The Lectionary this morning begins with perversion and ends with peace. Ephesians 4:17-32 begins this way:
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!—
Paul is appealing to a cosmopolitan audience. Ephesus was a city with a decent amount of culture and entertainment available, probably a place not unlike modern-day San Francisco. It sits on a hillside, and the main street winds sharply downhill, turning in front of a large public amphitheater, becoming a broad straight road directly to the sea. Along the way you will pass government buildings as well as pagan temples, notably, the temple of Diana, or Artemis of the Ephesians.
Artemis is symbolized in statuary as a goddess covered with breasts, head to foot. She is a fertility symbol, and in pagan Ephesus it was considered a great act of worship to have sex with the temple priest or priestess. The public baths in Ephesus, by the way, were situated directly behind the temple.
So when Paul gives this instruction to Christians living in Ephesus, he is not simply moralizing in general. This is practical teaching for people living in the midst of a highly political and sexualized culture, just like many of our cities today.
Living in this kind of setting inures people to the depths to which they have sunk. The words Paul uses to express this: futility, darkened, alienated, ignorance, hardness of heart, callous, sensuality, greedy, impurity, are not merely a vice list. They are the result of giving yourself over a period of time to viewing images that might have shocked you at first. The images become so commonplace that we don’t give them a second thought. Most of us don’t even turn our head to look anymore. The availability of horrific images – images of sex, war, violence, and other perversions on the internet has further deadened our awareness of what separates us from God.
What is the antidote to all of this?
…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.
The antidote is truth. When you see the images on TV, the Internet, or in any other public arena that some call pornography, look deeply into the eyes of the Victoria’s Secret model. Meet her as a person. She is just a woman trying to make enough money to live in the city. No matter how alluring her body may be. She is a person for whom Christ died. The important thing is to recognize that she is a person.
The church tends to ‘preach’ truth, and that can be a mistake. Just as the advertising business preaches body-lust, we can easily objectify Christ as image rather than looking into the eyes of the God who is Immanuel – near enough that you can reach out and touch him. We can have a picture of God, rather than listening to his voice. We can “know” the deep truths of the faith, when actually we have never experienced one of them. Religion that is not experienced as relationship is as futile and unproductive as lusting after a picture.
One sign that we are free of the image and have begun to invest in a real relationship with God is that other images, other two dimensional truths, no longer suffice. We aren’t satisfied with texting friends. We want to be in actual community with them. The pictures don’t work for us. We want real. Even the more extreme emotions can now be worked out productively in the context of growing relationships rather than locked away in a fantasy world where nothing is ever dealt with.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, 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 labor, 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.
Paul is not lecturing on morality here. He is demonstrating the effect that living truth, as opposed to virtual or propositional truth, has on a person’s life.
There’s one catch to all of this. Once you find yourself in a real relationship with God, you will find that for you, walking “as the Gentiles do” hurts. Just as you would feel guilty cheating on your spouse, cheating on God gets harder and harder.
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 clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
If you want the kind of peace God is offering you in Christ: kind, tenderhearted, forgiving peace, you have to invest your heart in what is real and let the images begin to shock you again, just like the thought of worshipping a statue of Artemis would shock a person in love with the living Christ.