There’s a very odd line in today’s second reading. The Letter to the Ephesians says, “Do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30) I’ve never thought of the Holy Spirit as being overly sensitive or prone to melancholy. What would one have to do to “grieve” the third person of the Trinity?
If we understand this line of Scripture literally we would have to ascribe to God a human emotional life, specifically, that God is susceptible to insults, insecurities and feelings of abandonment. To do so makes God look petty and fragile. We should probably look in a different direction for the meaning of this line of Scripture.
Today’s reading is excerpted from a larger section of the Letter that was a baptismal homily. It explains the effects of Baptism, and describes the kind of life that a baptized person should live. The selection we have this Sunday is part of a moral instruction about the Christian life. Such moral instructions are common in the Scriptures.
Christianity is not primarily a morality; it is a faith, a living relationship with God and fellow believers. There are, however moral standards that are the evidence and consequence of faith. Morality is always secondary for believers, but always necessary. For that reason, the Scriptures often describe the moral standards that should characterize the life of faith. Further, the morality described by the Scriptures is most often associated with Baptismal instruction. Such is the case with today’s second reading.
The Letter refers to “the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30) The phrase “sealed for the day of redemption” isn’t an abstraction; it’s not solely a statement of a theological truth. Rather, it is a reference to the baptismal ritual that was practiced by the church community at Ephesus.
The baptismal ritual used by the ancient Church is largely unchanged today. The person to be baptized was washed with water, given a new set of white clothing and then “sealed” with the Holy Spirit. In ancient times, there were varied ritual practices that were used to signify the “sealing” with the Holy Spirit. In the current baptismal ritual, that sealing is done by three Sacramental signs: prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing with Chrism oil.
The “seal” of the Holy Spirit means exactly what the word implies; it is both an endorsement and an insignia. The ritual “sealing” confers a new identity on the baptized person. The newly baptized no longer belongs to the fallen world, but to God. Their new identity as a member of the Church, and their new destiny as a citizen of God’s Kingdom, are caused and represented by this ritual “sealing.”
The odd sounding line from Ephesians means that in Baptism we become identified as belonging to God, and that this new identity brings with it certain spiritual and moral obligations. If we were to translate Ephesians 4:30 into conversational English, we might say, “Do not repudiate the gift of the Holy Spirit you received as a pledge of resurrection.” It’s not the life or happiness of the Trinity that is at stake here; it is our own.
The moral instruction continues with a warning that the baptized are to avoid “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting . . . reviling . . . along with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31) These, and all forms of destructive behavior, are so contrary to the life of faith that they threaten to invalidate the new identity and new destiny conferred by Baptism. The Letter to the Ephesians warns us not to disfigure the seal that marks us as belonging to God.
It would be a mistake to misunderstand these few lines from the Letter to the Ephesians. Our destructive behavior doesn’t harm God; rather, it harms us. When we are judgmental, insulting, unforgiving or malicious toward another human being we harm ourselves by betraying the gift of faith we were given at Baptism. It would be an equally serious misunderstanding to fail to grasp the impact our destructive behavior has on other people. God isn’t going to burst into tears if we mistreat one another; rather, our unkind behavior ought to cause us deep regret.