Text: Ephesians 4:17-32
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today’s Epistle lesson is really about Truth, what is truth and how does it change our lives? St. Paul is very clear here, so that there is no questioning that Truth is from God and it is revealed in Christ. That to know Truth is to know Christ and to know Christ is to know Truth. This Truth that we find is Christ is a force that changes us, not that we live as the world lives, but rather live as Christ lived, in the way we can see in His gospels and in the way that the apostles have instructed us.
In order for us to start to understand this passage and in order for us to start to understand this truth we start in the middle of the passage with verse 21 “If so be that ye have heard him (that is Christ), and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus.”
This is a quick and simple statement, almost snuck into the letter without much emphasis, but it is very important for it makes a strong and important theological statement - Christ is Truth. If you want to know Truth - look to Christ and if you know Christ - you know Truth. On this belief hangs the Christian religion.
There is an old saying that goes something like this: “If you want to know what a perfect or true human looks like, look to Christ, if you want to know what God looks like, look at Christ.” That is to say that Christ was the perfect man while also being fully God, and in his life on earth, he revealed the nature of God, as being both full of truth and compassionate, caring for his people, while being distraught at false teachers. In the same way he showed what a man who was not fallen should look like and how he should behave. He showed how men and women would and should behave if they were not rotten to the core with sinful affections. If you want to know truth, if you want to be truly alive - seek Christ.
It is in this knowing of Christ - in this knowing of the truth that our hearts are transformed, that we are brought to a place where we flee from our old ways, where we flee from the afflictions and affections of the world and flee towards Christ and the way that he instructs us to live, following after His example and learning from what apostles have taught us. St. Paul often refers to the way of the world in his epistles, but today he calls it “living as gentiles do,” these are basically synonymous terms. Today we might refer to the same type of behavior as worldly, doing as the secularists do or even pagan.
Before we are in Christ our minds are corrupted by the plague of original sin which misleads us and causes us to think that we are our own god, that we can create our own destiny, that we can save ourselves. Yet from the very beginning of creation we see this is a deadly and tragic assumption. Time and time again, humanity and the Israelites decide that they can do better than God can and they set out on their own, only to find that they will fail. Likewise when we live in the world, when we live in the corruption of our mind we inevitably find failure as well, that over time this only leads to discourse, sorrow and heartbreak. So we seek Christ and allow him to convert our minds.
Likewise the heart and the mind are not separated in the Christian’s worldview. As Anglicans we are reminded weekly that God has called us to love him with our hearts, souls and minds and in this passage the saint reminds us that how one aspect of our self behaves or believes directly effects how the rest of our self. So if our mind is constantly day dreaming about our neighbors pretty wife or fancy new car, chances are our heart will become very sick as well, if it is not all ready. Likewise if we only have a knowledge of God, but no love for him, we are not being transformed. Instead we are transformed in heart and mind.
We see in our culture today a distressing need for more, more than we could ever need. We are inundated with ads that tell us if we eat at a certain restaurant or buy a certain kind of car or shop at certain stores that our families will be happier, that we will find more pleasure or that the things that ail us will be made better and this might be true for a moment, but these are fleeting hopes and temporary fixes.
We have to understand that delighting in the world around us, delicious food, the love of a husband or a wife or even a nice house is not bad, and in fact these things are biblical but when we clamor after these things at the expense of our relationships with God, with our family and with our neighbor, they are useless. When we seek them to fix all our problems, instead of seeking Christ first, they will inevitably fail us. So it is when our hearts and minds are corrupt, physical pleasures and corruptions take the place of these good things, we lose sight of what is important in the corruption of our hearts and over time this corruption leads to the chasing after all worldly things or as the saint says when given to the way of the world we “work all uncleanness with greediness.” (If this is unclear, the translation from which I do my personal devotions reads “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”) So hard hearts lead us down a wild and unhealthy path, that always wants more.
As we have discussed and seen the hardness of heart is not the path that we learn from Christ, and we can see from the testimony of his life that his heart was certainly not hard, but rather full of compassion and love for all who came to him in true repentance, in the realization of their need to be transformed from the ways of the world around them.
So when we come to Christ - we put off our old self and put on Christ. St. Paul talks about this time and time again in his epistles. He talks of putting away our old ways, and how even for him, that sometimes he needed to be reminded of this daily and likewise so do we. Here he is calling the Ephesians and us to not live as they once did when they were gentiles but instead live as Christ has taught us and showed us to do. It is easy to look at the world around us and think, “well that action isn’t so bad,” or “I really wish I could experience that,” but if it is contrary to how Christ lived then we are not living in the way that Christ has taught us, and we are to flee from such things. For if we slide off that path just a little bit, we come tumbling down a steeper hill than we might have imagined.
Yet there is hope - in Christ’s grace our mind and spirit are renewed, in Christ we are given the opportunity to put on a new self that God has fashioned in his very likeness. That is, we are recreated, we are made new and we are given the chance to live in the manner we were created to live in before the fall, we are recreated in His own image. This is the gospel promise - to experience recreation, to live as we were supposed to in the fullness of communion with God and with our brothers and sisters who are also in Christ.
