Speaking the Truth in Love—A Sermon From Ephesians 4:1-16

This sermon was preached on August 2, 2015 at Epiphany Anglican Mission in Peoria Illinois.


2nd Samuel 11:26-12:13
Psalm 51:1-13
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Our Scripture passages this week consist of a big heavy story (2nd Samuel, followed by Psalm 51) and big expansive ideas (Ephesians and John). We have David's sin of murder and infidelity addressed in 2nd Samuel, followed by a raw prayer of repentance in Psalm 51. Then we have Paul painting a grand picture of what the Church is in his letter to the Ephesians, and Jesus speaking of himself as the Bread of Life in the Gospel of John. But despite having all this grand and heavy material at our disposal we are going to zero in on something very specific from Ephesians: speaking the truth to each other in love. We will go back and link some of the bigger ideas to this one concept, but our main focus will be on this one difficult task. It is a great sentiment, speaking the truth in love, but how to actually do so is quite the undertaking.

I often like to tackle a problem from opposite ends of a situation. Come at something from the polar opposite ends and maybe you will come up with a better solution. Let's take criticism for example. Does anyone really like to be told they are doing something the wrong way or are in fact doing something that is wrong? Not really, I suppose. We all kind of have this innate knee jerk reaction of "Please don't point out my faults." Relishing criticism hardly ever comes naturally.

But in order to get at this problem (i.e., receiving criticism) let's take something cliche, like having spinach stuck in your teeth. You like being told you have spinach stuck in your teeth, right? It is a courtesy that saves you future embarrassment and it shows you you have friends looking out for you. It is usually a pretty simple correction. The spinach is pointed out, you remove it and laugh somewhat sheepishly, but then everybody quickly moves on. "Spinach in your teeth" is the kind of thing everybody knows will happen at some point and therefore we do not make a big deal out of it. What if criticism were always and only like this, that is, if you knew the person giving you advice or correcting you always had your best interests at heart, that they sincerely wanted to help you and protect and make you better. Surely if this was all that criticism ever was we would never not want criticism.

But this is not all criticism is. Often it feels like we are being torn down by someone. Judged. Condemned. Made to feel small. Made to feel a whipping horse in someone else's attempt to boost their own ego. On the other hand, even if someone had a good approach in their corrective words no one likes to feel foolish, embarrassed, that they are not good at something, or that they have committed wrong. We do not like to look our weaknesses and failures in the face. So it would seem in some ways we want to receive correction and in other ways we never would want to receive correction. And the real trouble is we carry our histories and learned family systems and personality traits with us every time somebody criticizes us, which combine to become a lens through which we filter the criticism. Some of us have cloudier and more cracked lenses than others. Some of us internalize the criticism until it eats away at us and we retreat from our relationships. Others of us lash out verbally and hurt because we have first been hurt. All this is to say, more often than not, the process of our receiving and then reacting to criticism is quite dysfunctional. This is certainly the case for me. With transparency I can say I have some unhealthy learned behaviors when it comes to criticism. I take on a lot of hurt and offense and I get pretty critical back, if not to someone's face than certainly behind their backs.

When it comes to giving out criticism (that is, "speaking the truth"), we see a variety of dysfunctions in our culture at large, which has somehow managed to create a bifurcated understanding of criticism where some of us feel the freedom to say almost anything to people in some forums (say online), no matter how nasty it is, even to the point of bullying others, but often in real life we become passive and unable to hold others accountable, out of some strange reverence to the buzzword concept of "tolerance". "However you want to live your life is fine," we say, not wanting to start a conflict or make anyone feel guilty. I will tell you what I naturally have a tendency to do, which is downright shameful. I am thinking some of you will relate. I tend to not speak the truth to someone in person for fear of rejection or making them made, walking away silently, but then I will go away and judge them privately, perhaps even to the point of gossiping about them to somebody I am close to. With this kind of response I neither speak the truth nor do I love them. I fail on all accounts.

Where does your failure lie? Are you like me, resorting to evasive, passive-aggressive criticism? Or perhaps you are really good at confronting others, right there in the moment, but your words lack grace. Or maybe you never criticize anybody, and end up recklessly passive in your acceptance of others. None of these reactions are actual solutions.  

What then do we do when someone actually has wronged us or somebody has effected an entire community with their actions? Is there a way out of this tension? Is there a healthy way to deal with conflict, both on the giving and the receiving end?

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians thinks so.

