Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, I preached about the big dilemma that makes human life so complicated. The dilemma, that is, of our bondage to the passage of time and the punishment of death. We are surrounded by “things temporal” even as we ourselves are temporal things. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but because of the Fall, human lives are now damaged in the midst of a world that groans. Our sin not only disrupts our unity with God and alienates us from our neighbors, but it also disrupts our very selves. We are out of whack, in other words: we retain the immortality of the soul that God gave us as creatures made in his image, but our bodies are no longer in harmony with that gift. We are out of tune. Our bodies are mortal bodies, subject to time and its forces of decay and death.
But God in his mercy has provided us the resolution of this dilemma. He sent us his only-begotten Son to be incarnate as a human being, even as he remained fully divine. As the Son of God, Christ is the ultimate “eternal thing” -- and yet through his incarnation, the eternity of God has entered into the history of humanity. “Things eternal” have therefore come to us in the midst of “things temporal.” And now it is possible by God’s grace for us to pass through the latter while holding on to the former.
To proceed now to the Scripture readings appointed for this morning, what we find is that while the dilemma has been resolved by Christ once and for all, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we start living as though that’s the case right off the bat. We are liberated from the bondage of death and original sin by the regenerating waters of Holy Baptism -- and that’s a fact, an objective and definitive reality that the Holy Spirit accomplishes within us at our baptisms. But, as is pretty clear from the evidence, Christians don’t automatically become perfect little angels the moment they are baptized. Hardly! So the liberation that is given to us in Baptism begins as a new possibility of something which was once impossible -- a “newness of life.” Baptism opens up to us a new way of being human; its liberation is the starting point of the Christian life. But this newness of life still has to be lived; if you’ve been given a new way of being human, then you now have to be human in that new kind of way. And that means that the dilemma is still there, even if it has been radically transformed by Christ. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we would all admit that this is the case. I doubt any of us really think that we’re just cruising down this newness of life. Most of the time, it’s probably more like we’re wobbling along like we just had our training wheels taken off.
But this is the only reason why St. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to “put off your old nature” and “put on the new nature” makes any sense. On the one hand, our old natures have already been put off once and for all; and this is the radical joy of the Gospel -- “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But on the other hand, this definitive victory that has been given to us already doesn’t mean that we are perfect all of the sudden with nothing left to do. Otherwise, Paul couldn’t tell the Ephesians who were already baptized into Christ that they need to “put off your old nature” and “put on the new nature.” So both of these things have to be true at the same time: that we have been buried into Christ’s death (the old has passed away) and that the old nature is something that we must continually put off each and every day, as we put on the new nature instead.
Now, even though it should go without saying, it’s always worth repeating that this putting off of our old nature is not something that we do by our sheer willpower alone. As Paul goes on to say in one of those passages I just quoted, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). Paul is not the one who’s living this new life in Christ, for it is Christ himself that is living in him. Not that Paul has been invaded by Christ the body-snatcher or anything; while it is Christ who lives in him, the life he lives is still his life. It’s just that now, he lives his life in the flesh according to faith in Christ. To put it in the words of last week’s Collect, Paul lives his temporal life in his mortal body according the eternal life of faith in Christ. And so do we.
I need to stop here for a moment, though, because all this talk of “old nature” and “new nature” may not sound very clear or familiar. Paul is using some philosophical vocabulary here, but it doesn’t really matter whether you consider yourself a philosopher or not, because at the end of the day, this is still Holy Scripture. And so, as Christians, it’s necessary for us all to at least have some idea of what Paul is talking about in his discussion. So, first off, the “nature” here is not the nature that you watch in a documentary on PBS. It’s not about mountains and jungles and deep sea creatures. Instead, the “nature” here in Ephesians is the nature of a thing -- it’s essence, the character that makes the thing what it is. To talk about “human nature” is therefore to talk about what makes humans human: the nature of a human being. But for Paul and for Christianity, human nature is not an exclusively “scientific” matter, because human nature is inherently spiritual. We have souls, intellects, and wills; and our actions have moral significance. That’s how Paul is able to talk about the old nature versus the new nature: human beings are not just bumps on a log that happen to be able to think and move around. Humans are complex creatures, and thus Paul can make distinctions and judgments about certain forms of human life; certain ways of being human.
Second, note that what Paul calls the “old nature” is only old because something new has come around. Before the arrival of this something new, this old nature was just… nature. It was the default setting for human beings after our Fall from the original state of grace. And Paul identifies many of its characteristics: this old nature was defined by the futility of mind, the darkness of understanding, alienation from the life of God, ignorance, hardness of heart, and so on. In short, it was a nature that was “corrupt through deceitful lusts.”
This all may still sound pretty abstract and philosophical, so let me try to bring it down some more. Let’s go back to how the Christian life feels like most of the time: wobbling along without your training wheels and probably falling over again and again. I think it’s easy to hear that list of Paul’s rather dramatic features of the old nature and imagine that he must be talking about the really bad sins -- those “deceitful lusts” that result in our “alienation from the life of God” and “hardness of heart” and such. And of course, the old nature definitely includes those more spectacular offenses that all of us have committed at one time or another. But the intensity of the wording aside, these features can also describe forms of life that are way more mundane and ordinary. All sin, whether great or small, is first and foremost a turning away from the life of God and toward something else that is not God. And though we make this turn of our own free will, these lesser things that are not God exert an irresistible pull upon us. That’s what Paul’s getting at with those “deceitful lusts” -- it’s not just that we have the option of turning away from God and towards other things; it’s that those other things are deceitful and enticing. We are drawn to that which is not God. We “labor for the food which perishes,” as Christ puts it in our Gospel this morning, instead of “the food which endures to eternal life.” But the food that perishes will ultimately leads to death, for we and our labors will perish with it. But to spurn the food which endures to eternal life is simply to fall out of fellowship with God; that’s what it means to become alienated from God; and, as I said at the beginning, this results in an alienation within ourselves. We fall into ignorance and futility, where we are then at the mercy of our deceitful lusts and “every kind of uncleanness.” And again, this fall into futility is our default setting after the Fall -- the fall of the entire human race into the bondage of sin and death.
But for Christians, this default setting is no longer actually default; it is now the old nature because of the new nature that Christ has made available. For Christ has put upon us a new nature -- the nature of his resurrected body; instead of the futility of our minds, he has given us “the renewal of the spirit in your minds.” All of those features that Paul listed now “belong to your former manner of life” -- they do not define the lives we now live in Christ; the lives that Christ now lives in us. They do not bind us any longer. Or do they? After all, the false comforts of their bondage are still around us, and they are more than willing to welcome us back into their enslavement. But our new nature is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” -- for true righteousness and holiness is simply what the likeness of God is. We never lost the image of God in which we were created; what we lost was the likeness, when we forfeited the righteousness and holiness through our sin.
But the likeness has been returned to us through the gift of Christ and his grace. “The food which endures to eternal life” has come down from heaven, given to us by the Son of man. And now we can labor for this food, this bread -- “the bread of God… which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”
The bread of life; the food which endures; the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness; all of these together are ultimately the same thing: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “I am the bread of life.” Christ is the one thing that draws us to himself without deceit and without futility. He draws you to himself as we speak, for his altar is before you, the place where the bread of God comes down for the life of the world even as it is the place where your are taken up into the renewal of the spirit of your minds. All you have to lose is your old nature and former manner of life. So put them off and come here and put on Christ; for he is your new nature, he is the bread of life. And so long as you eat this bread, you shall not hunger, you shall never thirst and you shall not perish. Like this food, you too will endure to eternal life, perfected in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. All you have to lose is yourself.