These were some of the same concerns Paul had when he, from prison, wrote his letter to the Ephesians. His letter addressed a collection of ethical advice and instructions on how those who followed Jesus; who proclaimed to be a believer (the term Christian wasn’t around yet), should work together, utilize their gifts as individuals and as a whole, talk to one another, and stay connected through the Spirit of God to show unity in the body of Christ. His words challenge us to consider how we, the followers of Jesus at Grace UMC, speak the truth in love to ourselves and to others.
Paul wrote this letter to Jews and non-Jews, two groups that were divided by so many factors it would have taken an act of God to unite them. The two groups had very different cultural backgrounds, religious histories, and faith expectations or approaches to the teachings of Jesus. Can you think of any groups today we could say the same thing about? One would think something like oh, maybe the death, burial, and resurrection of God’s son Jesus would bring people together!
In the first three chapters of this letter, Paul teaches about the great measures God took in order to make these two groups into one new humanity in Jesus. Then in the last three chapters, Paul shows them how Jesus’ unifying work should impact every relationship and aspect of their lives. When you follow Jesus, you don’t get to pick and choose when, how, or with whom to be “Christian” with or to. You don’t get to pick and choose who gets the truth and who doesn’t.
Telling the truth is straightforward and simple. It is the way we tell the truth that gets us in trouble. That is why Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus and reminds them they are the examples of God’s Kingdom on earth. They are to live as the Easter people they are so that when others see and hear them, they will see and hear a new way of being and doing community; a better way of living alongside one another, understanding who our neighbors are, and a better way of living for the greater purpose of Jesus.
Paul wasn’t naive. He had been around the block a time or two and he knew how people were and could be. He had seen the best and the worst in people. He didn’t expect the church to agree on everything, or that everyone would hold hands and sing peace, love, and happiness. He knew people were people; with emotions, tempers, individual ideas, life experiences, and varying expectations. He knew the believers he wrote this to were coming from very different perspectives and experiences. BUT he also knew it was critical they understand the unifying power of Jesus.
It was crucial that they understood they could not attain such unity on their own. It was not within their human ability any more than it is within ours. We cannot love like Jesus loves when left to our own devices. We are all too human. It takes a willingness and a reliance on the presence of Jesus with us to exist from such a place of love. Paul knew it and was reiterating it to the church.
He was not telling them never to be angry. Never argue or challenge one another. Never be emotional. He was not telling them to never speak their mind or their convictions. He was not saying always compromise and give in. What he was telling them was that when disagreements, challenges, conflicting ideas, miscommunication, or anger shows up, (because it will), then talk, share, listen to understand not to debate, and work through it from a place of love, not comparison, competition, or useless criticism. Speak the truth in love.
Speak truth without belittling or beating up the people who disagree, disengage, or dispute what is being said or decided. Speak truth without punishing, persecuting, or pushing aside the people who challenge, dissect, or seek to understand the why of it all. Speak truth knowing that not everyone is going to get it, hear it, or want it AND that is o.k. Because it is God through God’s Holy Spirit that works in people’s hearts and lives, not you or me.
To speak the truth in love, takes work and intentionality. It takes a willingness to get out of our own way and seek the way of God - the way of Jesus. It takes courage to say what others might not like, or hear what might challenge our own understanding. It takes humility to say it in a way that is not arrogant or prideful. It takes conviction of Spirit with the understanding you might be wrong. It takes compassion to speak words of kindness even when sharing hard truths. It takes letting go of ego - of self and holding on to God - holding on to the example of Jesus.
Paul’s words are a summons to righteous behavior - a challenge and calling to do better with our words; to be better with what we say and how we say it. It is a call to see both the humanity of a person and the face of Jesus at the same time - to see the humanity and the divinity of a person because they are created in the image of God, just as you were. This text is a call to the church - the body of believers to be one in Christ; to always start there.
That doesn’t mean we all act, look, think, and sound the same. It doesn’t mean that we agree on everything, approach things the same, or understand things equally. It means at the core of who we are as followers of Jesus, that we seek the same truth - to live as Jesus taught us. It means at the core of who we are as followers of Jesus, we are on this long walk in the same direction together. It means at the core of who we are as followers of Jesus, we still have work to do.
That work, people of God, must again and again return to this table of communion, and flow from the love with which we are welcomed, the mercy with which we are forgiven, and the grace we are freely given. It is at this table we remember and are equipped to follow Jesus. May this table help us keep a clear perspective of truth, a willingness to be the body of Christ in the world, and the courage to speak the truth in love.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine