Leaping with the best foot
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 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. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:17 – 5:2 ESV)
Many years of my childhood involved swimming – laps, up and down the pool, following the black line on the bottom of the pool, alone in your head and with your breathing, stroke, stroke, stroke. In freestyle I only breathe on one side – my left – and if I was ever told to learn to breathe on my sides, I have no memory of it. However a few years back when on a holiday in Crete I would walk to the beach and swim out on the still flat water – lovely – and when quite a way out I would turn and swim parallel to the beach and I decided that would be a good time to teach myself to breathe on both sides. I won’t bore you with the details except to say that it was so much harder than I expected it to be. I didn’t think it would be instant but I didn’t expect my head would turn against my will to what it had been doing for nearly 60 years! I managed it, at times, but my stroke was awkward and everything was uncoordinated that it wasn’t worth the effort. After a few days I didn’t continue my pursuit of an additional swimming skill.
So I was most impressed when I heard Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill (yes, on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs) explain how after a foot injury she retrained and changed her take-off leg in the long jump from right to left. I can’t even kick a football with any coordination or strength with my other foot!
I subscribe strongly to view that what we eat, what we see, what we think, what the stories we tell ourselves are, what we do (as in regular behaviours or physical training) and what others regularly say or do to us very much shape us. Whether they determine us is up to us – because I also believe we have choice, and a will, and also something spiritual – but that what we regular take in or do shapes or moulds us to give us our ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ – way of behaving – is pretty obvious to me. We hear it in the phrase ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ which is wrong in my view – you can – provided the old dog wants to learn.
We are listening to Ephesians, at the moment, and we have come to the part in Paul’s letters which are instructions for how to live. We’ll hear more of these in the coming weeks. After nearly 2,000 years they are not unknown to us. Maybe we hear them much as when we leave Grandma or if we are Grandma and give some parting advice, a tip for living – and so for many people today this is what Christianity is about – being good, acting moral – better still being moral – and for many people even in the Church over the centuries the reason has faded, the context isn’t important, but just doing the right thing – behaving in a certain way – is what Christianity is now about for many people – and this produces the popular view of many if they had to describe Christianity that it is about being good.
The advice, the behaviour Paul is describing is straight forward –
Put away falsehood.
Speak the truth.
You can be angry but do not sin and don’t let the sun go down on your anger – that takes some thinking about – and some doing!
Do honest work.
Don’t talk rubbish – or anything that corrupts – but the right word for the right person at the right time.
Let all bitterness and malice be put away from you.
Be kind and tender hearted and forgiving one another.
Be imitators of God and walk in love which involves sacrifice towards others.
We hear this – and because it is God’s law – we feel short and guilty and ‘could do better’ about some or all of it – but as guidance, advice, ‘rules’ go – most of it is pretty straight forward – and not unique to Christianity. We all have enough life experience to know truth builds relationships while lies destroy them. Theft might get short term gain but isn’t a good foundation on which to build one’s life. Bitterness and malice can consume a person while kindness and forgiveness can help a person and those around her/him.
All religions and philosophies have similar advice and the Ephesians would have heard versions of this before but not in the context that Paul is placing it. Now they were to behave in certain ways – no longer jumping off the right foot but now their left so to speak – because something radical had changed. Their world had totally changed because it now had the story – indeed the good news – that Jesus had died and was raised again – and this changed everything. The world is and isn’t the same again. They are – and aren’t the same again – especially when baptised, they are now new creations in Christ – they have been given a new self – we do not have to make ourselves new but we are living in this world with a newness each day that comes from God’s love and his forgiveness. Back then the Ephesians were still living with Nero the emperor, we still have Queen Elizabeth II – now there’s a big difference! Christians still live this new life in their worldly relationships, still with friends and enemies, still in their trade or occupation or slavery (back then – hopefully not now but it is still a scourge and horror today) but now with Jesus present.
Jesus changes everything because now life is no longer me me me – get get get – pleasure pleasure pleasure – as best one can – but Jesus’ followers have been opened up to a new reality and they now see the world – and it is bigger than before because the true God, truth and light, and security and hope now infuse it and each day. I am not sure we can appreciate how radical the discovery of Jesus was – unless we, ourselves, have come to faith as adults and have a sense of who Jesus was when we didn’t believe and who he is now that we do have faith in him. Maybe the closest experience – and it isn’t a perfect analogy at all – is when we are in love and very much consumed by wanting to be close to and do right by the beloved.
If any of the Ephesian Christians had been Stoics or Epicureans before being disciples of Jesus they would also recognise some of what Paul was saying. If any of the Ephesian Christians were former Jews they would have made links with the 10 Commandments. But what they all would be seeing is the same but different and I imagine there would be Jesus in the centre of it all. He is the one who gives his followers their identity and regularly hearing from him and receiving him in Holy Communion and hearing his ‘I love you’ before anything else can counteract what the world might say or do to us or what we might say or do to ourselves. Jesus gives us his life which we live in, with, and under ours – we are not ‘Jesus robots’ – but people – precious people to God whom he has rescued so that we might life. It is when the relationship with Jesus is in focus – learning discipleship through worship, through reading the Bible, through Christian contact with other Christians – that we then remember who we are and what might be the best way to live today. We learn to ‘leap’ with the ‘Jesus foot’ rather than the comfortable one, the expedient one, the selfish one, the worldly one – how the planet prefers us all to be in step – and instead follow Jesus into our relationships each day. We may behave similarly to the world or very differently but what is important remains Jesus and following him.
- Ephesians 4:17 - 5:2