Saturday 28 April 2012

Suit up (Ephesians 4:17-24)

This week 36-year-old comedian Russell Brand appeared before the House of Commons to talk about his views and personal experience of drug addiction. He described how he had overcome his own addiction to heroin brought on by “emotional, mental and spiritual problems”, how he had been arrested twelve times and how he was ultimately helped to overcome his addiction by adopting an “abstinence-based” approach to recovery. Mr Brand was his humorous self, at one time responding to the chairman’s request to wrap things up as “time was running out”, by answering, “TIme is infinite. You can’t run out of time!” Jokes aside, Russell Brand was clearly passionate about his cause. For him, the problem boiled down to addiction. It didn’t matter whether it was to illegal drugs like heroin or alcohol you could legally purchase off the supermarket counter. Addiction was a social problem that needed to be addressed pragmatically with “love and compassion”.

Addiction is a key theme of today’s passage, which is surprising when you realise that the bible is talking not about drugs or alcohol, but about culture. The apostle Paul writes:

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Ephesians 4:19

The more you invest into your addiction, the less you are satisfied by that addiction, yet the greater your hunger for that addiction. It is a vicious cycle. Now, we read this verse and think: drug addict or drunk alcoholic. But if you look back a couple of verses to verse 17, you see that Paul starts out not talking about them - those drug addicts and the like - but about you. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Don’t we have a word for this - “racism”? After all, Paul earlier referred to the Christians in Ephesus as “You Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1). Here was Paul, a Jew commenting on another people’s culture, another nation’s heritage, another society’s lifestyle and saying to them, “You must no longer live like Gentiles.” Try saying that to one of the uncles and aunties in church today, “You must no longer live like Chinese!” Understandably, they would be offended. They would be shocked. They would say to you, “Who do you think you are?” Look again at Paul’s answer in verse 17:

So I tell you this, and insist upon it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.
Ephesians 4:17

Paul is not referring to specific cultural practices but to the motivations behind those practices. He says their way of thinking is futile, meaning, it’s empty. This line of reasoning carries through the rest of the passage: “They are darkened in their understanding” because of an “ignorance” (verse 18), they are driven by a “continual lust for more” (literally, greed, verse 19). Meaning, Paul is not targeting a specific practice in a specific culture such as offering up joss-sticks at the temple or bowing down to idols, as much as he is exposing the idolatry and addiction that is inherent in every culture. And the first thing he says is, its thinking is futile. It is empty. Not that it is sinful. Not even that it’s wrong. But in the first instance, Paul says that it is deluded. Their thinking is pointless.

Before moving on, it is worth clarifying who Paul is talking about and to do that we need to know what the word “Gentile” means. The Greek word ethne (where we get the English word “ethnicity”) literally means nations. So, ethne could be a way of referring to countries (like China) or cultures (like the Chinese). It simply means “all the nations”. Jesus is praised as the lamb who was slain, whose blood paid for the salvation from every “tribe and language and people and nation (ethnous)” (Revelation 5:9). However, within the letter of Ephesians, ethne is used in a more specific sense by Paul, as a way of contrasting and at times, separating himself from his readers. This is especially seen whenever Paul switches audiences between the “we” and the “you”. Whenever this happens, Paul is contrasting his culture with theirs as Jews and as Gentiles. The Gentiles were non-Jews. The Gentiles were all the other nations except the Jews. So, in Chapter 1 verse 11, Paul says, “We were chosen,” and in verse 12, “We were the first to hope in Christ,” that is historically, the Jewish people were privileged as God’s chosen people, to whom God revealed his salvation, who received his law, his temple and his special attention in the Old Testament. But then in verse 13, he switches from “we” to “you”. “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”. How were the Gentiles saved? Not by becoming Jews, but by hearing and trusting the gospel.

Paul explains that it was God’s plan all along to bring together Jews and Gentiles as one body and as one church. Through the gospel, he says, “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus,” - Together, together, together (Ephesians 3:6). Meaning everything that was promised to the Jews is to be 100% shared together with the non-Jews. Furthermore, Paul was specifically chosen to be “preach to the Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:8). If you stop to think about this, this is strange. In order to bring the Gentiles into the church, God did not send another Gentile, he sent the opposite of an Gentile, he sent a Jew. He sent Paul, a former Pharisee and a former terrorist against Christianity.

