I am an avid runner. Though not nearly as “die hard” as some people I know, I do enjoy popping in my earbuds and putting in a few miles a couple times a week. I run on some pretty rocky and dirty trails, so I tend to go through shoes rather quickly. I can always tell it is time for new shoes when my knees start to feel more tender, or my back begins to hurt. When I check the soles of the shoes and see they a worn down I know it is a bad idea for my body to keep running in them. It is time to be done with the old and bring in the new before the old does more damage to my body!
This week’s epistle reading finds Paul exhorting the Ephesians to get rid of their old walking shoes. Here we have the apostle exhorting the Ephesian Christians to conduct their lives in a manner different from their Gentile, pagan neighbors. He describes the lifestyle to avoid, marked by idolatry and sexual immorality, as the “old self” that is to be “put off” (4:22). Take off and throw out those old shoes! “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do in the futility of their minds” (4:17)! Such a lifestyle is sinful and harmful to the body.
Instead, Paul says, “Live the life you received in baptism.” Christ has given and taught us a new way to live which is at odds with the sinful world (4:20). “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in the true righteousness and holiness” (4:24). Jesus has put the old self—which embraced false idols and viewed sensual pleasures as the ultimate good—to death in baptism and raised us to a new life. This life reflects the likeness of Christ and walks in a manner that does not pursue selfish glory or pride of place but trusts God for all things and sacrifices for the sake of the neighbor in love. The baptized, those rescued and redeemed by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone, are given an entirely new life to live, an entirely new way to walk. “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us” (5:2).
Jesus has put the old self—which embraced false idols and viewed sensual pleasures as the ultimate good—to death in baptism and raised us to a new life
This week the text itself almost demands the comparison/contrast structure. Through the reading, Paul is contrasting the life in Christ (the new self) against the former manner of life which was corrupted through deceitful desires (the old self). Paul uses multiple metaphors in the text the preacher could use to drive the sermon. He speaks of the Christian life as a walk. You could compare what it looks like to walk apart from Christ with what it looks like to walk with Christ. He also uses a clothing metaphor when he speaks of “putting off” the old way of life and “putting on” Christ. Either way, you will want to emphasize the contrasting nature of the old and the new.
Paul gives a variety of examples on how the new life of faith is carried out differently than the old life of sin in 4:25-32. Using these verses, you could find modern examples of how the old way of life drives our societies values and how baptism delivers you into a new way of life. Take 4:29 for example: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Our old world is littered with corrupting talk. Every day we see rhetoric of our favorite “news” source shape the way we speak about our political other. Tearing down our opponents is our native language. But that is not what you were taught in Christ, who calls you to use your words to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. After all, it is Christ who uses His words (Word!) to say to sinners, “I forgive you.”
Christ in the Text
The danger in a text like this is to reduce it to a bunch of moralism’s or proverbial encouragements. But the life Paul presents here is one which calls for a radical break from the old, sinful course of life. It can be lived only when one has been raised to new life in baptism. There, they are pulled out of the shackles of death and set free into the broad field of redemption. This life is not earned but given by the Holy Spirit who has sealed us for the day of redemption and accomplishes these works in us (4:30).
But the life Paul presents here is one which calls for a radical break from the old, sinful course of life.
Without this baptismal promise grounding the text, the preacher can fall into two traps. One is saying, “This is all the work of the Holy Spirit, you need do nothing and the Spirit will do all of this through you.” Though the fruit of the Spirit is promised and inevitable (He will not fail to accomplish it), Paul clearly uses imperatives to direct the thoughts and deeds of the Christian. Thus, so should the preacher. At the same time, there is a tendency to dismiss the Gospel when we arrive at these texts and say, “Well, of course we know we are saved by the Gospel, but now it is time to get to the real business of MY Christian actions.” In this way, the preacher takes the focus off of Christ and puts it onto the self, thereby removing the necessary power to actually carry out the good works promised in this text. Thomas Winger notes, “There is no constructive power in imperatives; they give direction, but not strength.”
To avoid both traps, it is crucial to remember that “what you learned in Christ” (4:20) was not inactivity nor was it mere morality. Rather, a life which exhibits forgiveness and mercy comes only after we hear Christ forgiving us (4:32). Each exhortation in the text results from, and therefore reflects, the very work Christ has accomplished for His Church (or for you!). The new self was created by Christ and thus will begin to resemble Christ, even if imperfectly in this life. The exhortations here may magnify those imperfections in our hearers, but that is why, along with Paul, we should conclude the sermon with promise, “God in Christ forgave you!” That Word, that Christ, delivers the Holy Spirit who will produce the life of love called for in this text. It may even be worth ending your sermon with the beginning of the next chapter where Paul concludes this section by grounding his final exhortation in the promise of the Gospel: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us” (5:2).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Ephesians 4:17-5:2.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ephesians 4:17-5:2.