Text: Ephesians 4:17-32
Even though we are sons of the Reformation, we Anglicans have always had a high regard for the Church Fathers and the received tradition of the first few centuries of the Church. In fact, as a priest, people often ask me for advice in starting to read them. I usually point to the same place I started: a forty-day reading plan of the Fathers, designed to be a Lenten devotion. Even though I had taken two semesters of Church History and Historic Theology in my Master’s studies, this Lenten plan was the first place I really interacted with translations of the primary sources: the writings of the Fathers themselves. On the second and third days of this plan we read the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, a second-century work of apologetics in which an anonymous Christian makes a case for his faith to a pagan magistrate. A particular passage from this Epistle has always inspired me. The author describes the way that Christians aren’t a separate people-group, but are rather ideal citizens from among any of the Empire’s nations. He writes:
Inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.
The passage continues on for the rest of the chapter, describing the Christians as those who show set themselves apart from the rest of the world by righteous and moral conduct.
As we continue in our Trinitytide sermon series through St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, we see that the Bible also expects us to live differently from the rest of the world. Please turn in your bibles to Ephesians 4:17:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
This sets up a contrast between the life to which Christians have been called and the life of the rest of the world. Back in Ephesians 2 we discussed the “one new man” made of Jews and Gentiles brought together to be built into a Temple for God’s Spirit. In today’s passage, St. Paul is using the word “Gentiles” a bit differently. In Ephesians 4, “Gentiles” refers to those who are pagans, those who don’t know the true God. Those who have either not heard or not accepted the Gospel. Even though the Ephesians had come out of pagan Gentile culture they were not to live the same way as their other Gentile neighbors. This didn’t mean that they were to become Jews, but rather they were to live as Gentiles who have been called out of their former lives by the grace of God.
St. Paul describes the pagan Gentile way as walking “in the futility of their minds.” Rather than living according to God’s word, they walk according to whatever seems right to them. In the book of Judges we see some of the darkest stories in the Old Testament, and there’s a constant refrain: “There was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is what it’s like to walk in the futility of the mind. And we see the fruit: darkness of understanding, alienated from the life of God, ignorance of the things that truly matter, hardness of heart. When we walk according to our own understanding, according to whatever is right in our own eyes, we become callous, insensitive to anything but our own wants. We are given up to sensuality, driven by our base passions, even greedy for impurity.
What Paul describes is an excellent picture of pagan culture in his day. But it’s also very much like the general culture in ours. Everyone doing what is right in his own eyes leads to a culture that’s obsessed with sex, driven by entertainment, distracted into futility, and so far from peace.
But we Christians are called to a higher standard. Verse 20:
But that is not the way you learned Christ — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Unlike Israel in the time of the Judges, we do have a King: the Lord Jesus Christ. And we are to follow his ways, the truths we find in Holy Scripture. We are to put off the old self, the old pagan lifestyle, the lies of the world with their corrupt desires, and are rather to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. “The spirit of our minds” is an interesting turn of phrase. St. Jerome says this about the phrase:
We are not being renewed in our thinking process apart from the renewal of our spirits. Nor are we renewed in our spirits without thinking. We are being jointly renewed in the spirit of our mind. Hence we sing psalms in the spirit, so we also sing them in our thoughts. As we pray in the spirit, so we also pray in our thoughts. The renewal of the spirit of our mind means that when the thought is clear and pure … then the spirit is rightly joined to it. They are so coupled as if by a cohesive glue that we no longer speak simply of spirit but of the spirit of our mind.
Notice verse 21: “assuming you have heard about Christ and were thought in him.” The exhortation to live righteously is based on the assumption that you have been called to be a follower of Jesus, just like we read in this Sunday’s Epistle reading from the beginning of Ephesians 4: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of he vocation wherewith ye are called.” Since you have been baptized into Christ, joined to him by faith and baptism, you are a new creation and therefore called to live as such. This is a big part of what we talked about last week.