He gives the Ephesian people a project. In turn it has become our project as well. It is a difficult one, but an old one, a project we have known about for quite some time. It has received much ridicule and many have abandoned the project altogether, thinking the project is not worthy of completing, or, seeing all the harm attempts at making the project a success have caused, they have decided to step away from it altogether.

The project is to become the Body of Christ, to grow up into Christ, to build each other up in love and to live out together the one faith and one hope to which we have been called, into one baptism as we worship the one Lord, and to speak the truth to each other in love. This is how we deal with the problem of criticism: we deal with it together as a communal project, speaking the truth in love to each other.

As a book/letter Ephesians is about a great coming together, and the centers of that coming together are Christ and the Church, who is Christ’s body. Each section of the letter focuses on a way God is brining about unity. In chapter 1 Paul sees heaven and earth coming together (Eph. 1:10), in chapters 2 and 3 he sees Jew and Gentile coming together, in chapter 4 he sees a diversely gifted church coming together to form Christ's body, and in chapter 5 he sees man and woman united in marriage becoming one in Christ.

In one of the opening prayers of our liturgy we say "We come from scattered lives to meet with God," which certainly applies to our modern day-to-day lives. We come from work and family and a slew of different stressors. We are a scattered people but God has gathered us together for his purposes. The book of Ephesians is about an even greater scattering, a truly impactful divide between groups of people, a divide that God, through Jesus Christ, eradicated, the divide between the Hebrew, God's chosen people, and the Gentile, which is everyone else. In Ephesians Paul said God has torn down the wall between these peoples. It was a wall of separation, a wall you should not cross, much as we associated the former Berlin Wall between East and West Germany as a wall where horrible consequences occurred if it were ever crossed. Jews and Gentiles were not to mix before Christ, or when they did there was either lots of conflict or Gentiles were made to walk a difficult road in order to become a Jew.

Paul sets up this conflict in the first half of Ephesians, but now, in chapter 4, the second half of his letter, Paul describes the revolution that has taken place: in Christ we are all one. The world itself has changed. All these lines of separation we have created for ourselves have dissolved. But they dissolve under one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and if we know him we are filled with his Holy Spirit and together we move by the Spirit of God to bring about his kingdom on this earth and in our time and place until he comes again. 

This great coming together, this uniting over, in, and through Christ is how we grow, how we mature and Christ himself is the measure by which we assess our progress. We grow up into him. We are filling out his body as we grow together in unity.

Learning to "speak the truth in love" is growing up. This means there are two ways to act immaturely when it comes to others: 1.) either we speak the truth out of fear or anger or hate or a desire to control others, which never ends well, or 2.) we fail to speak the truth to someone out of a fear that we will not be loving them. We avoid the conflict of addressing truth out of a fear that we are judging/condemning them. This also never ends well. Paul here, just as Jesus did, is calling us to something much more difficult. It easy to simply "speak the truth" to someone, to tell them like it is, and "if they don't like it that's their problem, not mine." It is also easy to simply "love everyone," to accept everyone at all costs, to let them "be themselves", no matter the implications. Ah, but there is a higher much steeper road before us: to love each other by speaking truth to each other, to speak truth but to always be mindful that we are to love.

This in and of itself is hard enough, but then Paul takes it even a step further, and I hope this next step will be an encouragement: we are not merely to speak the truth in love for our own sakes, we do it because we are to "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ." We are a body joined together through Christ and the work of the Spirit. We must speak the truth in love because we are a unit, we are together; Christ is drawing us together. Paul says that when this happens the "body" works properly, and isn't this what we all want? We want the Church to work properly. We want our mission and worship and life together to "work", to be a good thing, to be an agent of God in our world. This is why we must speak the truth in love, because if we never address the wrongs between us we are not working properly and if we only address the wrongs from a judgmental perspective we also are not working properly. Instead we walk the incredibly difficult line of speaking truth in love. Again, to use an earlier word, we are always tempted to bifurcate this process. “The truth is the truth,” we say “and that’s that.” Or, “We’re just called to love, and that’s that.” But truth and love are companions, they accompany each other, forever correcting each other when one is tempted to walk ahead. Both are needed in order to see the project fulfilled, which is that we “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Personally, I love walking into the tension of these types of things. It is tough, but the result is alway something better. We do this kind of synthesizing all the time, bringing together parts of our lives that seem at odds with each other, that seem like they don't go together, but when merged create something new and wonderful, at once more difficult but also more glorious, enjoyable, and fruitful. I can take marriage as a personal example. In the midst of getting married to my wife there was this incredible tension I was struggling with. On one hand I was struggling with loneliness and the potential of living alone for the rest of my life. I wanted emotional and physical intimacy and I wanted to start a life with someone. On the other hand, I was afraid of giving up my independence of merging my life with someone else. I was having to let one part of me die in order that an entirely new part of me might come to life. Also, I was truly scared of what the new life might look like. Marriage has been one of the most difficult and glorious parts of my life. The same can be said of parenthood, which I think is even more difficult and at times even more glorious. I can barely describe the tension of simultaneously dreading and loving my marriage and my fatherhood. In the end though it is all more than worth it. From where I stand now I cannot imagine my life without my kids and without my wife. I have been changed irrevocably.

