I invite you to turn in your copy of the Scriptures to Ephesians 4. This will be a sermon of mainly concepts; we’ll come down with applications next week.
Recently, we’ve begun answering the question – so what does a Church do? – by saying that a Church gathers.
And then the Church scatters. That is, the people come together – almost always in a building, most often in the same building – but then eventually take their leave from each other. Back to home and Sunday meal with the family. And then back to the office. And school. And the gym. And highways and back yards and restaurants. Everything that we commonly call “real life.”
Most of the time the Church is the Church scattered, we’re not with each other, we don’t see and aren’t seen by each other.
And yet even as the Church is away from each other, we’re still the Church, members one of another. Yes, even away from each other, we are still the Church together growing up into Christ, who Himself holds us together, and holds us together through each one of us doing his/her part properly, and as each one does his/her part we are built up together in love. (Ephesians 4: 15,16)
What is our part while we’re away from each other? What does the Church do for each other as it’s away from each other?
Away from each other:
…The Church member puts off his/her old self and puts on his/her new self (Ephesians 4: 17-24)
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. 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.
Paul says a few things in this paragraph:
V. 17 – Those in Christ should expect to plan, behave, approach marriage, define words, handle money, talk, fear, not fear, rear children, be a father, entertain themselves, work, educate themselves, make love, study, etc… to think and behave differently than those who aren’t in Christ. And for a particular reason: not so we can feel high and mighty. But a Christian should act differently, better than, those outside of Christ because, by grace through faith, we’ve been changed. We’ve emerged from the hollow and dark situation that every man is born into. And that change, that emergence from darkness, took place a certain way. The happening and the way it happened compels us to be different.
V. 18 – Those outside of Jesus Christ, “the world” – here called “Gentiles” – are still in the spiritual darkness they were born into. They’re estranged from God and spiritual life in that they actually don’t know God… and for one reason or another are resistant to knowing Him. From this place of ignorance and habitually resisting God, their spiritual (and usually intellectual) faculties erode, and they turn toward or slip into chasing novelty, experimentation, sensations, practices that eventually pollute and stain.
V. 19 – Yes, due to being spiritually numb, the world runs toward and through constant stimulation, appeasing their desires. And because those desires are deceitful – untrustworthy guides – regrets and relationship debris and dishonesty and unfinished ventures litter their lives. And because the world is deeply self-seeking, has tuned into their desires as the be-all and end-all, they’re unsettled and exploratory, always on the prowl for new impressions. Impatient. Moving toward excess. Always on the move. Even when they happen to obtain X desire, they’re quickly disenchanted. They’ve looked inward and continue to find new desires, darker desires, spiraling them into ever more confusion.
There’s something pointless about all this flurry of activity marked by the mindset resistant to God, which is why Paul says they’re acting out of the “futility of their minds” (4:17). Paul says, notice how the world caught up in selfish desire goes along: notice the pointlessness and the lack of true intentionality. Notice the drifting alongside everyone else. Notice the lack of spiritual intelligence.
I saw this futility especially on Friday nights when I was driving for Uber and Lyft. Pick up young people and drive them from bar to bar. They were intoxicated when they got into the car, and a couple of them would be loud and the rest of them were sullen, all of them sunk into their phones…and then I’d drop them off. On to the next bar. Fun! Let’s do this next weekend. I remember hearing a drunk young woman heaving and then vomiting in the seat behind me. “I’m so sorry; it’s all in my purse, nothing got on your seats. I’m so sorry…” How pointless it all seemed.
But then this isn’t just young people on Friday nights. Our whole society has futility baked deep into it. We’re created in the image of God, made to know God, to reflect God, to imitate in all our relationships the great Father-Creator. And yet, and yet…
We go to college and get into debt so we can make a lot of money at work and get out of debt and start saving. So that we can stop working as soon as possible and get back to the freedom we had before the rat race began at college.
John Piper gave a famous illustration of this particular futility:
“I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.”
At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.
Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: ‘Look, Lord. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.”
We also want to make money so we can show people that we don’t care about how much we can afford, how neatly we can keep our house, how great our vacations are.
