Sunday 29 April 2012

Jacket off, jacket on

In the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, Jackie Chan plays ageing handyman, Mr Han, who teaches Chinese kung fu to a 12-year old black kid from Detroit, played by Jaden Smith (son of actor Will Smith, who incidentally produced the movie). I liked it, despite protests from my friends saying, “It’s not Karate, it’s Kung Fu!” I still thought it was cool that this version of Mr Miyagi could actually throw a punch. The scene I was looking forward to was the “jacket off, jacket on” moment, where Jackie trains his student to defend himself by making him take his jacket off only to put it right back on, repeating this action again and again, for hours on end. When his student gets frustrated with what he thinks is a pointless exercise and threatens to leave, Jackie reveals that he has been teaching him “real” kung fu moves all this while. Suddenly the skinny black kid from Detroit is able to deflect blows from his shifu by utilising his well-practiced art of blocking - the “jacket off, jacket on” technique. Sounds lame when I put it that way, but it’s a cool scene, trust me!

In today’s passage we find the apostle Paul saying to us, “Jacket off, jacket on.”

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 your new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24

Jacket off: We need to take off our old way of life. Leave it behind. Jacket on: We put on Christ, who covers us with his righteousness and holiness. Paul is teaching us that as Christians there needs to be a radical change. Yet the key to this change is not something we do to ourselves but something that has been done in us through the gospel.

Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
Ephesians 4:21

“You guys know this, don’t you?” Paul begins. Surely, he says. The English Standard Version has “Assuming that you have heard... and were taught”. It’s like when Chinese people say, Lei ge Ma mo gau lei ah? (“Didn’t your parents teach you this?”) as a kind of rebuke whenever we mess up. Paul is saying to us, “You guys know there needs to be a radical, even visible change in our lives, if you claim to know Jesus.”

It’s really interesting how Jesus is referred to three times in this one sentence, did you notice that? You heard of him. You were taught in him. The truth that is in him. Paul is talking about the radical change in a Christian’s life and he is saying, Jesus needs to be at the centre of that change every step of the way. In our conversion, when we first heard of him. In our obedience, as we were taught in him. In our assurance, trusting in the truth that is in him. We began with Jesus, we grow in Jesus, we continue trusting in Jesus. Focussing on Jesus results in the radical change Paul is talking about. That’s important, because the “jacket off, jacket on” technique are not steps we take to earn our salvation. They are results of our salvation: by-products of our trust in Jesus as the source of our salvation. Whenever we are dealing with situations that require radical change in our lives, Paul is saying, the first thing we do is come back to Jesus. He changes us, we cannot change ourselves. It’s not what we have to do, it is all about what Jesus has done for us through the cross; what he continues to do in our lives by his spirit.

So, why doesn’t Paul just say to us, “Trust in Jesus.” Why the need for the “jacket off, jacket on” reminder? Two big reasons. The first is because we live in a world where everyone still has their old jackets on.

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.
Ephesians 4:17

These Christians grew up as non-Christians, in homes and environments that were likely to be anti-Christian. By trusting in Jesus, they have been changed but the world they live in hasn’t. That’s reality for them and for us. And what Paul deals with is the temptation to fall back into that old way of life. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do,” he says, implying, we were no different at one time. The things they did, we used to do. But no more, “I insist on it in the Lord,” he says. Keep your focus on Jesus.

So the first reason is that we still live in a world that is corrupted by sin. That’s why Paul says, “Put off your old self, which is corrupted by its deceitful desires.” In other words, the sins we need to watch out for are the familiar ones. Don’t be complacent. You might think you have a handle on your weak points, but you live in a world where most people don’t. That is intentional, by the way. God has put us in the world even though we are no longer part of the world to be salt and light. We are called to be different from the world and yet witnesses in this world to the transforming work of Jesus.

That brings us to the second reason. God displays his new creation to us. When we “put on the new self”, it sounds like we are putting on a jacket. Only the actual phrase Paul uses is “the new man”. He is saying you are in fact a new creation, “created to be like God”. In a way you become a walking preview like a movie trailer. When the world looks at the church, they get a glimpse of how God will change the world. Sinners are transformed into into his sons and daughters. He does this by covering us with “true righteousness and holiness”. In other words, he looks at us and sees Jesus who gives us his reward for his work on the cross.

Two reasons why Paul calls us to put off our old selves and put on the new: (1) As witnesses in a world still corrupted by sin; and (2) As a display of God’s plan to renew the world through Jesus’ work on the cross.

Though, if you have been paying attention, I’ve missed out a step in between. It is verse 23.

To be made new in the attitude (spirit) of your minds.
Ephesians 4:23

Verse 23 is probably the most important step of all, simply because it is a statement that says we cannot change ourselves. Only God can renew us from the inside out. But notice the location of that change and renewal - it is the attitude of our minds. The biggest change that happens in a person’s life are not his actions or behaviour, it is in his mind. Literally, Paul says the “spirit” of our minds - referring to the totality of our thinking and decision-making.

Look back to verse 17 and notice that Paul highlights the non-Christian manner of life in terms of their thinking. It’s futile, Paul says. He goes on to tell us they are darkened in their understanding, that there is an ignorance in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Those are not descriptions of actions but reactions towards God - their thinking. It it teaching us that sin is first and foremost an attitude towards God. It eventually results in sinful actions, yes, from which we get “bitterness, rage, anger, malice, brawling, slander” (Ephesians 4:31) but those are only symptoms. The disease is a heart that rejects God.

Therefore, it probably won’t surprise you to know that metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means a change of thinking. At the centre of the transforming work of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ are men and women who don’t simply obey his word but love his word, who don’t merely submit to him as Lord but call God their heavenly Father. The reason why Christians want to change their lives is not simply because they want to get better and happier, it’s not because we like a change in fashion so we put on new jackets and take off our old ones. It’s because we love Jesus and his love changes us to be more like him.

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