Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

(Given at St. Alban’s Richmond, Virginia)

“THIS I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk…”-Ephesians 4:17

What a baffling and confusing world we live in today. So many conflicting ideas and concepts are thrust upon us from every direction and many of them seem directly contradictory. Self-proclaimed authorities tell us one thing and then another and what they say clashes violently. Pick an issue, take a trip through cable television or on the internet, and there is always a pundit or talking head willing to put their two-cents in. This is particularly the case in this heated political season. Sometimes, we find it hard to know what to believe. No wonder that many are confused and ready to follow any voice that seems to offer a way out.

Now, to a Christian living in this often confusing, baffling, bewildering world, St. Paul has a very definite word to say. It is not worldly, vague, uncertain word of advice. It is not simply another of the voices on every hand today, but it is clear and precise and right to the point of the problem that you and I are facing.

In the opening verses of the 4th chapter of Ephesians, the apostle has been dealing with the nature of the church and the part each Christian has to play in its operation and its growth.
But now, in this 17th verse, he turns to the Christian in relationship to an unbelieving world, a world in which we as Christians must live. Though this account was written almost two thousand years ago, it is impossible to read this thoughtfully without seeing that the world today is exactly the same, and our reaction as Christians must be exactly the same.THIS I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that yet henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind… Look at the force of that verse, the apostle says “I say and testify in the Lord.” That means this is not merely a piece of apostolic advice or simple human reasoning. This is a result of divine revelation. This is the finger of God placed squarely at the root of a human problem.

Well, what is it St. Paul says? He says, “You Christians must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the vanity or futility of their minds.” It is helpful to translate the word Gentiles here by the word nations-it means “the nations,” worldlings, those outside of Christ. “You Christians,” St. Paul says, “must no longer live as they do.” How is that? “In the futility of their minds.” St. Paul is saying, “The place to start in living as a Christian is to recognize you must think differently than the world does.” He does not start with actions. He starts with thinking.

St. Paul is not one of these do-gooders who moves in and tries to change the outward scene only. He starts with the mind, and he declares that the world’s thinking is futile –empty. This is the vital appeal that he makes to Christians, “You must not think like the worldling does, you must not adopt the world’s philosophy of living, or follow the world’s systems of value.” Why? “Because the worldling lives in futility, emptiness of mind.”

If this is true you can see why there is such a fundamental cleavage between Christianity and the world, and why the Lord Jesus drew a distinct line between the thinking of the world, the direction of the world, the destiny of the world, and those of the Christian. This is why the Christian is told he cannot love the world and the Father at the same time.

St. John makes that crystal clear in his first letter {cf, 1 Jn 2:15}. There is a fundamental difference between the two. This is why “friendship with the world,” in the words of St. James, “is enmity with God.” {cf, Jas 4:4 KJV}. Notice, not friendship with worldly people, that is something different, but friendship with the world, with its ways of thinking, its philosophy. That is enmity with God.

Now I want to emphasize this point, because it is a very important distinction. As we all know, we pride ourselves on the ability to reason. We consider this the highest function of humanity and take great pride in our ability to ferret out knowledge and to put various items of knowledge together to produce very practical gadgets. We point with pride to the technological perfection of our modern society, to the skill with which science has appears to have harnessed the forces of nature and made them the servants of man-no matter what the moral consequences.

Man exalts his reason, but the writers of Scripture universally agree, though all this may be very impressive, clever, and remarkable in the eyes of men, in the eyes of God the reasoning of man is vain. As the Lord Jesus himself put it, “What is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God,” {cf, Luke 16:15 KJV}. Now that is plain, strong speaking.

