For some reason, the lectionary skips Ephesians 4:17-24. So last week, while I was gone, you all heard Ephesians 4:1-16, and today we heard Ephesians 4:25-5:2. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why vv. 17-24 were skipped. They set the stage for our reading today. So let’s go back and read vv. 17-24 before jumping into our reading from today. Read vv. 17-24.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, Ephesians is written to a church that contains both Jews and Gentiles. The primary theme of this book is unity. The question it seeks to answer is: how do people from very different walks of life become one body – the body of Christ? While the Jew/Gentile divide is the most apparent, there are other divides as well, divides that continue to plague our churches today. Divides based on socio-economic status, cultural background, gender, etc. Despite all these differences, they have been made, through Christ, into one new humanity.
In vv. 17-24 Paul reminds them of their conversion from the “old self” to the “new self.” He’s primarily talking to the Gentiles – he begins by saying “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live” – but it’s important to note that the Jews who have been baptized into Christ have also undergone a change. They have also put on a new self in Christ.
I must admit that all this talk of old and new makes me uncomfortable sometimes, as do caricatures of those who don’t know Christ. For example, Paul says of all the unconverted Gentiles, they “live in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
Really? Every unconverted Gentile is guilty of this?
After I graduated from college, a friend and I decided to celebrate by going on a camping trip to Arches National Park. On the way there, we drove through my hometown and stayed with my parents. We arrived on a Saturday night and were going to leave on Sunday morning. I convinced my friend to come to church with me (I’ve been guilting people into coming to church since long before I was a pastor!). This friend was not a Christian, but we had had a number of good conversations about faith, and I was looking forward to having more conversations on our trip.
I don’t remember what the pastor’s sermon was about, but I remember thinking it was a great sermon, especially for my friend to hear. I thought it touched on some of the very issues that had come up in our conversations. I looked forward to hearing his thoughts on the car ride. We left from the church, and I didn’t want to push it, so I waited for him to bring it up. Sure enough, he asked me what I thought of the sermon. I said I thought it was very good, and touched on a few of the things I liked. I asked me friend what he thought.
He said he was upset because the passage from Scripture and the pastor in his sermon referred to those who weren’t followers of Christ as “dead,” while Christians were alive. My friend clearly didn’t consider himself dead, and I must confess, he didn’t seem very dead to me either. “I just stopped listening after that,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think I ever talked to that friend about faith again.
So I’m nervous about this insider/outsider kind of talk. It’s an increasing point of tension for me – this whole before/after, dead/alive, old self/new self duality that runs throughout the New Testament. It’s especially difficult when we see many people who have nothing to do with Jesus living lives that are more Christ-like than many professing Christians. Just this past week, the entire elder board of the country’s fifth largest mega-church resigned after admitting that they had made a mistake by siding with their founding pastor and not the number of women who came forward and accused him of sexual harassment. The church leadership had continued to support this pastor until some of the women’s stories were made public and they could no longer keep allegations a secret.
How can we claim to be “alive,” and “renewed” when our siblings in Christ behave in such a way? They have been baptized into Christ, just as we have. They have confessed Jesus as Lord, just as we have. And yet there are people of other faiths, or no faith at all, who have lived far more moral lives than many Christians. They have treated others with respect, they’ve given of their time and resources to help those in need, they’ve lived lives of compassion.
The truth is the New Testament does make a strong distinction between our lives before Christ and our lives after Christ, but I think we should focus on our own lives, and how God has worked in us and continues to work in us, and not try to venture guesses at others’ relationship with God.
In Matthew 21, Jesus tells a parable about a father who comes to two different sons and asks them to work in the vineyard. The first says he won’t but later he does. The second says he will, but never goes. Jesus then asks who did what his father wanted? The answer, of course, is the first son. There are many people giving lip service to their Christian faith but not obeying the will of God, and there are others who are following the will of God, though they may not confess Christ. It’s not our place to judge another.