When we are in this newness that is found in Christ, we are called not only to put away these falsehoods, these temptations of the world, but to also speak the truth. We are called to live and speak the truth in all we do. Yet what does speaking the truth look like? It is not an oppressive thing as some have supposed. In a desire to speak the truth, in the desire to show the evil of the world, some have given into evil themselves, being spreaders of hatred and not love. Yet if we give into this the devil again has won.
No, we look again at how Christ behaved, the truths he spoke. The ones whom he was kind to were the repentant adulterers, the fraudulent tax collectors who turned from their evil ways at his beaconing, the younger brother who in the complete brokenness of his heart ran back to his father and fell on his knees hoping only for the lowest position in his house. The villains in these stories were the tyrannical religious leaders who were not happy to simply bring these people back to God, instead they burdened them with more rules than could ever hope to achieve, the one casted in a poor light was the unmerciful older brother — who was left with a choice, forgive and love, or stay out in the cold. (As one who has struggled to forgive - I hope quietly that the older brother realized his wickedness and turned to love his brother for until the last day there is always hope for repentance). If we wish to live as Christ lives, we do not tolerate sin, nor false teachings, but we do so with a compassionate heart. Now - isn’t that a bit of a challenge? To find how we balance this act of truth and compassion is certainly a challenge, and even when we do, there will certainly be some who call us prudes or bigots for not accepting their lifestyles or choices, for not living as they do, yet we still must love even them.
Some may say “but Christ turned over tables in the temple, shouldn’t we be outraged too?” And there are things to be outraged about in this world, but we must look carefully at why he was turning over tables. The tables he turned over were money changers were those who profited off of the commoners worship of God. So it is false teachers within the church, those who would profit off of worshippers, those who would mislead and mistreat the children of God, these are the ones who we should be outraged against, not those who are lost and hopeless in the world. This lostness should only bring compassion and a gentle and repeated representation of the truth in the lives that we live and in the words that we speak.
St. Paul goes on to give examples of what this new living in the truth should look like - we may be angry but we do not sin, rather we repent of this anger before the day is over. We do not allow sin to reside in our heart, for even the smallest sin gives the devil a foothold. Even the smallest sin gives him an edge into our lives and minds and it does not take long for him to tear down the goodness that God has planted in us.
I liked to tell my old congregation - that I tell you all these things of goodness, I tell you how we ought to live as the chief among sinners. That is as the saint said - I too struggle with my own sins and I am telling you this, because I see within myself that even if I am given to an evil thought about someone I love, I can see how quickly that love becomes hatred and in the moments before I repent I can see how the devil is delighting in the wickedness he has planted within me. Or even if I am given to a slight temptation, i can see how that temptation quickly becomes an obsession. The point is - we must be on guard for the devil, for he is a roaring lion and he seeks to destroy us. He is very real, do not be deceived into thinking anything different and do not destress that sin is tempting, you are not alone in this struggle, but we all struggle and we all pray for each other, that we may over come these struggles and when the struggle is too hard to do it alone we find a brother or a sister to walk with us in it, we confess our sins to them and we pray together. This is how the body of Christ is to work.
The saint then gives some examples of a new way of living. It could be any act of turning away from wickedness, but here he talks about a thief who no longer profits by stealing, but rather works honestly, so that he can honestly share in the community. It does the reformed thief no good, if he goes on sinning and it does the body of Christ no good. Likewise our talk must be reformed. It is so very easy in what some call a “post-Christian world,” to be given to bitter talk, but we must fight that urge. For though we are quickly becoming a minority for though orthodox Christianity (by orthodox I mean holding to a right belief or as some call it bible believing and not the eastern Church), is coming to be seen as something of an unfavorable world view, we need not be distressed. We were promised to be seen negatively by Christ and our joy does not come from the world - but rather life in Christ, our joy does not come from being validated by what others think of us, but rather the future hope of a completely regenerated body and restored communion with God.
So do not be tempted by negativity, do not be tempted by anger - but rather seek that Joy that is only found in the new creation that Christ has done in us. For this bad talk that the saint talks about corrupts our very hearts - this negativity will destroy us if we allow it to reside in us. The word used for bad can also mean rotten. So if we cut these rotten things out of our live we will flourish in Christ, but if we allow them to stay they will destroy us to the very core. We have probably all watched an apple sitting on our counter top - one day there is a small mushy part and suddenly a day or two later the whole of it is mushy and brown and cannot be consumed. It is the same when we allow sin to reside unchecked our hearts become hard and cold. Instead of clinging to these sins we must learn to submit ourselves to the holy spirit, by praying, by reading God’s word, by living in Christ and fellowshipping with his community, by partaking in His sacraments and by repenting of whatever sins ail us. It is in these things that the Holy Spirit works to redirect us back to the right track and back to the good way, for we have been sealed for the day of redemption - that is we have been sealed for an eternal life with God in Christ.
The saint ends by telling us to flee from those things that build bitterness and anger in our heart and to be kind to one another. I have been known to say that the rule of life for the Christian is to live in love - to love God and to love man. This love is expressed in kindness. Kindness which is both quick to gently speak the truth and is quick to forgive, for we have been forgiven a far greater amount than anyone has ever sinned against us and so in this we ought to be quick to forgive all those who have wronged us.
With that in mind - it may do us well to commit to memory the final verse of todays lesson, and to remind ourselves of it regularly: “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” So now, let us go and do this.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.