Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Christian Morality

Ephesians 4:17-5:2

“With the authority of Lord, let me say this: Live no longer as the ‘nations’ do.” The Greek word is ETHNOS. It was normally used by Jewish authors to refer to the Gentiles, but it literally meant “nations.” It’s the root of our words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” I think a better translation here would be “Live no longer as the people of this world do.” I think that’s the sense of what Paul is getting at. Don’t live like the people of this world.

“They are hopelessly confused.” I think the confusion in mind here is that they do not know the difference between right and wrong.

“Their minds are closed.” Christians sometimes get accused of being close-minded. I think the truth is that those who reject God are really the ones who are close-minded, because their minds are closed off to God, who is all knowing. How can you be open minded if you reject the God who knows all?

“And their hearts are hardened.” Literally, their hearts have turned to stone, which recalls a word of prophecy from Ezekiel about God taking away our stony hearts and giving us a tender and responsive heart.

How do hearts get hardened? Well, the first time we do something that we know is wrong, we feel guilty about it. The second time, we feel less guilty than the first, and so on. Eventually, we no longer feel guilt at all. We reach the point where we feel no guilt from our own conscience, experience no sense of shame from others, and perhaps succumb to the greed that we must have the things we want, regardless of the consequences to self or others.

When Paul wrote these words, he was especially thinking of the sins of the upper class Greek and Roman society. In Greek and Roman culture, work was not valued. If you were wealthy enough not to have to work, then there was no reason to do it. And especially in Roman society, there was enough wealth created that you could have this leisure class who didn’t have to work. What did they do all day? Well, in many cases, it was not very wholesome stuff, if you catch my meaning. And in that society, there was very little sense of shame. If you could do a thing, you would do it, was the thinking. And maybe Paul would use the exact same language to describe upper class American society, as well. The similarities between Las Vegas or Los Angeles and Rome or Corinth are pretty easy to come by.

“But we have learned the truth in Jesus. So we should throw off this old way of life.” The language there is that language of changing clothes. Take off the old and put on the new.

Take off all that rottenness, lust, and deception; and put on the kind of life a child of God should lead.

“There must be an inward and spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes. You must become a renewed person, according to the likeness of God. You must become righteous, holy, and true.”

Christians are not unique in having good moral character, or at least pursuing good moral character. People of other religions often have good moral character. People of no religion can as well. Sometimes, non-Christians have better character than Christians, unfortunately.

What is unique about us is the reason for our pursuit of good moral character and the source of power behind it. We are being renewed according to the image of God. The Holy Spirit is at work in us. It’s not just that we’re trying to be better people; it’s that God’s Spirit is working to make us better people. We are not necessarily better people, but we are changed people, and we continue to be renewed and transformed.

We have a high calling to do the right things. We do them to honor God. Not to be respected by others. Not even out of a sense of fear for being caught doing the wrong things. We want to honor God and live into our true nature.

Therefore, we must put away falsehood. Because Christ is truth, we have no business being casual with the truth. And it’s more than just not telling outright lies. We are also casual with the truth when we tell half-truths, or little white lies, or exaggerations, or convenient omissions of facts, and so on. We need to take truth seriously.

Because we belong to each other. We have a responsibility to each other, not a freedom from each other.

We must not sin in our anger. Now anger is inevitable. We are going to get angry. And sometimes, anger is good. If we are angry at evil or injustice and our anger motivates us to action, that is good. But if we’re honest, most of the time we’re angry it’s for very personal reasons.

Anger is inevitable, but what we do with it is a choice. We can choose to let go of it, choose to move beyond it. Or we can choose to hold onto our grudges. To be bitter. When we do that, we give ground to Satan. That is a term of warfare. We give Satan a beachhead, a stronghold in our lives, when we cling to bitterness and anger.

Paul goes on, “Don’t steal.” That might sound easy, but remember that there are many ways to steal. Paul is speaking in the context of work, and we can steal from our employers by more than just taking things. We can also steal by using our time on the clock to do our own business rather than the business of our employer.

“Instead, use your hands for honest work.” Remember that Greek and Roman culture didn’t have the same appreciation for the value of work that Jewish culture did. But it’s more than just the value of work in mind here. There is also the reason: “So that you can give generously to those in need.” Remember, “we belong to each other.” I think of John Wesley here, who said that Christians should observe three rules in regard to money: 1. Earn all you can. 2. Save all you can. And 3. Give away all you can.

“Avoid foul and abusive language. Let your words be helpful.” I think all of us need to be reminded of that at times. It’s easy to let our words be more abusive than helpful. And this is certainly something relevant to our society. We are not doing well as a society with our language. I don’t think that the internet and social media have helped. It used to be that if you wanted to say something foul and abusive to someone else, you pretty much had to do it face to face. And there was always at least the possibility they might do something like break your nose in return. Now we can be as foul and abusive as we want online, even to people we never meet face to face.

“Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit by the way you live.” We grieve the Spirit when we live in a way contrary to our true nature.

“So get rid of all bitterness, slander, and malicious behavior. Instead be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.” Why? “Because God has been kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving to you. And we are his children.”

Paul’s exhortations all throughout this passage were not unique. Other religions and philosophies taught similar sets of ethics. What is different here is the motivation and the example. We are following the example of God who came to us in the flesh. And we seek to emulate and honor God. That was unique. No other religion could say, “We are doing these things because our God came to us in the flesh and showed us how to live.” That is what makes Christian ethics unique.

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