I don’t know whether you remember the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The film is takes place during the Normandy landings. Three brothers have all been killed within days of each other. One brother remains alive, private James Francis Ryan, but is declared missing in action. In a bid not to send a fourth, horrendous telegram to a grieving mother, Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and seven men are sent on a rescue mission to save Private Ryan. In their attempt to bring Ryan home, most of the men are killed, and finally Captain Miller himself, having just blown up a bridge, is mortally wounded. As he lies against a truck, covered in blood and dirt, with the chaos of war all around him, and he whispers something in Ryan’s ear, ‘James… earn this. Earn it’.
The letter to the Ephesians is written by an elderly apostle, imprisoned for his faith, to a young church. They are, you might say, Paul’s last words to church he loved greatly. In his letter, he reminds them of the enormous privilege it is to be a Christian and he reminds them that their privileged life is the direct result of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he closes his letter, he says, ‘In view of all this, live a different kind of life. He almost says, ‘Earn this, earn it.’
The lives we are to lead as Christians are lives which recognise both the privilege of being a child of God, and realise the price at which our adoption came, and remembering this to live lives characterised by carefulness and wisdom. Paul doesn’t hand us another set of laws detailing precisely what we should and shouldn’t do. He doesn’t want us to behave like infants, who need to have instructions from their parents for the smallest of tasks, and he doesn’t lock us into the ethical standards of his day, even though there will be some principles which are true for all time. Paul asks us to think carefully about the way we live. ‘Be careful how you live’ he says, not ‘be careful, because God is watching and if you put a foot wrong he is going to get you’. Be careful in gratitude for the great gift God has given us. We are to take our Christian life, our growth as disciples of Jesus, and our witness to the world with the utmost seriousness.
But it’s quite possible to be serious about religion in a rather unpleasant way. We can be religious bores. Go to any Church of England theological college and start a conversation on a theological topic, and you will find several people who will talk and talk and talk about it until you can take no more. You’ll wish you’d never started the conversastion. I may have even been like that myself! That’s one unpleasant way of taking religion very seriously. You could also be a serious Christian by being a person who never enjoys life: the Lord and Lady Whiteadder of Guildford, spending your time sitting on a spike for added discomfort. You might refuse all enjoyment of life and never even think of mixing with people outside the church. You couldn’t argue that this kind of person takes religion seriously! But it’s not an attractive way of life. We might be very serious about ourselves and our own religious opinions, lacking the humility that says, ‘I am human like everyone else, and have been and can be mistaken’. Religious seriousness can lead us to claim a sort of infallibility for our ideas, and an arrogance towards those who think differently.
I don’t think Paul wants us to take the Christian life seriously in these ways. We don’t honour Jesus by becoming holier than thou know-it-alls. We don’t honour the God who created the universe by refusing to enjoy the world he has made. Neither do we ‘live in love as Christ loved us’ (Ephesians 5.2) if we despise the very people he loves. Being serious about our faith shouldn't lead us to being horrible obsessive, pedantic human beings. Rather, taking religion seriously will mean that our lives will be focussed on God, his gospel of love and forgiveness and his kingdom of justice and peace.
The God focussed life, Paul tells us, is one which makes the most of the time, or redeems the time as an older translation of the Bible put it. We are to understand how precious time is, and actively seek out every opportunity to discern God’s will and put it into practice. To show us what this kind of attitude which makes the most of the time looks like, Paul gives us an example to avoid and an example to follow.
So here we are, at the bit we all focus on. Drunkenness. We are to avoid a way of life which looks like drunkenness. Paul isn’t a first century temperance preacher, the Billy Sunday of ancient Asia Minor. He has no issue with drinking per se. In fact, I don’t think this really has much to do with alcohol, though I’m sure Paul wouldn’t have approved of Christians getting legless. In this passage, Paul is more concerned with the general character of our lives, not with specific behaviour. We all know that one way to loose focus, to loose control, to let time flit away, is to have a few too many drinks. After too much to drink, time slips by, the moments, the hours, the days merge into one. It becomes harder to act wisely, to make good judgements. If you are drunk, it is next to impossible to make a difference for good in the lives of those around us.
Instead, our lives should be ‘filled with the Spirit’, thankful, brimming over with songs of gratitude to God for all that he has done for us. We are to receive every day, hour and minute as a gift from God to be used for the good of the world and for his glory. The way to make the most of the time is to make our lives acts of worship to God. There’s an elderly woman that I visit. She has suffered some mental deterioration in her old age, and can’t remember very much these days, but every time I see her she always says ‘Every day I say to myself, ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, It never will surprise me what the Lord has done.’ Because he’s been so good to me.’ She has taken Paul’s advice seriously. Even now, in the evening of her life, she holds on to the goodness of God and thanks him with songs of joy. Don’t let the moments slip by, but accept them as a gift from God, opportunities for good.
‘James… earn this. Earn it’ – really and truly, Private Ryan could never earn what had been given to him. None of us deserve even one life given to save us. What he could do was live every second from then on remembering how precious his life truly was. It had been purchased at enormous cost. It was more precious than diamonds. How should we treat something that valuable? With great love and care, with thankfulness for the gift, and generosity with the riches entrusted to us.