Reinventing the Wheel (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)
“There’s no use reinventing the wheel.” Found plenty of occasions to say that, haven’t you? What you mean, of course, is that dealing with whatever problem you are confronting, you need not spend time looking for a new solution when a perfectly good one already exists.
But, consider the statement literally. It implies that the wheel, one of our oldest inventions for moving heavy weights a linear distance across an irregular surface, works so well that it has not been superseded. Indeed, the wheel has been around a long time. Genesis mentions both wagons and chariots. 1 Kings includes a detailed description of wheels crafted for the bronze stands used in the Temple (1 Ki 7:32-33).
But we know about wheels even more ancient than those in the Bible. The oldest wheel found to date was unearthed in what was Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) and was in use over 5,500 years ago. Of course, we don’t know who created that wheel, or if indeed there were wheels in use even before that, but however long ago the first wheel was made, it was a remarkable technological step forward for mankind.
And so, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel, but that’s not to say that people don’t keep trying. Just ask Russell Stormer. He’s the primary examiner of wheel-patent applications at the Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia. His agency is staffed by some 4,800 examiners, but all applications for wheel patents go to Stormer and his two assistants. Over the years, they have received thousands of applications, nearly 350 in 2004 alone. In a typical year, Stormer and his two assistants get through about 125 of them and approve about 90.
These applications arrive with pages of descriptions, detailed drawings, and specs. Stormer has received proposals for plastic bicycle wheels with only three spokes, aluminum car rims toughened by improved welding procedures and inline skate wheels with tiny brakes inside that are activated as the skater tilts her foot in certain positions. Often the goal of the new designs is to produce lighter-weight wheels that require less material and yield better mileage and improved vehicle handling.
The job of Stormer’s team is to determine whether the proposed designs are new and useful, and whether they include features not already patented. With the number of wheel patents on file—more than 30,000 since 1790—making such a determination is neither easy nor fast.
In fact, the main reason that wheel-patent applications keep going to the same examiners is to capitalize on the things they can remember from their previous work and thus speed up the processing of new applications. In other words, at the US Patent and Trademark Office, everything related to wheel-patent applications revolves around Stormer. And, at last report, he has enough applications for new wheel patents right now to keep him busily employed for the next 17 years.
None of the applications Stormer receives, however, is for replacing the wheel. Make it from different materials, yes. Add smoother bearings, yes. Connect it to the axle differently, yes. Make it decorative in some way, yes. Use it in conjunction with struts or shock absorbers, yes. And a thingamabob or a doohickey or even a whatchamacallit, yes. But in the end, applications all include a circular device that moves itself and whatever is mounted above it by rolling—exactly what it did back in Mesopotamia 5,500 years ago. Some things meet the need so well, that while they can be perked up and prettified, they cannot be rendered obsolete.
Now think about what cannot be made obsolete while reading our text in Ephesians. Some 2,000 years ago, Paul filled this section of his letter with practical advice about how to live a Christian life. In other places, he spoke about right belief, but here Paul simply talks about the business of living in a community with other people.
Listen to his word, and do so with these questions in mind: Which of the things Paul says here are now outmoded, out-of-date, old-fashioned, hopelessly out-of-sync with postmodern sensibilities? For which of these have we come up with something better?
Read the text and tell me if you can find even one thing there that you’d declare a quaint relic of the past—something to be admired and appreciated for its former glory and utility, but of no practical value today?
What would we discard from Paul’s prescription? Be truthful, don’t let anger turn sinful, don’t steal, work honestly, share with the needy, don’t talk trash, deal with others with kindness and forgiveness, live a godly life, and so on are the right advice for life altogether.
But, of course, many people don’t live together that way. In the extreme, neighbors in the world community attack and kill one another. In less extreme situations, neighbors seethe with quiet rage at one another. Forgiveness is taken as a sign of weakness and aggression as a mark of strength. And whole industries, including some publications and TV shows, have made trash-talk their currency.
In much of life, it isn’t that we need to reinvent the wheels of community, but rather that we need to put them in service.
We need fresh wheels. NASCAR is hot these days, and one of the critical moments in every race is when the driver heads for the pits to get his wheels changed. And at some point, it must be done. Period.
That’s what we’re suggesting this evening. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we may need to mount a different set. We run our lives on the wheels of ambition, arrogance, acidic talk and acrimony, which clunk and bang along and disrupt fellowship, while the smooth-rolling tires of charity, compassion, clemency and commitment, remain in the trunk. Let’s take a look at these wheels that we might get them out of our trunks and ride smoothly with them.
The Wheels of Charity, v 28
“Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.”
Apparently in the Ephesian congregation there were those who had a problem with stealing prior to their coming to Christ.
That shouldn’t really surprise us. Ephesus was a large metropolitan city, a city known for idolatry, and there were many there from questionable backgrounds. Certainly at least some of those from questionable backgrounds in Ephesus had lived lives of thievery prior to coming to Christ.
