Look at where you are sitting today. Is this where you normally sit? If you are new or visiting with us, are you sitting where you normally choose in a new room? In general, I like somewhere in the middle, not too far forward, not too far back. In church it’s a bit different. Are you usually a back pew person, or do you like to sit up front where you can make sure that you will pay attention, or you can look the pastor in the eye? Have you had to make a change today because someone else got there first? How did that make you feel? Have you ever thought about why you chose your preferred spot?
When I was in college, I had to take a mandatory music class as part of the distributional requirements of a liberal arts school. I learned a lot in that class, and it was a lot of fun, but … there was an unexpected aspect to this class. Almost every time we would come into the room, the desks and chairs would be in a different configuration. Sometimes there would be rows. Other times everything would be arranged in a circle. Sometimes there would be clusters around the room. What that meant is that you could never sit in the same place twice. You never got that sense of comfort from the familiar. What I have not told you is that this room was located in the psych department wing of the school. I remain convinced that they were conducting an experiment on us to see how we would react to the challenge of the constantly changing seating.
Habits can be like that. They can be a source of comfort and the familiar. There are so many things that we do out of habit that if we had to think through and remember every one of them every day, we would go crazy. Our morning routine to get ready for the day. What we watch on TV and when. Saying grace before meals (or not). The way we great our children or grandchildren. Is it with a hug or a kiss, or is it something different? The route that we take to the grocery store (and with all of the road construction lately, this has been a lot more challenging for me lately). Then, what rituals we have before we go to bed. My mother has a list of 14 things that she does every night, and yes, with her slight obsessive compulsive tendencies, she does have a list. Of course, making lists is one of her habits. What about you?
Today, we begin a new worship series called Creature of Habit. We are all creatures of habit, whether we like to think of ourselves that way or not. As I’ve mentioned, many of them are very good. We would have trouble functioning on a daily basis without them. We will be taking a look at habits the good and the bad.
What do you think when you hear the phrase, “I’m just a creature of habit?” The other day I saw this cartoon. One person is sitting on a chair in the living room with two people sitting on a couch. One says to the other, “I wouldn’t say he was a creature of habit – more of a creature with bad habits.” When you hear someone say, “I’m just a creature of habit,” is it someone who is disciplined and efficient, or is it someone making excuses for bad behavior? As in, I can’t help it, “I’m just a creature of habit.” It seems so close to that other excuse, “This is the way God made me.” So, I should be allowed to be a jerk.
Of course, that does apply to some things like our eye color and whether we like onions. It does apply to gifts that we may have. It doesn’t apply to things like treating people badly or being arrogant or being a jerk. When it comes to our habits, we do have some control. We don’t have to mindlessly continue in a rut that is destructive for us, for our friends, people with whom we come in contact. When we follow Christ, we are expected to take off some of our old habits associated with our old life and put on some new ones. As we continue to walk the road with Jesus, we continue to learn new things, new ways, new habits that make us more Christ like. We don’t have to slavishly continue with all of our old habits. We can curate them like one might do with an art collection in a gallery. We keep the good habits and work on replacing the bad habits with better ones that are life giving.
This week we are focusing on a passage from Ephesians where Paul is talking about this. Of course, he isn’t using the analogy of an art gallery. Instead he compares it to changing our clothes. Our passage is Ephesians 4:17-24.
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
This letter was written to Gentile Christians. They were coming from the Gentile background of other religions and gods. One interesting thing is that Paul is no longer calling the readers Gentiles. The term had referred to people not associated with Judaism, period, whether they were Christians or not. Now, it is referring to anyone who does not know God regardless of their previous religious background. However, they were people who had lived in the Greco Roman culture, one that was basically incompatible with following Jesus. Part of being a good member of society then meant that you participated in the worship of the local god or goddess. In the case of Ephesus, this would have meant Artemis or her Roman name Diana. There is even evidence that “God-fearers,” Gentiles that associated and helped Jewish communities and synagogues, would keep their association with their family religion, maintain roles and titles of priests and priestesses. One of Artemis’ roles in the Greek group of gods was “Queen of the Cosmos.” You can see how that might be a problem in a Christian community. Someone following Jesus would not simply be a “God-fearer” who maintained a safe distance around the edges. They were to be someone who would declare Jesus as Lord of all. So, there were no half measures. You were expected to go “all in.”
