Our text is from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, including today’s second lesson, but also including several verses that immediately precede that section of the epistle. And so we read, beginning with verse 17 of the fourth chapter of Ephesians:
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
Nuclear fission occurs in nuclear power plants. Nuclear fission also occurs in nuclear bombs. What’s the difference?
In the case of nuclear power, we have a situation where a power plant is first constructed, so that it can safely contain, harness, and channel a nuclear fission reaction, for the positive purpose of providing electricity to a region. Only after the plant has been carefully built, is a controlled nuclear reaction allowed to happen.
In the case of a nuclear bomb, the nuclear fission reaction is not contained. That reaction, and its destructive power, are released in all directions from the point of explosion.
There is nuclear fission going on in both processes. The difference is whether that reaction is preceded by the erection of a containment structure, to keep it safe and beneficial, or is allowed to happen without any restraints, explosively and destructively.
In today’s text from the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul teaches us:
“You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.”
This is not a complimentary description of the worldview and lifestyle of the unbelieving gentiles. This critical description culminates in the observation that they “have given themselves over to lewdness.”
The Greek word translated as “lewdness” is “aselgeia.” It can also be translated as licentiousness, wantonness, or sensuality.
When Paul says that the unbelieving gentiles have given themselves over to this, what that means is that they do what they feel like doing when they feel like doing it. This does often play out in the area of sexual license, but it is a broader concept than that.
It refers more generally to a whole lifestyle that is lacking in moral reflection and restraint, where someone immediately surrenders to the unbridled impulses and cravings of the moment, so as “to work all uncleanness with greediness.”
Indecency. Intoxication. Violence. Greed. If the thought enters the mind, the action follows.
People who consistently live this way in a society that still does have at least some sense of law and order will usually end up as derelicts, as jailbirds, or in an early grave. That does not prevent a lot of people from living this way, however.
But what St. Paul tells us today, is that we, as disciples of Christ, cannot be among them. He writes: “But you have not so learned Christ.”
The Greek term translated here as “learned” is based on the same root word that the term “disciple” is based on. A disciple is someone who has learned a certain way of thinking, of believing, and of living.
Disciples of Christ are those who have learned from Christ – and who are still learning from Christ – his way of thinking, of believing, and of living. Disciples of Christ are therefore not among those who “have given themselves over to lewdness.”
In our day, many have said: “Kids are growing up too fast.” I think it is more accurate to say: “Kids are getting pulled down too fast.”
The increasingly lewd lifestyle of our age – with people doing what they feel like doing when they feel like doing it – is bleeding over into the lives of the children of our nation. And I intentionally use the metaphor “bleeding,” because nothing but pain and suffering for our kids is the result.
The sexualization of children in our society is especially insidious. Kids listen to music with sexual themes that they should not be listening to, and they watch TV shows with sexual themes that they should not be watching.
And it’s not just that issue. Kids are getting drawn into the drug culture and the drinking culture at ever younger ages. And deadly violence among teens and children is also increasing, at ever younger ages.
Their childhood is being stolen from them. They are not being protected, as they need to be.
They are being taught to do what they feel like doing, when they feel like doing it. But this is a destructive idea – for everybody, but especially for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.
And our young people are being destroyed by this – together with the adults who are teaching it to them, and who are, as it were, setting off these “nuclear explosions” in their lives. The astronomical rise in the rate of suicide in recent years – including teen suicide – bears sad witness to this fact.
But God’s way, for his people, is different. St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
And the Book of Proverbs gives us this encouragement: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Teaching the way of the Lord to our children, in Christian homes and in Christian churches, is God’s way of preparing them for the adult thoughts and feelings that they will someday have. Instilling in kids, over time, a proper understanding of how they fit into their family, into their church, and into their society, is like the construction of a nuclear power plant.
A proper sense of order and discipline, combined with a valuing of the virtues of honor, responsibility, accountability, and self-control, will get young people ready for the time when the “nuclear fission” of their adult feelings will be introduced and inaugurated within them.
If a proper moral and ethical structure has been built around them by God’s Word, those feelings, when they do arise, will be controlled and channeled in good and positive directions: faithfulness and devotion within marriage rather than wasting oneself in fornication; concern for one’s duty to family and country, rather than a constant seeking after pleasure; and a desire to know and follow the holy callings that God gives to all of us, in church, home, and society.
An honorable way of thinking and living does not arise from a lifestyle of doing what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it. But it does arise from a lifestyle that has been supernaturally molded and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its transforming power.
An honorable way of thinking and living is indeed filled with genuine human feelings. But human feelings are not the basis of an honorable way of thinking and living.