But see how the apostle brings us as Christians face to face with the fundamental issue? Either God is right or the world is right, one or the other. It cannot be both. The Christian must choose on which basis he is going to live his life. If he is to follow Christ, he must be willing to have his thinking changed. When you become a Christian this is the first issue you face. You must be willing to have your whole fundamental outlook on life drastically altered. Christianity is not merely a change in outward actions, or a bit higher moral or ethical level. Christianity is a revolutionary change of internal government which results in a radical change in behavior. This is what St. Paul drives home, before analyzing more closely this problem of faulty thinking. What can make our thinking pointless, so without ultimate significance? The answer he gives is in Verse 18:

they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; {Eph 4:18 RSV}

St. Paul is tracing a chain of cause and effect here. The first step is that the worldly think futilely because their understanding is darkened. Just as a cloud, passing over the sun, darkens the light of it, so the thinking of man in his fallen state is shadowed, obscured, darkened. Scripture continually uses these terms, light and darkness, as metaphors for truth and ignorance. Truth is light; ignorance is darkness. St.Paul declares that men’s thinking is shadowed with ignorance. That is rather convicting, isn’t it? We think we know so much, and, in fact, we do. We know so much, but we never know quite enough. That is what the apostle is saying.

Again this relates to a truth that we find widespread throughout the Scriptures: Man is ignorant because there is a part of his being that does not function. It is his spiritual life. His spirit is blank, darkened, obscured. In that part of our being which was intended to function as the key to our lives there is nothing taking place. As a result, knowledge is broken, unrelated, incomplete. That is the picture St. Paul draws. What man thinks, though it may be very clever, does not bring him anywhere, does not better him. We are haunted these days with the question: Is this tremendous civilization, increasingly secularized, really doing anything for us?

Some years ago, I wandered among the ruins of an ancient civilization in Monte Alban in Mexico. Many of the half-covered temples are just now being excavated from the dirt and dust of centuries, and the more archaeologists uncover the ruins, the more we learn of the remarkable civilization of that day. But modern man is continually haunted with the question, “Are we really any better than that pagan society?” We may be better off, but are we any better? Have we really advanced in ways that matter, or are we on the retreat from the truth?
The understanding of man is darkened and it is especially evident in his thinking about himself and about God. It can be seen in our value systems, our power structures, particularly here in our Nation’s capitol. And we see it in the way in which people determine what is important and what is not important.

Illustrations abound for this. Coming back from Grand Rapids a couple of weeks ago, I sat down on the plane to prepare a sermon and re-read this most incredible paragraph,

The decline in religious feeling among civilized people is an indication that man is steadily becoming more rational and less subject to superstition and therefore less likely to kill and maim those who disagree with him.

Certainly the writer didn’t take into account rampages in Pakistan, Afghanistan or any other stan, the incredible spate of shootings and mass murders these last weeks, the violence of the abortion industry, the ongoing religious persecution and the viciousness of rogue nations and terrorist groups. What a confirmation of the apostle’s analysis of human thinking. The minds of “rational” modern men and women fallen man are darkened. They don’t not see things as they really are. So many can ignore obvious facts that thrust themselves upon us constantly and blithely dismiss them with a wave of the hand to pronounce that mankind is getting better and better.

This unaccountable darkness is seen in the glib talk today about “situational ethics” — morals determined by situation, expediency. We hear it also in claims of the relativity of morals, and the widespread acceptance of the idea that sexual promiscuity is an expression of personal freedom, even though those who indulge in this kind of living inevitably show themselves to be increasingly the slaves of human passion, and suffer in their own lives the consequent inevitable restlessness of spirit and torment of heart. How can man be so blind?

In our blindness, so many think they are all right, and, therefore, they do not need God. The next step is inevitable. They are “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.”
St. Paul is not blaming mankind for this, any more than God blames us for it. It is important to recognize, though, that the world is encouraging an ever darkening understanding, that leads to a rejection of the life of God and divorce ourselves from the one thing we need to be fully human! Both nature and Scripture agree that we are incomplete without God.

