Stop the Bad, Start the Good (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. Don’t get so angry that you sin. Don’t go to bed angry and don’t give the devil a chance.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need.

Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.

Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.

Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. (Contemporary English Version)

All of us have a hard time breaking bad habits, even and especially destructive habits which damage us and/or others. Why, despite knowing better, is it so doggone hard to change? And why, even though having the best of intentions, does that person in my life never change because I tell them to?

Probably because our approach to change dooms us from the beginning. Here are a few approaches which, frankly, do not work:

  • Telling ourselves (or others) to stop. Barking commands may alter speech or behavior for a while but it won’t stick. That’s because people need affirmation, encouragement, and love in order to change – and not by mandated rules. Judgmentalism or shaming others never effects any sort of positive change. Neither our brains nor our souls operate that way.
  • Relying on willpower. This is really an over-reliance on thinking. Yes, it’s necessary to change our thinking. It isn’t, however, enough. That’s because we are not brains-on-a-stick. We also have a body, emotions, and a spirit which needs activation, as well. What’s more, our thinking doesn’t change by sheer force of the will. Our brains are literally not wired that way.
  • Believing in positive thinking. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….” “Dream it and do it.” “I believe in myself.” “Nothing is impossible.” I am not suggesting we indulge negative thinking or let a bad attitude take root. I’m saying that positive thinking has its limits. It’s helpful but is not the true agent of behavioral change.
  • Pursuing self-help. Yes, we must all help ourselves. After all, we are responsible for our own behavior. However, self-help alone doesn’t bring lasting change. By only going it alone, individuals come up with hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions that will not get the job done. That’s because we are hard-wired for community and any sort of effective change of habit happens with others.

To stop doing or saying something is only half the equation. We also need to start doing and saying something else altogether.

Change always involves both putting off and putting on, laying down and picking up, removing and replacing, starting and stopping.

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together.

Therefore, we will stop non-Christian ways of relating to each other and start a Christian way of relating to each other – because we belong to one another and are inextricably connected as the community of the redeemed.

Stop lying and start speaking the truth

Too often, we put up a plastic false front. Pretending we are okay, when we are not, or even acting like life is hard, when it isn’t, is an untruthful presentation – it’s a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Buying into the devil’s snake oil salesmanship leads one to believe we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine; it’s not worth the risk. We worry about being rejected, losing face, or becoming a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel of one’s life, instead of speaking truthfully.

We speak the truth in love because we are responsible to one another – not hiding in the shadows or avoiding the dark places of the heart – but stepping into the light and forsaking all fakery for the benefit of everyone’s needs. The only thing lying does is undermine and erode true community.

Stop stealing and start being generous

Thievery takes many forms: petty theft, identity theft, stealing intellectual property (copywrites, patents, trade secrets, etc.), fraud, plagiarism, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, and more. Gossip, slander, and defamation robs another person of their dignity and reputation. Likely the most insidious theft of all is the stealing and kidnapping other human beings.

Stealing will always be a way of life unless it is replaced wholesale with generosity. Learning to give back is the surest path to real change. And there a lot of ways of doing it.

We can give back to the community through donating our time, participating in charity events, volunteering at a school, hospital, or senior center, and even recycling or planting a tree, or giving blood.

Whatever it is you choose to do, connect it with the penchant toward stealing you may have. For example the one prone to gossip might replace it with gratitude; or the one who chronically steals another’s time might join an altruism group.

Stop the dirty useless talk and start encouraging others

Locker room talk and dirty jokes aren’t helpful. There’s also a lot of speech that’s just downright useless, such as: a preacher who pads the sermon with lots of unnecessary words; a relative who is vague and not specific with their words; a boss who always points out, with many words, what is wrong but barely says one word of affirmation to an employee.

Instead of tearing down others with words, replace those words with encouragement. Going out of your way to write an encouraging card or note to someone, bending down to look a child in the eye to say, “hi,” expressing sincere condolences to someone who lost a loved one, or just having a kind word for the harried cashier behind the counter or the waitress at the restaurant, are simple ways of embracing encouragement as a lifestyle.

Stop being so bitter and angry and start forgiving people

Many people either cannot or will not forgive because they want to hold onto their anger and bitterness. Somehow, in their twisted and darkened thinking, they believe that, unless they maintain their grudge-bearing, the offending person or group will get off the hook.

Please, lay down that crushing load of mental vengeance; and pick up the light backpack of grace and forgiveness.

Chances are, if you’ve been in the habit of being angry for a long time, you have a cardiologist you see on a regular basis. Do yourself a favor by changing yourself and saving your health, instead of expecting others to change and blaming them for your issues.

If you are not the person you want to be, then take a lesson from the Apostle Paul: don’t just try and stop something you don’t like but also start doing just the opposite of it, in helpful ways that are a blessing to others.

And if ever in doubt, love is always the best choice.

May the God of peace make you pure and faultless, belonging only to what is right, just and good. And may your whole self—spirit, soul, mind, body, and emotions—be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – Put Off the Old, Put On the New

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (New International Version)

What breeds ignorance and immorality amongst people?

I’m sure if you asked that question to a dozen people you might get a dozen different responses.

According to the Apostle Paul, it comes from a disconnection from truth. And biblically, since the very character of God is truth, then ignorance and a closed heart also result from estrangement from God.

The Christian tradition informs us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus.

That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. 

We will, then, speak truthfully and live honestly, because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.

Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other and hold one another accountable. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

Believers are firmly moored to Christ and to Christian community. With the enablement of the Holy Spirit, they are able to forsake the old life with its unhealthy routines of living and embrace a new life with good healthy habits of daily life.

Some people continually struggle to overcome bad habits. In part, it’s because they are living a half-truth life. They might be connected to Jesus as Truth yet remain stubbornly independent. Such persons remain disconnected from Christ’s Church.