Our Collect for the day fleshes this idea out a bit. In our Collect we prayed that the Lord’s grace would “always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works.” As a reminder, in Tudor English, “prevent” means “to go before,” not “to keep something from happening.” In other words, in the Collect we are praying that God’s grace would go before us and follow us, that God’s grace would be the trail blazer and the rear guard in our lives, that God’s grace would surround us in our Christian walk. Only then can we be “given to all good works.” Without God’s grace, without faith as their basis, without being rooted in Christ, we cannot truly do good works. Indeed, as Article XII in the 39 Articles of Religion says, without faith in Christ, our works that seem to be good on the outside are liable to God’s judgement because they are impure, arise of mixed motives, and don’t live up to the perfection God requires.
In Verse 24 of our Ephesians passage, we are urged “to put on the new self created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The new self has been created after the likeness of God the Son when you were united to him by faith and baptism, when the Spirit regenerated you, gave you new life. “Righteousness” is walking in the right way, the way we know from Scripture. Everything we must believe and practice for faith and morals is found in the Holy Scripture. Only Scripture can define sin and “bind the conscience.” And “holiness” means “set apart,” both a description of who we are, and a calling to which we aspire.
The rest of the chapter describes some of what this righteousness and holiness looks like. We’ll take the list one issue at a time. Verse 25:
Therefore, having put way falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.
Last week we spoke about speaking the truth in love. This verse gives us the reasoning: “because we are members of one another.” The truth is necessary for unity. We are to speak the truth because it is the best thing for our neighbor, whom we are to love as ourselves, because we are one body in Christ.
Be angry and do not sin, do not let the sun to go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
Anger is not inherently a sin, but it is all-too-easy to have sinful anger. Godly anger is similar to God’s self-description as “jealous.” It’s not based on selfishness or capriciousness, but is based on love of what’s right and love of the other person. This is why St. Paul says to “not let the sun to go down on your anger.” Godly anger seeks resolution and restoration rather than stewing. When we let our anger fester, we give opportunity for the devil to tear apart our relationships. Again, remember that we read in verse 25, “We are members of one another.”
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
Our work, our vocation, is ultimately for our neighbor. Our good works are ultimately for our neighbor’s benefit also. After all, God doesn’t need our good works. Honest work is not selfish work.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
This is probably the most convicting for me. Foolish, idle talk is comes very easy. Sometimes we dress up ungodly talk like gossip in a religious veneer. “I’m not gossiping, I’m just sharing a concern.” St. Paul gives us a good rubric for godly talk: it builds up everyone involved, it is appropriate for the occasion, and it gives grace to those who hear. Gossip, in particular, can be absolute poison in the Church. On the other hand, when our words are such as “give grace to those who hear,” the Holy Spirit can use them to bring people to Christ and to help Christians grow in Christ.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
The idea of grieving the Holy Spirit really sums up sin in general. There’s no such thing as a “little” sin. In fact, when our sins are most dangerous is when we think they’re no big deal. Yes, we go to God’s throne of grace with boldness. But that doesn’t take away our sins’ seriousness. Indeed, our sins are so serious that Jesus die for them. But here’s the thing: the Holy Spirit will prompt your conscience to resist temptation to sin. We’re sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and that means that we can (as the baptismal liturgy says) “manfully fight under [Christ’s] banner” against sin, the flesh, and the devil. We’re not fighting this alone.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice. Be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
And this really sums up the way we should treat each other. We put away bitterness, wrath, ungodly anger, and all the rest. We are to treat each other with kindness, forgiveness, and tenderheartedness. Why? Because God forgave us. We should treat each other in the same way that God treats us. “Forgive us out trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Ultimately, this “paying forward” of God’s grace toward us is what separates the Christian calling from walking as the Gentiles. The world is a dog-eat-dog place. The world offers no mercy toward the one who falls. But God’s property is always to show mercy. May we do the same.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Part 1: Ephesians 1:1-14 – “The Family Secret”
Part 2: Ephesians 1:15-23 – “Remembering you in my Prayers”
Part 3: Ephesians 2:1-10 – “From Death Valley to the Highest Peak”
Part 4: Ephesians 2:11-21 – “One New Man”
Part 6: Ephesians 3:14-22 – “A Glimpse Behind the Curtain”
Part 7: Ephesians 4:1-16 – “Gifts for the Body”