Ephesians 4:17-24. We have become rather sensitive to name calling and judgment. We use descriptions of people’s cultural identity with some trepidation. So, when the Apostle Paul just blurts out, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live.” It’s like politically incorrect fingernails screeching across a politically correct chalkboard. It also feels a bit like a contradiction. Way back in Ephesians 2, Paul emphasized that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Grace—that wonderful, amazing word—means that God loves and forgives people no matter what they’ve done. Grace means that we never have to rack up enough good points to earn God’s favor. Grace means we can never be so bad that we exceed God’s forgiveness. Grace means everyone is accepted—even the Gentiles.
Gentile is a term Jews used to refer to anyone who was not a Jew. Paul was a Jew. The earliest Christians were all Jews. They had a cultural identity that reinforced their Judaism. They kept Kosher eating practice—abstaining from foods they regarded as unclean and eating only foods they regarded as clean. That meant no bacon; no cheese burgers; no catfish. They observed a particular calendar. They did not work on the last day of the week. They kept Sabbath. And they observed Holy Days like the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, and Passover. And depending on how they structured their lives, they refrained from associating with non-Jews. The Christian movement within Judaism had conflicting viewpoints about all of this. Keeping Kosher was alright for some but it must not be imposed on others. Keeping Sabbath was good if it didn’t become a burden since Sabbath was a gift not an obligation. And the cultural practice of avoiding interaction with non-Jewish people confronted the message that God was available to all. Paul believed either his commitment to the freely accessible grace of God or his commitment to avoiding Gentiles had to yield. Paul gave up the isolation and became an apostle to Gentiles proclaiming to us the free gift of God’s grace.
This commitment ran into trouble. The Gentiles had behaviors that weren’t consistent with the Gospel. They could be more tolerant of a licentiousness. We should not overlay our own post-Victorian hang-ups about sexuality on to the early Christians. Hellenistic culture reinforced hierarchies. Powerful and wealthy people could do what they wanted. They could use people who had less wealth and less power to act out their own fantasies. Paul who is often accused of what today we would regard as sexism was fairly radical in his views of marriage at the time. He believed in mutuality in marriage—a progressive thought for his time. In the seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians, he taught the importance of mutual consent.
It sound simpler than it really is. Today as Christians, we struggle to balance acceptance and accountability. How do we tell people that they are accepted no matter what and at the same time convey that some of the things they are doing are not compatible with the gospel? Invariably someone will raise up the cliché, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” We have seen, however, that this statement is usually given as a pretext for judgment that conveys very little love toward sinners but enough judgment to spill over to persons. Even so, the moral landscape has changed. Sexual standards have changed. And if you just thinking there’s something Freudian going on today—let me just say that I do my best to preach the text in front of us. Our translations tidy up the wording a little, but that’s what this text is about. We could lament that we’ve become too lax in our standards of decency and discipline. Yet, we have also become more gracious and kind. If we treated each other with the rigid morality of the Puritans, few—if any people—would remain in communion.
Church attendance norms have changed. The church I serve has members in their 80’s and 90’s who apologize if they miss one Sunday out of four and jokingly express fear of being “churched” – which is an ironic euphemism for being thrown out of church. I’ve never understood that phrase, “getting churched.” It sure sounds painful. Those jokes about church attendance lose a lot of context once we reach our members who are Baby Boomer generation and below. In our younger generations, attendance at worship on the major holidays and one Sunday out of four is consider active membership. The moral landscape of our world has changed.
While today some standards have changed. New ethical expectations have emerged. Today’s ethical standards take a much harder standard on bullying. The sort of name-calling, physical intimidation and pranks that people once wrote off as a rite of passage is no longer acceptable way to treat people. We have increased expectations of one another concerning recycling and responsibility for the Earth’s resources.
To provide just one final example of the difference, think about what the phrase church clothes means for us today. For some of us, your “Sunday Best” means a dress, make-up, coat, tie, and pressed slacks. For some of us we continue to dress this way because it’s how we worship God best. Others of us feel that God doesn’t care about how we are dressed and neither should we. We are coming to worship not to fashion week. But, I hope none of us would confuse what we wear for a central tenant of the gospel. But, we also would recognize that though we would accept one another in a range of clothing that stretches somewhere around pajamas and house-slippers all the way up to formal evening wear, there are some things that people just shouldn’t wear. Certain messages that get printed on T-Shirts that are too offensive to condone. Clothing so suggestive it sends a dangerous message to others. How do we say to each other—come just as you are, but oh—don’t wear that.
This wasn’t an isolated aspect of Paul’s ethics. It stems from the gospel itself. If indeed God loves and cares for each person regardless of their culture, status, or gender, then each person has integrity. The personhood of each person had to be respected on the grounds that each person was respected by God. Thus Paul’s ethics of weren’t so much rules that lived suspended in time and space. They were rooted in the deeper elements of his theology.
Reconciliation enabled the Ephesians to live the life God had created them to live. The transforming power of God is found in the embracing of God. Some cliches have been shown to be outdated and need to be dropped from our discourse. But there’s one I think is still valuable and applicable. “No one cares what you think until they think you care.” By establishing God’s grace first, Paul has established the trustworthiness of God. If we do not keep grace in the forefront of our mind, we create an image of God as a punishing deity waiting to dish out punishment on those who step out of line. The most commonly repeated description of God in the entire Old Testament is this, “God is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
What the Bible says about repentance must be understood within the context of God’s love. As Max Lucado has said, “God loves you just the way you are but loves you too much to leave you that way.” Repentance is a gift flowing out of grace. The Lenten theme this year–Clothed in Christ–is such a powerful metaphor for this experience. In order to be clothed in Christ, we have to take off the clothes we had been year. Where those clothes are clothes of a sinful habit, or the clothes of an unhelpful attitude, or the clothes of a self-complacency. Clothed in Christ asks us first to consider what clothes we must leave behind.
When we are clothed in Christ, some things no longer fit. Despair no longer fits. Apathy no longer fits. Complacency no longer fits. We can no longer fit into the clothes of our past for God’s grace has made us new in the present and presented us with an unfolding and glorious future.