The basis is the instruction that we, as disciples of Christ, have received from him and his apostles: concerning who he is, as our Savior from sin and from its destructive passions; and concerning who we now are in him.
We are new creatures in Christ: forgiven through his blood, born again of his Spirit, set free in his grace, animated by his love. Again, St. Paul writes:
“You have heard [Christ] and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”
What a difference this makes! What a joy it is to be lovingly built up by God and his Word, to be someone who is now able to learn from Christ how to think in this way, and how to live in this way.
But some might say: That’s well and good for people who were properly raised in the faith, and who always stuck to what they were taught. But what about those who were not brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord?
And what about those who have fallen away from their Christian upbringing, and who have been sucked into a life of sensuality – living rashly and impetuously according to feelings and impulses, explosively and without restraint?
Is there hope for such people? Is there hope for me, if I am such a person?
God says yes. Jesus says yes. St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says yes. He writes:
“Be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
All of us fail to love others, to honor others, and to show respect for others – and for ourselves – as purely as we are called to do. None of us imitates God as fully as our discipleship under Christ would teach us.
But Jesus did think and live as all men should think and live. He had true human feelings. But his feelings were not tainted by sin and evil.
All of them were pure. And all of them were directed always to the welfare of others, and to the fulfillment of his responsibilities toward others.
Sometimes this meant that he absolutely did not do what he felt like doing when he felt like doing it. Remember his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the agonized prayers he spoke then?
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
There was a part of Jesus, according to his human nature, that did not “feel” like submitting himself to be tortured to death by the Romans. There was a part of Jesus, in his state of humiliation, that did not “feel” like undergoing the pains of hell itself on the cross, as the substitute for sinful humanity.
But he went through with it anyway. He did not follow his feelings at that moment and run away from his mission, and his destiny, as the divine-human Savior of the world.
Jesus, in his life on earth, did not give himself over to lewdness. Not ever. He was faithful and pure. He was faithful and pure for you.
And, his faithfulness and his purity cover over all your unfaithfulness and impurity. If need be, they will cover over an entire lifetime of rebellion and callousness, lust and gluttony, drunkenness, and greed.
His perfect life was and is a perfect sacrifice for you and me – a fragrant offering that turns God’s wrath away from the offense of our sin, and that removes from God’s nostrils the stench of our sin.
To every humbled and penitent heart, Christ himself comes. And when he comes, in his gospel and sacrament, all things become new.
Your sins are forgiven. Your standing with God changes. And you change. In Christ, and by the wisdom and strength of Christ, you are rescued and set free from a lifestyle of doing what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it.
You are saved from spiritual destruction and eternal death. You are saved for the hope and joy that come from fellowship with Christ and his people. And you are taught new things, concerning the new life that Jesus has given you:
“Therefore, putting away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.”
Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
These are loving directives from a loving God, addressed to us as beloved members of his family and as beloved citizens of his kingdom.
They describe not merely a few incidental “good turns” that we might perform on a day that is otherwise cluttered up with worldly pride and carnal greed. Rather, these loving directives describe a whole culture of life – God’s life – which we embrace even while still surrounded by a devilish and destructive culture of death.
St. Paul writes: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”
In our society, within our vocations from the Lord, we in these ways do light a candle in this darkness. And we light a candle also in the words of life that we speak to friends and neighbors who are still stuck in the muck and mire of doing what they feel like doing when they feel like doing it.
As disciples of Christ, we confess Christ to them, as we warn them of where their pathway is taking them. We echo the warning that St. Paul gives when he writes that
“No fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
But as disciples of Christ, we confess Christ to them also as we invite them to receive the forgiveness and liberation that only Christ can give and that Christ is giving to them by his grace.
Just as Jesus is able to cast out literal demons when people are bodily possessed – as we saw in today’s Gospel – so too can he, by the power of his words of pardon and peace, deliver us from our spiritual captivity to the world, the flesh, and the devil; and with his Spirit seal us for the day of redemption.
Who trusts in God, a strong abode In heaven and earth, possesses;
Who looks in love to Christ above, No fear his heart oppresses.
In Thee alone, dear Lord, we own Sweet hope and consolation,
Our Shield from foes, our Balm for woes, Our great and sure Salvation.
Tho’ Satan’s wrath beset our path And worldly scorn assail us,
While Thou art near, we will not fear; Thy strength shall never fail us.
Thy rod and staff shall keep us safe And guide our steps forever;
Not shades of death, nor hell beneath, Our souls from Thee shall sever. Amen.