer and closer to our vacation.
Like many familiar family vacations, the place holds memories, but the family memories hold traditions that are even stronger. Little things stand out, that have little or nothing to do with the theme parks at all. It was the experience of being there with family, several times over our respective childhoods, that built those experiences that we still talk about, even as my siblings and I have our own families and my parents are several years into retirement.
One of those fun traditions was the Spanish phrase I mentioned earlier. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas. It means ‘Please stand clear of the doors.’ It’s the friendly warning that is repeated every time that one of the Disney monorails is ready to leave a station, which means it is a phrase that is repeated quite frequently. So frequently that as a child and teen who only spoke Sesame Street Spanish, I was determined to learn and mimic the phrase for my family whenever we rode the monorail. My parents got sick of it, but my siblings loved it, so much so that they still mention it from time to time. ‘Please stand clear of the door. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas.’
Another example is the infamous phrase that accompanies the London subway, also known as the ‘Tube.’ Clearly, at some point when the subway trains came into use, people must have tripped, fallen, or gotten stuck in the space between the train and the platform. In a typical, understated British fashion, the term ‘mind the gap,’ became a constant refrain whenever the doors of the subway are set to open.
We encounter these types of friendly warnings frequently, more often that we likely notice at first glance. ‘Watch for falling rocks,’ ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.,’ ‘High voltage – keep out,’ and ‘Watch your head’ are just a few. Likely, each of you can think of others. These signs serve a dual purpose – while they don’t prohibit a person from entering explicitly, they do clearly inform a person of a dangers in those areas. The signs encourage us to exercise caution and to be more mindful of our surroundings.
This text in Ephesians 5 is Paul’s version of a friendly warning, his way of telling the Ephesians to ‘mind the gap.’ To understand this text better, we first need to be more aware of the dynamics faced by the church in Ephesus. The city of Ephesus is in modern day Turkey. Ephesus was a major port and trading center in what was then known as Asia Minor. With its proximity to the Middle East, Ephesus was a constant stop on each of Paul’s missionary journeys, a place he traveled to and through while also going to start and visit churches in other parts of modern day Europe.
So what’s happening in Ephesus that causes Paul’s friendly warnings in this text? Much like other places where early Christian church emerged, Ephesus was a place that fluctuated between dismissive toleration and outright hostility towards Christians. As such, Paul’s writing was filled with these types of friendly warnings. In fact, if you compare this section of Ephesians with part of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, you’ll see nearly identical emphases. And it makes sense, as Paul has formed a mentoring relationship, a teaching relationship, with these churches, so they are looking to him for guidance on how to function as a faith community.
But it gets more challenging than that. Nearly all of the early churches established by Paul are in non-Jewish or Gentile areas. For the Jewish Christian churches, the disciples used the communal and worship structure of the Jewish synagogue as a framework for their emerging congregations. But the Gentile Christian churches had no such framework. Paul was literally helping them to not only learn about the teachings of Jesus, but also the history of Yahweh and the Hebrew people that was the foundation of the Christian way they had chosen to follow.
The church in Ephesus, like many others, had no framework for ‘church.’ The religions of those regions were cultural, but not communal. They were polytheistic or had many gods, not monotheistic, with only one god. Humans are communal creatures, so it is highly likely that the Ephesians and other Gentiles gathered together for mutual advantage. But they likely did so for growing and gathering food or for business or for family functioning, not for faith expression or religion. These letters from Paul must be read with that important caveat in mind.
So what does this text mean for us today? That’s part of the challenge we face here. Are Paul’s friendly warnings intended only for the Ephesians and others who face similar struggles? Or are these friendly warnings expected to be used by the future church as dogma, doctrine and commandment? Or is it somewhere in between? This challenge is not new. In fact, it’s one that we encounter repeatedly, as we grapple with ancient texts that are between 2000 and 6000 years old. Some scriptures reflect the culture in which people lived. Some scriptures reflect the specific dynamics that people faced. And some scriptures hold timeless truths – or at least truths that have lasted since their inceptions – with wisdom and faithfulness that continue to serve us today.
In my estimation, this text contains both. Clearly, part of Paul’s warning can be summarized as ‘don’t call attention to yourselves.’ That’s good advice for any of us when we are in uncertain or potentially unsafe situations. We see that in Paul’s focus on living as wise, rather than unwise people. So what does that mean? Again, the details matter, but so does the context. The challenge is that we get stuck on behaviors, rather than motivators. Truthfully here and elsewhere, so does Paul. Parsing through those behaviors to determine what is and not allowed, and more honestly, who and who is not allowed, is where Paul’s encouragement on wisdom falters due to the human tendency to judge one another.
Yet notice where Paul ends in this section of text. Not on what shouldn’t be allowed, but on what the community does together. Notice that his description of singing songs and giving thanks to God points back to the church being a formative community, which, as I mentioned earlier, these people had no religious experience with. Also notice that Paul’s encouragement is based in love, as part of that community building experience.
Paul points the church back to Jesus. Jesus points his followers towards love and towards God. More specifically, that we love God and we love one another. That we revere God and we respect one another. That we honor the being of God and we honor one another. This is the criteria for determining which of Paul’s friendly warnings still apply to us today. When we read them, do they point us in the direction of love, reverence, respect, and honoring one another? Or do they point us in the direction of judgment, division, confusion, or uncertainty?
Perhaps this visual demonstration will help further. As I mentioned earlier, the church in Ephesus face dismissive toleration at best and outright hostility at worst. Because the church members never knew what they were going to face, they had to be covert in their public greetings and encounters. When they greeted one another, they marked the dirt or pebbled ground in front of them with an arc. The person they were greeting, if also a Christian, reciprocated with an arc. The arc formed the shape of a fish, a symbol of the early church.
This greeting was a way of showing honor and respect to a fellow Christian, of demonstrating public faithfulness wisely, and of encouraging community with another believer. It was a way of sharing their mutual love of Christ, of living their newly form faith, in solidarity with each other. If someone came up to you and offered a gesture like this today, it would be confusing and meaningless. But to the Ephesians, it meant something important.
Similarly, if we told First Century Christians to ‘mind the gap,’ they would be confused. If we told them to ‘watch for falling rocks,’ they might turn that into a requirement of faith and a form of division. If we told them that ‘objects in a mirror may be closer than they appear,’ they may be unclear about what a mirror even is. Similarly, our context for interpreting the scriptures may not be how the church in 100 or 500 years interprets or understands them. All we can do is our best in this moment. And to use love, reverence, respect, and honor as a benchmark for understanding what these scriptures mean to us, and how they point us more clearly towards a relationship with God. Amen.