The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Epistle: Ephesians 4:17-32, Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
✠In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ✠
When I was a little kid, my parents owned a couple of houses in Del Mar, overlooking the ocean, as rental properties. Which meant we’d have to go down there during the Summer and fix all the stuff they’d broken, rip out certain ‘medicinal’ plants that the tenants had planted and replace carpeting where ‘substances’ had been spilled on it.
Anyway, one time I was bored out of mind and, as was typical, I would break off bits of some aloe vera plants that were along one side of the house and squeeze out the juice inside. I was fascinated by the stuff. I knew it could be used to heal cuts and scrapes and would prevent scarring,
but what I really wanted to know was what it tasted like.
So, being bored and being a boy, I tried it.
It was bitter and nasty.
It was then, after I’d already done it, that I figured I should probably ask someone if it was a good idea.
I made my way around the hose where our friend, Darren, was working on the plumbing. I asked him, “Darren, you know those aloe vera plants? Does anything bad happen if you know, like, tasted it?”
He stopped what he was doing and gave me a serious look and said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s poisonous.” I imagine my eyes went big but there was no way I was going to admit to doing something wrong.
“Uh, is there an antidote?” I asked, because in every TV show and movie I’d ever seen, poisons always had an antidote.
He thought about it for a second, nodded, and said, “Yeah (beat) Licorice.”
Now it just so happened that there was a tub of Red Vines in the kitchen. So, I quickly thanked him, ran off, entered the house, and did a commando crawl under the window so no one could see me making my way into the kitchen where I proceeded to eat Red Vines.
Cut to 20 years later and I’m in the grocery store- drinks aisle, looking at different waters, vitamin, pomegranate, coconut, and there on the shelf was Aloe Water. I pulled one down and looked at it and thought to myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder how they neutralized the poison…”
And that’s when it hit me.
For twenty years I had been thinking aloe was poisonous. Well, not really thinking. It was never really conscious, but I had spent twenty years being extra cautious when putting on lotion on my face after getting a sunburn and vigorously washing my hands, multiple times, after.
I had just accepted the fact that aloe was poisonous, and never really thought about it again.
I was reminded of this story by today’s epistle. I knew I was made new in my baptism, freed from sin, but I sure didn’t feel very clean, afterwards. In fact, as time progressed I was realizing how filthy I had really been before my baptism and became aware how much sin I was still capable of.
What was this new man I was supposed to have put on? It sure felt like the same old man. It felt like taking a shower and picking off the old clothes from the floor, giving them the sniff test and hoping no one stood down wind of me.
But then it struck me, like in the aisle of the supermarket. I had been operating under an idea that I had never really articulated, but which colored my whole outlook. You see, I had thought that putting on the new man was something you DID and was DONE. Meaning every time I RE-DID meant I had failed.
What I didn’t realize is that it is something you DO. Not just once or twice or even last week or yesterday, No, we are supposed to always be putting off the old man and putting on the new man. When Paul admonishes the Ephesians,
“Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
These are not the actions of the new man who has already put off the old. No, these are what putting off the old man and putting on the new man consist of.
These are things that sheds the filthy skin and reveals the fresh, pink skin underneath. There is no need to tell the new man not to sin. Not sinning is how we begin to shed the old man.
The new man is someone we are becoming. Our life in Christ is a constant act of becoming. Becoming ourselves, becoming Christlike, and becoming the embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven. Until that time, we will still struggle to take off the old man. And it is a struggle, like trying to take off a bunch of wet clothes.
The old man, is a false self of our own making. It is a suit of armor we build to protect our true selves, made of bits of what we think others will like, pieces of what we and others have told us we are ‘supposed to be’. We build it out of the examples from our mentors and idols. We build it out of our failures and our successes, as well.
But as a suit of armor, the old man is incredibly fragile. It takes very little to shatter all our illusions.
And the fascinating thing is that this façade comes crumbling down for everyone, eventually. The idols prove powerless, the so-called freedom and pleasure of sin is actually slavery, but rather than discard the old man, we double down on NEW idols and sin in ever more creative ways, convincing ourselves that not sinning is a far more oppressive form of slavery. We mistake the cure for poison and feed on the empty calories of a false cure.
Why, when confronted with its inadequacies and failures is it so hard to put away the old man? There are two factors. The first is that the false self is a mask to fool others, but the biggest fool it tricks is ourselves. The other factor is that what sits under the old man is not the new man.
What lays under our False Selves is our True Selves. The self that is still scared of the light, still ashamed of weaknesses, and still consumed by pride. That is why we cannot simply put off the old man but need to proceed to put on the new. But this new man feels awfully flimsy, shows a little too much skin.
But this is where another realization hit me. The new man I put on isn’t me.
The new man I put on is Christ.
If we attempt to replace the old man with a new man of our own making, all we end of doing is creating another false self.
The real self is in many ways broken and damaged, and so much of the false self, the ‘old man’ is an attempt at protecting those parts and when we attempt to put on the new man, often we pick up those same old pieces and try to cover the brokenness right back up. If, however, we stop and allow Jesus, the new man, the new Adam, to become our strength to work where ours is insufficient, He enters into our brokenness and builds us up, until our real selves take on the shape of the new man, growing into what we were always intended to become.
But the goal is not really to become new men and women in and of themselves. This is not a self-improvement program to make our lives ‘better’ or ‘happier’, although that will occur. The task is one in which our relationship with God, through Christ, in the Spirit is manifested. There can be no relationship between God and the Old Man because that false self is a figment of our own imagination. Our relationship with God is only possible with our true selves and only grows within the New Man we put on.
We are made new in Christ, but we only remain IN Him in as much as we are free from sin.
And when that happens, we seek God’s forgiveness and over time, prayer and confession turn from shame-filled experiences into cherished opportunities, no longer looking back with wounded pride at our mistakes, but thankful for the opportunity to take the old man off again and rejoice as we put on the new one.
✠In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ✠