This is the same Paul who is now telling the Gentiles to leave their former way of life. That’s why he has to say, “I insist on it in the Lord,” meaning, “I’m serious about this.” It is one thing to have a Chinese pastor preach about the dangers of ancestor worship. It is quite another to have a gweilo critique your culture in your own church. And yet, this is how God works. He doesn’t always send the usual suspects. Quite often in fact, God uses the most unexpected, unqualified, unimaginable people to do his work to display his glory.

Or think about it this way: What does it take to reach China with the gospel? Many who come to Cambridge with good intentions of starting up a new ministry will tell me how important it is to reach the Chinese scholars and potential leaders who are studying here at the university. Or we emphasise how gathering as a Chinese community and having a high regard for family values are important elements to life as a church and evangelism within our culture. But think about this: What would be the equivalent of God using Paul to reach the Gentiles? Can we imagine God using the Japanese church to reach China? Oh, that’s just silly, you might say to me, After all, there are so few Christians in Japan, and there is still so much animosity due to conflicts in the past century. Yet wasn’t that the case with Paul and these Christians? The former Jewish persecutor of the church is now sent to the non-Jewish Christians to love and to preach the gospel to? Or imagine if God raised missionaries from China who then went out to the Middle East. Some might say to me, That’s nonsense. We look different, we sound different. It just wouldn’t work. Instead we ought to concentrate on our own people, our own problems, our own lives. If that was God’s approach to mission, you and I wouldn’t be here today. Do you realise how marvellously strange it is for a bunch of chinamen to gather on a Sunday like this, in a foreign city like Cambridge, reading a two-thousand year old document, translated from Greek to modern-day English? Is it at all biblical to focus all our prayer, all our attention, all our evangelism to reach people who are just like us?

Paul says No. You can’t live this way anymore, not the way you used to live, when you lived like Gentiles. There needs to be a change in your life, in the direction of your life. Literally, the word he uses is “walk”. No longer walk the way the Gentiles walk, is what Paul is saying. This should remind us of Chapter 4 verse 1 where Paul urges us as Christians to walk in a manner worthy of our calling to follow Jesus. Your friends will look at you and notice something different. They should. You are following Jesus, not the world. You are living for Jesus, not for yourself. To be sure, Jesus does not take you out of the world. He calls you to be salt and light in this world and within our culture. As he redeems men and women through the cross, so Jesus redeems our culture for his glory.

Now it’s possible to swing to the other extreme when dealing with culture, that is, some of us will be all too eager to winge about the problems with our respective cultures. We expect to hear in a sermon about Christ in conflict with culture. We pick on the movies we shouldn’t be watching. We highlight all the destructive behaviour we ought to be condemning. Notice, that’s not the first thing Paul does. He warns us not to walk like the Gentiles, yes, but then adds, “in the futility of their thinking.” It is not first and foremost a cultural practice that is the problem, but its thinking. The problem arises when our culture - be it Gentile culture or Chinese culture - rationalizes our sinful behaviour and justifies our rebellion against God.

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.
Ephesians 4:18

This is a rationalisation that pushes God out of the picture. On one hand, some will claim ignorance about God. The term Paul actually uses is agnoian, where we get the word agnostic. As opposed to atheists who do not believe there is a God, agnostics claim that God is unknowable. You can’t know whether there is a God. In a way, the agnostic position seems more humble compared to the atheist. It doesn’t deny God. It simply denies the possibility of knowing that there is a God. Paul would disagree. He says their ignorance or agnosticism is “due to the hardening of their hearts”. They are ignorant because they have chosen to ignore God. That might sound like a harsh thing to say, but if you look through the bible, the warning against hardening our hearts is first and foremost applied towards believers. One of the most familiar occurs in Hebrews 3:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.
Hebrews 3:15 (also Hebrews 4:7, both quoting Psalm 95)

Again, the bible issues this warning to Christians against hardening their hearts. Here are men and women who hear God’s voice and yet in spite of the privilege of receiving that experience, are tempted to turn away “in rebellion”. Theirs is a culpable ignorance. Theirs is ignorance that chooses to ignore God’s voice and to turn away from his commands. The bible has a word for this. It is sin.

For some, that might be a new or surprising definition of sin. Some of us grew up being taught that sin means being bad, sin means doing bad things. In the later verses of Chapter 4, Paul will be addressing sinful actions, such as bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander (verse 31), but those are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. Sin means turning against God. The symptoms of sin are sinful behaviour, thoughts and actions - but the heart of sin is actually rebellion. That’s the disease: I no longer acknowledge God as God because I want to be God of my life. Paul says such thinking is “futile”. Psychologists today would call it self-delusion. God is the author and sustainer of all life. Separating ourselves from God only leads to disappointment, to darkness and ultimately ends in God’s judgement of death. Yet we continue to spiral down this track of destruction ironically because of our self-imposed ignorance.

