Monday, September 21, 2009

This week's sermon: Out with the Old, In with the New

Ephesians 4:17-5:20.

These declarations and prohibitions are all expansions on verse 2 of chapter 4, where Paul says to “be completely humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love.” This is that life of humility and love lived out practically. Paul takes us through four statements of what we ought to look like as children of the king. Paul tells the Ephesians to 1. Stop living like the gentiles; 2. Put off the old self, and put on the new; 3. Be imitators of God as dearly loved children; and 4. Be careful how you live, live wisely. These four statements are expanded on in the surrounding verses, detailing the old life and what to put off, and the new life, what to put on.

Paul begins this section by describing the life of the gentiles as a dark, separated, ignorant, numb, indulgent lifestyle that does not satisfy. Sounds great, right? I put it right up there with sleeping on the street without a blanket. Do you remember last week’s picture of the beggar turned son of the king? This is the life he was giving up. This is not much of a sacrifice, and yet sometimes we treat leaving this life of darkness, loneliness, and hunger as a great martyrdom. But if we are in Christ, Paul says we should know better. This is not the Truth that we were taught in Christ. Remember the woman at the well, Jesus said to her, “If you asked me I would give you water so that you would never thirst again.” God does not call us to a life of emptiness, but a life so full of himself, we realize our former starvation without him.

The Truth we learn in Christ is to put off the old way of life that does not satisfy. It no longer suits us to be wearing the clothes of a beggar spiritually, but the very robes of Christ’s righteousness and holiness. That is why put off the cloak of lies we hide behind. Not because it is wrong—which it absolutely is—but because wearing the robes of righteousness we don’t have anything we need to lie about. Lying is a survival skill in some people’s lives. It is how they make up for the fact that they feel inferior, weak, ashamed of who they are. But in Christ, we are God’s children, the sons and daughters of the king. What do we have to hide? Even the things of the past are no longer important, they are overcome by what Christ has done for us in bringing us into the family, and the Holy Spirit is doing in us to transform us from the inside out. This is the ultimate recognition of grace, to live in honesty with one another. To refuse to judge, to refuse to fear the judgment of others, but to be in complete unity as one body.

This unity is held together by our obedience to deal with our disagreements and even anger with one another in a way that brings about healing, not wounding. It is not a sin to be angry. It is a natural response we have to injustice, or pain, or being wronged. What we choose to do with that anger can become sinful if we allow it to fester, if we refuse to practice constructive confrontation, if we let it go down to bitterness and drive a wedge between ourselves and another person. Then it is sin, then it causes wounds that become gangrenous. And injuring our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, or allowing a wound in our hearts to fester by continually picking it open gives the devil a foothold. It is like making a whole in the network of sentries around the castle so that the enemy can sneak his troops over the wall.

Paul describes many things that are part of the old life and the alternative new life actions. Stealing is part of that old life. Working—not only for our own living, but so that we can find value in sharing with others is part of the new life. Tearing people down through course language and gossip is part of the old life. Building people up in conversation and bringing them encouragement in what we say is part of the new life. Seeking a loophole so that you can still engage in the habits you enjoy while feeling smugly superior is grieving to the Holy Spirit, it is trying to hang onto the old life while pretending to live in the new. So don’t do it. Life in Christ is not about what you can get away with, it is about how deeply you can immerse yourself in Christ to experience his abundance. This is why Paul tells the Ephesians to imitate God as dearly loved children.

When kids see their parents and do what they are doing, it is not because there is some rule that they must. It is out of love and a desire to be just like daddy. I remember when Kathrina started taking her plastic alphabet letters from the fridge 9particularly the green letter “T”) and shaving just like daddy, or when she would want to help mommy sweep and mop the floor. Bella loves to help do the dishes, and both girls love to sit in the computer chair and “work.” It should be the same with us. We should love our heavenly daddy so much and desire to be like him that our behavior naturally patterns after his. And we know that God is love, we should live in love towards God and one another, following the pattern Christ set for us.

That pattern does not include, and never will include, sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity or coarse joking. Why, because they are on the “bad” list? Well, they are, but not just because someone arbitrarily decided they were bad. No, these are symptoms of a greater problem. You know that it is not good for your lungs to fill up with fluid. You know it is bad to loose feeling in your hands and feet. You know that it is really bad to start having body parts fall off. But if you go to the doctor, his concern is to find out why these things are happening. The same is true of the sinful habits in our lives. Paul tells us the basic diagnosis as to why these bad things, immorality, impurity, greed and obscenity, would show up in our lives. The problem, he says, is idolatry. That is the real sin here. That is the root. “But I don’t bow down to an idol!” You protest. But if you can’t say no to sexual immorality, lust has become your god. If you can’t say no to dishonesty and greed, self has become your god. If you can’t say no to obscenity and coarse talk that tears others down to make you look good, popularity and the praise of men has become your god. These become the things you imitate and seek after above everything else. Watch out for idolatry, it is the root disease of all kinds of infection in the Christian life. Now Paul gives a warning about people who will try to tell you that this is all meaningless. They will tell you it doesn’t really matter what you do. They will say that grace covers everything, so live like you want to. Well, grace does cover everything that we allow it to cover. If we are following another god, a god of darkness, emptiness, loneliness, deceit, and death; if we are sacrificing and surrendering ourselves to those gods in idolatry then we cannot simultaneously be surrendering ourselves to the One True Living God and his abundant grace.

As Paul says, there is no fellowship of light with darkness. You cannot have a little darkness and a little light. Wherever there is light, darkness has to flee. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that you are in the light when you are surrounding yourself with darkness. The last admonition Paul gives is to live wisely. We know that the way of the world is foolishness, and there are a lot of ways to ruin your life foolishly. That is why I think the only thing Paul mentions in this little section is don’t get drunk. Probably the biggest thing you could have done in Paul’s day to ruin your ability to make good decisions was to get drunk. Now we have added a whole host of intoxicants and drugs that contribute to stupid decision making. Instead of turning to intoxication to feel good about ourselves and to gain confidence, why not instead be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will come in, give us a good picture of who we are in Christ, give us strength for every situation, give us peace and confidence and a sense of God’s love and grace. All that and no hangover or worries about the foolish things we did the night before.

All of these things that Paul tells the Ephesians again are a way to fulfill the life lived in gentleness, patience, humility, and unity through love. The keys are to stop living like we did before, put off the old, put on the new, imitate God like his children that we are, and live wisely. In this way our lives serve to glorify God, to build up the body of Christ around us, and to satisfy our souls in a way the old life just could not have done. We can’t do all of this alone. But we can have this life with the help of the Holy Spirit and by encouraging each other with Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs. Our lives of love and thanksgiving help those around us to continue walking in their new lives as well, and we all build each other up as one body with Christ as the Head.

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