Living In God's Reality

Living In God's Reality

One of my favorite things about the Apostle Paul is his ability to weave together theology with a call to practical applications. It's an ability that I appreciate more and more as I grow in my own vocation as a pastor. Paul’s theology, while often breathtaking, is never theology for its own sake. For Paul, there is always a real-world pastoral concern that drives his letters, a real life context to all of his theology. Theology provides the motivation, it casts the vision, it provides the authority to the calls to action that follow.

One of the great examples of this is in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4:17-24, Paul calls—“insists in the Lord”—that they cease living as the Gentiles do, and start living a life worthy of their calling in Christ. He then provides a number of concrete ways to live out this call: to be honest, stop stealing, stop the unwholesome talk and instead build each other up, get rid of bitterness, rage, slander and every form of malice. It is an impressive—and familiar—list. On its own, the list stands as a call to radical change in individual lives and a radical change in how the believers in Ephesus are to treat one another.

However, nice and concrete as that list may be, we need to make sure we don’t lift this out from Paul’s carefully and powerfully constructed theological context. And here is why: Paul of all people knows that simply knowing the right things to do isn’t enough. As a Jew, Paul had always known what God required, had always had Torah (the Law) to instruct and guide him and daily life. There was just one problem: he couldn’t obey it. Yes, Paul says, better to know what God requires than
not, but if in the end you cannot obey it, are you really any better off? What keeps this list, as opposed to any other list of rules (e.g. the 10 Commandments), free from the same fatal flaw?

That’s where Paul’s theology comes in. Paul’s letter doesn’t move straight from rebuking the Ephesians to this new list. What Paul does is to begin with theology; Paul reminds them of what God has already done in the world, and more to the point, in them. In Ephesians 2-3, Paul summarizes powerfully God’s story of redemption and new creation. God, Paul says, has already raised us from spiritual death to life! He has reconciled us to himself, and thereby to each other so that in Christ, God has made Jews and Gentiles into one church, one people, one family. This is a powerful story about God’s saving and new-creational power at work in the world—and in the believers in Ephesus. In fact, Paul gets so excited, he breaks out into a prayer of almost spontaneous thanks and praise at the end of chapter 3.

THEN, and only then, does the call to new and different behavior appear, but not as a new list that can never be kept, but as the script for living the new reality God has created in Christ. Through Christ, God is remaking all of creation, and he has started with us! Of course we could not keep the law before Christ came—we were spiritually dead (2:1-2). But now, we have (already!) been made alive with Christ. What was impossible before is now possible. But the first requisite step is to understand and believe what God has done in the world and in us through Christ. First we need to understand what God has done, then we can—and must—live accordingly.

The list in Ephesians 4 is nothing new, and nothing unique. What makes it special is the theology that goes with it. In Christ, God is making all things new, and he has started in us. Like a child learning the joy of riding a bike, we need first to believe that we can do it, that what was once impossible is now possible. That is a necessary first step. But the second is necessary too: once we believe it is possible we then need to actually get on the bike and go. If we do not, how can we know the joy of our new reality? In the same way, let us keep Paul’s theology and application together. Remember—and keep remembering, that God has already raised you to new life in Christ. And having remembered, go out and live as God has created you, redeemed you, and now called you again to live.