Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they should “take off the old man” and “put on the new man.” Having been born and raised in a pagan culture they were still capable of behaving like pagans, but they had become Christians and needed to speak and act like people of God.
Have you ever seen the movie “My Fair Lady?” The central character Eliza Doolittle is a flower girl who barely makes enough to live on. Then one day, on a bet, Professor Henry Higgins, begins the work of transforming the way she speaks and dresses. Eventually, he wins the bet when she is able to pass for a member of the European aristocracy. But what does she gain? While the movie has a happy ending, it leaves the question open.
In real life, there are people who are more than capable of hiding their origins and speaking and acting quite differently than the people they grew up with. Actors often do this. David Tennant, for example, is a Scot, who has played a detective in both England and the US. When working he usually uses a standard English accent, but he can also speak with a neutral American accent, yet neither of these are the accent he uses at home.
I mention this because in the lesson I read from Ephesians, Paul speaks to his readers as bi-cultural people. He tells them to “take off the old man” and “put on the new man.” Having been born and raised in a pagan culture they are still capable of behaving like pagans, but they have become Christians and need to speak and act like people of God.
Now many people misunderstand what Paul is saying here because they forget that the reason Paul tells them to do this is because they are a new creation. They are not supposed to reinvent themselves or to “fake it until they make it.” He is urging them to be who they have already become: children of God.
The past few weeks I have been speaking to you about baptism and the effect it has on people. I have told you that in your baptism you were crucified and buried with Christ and that God has also raised you with him. I told you that have been joined with Christ and that it is no longer you that lives, but Christ who lives in you and that the life you currently live, you are to live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself up for you.
I’ve told you that you are no longer the same as when you were born, that you are a new kind of creature. You are in the process of being transformed into someone who is righteous and holy and incapable of death, because you live and breath by the power of God’s Spirit, but that this work is still in progress and will not be completed until the day when everyone is raised. Those in whom this work has been done will dwell in the kingdom of Christ forever. Those who did not believe, will have progressed from bad to worse and will be fit only for hell.
So now we are in a state where we are new, but not entirely. The old remains, but is passing away.
Paul calls the old self, flesh. It includes everything we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Flesh and blood and a mortal life, but also a propensity to sin and evil.
Our new self he calls spirit, because its life and power come from the eternal Spirit of God.
Consequently, we constantly choose how we shall live, which face we will present to the world. We can live either by the power of God or we can live the way would have lived without him.
In today’s lesson and in other places Paul likens this choice to choosing what you will wear.
Think with me for a moment. Imagine what it would be like if you had only one outfit; say, a pair of plain jeans and a T-shirt. How rank would that outfit become if you wore it every day? How long would it before the shirt was stained and the jeans were worn and frayed? What if it had never been new, but had been passed down to you by someone else?
In some ways, our old self is like such a hand-me-down outfit. We were born and began life with sin and a tendency to selfishness that has been passed down from generation to generation. These tendencies have only been reinforced by our culture. We learn to decide what we want. We are taught to follow our own dreams, live by our own power, and grab what we can. Our world is becoming merely a more technologically advanced version of the pagan society that was inhabited by the people to whom Paul wrote.
Consider what he says,
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. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.Ephesians 4:18-19
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Greed, impurity, hardness of heart? There have been plenty of each for generations. Sometimes they have been well hidden, but not anymore.
Certainly, many of our contemporaries have abandoned God and are separated from him. And they expect us to come with them. To approve their perversions, applaud their greed, join them in anger and violence, and adopt a view of the world where God is both absent and irrelevant.
And because the old self is not entirely gone, we are capable of still living the way they do. We just have to put on our old, ragged and stained clothes and pursue what Paul calls deceitful desires.
Wouldn’t you rather wear something new? Something clean and fresh?
The new life that God has already wrought within you, gives you the capability of living very differently. Take off falsehood and put on truth. Work hard so that you have something to share rather than pursuing selfish gain. Take off bitterness and wrath and anger and, instead, put on kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. After all, it was such forgiveness, mercy, and grace that made you what you are.
Some will suggest that doing as Paul says only results in an abundance of hypocrisy. I will admit that is a danger. When an unregenerate person tries to please God by reforming himself and changing his behavior, the result is such hypocrisy, but that’s not what Paul is suggesting.
Consider Eliza Doolittle. When she puts on her new clothes and her best accent and acts like an aristocrat she is pretending. She is imitating them but is not one of them. But when a noblewoman dresses the same way and speaks the same way, she is not pretending. She is really part of the aristocracy.
In the same way, Paul is not urging people to pretend they are children of God and act accordingly in the hopes that maybe someday they will be.. Paul is telling them that since they are children of God they shouldn’t be acting like pagans. They had become children of God by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with faith and being baptized so that God could recreate them by the power of His Spirit. There in their baptisms, God crucified their old selves and gave them a new life by the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Paul is urging them to stop pretending they are something they aren’t and to be what God has made them. I urge you to do the same. In your baptism your evil deeds were forgiven and their stains were washed away. You were recreated and given God’s Holy Spirit. Stop trying to pretend you are just like everyone else. Instead embrace the difference and live as children of God. By faith grasp hold of the forgiveness, grace, and power that God has promised and put them to work and live the new life you’ve been given.