Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-16
Speaking the truth, in love. Could there be a more countercultural message in today’s world? Ephesians is a letter to the church, about the church. It probably wasn’t written particularly to the Ephesians; it’s more likely a general letter about how to be a Christian and how to be a Christian church; any church, even ours. Some of the words we read are probably familiar: One body, one Spirit; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. The letter goes on to describe the gifts God has given us for the good of the church, and then warns of the threats to unity, a unity that is both the goal and the measure of our maturity as Christians. The writer offers a simple guide to living out this uncommon unity: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up into … Christ.”
Speaking the truth in love. It’s easy enough to understand what it means to speak – we can “speak” with words or with actions. The more difficult question is this: What is this “truth” which we are called to speak? Is it Jesus – the Way, the Truth and the Life? Is it the Gospel, the Good News, the truth of God’s love made known in Christ? It’s probably both. But perhaps the writer is being less church-y and theological, and more literal. Could it be he’s saying that the way to build a healthy church is for its members and its leaders to say things that are plainly true; to speak what is real and honest? “To put away falsehood,” as the passage says? To open our eyes, and describe what we see? To proclaim theological truths, too, but first, just to tell the truth?
That’s not always easy. Telling the truth means naming out loud where there is poverty or brokenness, hatred or unfairness, and how we and others have failed to heal it, and, at times, even to see it. It means pointing out inequality and challenging those profiting from it. Where there is exploitation or misconduct by the powerful, it means saying so, and when there is pain among the silenced, it means voicing it.
This is a passage about unity, after all. There is no unity in silence. There is no reconciliation in avoidance. There is no “moving on” and calling it “focusing on the gospel.” When we withhold the truth because our conversation partners might speak a different truth, when we refuse to risk the hurt, the conflict, even the lost donors or members, our holding back does not result in one body. It results in NO body … nobody learning, nobody growing, nobody transforming, nobody being church.
There’s one problem, though, isn’t there? We don’t actually all agree on the facts. A Barna poll showed that 72 percent of Americans believe there’s no such thing as absolute truth; a third of Americans say they trust no one but their own instincts when they read or watch the news. I bet we’ve all heard someone say, “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion.” That implies that all opinions are equally valid, which feels egalitarian and tolerant, doesn’t it? Here in Northern California we try hard to be open to other perspectives. Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, right?
But as Patrick Moynihan used to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Jesus himself treated truth as essential. Jesus says that if we are his disciples, we’ll know the truth and it will set us free. That’s a wonderful promise, but it’s more than a promise. It’s a calling. We are called – it is part of our calling to open our hearts and minds and ears and eyes, to be ready to see the truth and even to pursue truth, even when it’s hard or painful; even when it comes from someone we’d rather not believe; even when it requires us to change. And then, to speak it.
And maybe that’s why the rest of the instructions to the church and to us as Christians are so important. The way to wholeness and unity in the church, in any community, even in our sorely divided nation, is to speak the truth in love. Not because we’re trying to be “nice,” or accommodating, or sugary sweet, because those things have nothing to do with truth. Rather, for two more important reasons.
First, because it’s the only thing that works. When Abraham Lincoln was a young man, he gave a speech at a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message was that the temperance folks ought to be kinder to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them or denouncing them as moral pestilences, because people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers. Lincoln explained that “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation ... and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature.” Lincoln warned that if you treat a person as despicable, “he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
There’s been a lot written lately about whether there’s any point in trying to understand or even be civil toward people with whom you disagree vehemently. I understand the frustration, especially where it appears there’s little or no effort to try and understand you, or there’s even an actual effort to harm you or others. I get it. It’s easy to convince ourselves that our concern for those who are oppressed should outweigh our concern for the target of our critique, and so we say – with self-righteousness, no less – whatever comes to mind. What’s happened, as a result, is that we are edging closer and closer to a place where our political and ideological discourse has become an exercise in dehumanization, diminishing our own humanity in the process. This does not achieve what we want. Brené Brown writes, “Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not … social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith in God asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include politicians, media, and the strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own.”
The way toward unity, toward peace, toward maturity, toward growing up into Christ, says the letter to the Ephesians is to speak the truth in love. Love is desiring not just the wholeness of the world but the wholeness of a person, even that person with whom we disagree. Love is believing that another’s voice, another’s mind, another’s heart is as worthy as our own, even if we disagree. I am not talking about accommodation or compromise; I am not talking about cowing to manipulation, abuse or extremism. I am talking about real truth and real love and that is hard. It is challenging. I’m not sure we even know how to do this, but it is the task of the beloved community, the church, to figure it out, and to encourage and support us in this challenge because I don’t know anyone who can do this alone.
I saw one example the other night. I went to see the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and I can’t recommend it enough. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who made a career out of speaking the truth in love. The first week “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was on the air, the king of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, King Friday XIII, established a border guard and demanded a wall – this is in 1968 – and it fell to Lady Aberlin and others to teach him that even a king could welcome the stranger in need. Back in Mister Roger’s neighborhood, the neighborhood policeman was Black, and in one momentous scene, shortly after some very ugly news stories about desegregated swimming pools, Officer Clemmons and Rogers dipped their bare feet into a wading pool. Mister Rogers addressed death, divorce, anger, all sorts of hard topics, treating each person he encountered, each person to whom he spoke, as precious, as a child of God.
We are to speak the truth in love for a second important reason: Not one of us holds the entire truth. I’m not suggesting moral relativism. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it like this: “I am not a relativist; I do not say ‘I like coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps.’” But just because I disagree with someone or with a group does not mean they are evil or ignorant people who have nothing important to say. Erasmus, the Dutch Christian Renaissance scholar, said, “Humility is truth.” I’m not a hundred percent sure I know what he meant, but it might mean that if we’re so prideful of our own perspective that we fail to listen to others, then we will miss out on the whole truth. It reminds me of a poem by an Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, called, “The Place Where We Are Right.”
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
We could just stand in the ruins, yelling ourselves hoarse because we’re right. Or we could speak the truth, in love. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Conor Friedersdorf, “Why Can’t the Left Win?” The Atlantic, May 4, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/why-cant-the-left-win/522102/.
 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (New York: Random House, 2017), 74-75.
 Ibid., 76.
 “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” 2018, Focus Features, directed by Morgan Neville.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books/Random House 2012), 368-369.