That is why the language of rebirth that Jesus used and adoption that the Apostle Paul used is so helpful. When we are spiritually reborn, when we are adopted as God’s children, we have a new identity. As Paul puts it, we are a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). The image in baptism helps us out here. When we think of baptism by immersion, meaning going totally under water, the person who goes under is dying with Christ. When they come up out of the water, they are raised or reborn with Christ.
As Paul says in Galatians 3:26-27, “For you are all [children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Here we have it again, this idea of putting on a garment, but to put on the new, we have to take off the old. In essence, he is telling us that we need to dress for success. However, we do it by changing, as he put it, “the attitudes of [our] minds.” (Eph 4:23)
The Roman culture was designed to bring people down and keep them in in their place. You can think of the Roman tax collection system as just one example. Local people basically bought a tax franchise from the Roman government. They did not tell the franchise owner how much to charge or collect. He only had to send a certain amount to corporate headquarters in Rome periodically. Anything collected over that he got to keep. I don’t know about in other parts of the Empire, but in Judea and Galilee the tax collectors also had soldiers at their disposal to help enforce the prices they set. This allowed them to get very wealthy at the expense of the poorest people.
When you look at it, the whole system was designed to bring out the worst in the tax collector by encouraging corruption and taking advantage of the local community, their neighbors. Since all of the actors were locals this would pit the occupied people against each other. It was like France during World War II with the Nazis bringing on board French collaborators to help enforce Nazi rules. There are accounts that the French collaborators were even tougher on a local population than a Nazi official typically would be. This was just the tip of the ice burg. Think of a whole society built on these principles.
Contrast that with the teachings of Jesus. Love your neighbor as yourself. Pray for your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Be compassionate. (He didn’t say it exactly that way as far as I’ve seen. He just did it.) Be humble. Live a moral, righteous life, a short version of the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t compete with each other. Serve one another. Don’t lord your power over others. Lording one’s power over others, no matter where you were in the hierarchy, was basically the foundation of the whole Roman social system.
You can understand how being born into that system and living in it all your life could make it challenging to let it all go. In many ways, it is not unlike our society today. The Western culture’s foundation is based on Greco Roman ideals. You hear about our Judeo-Christian ethic for our laws and culture, and that is certainly true as well but a rather large dose of Greco-Roman philosophy and culture is included. So being used to one set of rules and expectations, your natural tendency would be to revert back to your old normal way of doing things, conducting yourself, reverting back to your old habits. So, Paul is suggesting something drastic here. It isn’t simply making an intellectual choice and agreeing that following the Ways of Jesus Christ are more life-giving, if a bit impractical. It is like I was talking about earlier with baptism. It is letting the old self die, taking it completely off. After all that is not you anymore. You have been reborn. You have been adopted. You are a new creation. You have a new identity, a new life. You need to put that on. Dress for success.
As the Holy Spirit works on us and with us to sanctify us, to make us more holy, more Christ-like … Did you realize that this is what happens as we follow the Ways of Jesus Christ and put our trust in him? … As this internal transformation takes place, we start recognizing more and more in our own selves where we have sinned, where we have missed the mark in our own lives, and we recognize that we need to change. We also are able to notice all of the evil things going on in the world around us. Things that damage our spirit and/or hurt and oppress others. If we can bear to look at it, it should make us feel terrible. I might even say that it hurts my heart. Which brings up another important point, the heart.
Paul tells us in today’s passage that much of the issue among Gentiles (those who do not know God) is the hardness of their hearts (cf. vs. 18). In other English Bibles this is translated as blindness of heart (NKJV) or hearts of cold, hard stones (VOICE). If we want to understand what Paul is getting at and what our expectation should be for ourselves, we need to know what he means by that. Again, Greco-Roman influence on Western society and culture gets in our way.
When you think of someone having a hard heart, what do you think is their problem? If you are like most people, you would think that he or she is not very compassionate. They don’t have sympathy for other people’s problems. They aren’t understanding of other people’s feelings and what might be hurtful to them or even care. Why? Because we think of the heart as the center of emotions. If someone has a hard heart, emotions are not going to sway them. Neither are they going to be ruled by their emotions. We also have its contrast with the term “bleeding heart.” That would be someone who is led too much by their emotions, to the point where people may take advantage of them. If we have a broken heart, it is because we have lost someone or something we love, or we are so moved by compassion at the suffering of another, like people having to endure the aftermath of a natural disaster or a shooting. There is no problem with identifying with the metaphor of the heart in that way, as long as we are not using that perspective to understand the Bible.