And so it is with our life together in the Church as the Body of Christ. To strive together as those following and those changed by Jesus is to undertake a long difficult project filled with many liabilities, all of which leave us questioning "Is this actually worth it?!" Paul's repeated contention is "Yes! You have been brought together for a purpose far greater than your light and momentary struggles. God is doing something through you, but you have to stay together to do it." Christianity is not just a call to believe a certain way or a certain thing. That is why we don't just walk away from the Church. It is not merely that you believe in Jesus or the Bible. Instead, we are a called people and have become a people. We are in Christ. The Church is Christ's and together we are his body, which means to walk away from it is to walk away from Christ. We are something and we do something as we believe something. To be the Church is the mixture of all those things.

But let's back up a bit in this passage from Ephesians. We don't merely speak the truth in love from some neutral position, instead, we all speak out of our various giftings. We each offer a unique and gifted perspective, and therefore we are each able to see something others would not. I offer a corrective that you are blind to and you offer a corrective to me that I am blind to. Together, through the Holy Spirit we meet in the middle, a harmoniously whole. But in order to make that harmony we have to strive together, and that's tough work. Nonetheless, if we approach our life together from the assumption that everyone around you is going to be different in some way and everyone around you has a strength where you have a lack you can expect to be both encouraged and challenged. You can be utterly thankful that someone will take up the slack where you have no giftings. You can also be in a continual state of expectation that someone will challenge assumed principles or your personal tendencies. Expect them to challenge you and you to challenge them. If we are in the Spirit together, then the conflicts get worked out. But we have to remain committed to the Togetherness of it. That is the only way it will work.

A brief side note: Paul implies that everyone has their own gift and that they are to use it for the good of the Church, for the body. If you have never taken the time to consider what your gifts are but would like to let Greg or I know and we can point you to some resources. What you will find is your gifting is something that keeps happening to you, something you cannot help but use, a certain situation you always find yourself in naturally. Learn to listen to that gift and allow it to be used by God in the context of our community. This is God at work among us. You are that work (Eph 2:10).

So what kind of truth might we need to speak to each other? Well, as mentioned above, we all have blind spots, areas of our life we didn't even know were an issue. To be in the Body of Christ is to be in a place where we can speak about those things to each other. We do so in humility, patience, and much love.

Sometimes these blind spots are not mere weaknesses but actual sins. We actually speak the truth about sin as well. And here a note on sin is needed. Sin is not merely a set of bad things we should not do. We are often told that to become Christian means to do stop doing a bunch of bad stuff, and people will often say "look at how that religion of yours is stifling you, it's stopping you from being who you actually are. It's this oppressive system forcing you down and holding you back." This is certainly a common expression of what "religion" does to people, especially regarding those things we call "sin." But we have to start looking at sin differently. We have to start seeing sin as those things which hold us back from being who we actually are. Sin, that which dishonors both God and humanity, is what stop human flourishing. In Christ God calls us to come alive in new ways, which means we literally abandon sinning. We walk away from it, transformed. 

In Ephesians 5:14 it says
Awake, O sleeper,
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.

In Christ we are awakened to a new reality, a reality where we are called out of the darkness. This is what it means to stop sinning. It is not just a list of things to NOT do, it is an entire universe to which we have now awakened.

And what are all these sins that hold us back from the flourishing life God offers? At the moment I am not really going to mention any. I will let us deal with those issues as a community as we strive together to grow up in to Christ and be faithful to Scripture. But I will mention two instances of sin and necessary correction, one from another of todays passages and the other personal.