One never realizes sustainable holiness over a lifetime apart from Christian community. In other words, real and lasting change comes from both the truth of Christ and the truth of Christ’s Church.

“No one can have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother,” said both St. Augustine and St. Cyprian.

The magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, upheld the ancient teaching of the Church:

“The Church is our mother, inasmuch as God has committed to her the kind office of bringing us up in the faith. This method of education is not to be despised…. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, the one who refuses to be a child of the Church desires in vain to have God as Father.”

John Calvin

This is a consistent understanding throughout Christian history. That’s because the ancient church fathers (and mothers!) knew people are hard-wired for community. What’s more, truth is located not only in the Head of Christ but also in the Body of Christ. Decapitating head from body is to sever the truth in half. Head and Body, Christ and Church, have always been meant to go together as one.

To know the truth intellectually and cerebrally is only half of personal transformation. There also must be a bodily living of the truth – and to do that takes the Body of Christ. Life in Christ is life together as Christians.

Just as it was not our choice to be born into our biological family, so we are born again into a spiritual family, the Church. And just as that crazy uncle, obnoxious cousin, bossy big sister, and the entire family system can be difficult in our biological family, so it is the same in our spiritual family.

We might choose to be estranged from Church, but this in no way diminishes the truth that we need a faith family and a spiritual community.

I very much understand that both biological family and spiritual family can be (and are) toxic for many people. I am not suggesting we passively remain in abusive relationships. What I am saying is that doing away with community altogether is an awfully bad idea.

As much as I, in the past, have wished to run away and live alone in the woods with only bears and raccoons as my friends, I didn’t do it, mainly because I knew better. I knew I needed a supportive community of redeemed people if I was every going to truly honor God and experience becoming holy as God is holy.

If we want to participate in the life of God, it comes with community.

It is, therefore, necessary to hold one another accountable, as well as help each other to be truly holy.

We need to embrace the teachings of the New Testament toward one another:

  • Love one another (John 13:34)
  • Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)

A lack of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding comes from being disconnected from community. Yet, when we embrace the truth of Christ and Christ’s Church, we aren’t fooled by evil, and we discover the strength of life together in the Spirit.

So, like a new set of clothes, take off the old tattered ones and put on the mind of Christ.

Grant, almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world. Guide the people of all nations in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good. And guide us to live together as countercultural models of goodness and reconciliation, in our neighborhoods and beyond, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21 – A Prayer for Every Believer

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

For this reason, I fall on my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name. I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves, and I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God’s people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely filled with the very nature of God.

To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of: to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever! Amen. (Good News Translation)

In Jesus Christ, the believer has been given incredible blessings – adoption into God’s family and belonging with God, redemption through Christ’s cross and experiencing freedom from the power of sin, and intimacy and help by means of God’s own Spirit.

Today’s New Testament lesson is a prayer of the Apostle Paul for the Church. After three chapters of describing who we are and what we have in Christ as Christians, he goes to prayer, asking that the new life we have in Christ will be pressed firmly into our heads and our hearts so that this reality of spiritual blessings will be practically realized for the believer.

Here’s a quick remedial grammar lesson: a “verb” expresses an action between two things; a “participle” or “participial phrase” is a word or group of words which help describe the action of the verb.

There are two main verbs Paul uses: “I ask (pray)” for God “to give.” The participles all explain or modify the action of pray and give. In other words, the following actions are what Paul deeply desires that God will do for us as believers in Jesus….

To Become Mighty Through the Spirit

God grants us all the blessings of being in Christ. We are delivered from sin, death, and hell so that we will live into God’s purposes for this new life of freedom.

We live into the Christian life, on a practical level, as our faith is strengthened, and our inner person becomes powerful. This is the Spirit’s work in us – to strengthen our spiritual spine so that we can bear and carry our cross in this life, despite whatever the adversity or difficulty.

We are not alone. The Spirit is with us always. God is present. The believer is never promised that life will be a bowl of cherries and that being a Christian is all rainbows and unicorns. However, the believer is assured that God will be with us through the trouble – which is why we need a strong and robust faith.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies. (Psalm 23:5, CEB)

To Dwell In Christ Through Faith

The “heart” in the New Testament is a reference not to the physical muscle in our chest but the seat or center of our inner person.

Paul’s prayer is that God gives or plants the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of people. Those good seeds then take root and become anchored firmly in the soul. They grow and mature, producing a harvest of love.

Not only do those roots grow down and deep, but they also grow out and connect with all other believers everywhere.

To Grasp God’s Love in Christ Through the Spirit

Enjoying this mystical union with Christ and connection with Christians, we come to experientially grasp together the vast dimensions of God’s love for us. God’s love is a multiverse of blessing. In fact, an eternity in heaven will never reach the bottom or top of the God who is Love itself.

When God our Savior made his kindness and love for humanity appear, he saved us, but not because of anything we had done to gain his approval. Instead, because of his mercy he saved us through the washing in which the Holy Spirit gives us new birth and renewal. God poured a generous amount of the Spirit on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:4-6, GW)

To be filled with all the fullness of Love, is to be filled thoroughly with God – because God is Love.

My dear friends, we must love each other. Love comes from God, and when we love each other, it shows we have been given new life. We are now God’s children, and we know him. God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him. (1 John 4:7-8, CEV)

Conclusion

Prayer is a gift. Like a little child bursting into her daddy’s office at work and crawling up on his lap, so we have the wondrous privilege of coming to God without hindrance and asking for whatever we need and want.

And what God wants and enjoys hearing, is us asking for spiritual strength, faith, and love. Because it is these things which create a thriving inner person who blesses others.

May it be so, to the glory of God, for the edification of the Church, and in the proclamation of the gospel. Amen.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.