We have kids so we can show them off on social media but otherwise they’re kinda a pain to be around and it’s obvious that other adults find them annoying because they misbehave so much. Secretly we do too. And we put them in the daycare so we can go off to work to pay for the daycare but we feel a little guilty about that, so we spoil them at night when we’re around them. And because we’ve created a monster by our spoiling them we’re a little afraid of our kids so we don’t get on their case like we should… so they go through their teenage years mouthing off to us and distant from us but still… we hold on to hope because we’re really hoping they can get into this college so we can feel good about ourselves and tell our friends that they’re in this college and have this degree and then this career. And we cringe to see how our adult kids are hooking up with everyone but we’re probably just old-fashioned…and we do want to have grandkids and this is the route today… but then when the grandkids finally come we cringe to see how our adult kids are rearing their kids. And when we express some disapproval to our adult kids they start ghosting us and keep the grandkids away from us until someone watches a sentimental movie or a tragedy happens and in an emotional upheaval there’s some level of reconciliation and then we die and so it goes in the next generation.
We could keep going with tales of futility. Maybe some of the particulars don’t show up in every case, but there’s futility everywhere you look: international relations, education, media…. And this futility comes out of the mindset in opposition to God, and so turns inward to be directed by desires, many of those desires that have been placed there by the surrounding society. And so the world drifts along toward death…
VV. 20-24 – But that is not the way you learned Christ. Paul says, we didn’t find out about Christ by turning down our discernment, pursuing selfishness, being driven along by our desires, drifting along whatever current happens to be there.
V. 21 – No, we heard – which means we had to stop chasing experiences for a minute and, while the world kept flowing noisily around us, we discerned the news of Jesus Christ.
V. 21 – We were taught – meaning we, at least for a time, paused our resistance and submitted to the notion that we had something to learn, that we might be wrong. We dropped out of the hive mind, where we just kinda went with the flow, thinking and doing what everyone else did, and we thought for ourselves.
V. 22 – Particularly, we were taught to put off our old self – meaning that what we learned about Jesus wasn’t simply academic, but we learned about following Him. And following Him involved repentance…putting off– a deliberate change away from certain habits of thought and behavior that were part of our old self.
We used to do whatever we wanted to do; we were oriented by our desires. Even if in the small picture we didn’t always choose what we wanted, that restraint was just to go after a bigger, harder to access thing that we wanted. Or at least we thought we wanted; when we got them those desires proved deceitful.
V. 24 – But we were taught in Christ not to be oriented by our desires, but to follow the Word of Jesus Christ. Yes, we learned to put on new thoughts and behavior that weren’t directed by our desires, but by His agenda. His leadership was more reliable than our passions in leading us to true flourishing!
So, Paul reminds us that in coming to Jesus Christ we entered a regimen of deliberate, considered change – the putting off and putting on imagery here is of changing clothes. Illustration: we don’t just happen to have on our Sunday clothes this morning. Rather, we more or less considered what we’d wear, then got out of our PJs, and then slipped on these clothes. The whole process was deliberate. Changing clothes is the opposite of haphazard, unstudied.
So in coming to Christ: we heard, we learned, we weighed things out, we made deliberate decisions, we understood what we were getting ourselves into. It was also clear to us what manner of living we were leaving behind.
V. 23 – And throughout – don’t miss this point – our mind was engaged. Discerning. Detailing what following Christ will require. Deciding whether the possibility of knowing God through Jesus Christ is worth the cost of whatever or whomever is left behind. Our mind was the central station where all this change occurred. And we didn’t just throw a few superficial thoughts at this issue, but “the spirit of our minds” was renewed. This was a change after long and deep thought.
Final observation: Paul uses the big money word “created” in the second half of v.23 and reminds us of something crucial: we must think about Christian change with the backdrop of new creation. Putting on the new self, deliberately changing into our new manner of living makes sense because we have, in fact, been created anew. When we learned Christ, God saved us by re-creating us. A new birth, a birth from above. Yes, “born again.” We don’t change our thoughts and behavior so we can become new. We change because God has already re-created us.
Here’s what God does in saving us. He removes us out of Adam’s race and places us into the new humanity that has Jesus Christ as its head.
Becoming a Christian is the opposite of superficial; it’s deep. It isn’t a matter of filling in a different box on a census form. The person coming into Christ is new all the way down: a new creation. That’s the order of change we’re talking about.
And only the re-created human creature “in Christ” can ultimately fulfill the creative calling of human creatures, to bear the likeness of God. The image bearer can only truly reflect the righteousness and holiness of God when he has been re-created in Christ.
And then once re-created, let him reflect truly the righteousness and holiness of God! Let him put on – deliberately, thoughtfully, counter-culturally – a new behavior that comes from a re-thinking about what humanity is supposed to be.
