by Michael Fitzpatrick
Reading from Ephesians, 4:17-32
17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
To be in Christ is to put away our old self, with all its impulses to evil, and be clothed with our new self, which is made in the likeness of God. St. Paul is masterful as a writer; he alternates effortlessly from magnificent but intimidating and grand proclamations like this to, in the next sentence, concrete advice on what it looks like. Scripture never just leaves us to guess how to put the gospel into practice.
We are to put away falsehood, and speak truth. We are to abandon evil speech, and only utter words that build others up. My personal favorite comes in v. 28: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” First, the old self: no more dishonest gain. Then the new self: honest work with your own hands. We might expect the purpose here is to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Those of us raised in a culture of American industrialism might certainly think so. But St. Paul consistently cuts off individualistic piety in his writing: work so that you can help those in need.
In short, a life anchored to Christian love is never ultimately about yourself. It’s about receiving the gracious gift so that you can give to others. St. Paul sums up with brilliant concision: “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Putting off the old self for the new is not really about “being authentic” or “claiming my identity” — fashionable modern watchwords. It’s not really about me at all. The kingdom of heaven is incurably corporate, with the inexhaustible love of Christ flowing out from the center through each person who then in turn functions as an aqueduct of God’s love to those around them.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Stanford University and a student leader for the Episcopal-Lutheran Campus Ministry at Stanford. Michael attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.