Monday, February 4, 2008

Dressed for Going Out (Ephesians 4.20-32)

February 3, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we looked at the nature of being the Church. The Apostle Paul compared us to a human body, all the parts being knit and held together by what the connecting tissue supplies. Just as God made the human body to grow, He has made the Church to be a living, growing, healthy body. Out of that analogy we realize that church is not something we belong to but something we are. And this body needs each of you. Without any one of you here, we are not a work force diminished by one, but more like a runner with a broken leg. And Paul challenged us to grow up, to find our place in this body so the whole might mature and function as God designed it to function.

Paul continues these thoughts in today’s text, exploring in more depth that process of maturing in Christ. Whereas he focused on the whole Church last week, he turns to individuals this week, to help us think through how we may ourselves grow up spiritually to better encourage, support, and build up the whole body. He frames all of this conversation in verses 22 and 24, where he challenges us to grow up in Christ by “laying aside the old self” and “putting on the new self.” Notice that Paul still begins with words describing our identity – he doesn’t start with laying aside our old ways, but our old self – who we used to be apart from Christ. Notice, too, that while Paul and Scripture claims that in Christ we are a new creation, we still must make the daily choice to live that way. That’s why Paul can talk about “putting on” an identity. Like an abandoned teenager adopted into a stable and loving new family, sometimes we wrestle with accepting our new identity and would rather remember old and familiar habits, even if they are no longer consistent with who we are.

So, with this framework, Paul proceeds to give a series of examples of behaviors that reflect whether we are “wearing” our new identity in Christ. Hear this clearly: in Christ you are a new creation. And so Paul writes, if you know Christ, then attend to these matters and put off what is old so that you may put on what is new.

There are a number of these “wardrobe changes,” if you will, and they continue on into the next chapter. We’ll focus on five that are contained in our text and move through them rather briefly before making some overall applications for our life together as the Body of Christ. In each case, Paul gives a reason for making the change.

1. From Lies to Speaking Truth (vv. 25)

The first exchange Paul lists is speaking truth rather than lies. Look at the reasons Paul gives for this. First, he uses the word neighbor, bringing to mind Jesus’ summary of the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God (with all you are and all you have) and love your neighbor as yourself.” Why (and this is not the only reason) should we speak truthfully? It is because speaking truth is linked to our neighbors. Who is my neighbor? Jesus spent significant time answering that question. It is each person with whom I speak, because with each one I have the opportunity to show the love of God. Paul not only focuses outwardly, but also inwardly, reminding us that we are “members of one another.” We are to speak truth to one another because of the bonds we talked about last week. While it is critical for the health of the body for you to be here and be part of this body, we now see that it is also critical for you to be a healthy part of the body. I need my liver to survive, but I also need a liver that isn’t poisoning my body. So, even as we need each one of you for this church body to survive and thrive, we also need you to speak truth to one another.

Is it as simple as “the truth is always right” and “lies are always wrong?” I think so, almost. I do know that truth can be wielded to hurt, so I would remind you of Paul’s words from earlier in this chapter, words we looked at last week. We are to speak the truth in love, for the sake of building up one another. Really, that is the context for all of what we are looking at today. These attitudes and behaviors are not isolated and abstract, but to be used inside and outside the body of Christ for the health and growth of the Body.

2. From Sinful Anger to Self-Control (vv. 26-27)

A second exchange is self-control and trust in God for nursing anger. Interestingly, Paul writes (and quotes Psalm 4:4), “Be angry.” It is okay, or at least expected, that we get angry! But Paul immediately qualifies that with, “but do not sin.” I searched the whole Bible for “anger” and the only examples I could find where it was not sin were when God or someone speaking for God, like a prophet, faces unrighteousness, injustice, or sin. I also found instruction for us, like Psalm 37:7-8, which says that we should trust in the Lord rather than let our anger consume us. And James 1:19-20 is very clear, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Indeed, God achieves the righteousness of God! We participate in that righteousness through trust, obedience, and worship rather than through anger.

What all that points to is that it is a human emotion to be angry, but it is an emotion with little productive outcome. So Paul, perhaps intuitively knowing what psychologists would later discover, would say, “Don’t pretend like you’re not angry; don’t just stuff it down and bury it.” We know that doesn’t work. But also, don’t nurse the anger. Throughout the Old Testament, the word for anger is always associated with burning. Don’t stoke the fire. Rather, let it signal our need to trust in God and go to God in prayer.