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
Ephesians 4:19

What I found insightful from Russell Brand’s interview with the House of Commons was his perspective as a drug addict. One Member of Parliament suggested role models to guide addicts towards rehabilitation. Another asked if it would make a difference informing addicts of the poverty and oppression that workers endured in the production of these drugs. Mr Brand responded quite candidly that it wouldn’t make one bit of difference. All an addict knows is his hunger, his appetite, his addiction for more. That is exactly Paul’s picture of sin. Sin makes big promises. It draws us back again and again for more. Even though it keeps disappointing us - it never ever delivers - we keep going back to it again and again. Like an addiction, sin robs our appetite for the real thing. Paul describes such people  as “losing all sensitivity” yet “giving themselves to sensuality”. It is a spiral that runs deeper and deeper leaving us emptier and emptier.

Having said that, drug addiction is but a pale comparison to the deceptiveness of sin. When we think of sin in our culture, we think of the worst behaviours our society produces. In the Chinese culture, caricatures might includes chewing food with our mouths open, always asking our friends how much they paid for their phone plan or being stingy with our tip at Starbucks. “Ooh, those are such annoying habits!” we say. We laugh at them because they are true, and yes, they can be quite embarrassing. But you see, at the heart of every culture’s self-centredness and sinfulness - and I mean this for every culture, whether it’s Asian, European, African - is not its worst values but its best. Our most treasured values in our culture are often the ones which excuse our sin, which justify our sinfulness. Hence recognising sinfulness within our culture may involve repentance not of our worst traits but of our best.

Take for example our high regard for hard work as Asians. We respect the self-made businessman. We tell our kids to work hard in school and get good grades. Yet I wonder how many would take me seriously if I said, “Our hard work ethic will cause more problems in the Chinese Church than even drug addiction”? Or if I said to the parents, “Your kids are in real danger of falling away from Jesus because they have made getting into Cambridge their idol”? No one would bat an eyelid. Lei Kong Mat Kwai Ah? They would say to me. You are making a big deal about nothing - would be the response I’d expect. Yet in all seriousness, I think the hard work ethic is a problem in our church. It is a common excuse for stepping back from church life and throwing ourselves into our careers. It is an easy way to hide greed and avoid having to be generous. It masks our pride when we place unfair demands on one another even here in the church in the name of Christian ministry. Friends, please do not use our culture or our Christian faith as licence to be unloving and selfish, despite how acceptable it might seem. Conversely, we just need to catch a whiff of this brother falling into sin, or that sister doing that thing that she shouldn’t have, and word gets around faster than a new K-Drama Youtube video. Don’t get me wrong. I believe church discipline is a scriptural response and a loving response as mandated by 1 Corinthians Chapter 5. Especially toward serious sin within the fellowship of believers, we should never turn a blind eye but respond quickly with grace and with the gospel.

However, what we have here in Ephesians 4 is the kind of sin that few would recognise as sinful. It is a license to continue sinning in such a way that the world will look on and say, “Nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on.” If you are a Christian, Paul says, you don’t walk this way anymore, following the way of Gentiles. Following your Asian culture, your work culture, what your friends think is popular and cool. Following what the world says is OK and acceptable. You follow Jesus and listen to what he says is holy and acceptable before him.

This is not news. If you are a Christian, you know this. Paul adds, you have been taught better than this.

You, however did not come to know (learn) Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
Ephesians 4:20

This is Paul’s way of saying, “You guys should know better!” following up with three actions and three emphases. The three actions are (1) Learn, (2) Heard and (3) Taught; corresponding to the three emphases which are (1) Christ, (2) Truth and (3) Jesus. All three are referring to the gospel. The gospel reveals Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah (You learned Christ). The gospel brings us into a saving relationship with Jesus (You heard of him - referring to conversion). The gospel keeps us in obedience to Jesus (You were taught in accordance to the truth in Jesus).