And yet, while we must be careful about how we talk about it, most of us who have given our lives to Christ believe that there is something truly life-changing about that decision, though we might not know exactly how to describe it. We can look back at the moment that decision was made, perhaps it was when you prayed a prayer, or when you were baptized, or, if you grew up in another denomination, when you were confirmed. Or maybe it was a slow process, but at some point it became clear: you were a follower of Jesus, and we cannot deny that it was the beginning of something powerful. Throughout the New Testament, new believers are baptized into the body of Christ, receive the Holy Spirit, and are raised up into newness of life. We just witnessed such a moment when we celebrated Julien’s baptism a couple of weeks ago.
Whatever the wording, a change has taken place in our very being. We have responded to the grace of God extended to us through Jesus Christ, and we will never be the same.
The Ephesians have had the same experience. Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or free, they met Jesus, responded to his invitation, were baptized into Christ, and received the Holy Spirit. The waters of baptism washed away their false self, and they came up freed to be their truest self – because the truest life is the life lived in communion with God and neighbor.
And yet, the novelty of this experience eventually wore off. It was easy to be excited about this new movement when 3,000 people were baptized in one day, when everyone thought Jesus’ return was just around the corner. But after a while, the excitement waned. Every morning they woke up, just as they always had, put on their clothes, hurried to eat breakfast, fought with their families, and hurried off to work…just as they always had. Their annoying neighbors still lived next door. There were still financial stresses and health problems.
And now, on top of all that, they were part of this community of people, many of whom were nothing like them. Often, this probably seemed more like a burden than a comfort. These were people they would never have chosen to hang out with, but now they were bound to. People who ate different foods and spoke in different dialects and came from different socio-economic classes. And truthfully, there were people who were just plain annoying. There were differences in personality. Some of them probably didn’t get along with the leadership. The pastor’s sermons were too long, or too short. Maybe the pastor took 6 weeks off for parental leave and then turned around and went on a family vacation a couple weeks later :).
In any case, life “in Christ” hardly seemed like anything new, so they started reverting back to the way they lived before. They responded to conflict the way anyone else would respond to conflict, they got angry.
They didn’t let those who had wronged them get away with it.
They started looking out for number one instead of caring for the needy among them.
They took advantage of others.
Their dealings with one another became false. They no longer spoke the truth to one another.
Of course, this happened over time, and it wasn’t intentional. It’s just, well, life wore away at this young community of faith in Ephesus.
Paul hears about all this, and he writes them to encourage them. He reminds them of who they are. He reminds them of the life they are called to.
At first glance, our reading from Ephesians might look like a list of rules.
When I was a kid, my dad would often sing the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band to me and my sister. The song criticizes the way signs are used to keep people out or deny them opportunities. The chorus goes, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind, do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?” The subtext of the song is clear: quit trying to control others through your signs, and let them live. We might feel, when we read passages like this one from Ephesians, that Paul is also overly concerned with rules, that this passage acts like the signs from the song, describing who’s in and who’s out based on whether or not they follow the rules: do this, don’t do that.
But signs don’t just tell us what to do. Sure there are stop signs and yield signs and no trespassing signs, those are called regulatory signs. But there are also warning signs that tell us to look out for hazardous conditions and animals crossing the road. There are guide signs that point us to the nearest hospital and signs that tell us what road we’re on, so that we don’t get lost.
This last week, Brie and I spend a few days in the mountains outside of Lake Tahoe with Brie’s family. Reception was spotty and GPS wasn’t reliable, so we had to depend on maps and…signs. We looked for sings for Johnson Creek Road, and Echo Lake. The signs themselves weren’t our destination, but they point us to our destination.
This is what Paul is concerned about in this passage and in the rest of Ephesians, as we will see in the coming weeks. He isn’t concerned with imposing rules, but with the signs of God’s presence in our life. If we are living into our identity as disciples of Jesus, Paul says, then we will speak truth to one another. We won’t sin, even when we’re angry. We won’t steal for our own gain but will give sacrificially to the needy. We won’t speak evil of other people, because, in Paul’s words, we’ll remember that we are “members of one another.”