Our Old Testament passage today is a tough one. It is the aftermath of King David's affair, and now marriage to Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite's wife, whom David had killed so he would not find out about the infidelity. God found out, since God already knew, and God told his prophet Nathan. Nathan was called by God to address David's sin—no easy task confronting a king with his wrongdoing. So here is the question: did Nathan speak the truth in love? That is a tough one actually, because Nathan speaks in harsher tones than we are used to nowadays. Also, Nathan speaks in the voice of God on behalf of God, so hopefully there is no sin in his speech. Here is what I see in Nathan's words: he gives a thorough rebuke of David. There is no tiptoeing around his sin. At the same time the primary motivation of his word is to restore David back to God. There will certainly be some atrocious, life-altering consequences for his actions (i.e., the sword will never depart from his house, other men will sleep with his wives in the sight of all the people, and the baby he conceived with Bathsheba will die), but more than anything David is being called to own up to and turn from his sin and come back to God. This is where we get Psalm 51, our Psalm of repentance, a Psalm that thoroughly admits to our own wickedness and cries out for God to save us and make us clean in his sight:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment...
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

Some bad stuff went down in David's community and David was to blame for it. As a result God had to raise someone up to speak truth in love to David and call the community back to God's good intent. They had strayed because their leader strayed. There were consequences but ultimately David returned to the Lord.

To move on to something more personal, recently my wife and I have had some truth spoken to us in love regarding our children. They can often be a distraction during church and at times people in our community have brought it up to our pastor. In turn our pastor has addressed it with us. This has happened 3-4 times if not more over the past few years. It is a frustrating, deeply personal, and hurtful thing for both my wife and I. As parents we are caught in between serving the needs of our kids and serving the needs of our church family. Every time our pastor has talked with us he has approached the issue delicately. He too is caught in between, this time between understanding where we are at as a family and then protecting the worship environment of his church. In other words "speaking the truth in love" will always be an incredibly complex and drawn out process. In the times where our parenting and our kids have been an issue there have been misunderstandings and hurt feelings on both sides, which resulted in striving to clarify what has been said, make apologies, and make a plan of what to do in the future. It is intense and emotionally draining. In the midst of this both sides are in the ongoing process of saying "Do I keep striving to make this right or do I walk away from this altogether? How much of this is worth it?"

Here is what I have to say personally: I have been through some trying times regarding our kids over the past few years. I have dreaded these talks from our pastor and all the other talks that result from them. Even so, I can honestly say each time I have gained wisdom and patience in the process and each time it has caused us to evaluate our parenting. At the same time is has also caused us to put together some strategies for how the entire community can help parents with their kids, which is why we specifically talked about kids recently and how we as a community should treat them and involve them in worship.

Living in community is a mutual exchange: As we live together in Christ I change you as you change me. I could tell through it all our pastor was striving to address what he needed to address but in a loving manner. It was my responsibility to receive what he had to say with openness to change and a willingness to receive correction. 

This would be my charge to all of us today, most especially myself. Let us be the Church and let us do the things the Church does, proclaiming who Christ is and what he has done in our world through both our words and our actions. Let us be the kind of people who actually addresses wrongs and weaknesses in our midst and does not avoid them, but let us be the kind of people who always addresses it in selfless love. This is a rare gift to give. It does not happen in many places. It takes a lot of time and energy and lasting commitment to do so. We have to stay together and strive together to see it happen.

Yeah, that's right, I live right at the corners of 
Truth and Love Avenues baby. Forever and Always.
One final note on how who we are connects to what do every week in our worship. After the sermon we declare the Creed, which means "belief", to God, to each other, and to the world, if they're listening. In saying the Creed we are not merely spewing out a laundry list of beliefs, though it might seem like that and it could certainly become that. Instead, we are proclaiming who we are because of what has happened. God has done these things and now we are this new Something as a result. In saying the Creed we are defining ourselves by aligning ourselves with the work of God in the world.

Inevitably the Creed leads to Communion. Our shared beliefs and identity, lead to a uniting around the table. We share our common meal together. Christ gives his body to us and we partake of that body, thus becoming the body ourselves. We are the body and the body is broken to give life to the world. The body unites us and the body is given so that all may have life. This is the call of Christ. This is the new life we have been gathered to. It is because we are in him and he in us that we can speak truth in love to each other. Let us be that kind of people we pray.

A lot of my material for this sermon came from this address given by N.T. Wright.

Other Sermons and Addresses:
We Have a Problem With Authority—A Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Reflections on the Death of Moses
Plunge into the Glorious Mystery—A sermon for Trinity Sunday
The Two Greatest Cliches Ever Spoken—Graduation Commencement Address

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