For Paul, the turning point is the gospel. Don’t miss this. Previously, Paul says, you walked with the world but everything changed when you learned/heard/were taught about Jesus through the gospel. Surely this happened, didn’t it? Paul seems to be saying. What is he doing? In dealing with sin, in warning the Christians about the dangers of falling back into temptation of sin, Paul brings our focus squarely back to the gospel. That’s the turning point. Hearing and trusting in the gospel. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says, “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” (Ephesians 1:13)

This is important because the Gentiles didn’t become Christians by abandoning their own culture and adopting the culture of the Jews. They were still Gentiles and they still lived among Gentiles (Otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had to warn them about becoming like the Gentiles). The big difference was the gospel. They were now walking in Christ as Gentiles Christians together with Jewish Christians as one church.

How do we do this? One one hand, we are supposed to be one church, but on the other, this church has two (and perhaps more) distinct cultures? Or in dealing with sin: we am supposed to fight temptation and yet live in a world that constantly succumbs to it? How do we as Christians walk as followers of Jesus when everyone seems to be going in a totally different direction?

Paul tells us how in three steps: (1) Strip off, (2) Surrender all and (3) Suit up!

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.
Ephesians 4:22-24

Step 1: Strip it off! Paul says to strip off your old self - referring to your “former way of life”. Like a stinky old jacket, you need to get rid of it. It is corrupted with curry stains and deceitful desires. It needs to be gone!

Step 2: Surrender it all. That is, you need to be made new in the “spirit of your minds”. This is not something you can do, but something God does in your life when you trust completely in Jesus’ death on your behalf on the cross. He changes you completely from the inside out!

Finally, Step 3: Suit on up with your new self. God makes you a new creation in his own likeness, clothing you with true righteousness and holiness, the symbolism being that this righteousness and holiness is external to us (like a suit!) It reminds us that we are not earning our salvation like a badge of honour. This is Jesus’ righteousness and holiness that covers us making us acceptable in God’s sight.

Strip, surrender and suit up! Yet what we have here are not three steps to rehabilitation. They are three results of our one salvation. They all flow from one source - Jesus - and Paul is simply reminding these struggling Christians of who they are in Christ. He isn’t giving them a list to do. He is reminding them of what Jesus has already done. Jesus has stripped away our sin. He is changing us from within to be more like him. And he covers us with his love and holiness. This are amazing assurances that the bible gives us - Jesus has saved us; he is changing us; he will complete that work that he began in us to perfection. Until then, we continue to work out our salvation knowing that it is God who is working in us to will and to act according to his good pleasure.

I began by saying that today’s passage was on addiction. I don’t want to make light of that. For those who continue to struggle with their addictions past and present, it is a struggle that can wear you down. I hope that at least we have seen that the bible is very honest about the tension between the now and the not yet. Now as Christians we have the assurance of Jesus’ complete work of salvation on the cross. He has freed us from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin. But only when he returns, will Jesus then free us from the effects of sin. This includes death, depression and even the darkness of drug addiction. Many years ago, I was very surprised and encouraged by a prayer of a Christian who was a former drug addict. He asked us to pray for his addiction. He was absolutely clean, he had not used drugs for years and years but he was well aware of his propensity and struggle. This led him to pray. This led him to be honest about what he needed prayer for.

My worry for you, friends, is that you think you are different from my friend, because you’ve never used. The truth may simply be that you’ve never been caught. Or worse, you are in full denial. Sin is a snare and it draws us into enslavement to sin through legitimate longings and appetites - sex, approval, hunger, happiness, security, excitement, success, wealth, beauty, love - but does so by leading us away from God rather than to God as the source of all good things in life, the author of life itself. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). People wrongly interpret this verse as saying that if we sin, we die. That’s not what it’s saying. Rather this verse is exposing how we serve sin as slaves. We pour our lives into sin thinking we will get some kind of reward, some kind of satisfaction. But Paul says, sin only has one currency. It pays us in death. “The wages of sin is death.”

But read on: The gift of God is eternal life. Unlike death, eternal life is not a paycheck for a job well done. We don’t earn it, Jesus does. That is why it can only be found in him, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

If you are in Christ, the promises we have seen today are God’s guarantee to you. You are freed from sin. It no longer has any hold on you. There is absolutely no more condemnation upon you for Christ took it all on the cross. While you will struggle with the effects of sin in this life - perhaps not even yours, but those close to you - God uses all things as part of his eternal plan to mold you into his image and to bring all glory to Jesus. In these struggles and pains, and not out of them, God will display his grace, his mercy, his power and his love shown us in Jesus Christ.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
(“Rock of ages”, Augustus Toplady) 

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