This is much more than a list of rules, because rules can be followed no matter what kind of person you are. Anyone can stop at a stop sign. Anyone can go the speed limit. But to “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you”? That gets at the very heart of who we are. It means becoming a different kind of people. This is what Paul is talking about when he encourages the Ephesians to, “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
But how do we do this? Do we simply try harder?
This gets at a tension that runs throughout Scripture: the dynamic between God’s work in our lives, and our participation in that work. On one hand, earlier in Ephesians, Paul says clearly, “…by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works; so that no one may boast. For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:8-10). So it sounds like God, and God alone, is the one who works in us. We don’t have any part to play. And yet, in our passage today, from the very same book, Paul tells us to do something, to“put away” our old self and “clothe ourselves” with the new self, so it sounds like our participation matters.
In the book of Philippians, another book written by Paul, which we studied last summer, this tension is once again apparent. Paul says at one point, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion,” and yet he admonishes the Philippians later in the letter to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Clearly it’s not either/or but both/and.
I have two illustrations that I hope will help us resolve this seeming contradiction, and both have to do with children, which seems fitting, since Paul ends our passage from today with the exhortation to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
The first image I have is of a common sight around Portland. It’s an adult’s bike with a kind of children’s bike attachment on the back. The front of the child’s bike doesn’t have a wheel, but connects with the parent’s bike, but the child has their own handles and their own pedals and their own back wheel. The child isn’t determining the direction, and they aren’t doing most of the work, but they’re able to participate, and in so doing they begin to learn how to ride a bike. They develop muscle memory, so that when they jump on a bike in the future, they will instinctively know how to pedal.
Likewise, God has promised to do in us what we cannot do ourselves. I mean come on, how can we be imitators of God on our own! God is the one leadings us, and yet we have a choice, either to participate in this work, or not. We can drag our feet. We can choose not to peddle. We can get distracted and look behind us. We won’t slow God down, but we won’t learn anything either. We’ll stay the same.
The second image I have is of a child playing with a puzzle. A few months ago, I was hanging out with one of the kids from Lee Owen Stone. He was playing with some toy cars that were made up of a number of wooden blocks that connected to one another. You could mix and match the pieces, so that different tops could attach to different wheels and different middle sections. It was easy for me to see how the pieces fit together, but this young boy had the hardest time. He would attach a wheel where the top was supposed to be, or he would turn a piece upside down, so that the wheel was on top, and not on the bottom. He didn’t want me to help him though. He wanted to do it all by himself.
How often do we also think that we can put our lives in order on our own, that we can become Christ-like through sheer effort. And God sits back like a loving parent and watches us make a mess of it all despite our very best intentions. God waits for us to ask for help, to give us direction. As we sang after Julien’s baptism, “take my hands and let them move, at the impulse of thy love.” It’s our hands that move, but it’s God who directs them.
The degree to which our lives look like Paul’s list of dos and don’ts from today’s reading is not an indication of how hard we’re trying, or of how good (or bad) we are. It’s an indication of how open we are to inviting God into our lives. How willing we are to look to our heavenly Parent and ask Them to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, after all our attempts to be the kindest, the most reliable, the most patient, the most compassionate have failed. How willing we are to admit to Jesus that, despite our best efforts, the old, false self – the self of addiction and self-hatred and shame – keeps weaseling its way back into our new life, and we need him to rescue us. How willing we are to admit that we need the Holy Spirit to guide us, shape us, and transform us.
All this could be tied back to Shelley’s sermon from last week. It’s a question of how much we trust God with our lives. And the cool thing is that, as we trust God, it won’t just change us as individuals, it will change us as a community. Remember, this whole book is about how to live together as a community. Our individual transformation is tied to our corporate transformation.
May our lives begin to reflect our reading from this morning, not because we try so hard, but because we’ve decided to trust God with our lives. May we let go of the old self that holds grudges, gets offended, and keeps track of wrongs. May we “put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” May we put on the new self, found in Jesus Christ, and may we “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.” Because, after all, we’re “members of one another.”