In summary, from our conversion onward, the Spirit of God is directing us into a mindset and way of life that runs counter to the world’s. As the author Flannery O’Connor put it, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you weird.” The danger is that we’ll be intimidated into group think. Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do…
As we said, the world is spiritually dull and oriented by pleasure. Operates out of a confused futility. This is not how you learned Christ. Discerning how to continue following our Lord Jesus Christ… or to state that another way… discerning how to live a true human, image-bearing life, will require a lot of thought and attention. “Renewal in the spirit of our minds”sounds like it’ll take time and a lot of mental work!
Putting off will involve deliberately ceasing and desisting from thoughts and attitudes and actions that have become familiar to us. This is a lifelong process, this process of repentance. The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.
Putting on will involve deliberately cultivating new habits and motivations that will at first seem strange and inconvenient.
Willing to be counter-cultural – not just say that you are. Willing to change your mind and really think…think God’s thoughts after Him. Repent. Deliberate change. That’s what following Christ is like.
So, back to our thesis. What do we do away from the Church’s gatherings? Away from the Church, we are to put off the old self – the ways of the old, Adamic humanity – and put on the new self – the manner of life that reflects the fact that we’ve been re-created in Jesus Christ.
I say we’re to put off and put on “away from the Church.” Sure, as the Church gathers, we can be introduced to the concept of putting off the old self; we can throw out some ideas to each other about how to put on the new self; via theology in word and song we can encourage each other to put off and put on.
But in most cases, it’ll be away from the gatherings where we do most of the putting off and putting on. And it will be away from the official, Sunday morning gatherings where we’ll do even much of the mental spade work of discerning what habits need to be tossed and what virtues and values need to be acquired.
And remember: we’ll do this work against the current… of what’s typical, of what’s expected, of the current markers of success.
So, away from the gatherings, each member of the Body of Christ is to do think through this. Each one of us is to put off and put on. When each part is working properly along these lines, the whole body grows so that it builds itself up in love.
What can I do for the Church? someone asks. And a big – maybe the biggest – answer to that question is: be a healthy body part. Away from the gatherings, grow up into Jesus Christ. Find out what pleases the Lord. And then get rid of what weighs down the re-created life; and fit into your life new practices of mind and behavior that truly reflect who God is. And do that even if it places you on the road less travelled. Member of the Body of Christ, the Body of Christ needs you, away from the gatherings, to imitate God your heavenly Father as a younger sibling of Jesus Christ!
We’ll get into some specifics of those next week.
What happens, though, if we Church members, away from the gatherings, aren’t growing up into Jesus Christ through this thoughtful putting off and putting on?
Does it matter to the Church if a member isn’t doing his/her part away from the gatherings?
The answer: Yes.
1 Corinthians 12: 26a: If one member suffers, all suffer together. The Spirit has made us members of each other. This is a reality. If there is suffering in a member, if there is sickness in a member, the body suffers, the body is sick. That’s not to say that the body will be able to put its finger on why it suffers, or even discern that it is suffering. But here’s the point: because of what the Spirit has done we are each connected to each other and we’re, to a degree, at the mercy of each member’s spiritual health.
Do you think that what you in private is just a private matter, that it just concerns you the individual? You are members of each other, and corruption eventually corrupts the whole body!
We in Christ need to realize that we’re members of the Body of Christ, that who we are and what we do away from the gatherings we still do as members of that Body… and so even away from each other we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Put off and put on, knowing that growth in Christ isn’t only your private concern, but your Church’s too!
A 20th century martyr named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a classic book on the Church entitled “Life Together.” Here’s what he said toward the end of that little book:
“The individual must realize that his hours of aloneness [the Church scattered] react upon the community. In his solitude he can sunder and besmirch the fellowship, or he can strengthen and hallow it. Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship.
On the other hand, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not inflict injury upon the whole fellowship. An element of sickness gets into the body; perhaps nobody knows where it comes from or in what member it has lodged, but the body is infected. This is the proper metaphor for the Christian community. We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality.”
Finally, brothers and sisters, let’s pray for each other – every child, teenager, and adult – while we’re away from each other. That the Spirit of God would give each discernment in finding out what pleases Jesus Christ (Colossians 1: 9,10). That each one knows what specific steps he needs to take. That children, teenagers, young families, middle-aged, senior saints, would have wind in their sails to keep putting off and putting on. That away from the Body of Christ we would serve the Body of Christ by growing up into Christ.