But there is yet more here in this Epistle passage. If people were cut off from God only because of ignorance of Him, they might well excuse themselves, for no man can be blamed for not having what he doesn’t know exists. But we now we learn the whole truth. It is all “due to their hardness of heart.” People remain cut-off from God only because of the hardness of their hearts-flat stubbornness.

A young Christian, who may be a bit too market-oriented, said to me recently, “Why is it, when we have the world’s greatest product, it is so hard to sell?” The reason is because human beings resist the truth, reject light, turn from God’s love, cling to error, and thus make their hearts gradually harder and harder and more unable to respond. All of this marks the shadowed thinking into which the world tries to draw us. St. Paul says, “You Christians must not think this way any longer.” If you are going to live a Christian life, first change your thinking. Do not follow these philosophies, do not agree with these attitudes, do not adopt these value systems.” Those who do:
…become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. (Eph 4:19 RSV)
We hear the same warning in the first chapter of Romans, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind” (Rom 1:28b KJV), that they might practice the awful list of evil deeds that is so frankly and bluntly described there. It sounds like it was culled from the pages of any morning newspaper today.

Why do people do these things? Why is moral licentiousness and our standards so constantly deteriorating? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “There is such a thing as being in the dark, even while the light is shining…. And so surely is it also here; when the strong current of the affairs of this life overwhelms the perceptive power of the understanding, it is thrown into a state of darkness.”
But the good news of the Gospel is love of Christ penetrates this darkness and melts the hardest of hearts. So we must not blame people like this, or withdraw from them. We are to remember that we, too, we too were there. As St. Paul says in Colossians 1:21,

… you who once were estranged and hostile in mind, that is the way we thought too, until God’s love reached us. So we are not to be not to be hard and harsh, toward these who think this way. This is the basic condition of humanity to which the Gospel makes its appeal and we are to speak the truth in charity.

Now there is one other thing. The only hope of helping these people is to demonstrate a wholly different pattern of thought, a wholly different set of values, and a different and transformed life. If we live like the world lives, even though we are Christians, there is not a thing we can do to help others; not a thing!

There is an old story of a boy who thought he would teach some sparrows to sing like a canary, so he put them in a cage with the canary, hoping the canary would teach them to sing. In a few days he found the canary chirping like the sparrows. This is always the case, is it not? If we give ourselves to the attitudes and ways of thinking of those around us, we will inevitably do the same things. We seem to be constantly surprised these last few years at leaders who have gone through moral breakdowns. Why? Because somewhere along the line they succumbed to the futile thinking of the world. This is what makes even those who seem to be strong in the faith to turn from the things of Christ to materialism or personal ambition or worse. St. Paul offers a response, You did not so learn Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. {Eph 4:20-21 RSV}

In Christ, you have the truth by which you can test everything else, the truth as it is in Jesus. That is a wonderful phrase. That ought to form the basic concept of all Christian thinking. You have found in Jesus Christ the truth, the simple truth: About life, about yourself, about the world, about the makeup of science and nature, about human behavior. “In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” {cf, Col 2:3}. You have found in Christ the truth.

Jesus said these challenging words. “If any man follow me, he shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life,” {cf, John 8:12}. That means a Christian does not need to walk in uncertainty about things, in lack of knowledge. Christ said to his disciples, “If you continue in my word … you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” {cf, John 8:31b, 8:32}. That is what the truth always does, it sets us free. Truth, even though it is hard truth, difficult truth, is realistic and therefore it sets us free and tears away the veils of illusion and brings us to reality.

That is where we are to begin to live, and this is why St. Paul says we “must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” The is strength here far greater than the worldly can dream of. There are possibilities of fruitfulness and glory and grace in Jesus Christ which, if they begin to manifest themselves in your life, will set your neighbors and friends saying, “what has this person got? What kind of a faith is this?” “What do these people have that makes them able to live like this?”

Therefore, what we are must be what Christ is, for that is the only life that arrests and challenges others and changes the world. Amen.
-The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

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