For those who need practical guidelines, Paul says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This isn’t a super-technical or legalistic guideline. If you get angry at 5:30 p.m., you don’t have less than an hour to resolve it. And if you get angry at 8:00 p.m., it doesn’t mean that you have 23 hours to nurse it. His point is, you’re going to get angry at stuff. Be honest about that, then release it to God and with God’s help as quickly as you can. Otherwise, he warns, you will give the devil an opportunity. And if you have any experience with anger, you know the truth of that warning. That’s where the sin enters in, when we hold on to anger and nurse it and allow it to grow more destructive.

3. From Stealing to Productive Labor (v. 28)

A third exchange – laying aside the old and putting on the new – is work for what Paul calls “stealing.” This is simply an appeal to one of the first purposes God created for humanity. We’ve talked before about how work is one form of serving or worshiping God and was established in Geneses 2-3 when God put Adam to work cultivating and keeping the Garden of Eden. We were made to work! We sometimes think that is part of the curse given to Adam and Eve after they sinned, but the curse was that work would be extra difficult because of the Fall. But work itself is part of God’s perfect design in Creation and is part of our faithful life before God!

Paul doesn’t go into all that, but it underlies his theology. Here, in verse 28, he simply says that we must each seek to live fruitful and productive lives. The point is not just so we will have enough for ourselves, but so that we will have something to share with one who has need. What a practical application of the Great Commandment. Our love of God compels us to work, because God has designed us to do so. But like Jesus did, Paul links love of God inextricably with love of neighbor so that even our work is explained in terms of thinking of and caring for others!

4. From Harmful to Helpful Words (vv. 29-30)

A fourth exchange is helpful words for harmful words. This exchange is similar to truth and falsehood, but covers a wider range of situations. We can help and hurt each other apart from truth or falsehood. Or perhaps this is where the in love part to speaking truth in love fits in best. The translation “unwholesome” is helpful. Jokes, stories, gossip, innuendo, and other destructive talk comes to mind. Paul elaborates in two ways: our words should build up (edify) and they should offer grace to the hearer. Remember, grace is a free gift. It reflects God’s great gift of life and it is not given for what will be received in return. So often, we reserve our so-called “kind words” in order to manipulate or get something out of a situation. We can be pretty stingy with unsolicited and no-strings attached words that build up others. I’m not talking about flattery; that seeks something in return. I’m talking about encouragement, comfort, and even exhortation or rebuke, when necessary. This is the essence of speaking truth in love. We must look out for the health and well-being of one another, and often our words are the front-lines of that mission.

5. From Bitterness to Love (vv. 30-32)

A fifth exchange takes off bitterness and puts on love. In verses 30-32, Paul writes that holding on to the old and destructive patterns “grieves the Holy Spirit.” Paul goes on to list bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, and says, “Put them away!” In their place, we are to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, [and] forgiving each other.” Now, we probably could have figured out that God was against slander, malice, and the like, and for kindness and forgiveness. But note Paul’s reason in verse 32. We are to do unto others as has been done to us.

We have known God’s kindness and forgiveness. Jesus told several parables about those who had been forgiven, but then did not extend that grace to others. The reason we can put on this new way of life, in general, is because it has been modeled and extended to us in Jesus.

Conclusion

Why is Paul going through all these comparisons and urging us to lay aside the old identity and way of life to put on the new?

Remember where we started. God has called this group of people together to be the Church here. We are His body and each one of you is necessary for us to survive, thrive, and grow into the mature and healthy body God intends for us.

The first thing each of us must understand is that we need each other here to be whole.

But what Paul has taken up in today’s text is that it is not enough just to show up or even show up a lot. We must also accept the identity God has given us in Jesus Christ.

So, again, that means trying to understand your role and purpose in Christ’s body here. It is the very least and minimal application for you to hear me saying, “Don’t fade away; stick around; we want you here.” Please do hear that! We need you to survive.

But hear God’s Word to you today. Find the ministry and mission God has planned and designed for you. I’ve had several people speak to me since last Sunday about how they see themselves responding to God’s invitation and mission. I want to hear from more. In fact, I want to hear from every one of you.

If you can’t get out and can’t be active, I can’t think of a more important thing we need right now than faithful prayers. I would love to talk to you and provide you with some key prayer requests for our church, church family, neighborhood, and mission.

If you can pull weeds, come talk to me. If you can use a computer, e-mail me. If you travel a lot, let’s talk about how God could use that.

If you stay at home with little ones, there are some amazing ways you can minister. If you have some free time and a car, there are folks who can’t get to church. If you like to bake, we need you.

We need people who have put on truth and love and who want to work for God and help others.

God uses writers, thinkers, doers, and goers.

God also uses doubters, questioners, strugglers, and stragglers. (I can show you those in the Bible!)

You’ve heard me say that it’s time for us to get up and get out. Paul has told us how to dress for outside weather. Let’s put on Christ and get going! Amen.

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