You see, the Greco-Roman world saw the heart as the seat of emotions. After all, when we get very emotional, we may even feel our hearts beating in our chests, our pulse and blood pressure goes up. However, in Hebrew thought, the heart refers to the entirety of the whole person. It is the center of our life. Of course, when the heart stops beating, we die, so the heart is the essence of who we are as a person. We know physiologically that all of our thinking, intellectual and emotional, goes on where? In our brains, but in Hebrew thought, it happens in the heart. When Jesus (quoting the Older Testament) says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength, he is not saying love God with “this” part of you and “that” part of you and “some other” part of you. He is basically repeating himself with synonyms for emphasis. We are to love the Lord with every part of us, holding nothing back. So, the bottom line is that when God, the prophets, Jesus, Paul, or any of the other biblical writers mention having hearts of stone or having a hard heart, we should translate that in our own minds as a person who is hard headed, who is obstinate, who just will not accept the truth, can’t even see it. This is true of all of us until the Holy Spirit has softened our … hearts, or cracked open our hard heads … so that our brains can actually process this information correctly.
The Holy Spirit is so important to this process. We heard about the Holy Spirit several times earlier in the year. One of the points that was made was that we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit nearly as much as we do God the Father (or Parent) or Jesus. That’s fair assessment. The truth is that it is more difficult to talk about the Holy Spirit because it is the most mysterious member of the Trinity. How do you talk about what is essentially referred to as the Holy Wind. You cannot capture it. The wind will go where it wants. Who can control it? But since Pentecost, it is the member of the Trinity that is our constant companion. It lives with us and in us.
It is the Holy Spirit that helps us the most as we try to put on our new self, the new creation that we are in Christ, as we try to dress for spiritual success. I mentioned earlier how important the Holy Spirit is in our transformation, our sanctification, our being made holy and Christ-like. This sounds like it is something that is being done to us whether we like it or not, and we have no active part to play. Some people interpret this to mean that in the meantime we can do anything we want. After all, we are not held to the Mosaic Law. We are free in Christ. The Holy Spirit is making us holy. What difference does it make what I do now. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul asks that question in several places in several ways.
In Romans 6, Paul is referencing it in relation to the unmerited grace that we receive from God. He says beginning in verse 1:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)
The bottom line is that while the Holy Spirit helps us, we do have an active part to play in the process. As the Holy Spirit breaks through our hard heads and helps us to recognize our bad habits, our vices, our sins, we have a responsibility to work at changing them. There is this tension. We are dependent on God, but we also have a responsibility. The human tendency is to go toward one extreme or the other. We think that we have to do it all ourselves, earn our way in through our diligence, or we neglect the whole thing because what does it matter the Holy Spirit is going to do it for us anyway. Actually in John Wesley’s day, in the early 1700s, the people in the Church of England were going the second way. While the generation before of the Puritans, were trying to do it all on their own. That is why the Methodist tradition tries to establish this balance. Knowing that we are totally dependent on God while realizing that we have a part to play through our study, our prayer, and our actions. A way to think of it has been said by multiple wise people in the church. Work as if it all depends on you, but trust like it all depends on God.
And this is what we have to realize as creatures of habit. We all have habits from the old life that we have to take off. As we continue to learn and grow in our transformation, we realize that there are habits we thought were just fine. After all, they aren’t hurting anybody, but then we come to the realization that they are not good news, and it would be better to be rid of them. That’s where Paul’s metaphor really helps us. When we work to take off the old habit, we will need to put on a new habit to take its place. Where we used to use foul language to express the full emotion of opinion, we will have to decide and train ourselves what we will say instead. When we used to react with anger and frustration when things didn’t go our way, we have to think through what our response will be instead. Those are just two mild examples. Over the next several weeks, we will talk more about that. We take off the old, and put on the new. In that way we will dress for success for our life with Christ, because after all … we are creatures of habit, and we want those habits to demonstrate our new life in Christ.
Let me pray for you: Lord, thank you for the gift of new life. Thank you for freeing us from the ways of the world. Help us to recognize the areas and habits in our lives where we are doing well. Let us be encouraged by where we see progress and strengthen those areas. Also, help us to see the old or what we thought were innocuous habits may need pruning or eliminating altogether. Change is difficult, Lord. Guide us and help us to remain strong through the process. It is all for your glory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!