Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
It seems like I have spent a great deal of my scholarly life engaged with Ephesians. The passage that comprises the epistle for this Sunday is, to my mind, one of the most interesting in the entire letter. It may be tempting to treat this passage as simply a list of some things to do and other things to avoid doing. That is not incorrect, but it leaves out a lot.
For example, what does it say about this church for Paul (let’s call the author Paul) to address people who are stealing on a regular basis? What do we learn about anger among and between Christians? I am as captivated by the image of words “giving grace” to those who hear them as I am terrified by the idea of causing the Holy Spirit to grieve. Both the vices of v.31 and the virtues of v.32 are concerned with relations with others and, thus, imply a certain sort of common life. There is so much going on in just a few verses.
This passage appears in the lectionary at a time when church life in so many places seems caught up in larger societal tensions, divisions and communicative habits. It takes a great deal of discipline to avoid looking at our congregational life with lenses ground for us by media accounts of the state of political life in the U.S. I think we should treat the presence of this passage in our lectionary as a providentially arranged call to self-reflection.
Let’s look at the first admonition in this passage, “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
Paul begins by speaking of falsehood as something that can be “put away” as if it were a garment that is no longer attractive or in fashion. Truth, however, is not treated as a more fashionable garment. Rather it is something that must be spoken to neighbors. Truth is a good that can and should be shared. It is a gift we and our neighbors can offer each other. Of course, Paul’s admonition presumes we and our neighbors can distinguish truth from falsehood. If truth is a gift that can be spoken between neighbors, then one thing this passage may be pointing out is that truth is best established in conversation. If that is so, then it is easy to see how those with the loudest or most appealing voices could have a huge advantage in distinguishing the true from the false. If the past couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that many of us have been ignoring voices that have been pushed to the edges of our conversations. These voices often belong to people most different from us. When we primarily rely on those with the loudest voices that sound most like our own, then truth becomes more like something we impose on our neighbors rather than a gift arrived at and spoken between us.
Establishing truth conversationally is much slower and more labor-intensive than virtually all of the other paths we use for dispersing information, opinion and reaction. Ideas, issues, points of interest are offered, revised, negotiated, and clarified through a patient sustained engagement with others in an iterative process. The first words are never the last word. Even then, the last word is always awaiting further attention in the light of new circumstances and new information. Despite the fact that such conversations are more labor and time-intensive, the results of establishing truth this way are much more enduring, making our words much more likely to be gifts that “build up” and “give grace.”
The cacophony of voices surrounding us, the density of mis and disinformation, and our own impatience, makes it tempting to adopt the idea that we live in a post-truth world in which each of us has our own truth. If Christians adopt this view, we give up on speaking the truth with our neighbors. There is no gift of truth established and shared communally. There is simply self-assertion. Even if “evil talk” is not coming out of our mouths, we have little reason to think our words will “build up” or “give grace.”
If Christians desire to speak the truth with our neighbors, we could do well to return to John’s Gospel. I am not thinking of the bread of heaven passage that is the reading for this Sunday. Instead, we should recall Jesus’ announcement to his followers that he is the truth (Jn 14:6). Later when Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit of truth will lead them “into all truth,” it is clear that the work of the Spirit is first and foremost dependent upon sharing the truth that is Jesus (Jn 16:12-15). At its root, truth is not a set of assertions, it is a person. This fundamental disposition toward truth means that coming to truth that might be shared with neighbors depends first on a relationship rather than a set of true beliefs.
The importance of speaking the truth with our neighbors is made clear in the final clause of 4:25. Speaking the truth is important because “we are members of one another.” Paul says little directly in this passage about what this might mean. Yet everything he advocates in these verses is based on the conviction that the lives of the Ephesian Christians are so deeply intertwined that stealing, anger with each other, and a commitment to falsehood are realistic options for them. Obviously, these are all things to be avoided, but the fact that they are live options for these Christians already indicates that their lives, their possessions, and their speech are open to each other to such a degree that abuses are possible. They are members of one another. I wonder if for many of our congregations the first step towards sharing the gift of truthful words with our neighbors is to understand and come to love the fact that we are members of one another.