It’s that way in many parts of the world as the church beings to convert people. Most all of us were either raised in the church or in moral families of varying religious beliefs. Therefore, we cannot, I think, fully appreciate the predicament of converts who come from lives of outright rebellion and sin.
But this we can fully appreciate—Paul says, “Don’t steal. Instead work that you might have something to share with those in need.”
We are to be a working people. God created humans to work. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Prior to the Fall, even prior to the forming of the woman, God put Adam in the Garden to work. About those who were not working in Thessalonica, Paul writes, “Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thess 3:12).
We dare not sit around without gainful employment and be content, as some in this society do. This doesn’t mean that we sin if we’re laid off, or that we sin if we are physically unable to work, or that we sin if we retire—That’s not Paul’s point at all. What is wrong is if we choose to live at the expense of others—specifically in this context, the expense of others is stealing from them.
Why should we work according to this passage? It’s not to provide for ourselves (although other passages clearly teach that); it’s to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. Paul puts it this way: “that he may have something to give him who has need.”
We need to be a people who are more than willing to share charity, to help those in need. Jesus Himself said, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (Matt 5:42). Paul told the Ephesian elders, “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
George Peabody was a wealthy merchant of the nineteenth century. He was most generous in his gifts to worthy causes, one of which was the building of model tenement houses in London at a cost of over two million and it is estimated that he gave away over nine million in his lifetime.
Once, at a dinner party in Baltimore, George Peabody and John Hopkins were present. Someone inquired: “Which did you enjoy most, Mr. Peabody, making your money or giving it away?” “Well,” replied Peabody slowly, as John Hopkins listened, “I enjoy making money. I think it is a great pleasure to make money. And when the idea was first suggested to me that I give money away, it did not please me at all. In fact, it distressed me. But I thought the matter over and concluded that I would try it on a small scale. So, I built the first of the model tenement houses in London. It was a hard pull. But after it was done, I went around among the poor people living in the rooms so clean and comfortable, and I had quite a new feeling. I enjoyed it very much. So I gave some more and the feeling increased. And now I can truly say that, much as I enjoyed making my money, I enjoyed giving it away a great deal better.”
It’s extremely doubtful that any of us would ever have anywhere near George Peabody’s money. However, each one of us can find it more blessed to give than to receive. Will you put on the wheels of charity?
The Wheels of Compassion, v 32
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.”
Because we are in Christ, we are to show great compassion toward those struggling in this life. “As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (Col 3:12). 2 Peter 1:5-7.
Dwight Morrow, the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, once held a dinner party to which Calvin Coolidge had been invited. After Coolidge left, Morrow told the remaining guests that Coolidge would make a good president. The others disagreed. They felt that Coolidge was too quiet, that he lacked color and personality. No one would like him, they said. Ann, then age six, spoke up: “I like him,” she said. Then she displayed a finger with a small bandage around it. “He was the only one at the party who asked about my sore finger.” “And that’s why he would make a good president,” added Morrow.
Do we ask people about the hurts in their lives? Do we care about the hurt in others’ lives?
The Wheels of Clemency, v 32
We are to be forgiving toward one another just as in Christ God has forgiven us.
Hurts are all too real in this world—a hurtful word, a malicious act, or an unintentional oversight. Paul here tells us we’re to forgive such hurts.
Some hurts are so deep and so hard to forgive, why should I be compelled to forgive the deepest hurts? Because God has forgiven me—What greater motivation could exist for forgiving others?
God has forgiven me for transgressing His perfect will, for causing the death of His Son, and for causing Him hurt beyond description. How can I not forgive others? God, of course, expects such. Matthew 6:14-15. Matthew 18:21-35.
Susan Pendleton Jones wrote an article a few years ago in a denominational magazine. Here’s what she said, “We are pleased with the idea of a forgiving God, but not if it would require us to change our lives. Forgiveness becomes something we claim but fail to proclaim in our living. We too often sound like George Eliot’s description in Adam Bede: ‘We hand folks over to God’s mercy, and show none ourselves.’” Let us not only turn folks over to God’s mercy, but let us show mercy ourselves!
The Wheels of Commitment, vv 1-2
“Be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
Paul here calls us to a life of commitment, a commitment to follow God and to imitate Him in our lives. Throughout the Scriptures, we are encouraged to pattern ourselves after the Divine. “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 Jn 2:6).
On a wall near the main entrance to the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, is a portrait with the following inscription: “James Butler Bonham—no picture of him exists. This portrait is of his nephew, Major James Bonham, deceased, who greatly resembled his uncle. It is placed here by the family that people may know the appearance of the man who died for freedom.”
There is no picture of Jesus Christ—we have no idea what the Lord might have looked like. But we can show the world how He lived by committing ourselves to living after His example. Have you committed yourself to following the example of Jesus?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.