Sunday, November 20,
Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 1
The first half of the book of Ephesians helps us to understand Jesus as the manifestation of a Christ who fills space and time and who is transforming creation – including humanity, you and me – from generation to generation.
Christ is cosmic. Christ is everlasting. Christ has saved us. Christ is saving us. In Christ we have been reconciled to God and one another. In Christ we are being reconciled. Jesus Christ is a person who came and lived among us. Jesus Christ is a reality that fills time and space, including revolutionary moments and long stretches of gradual evolutionary change (three steps forward, two steps back). The God whose heart has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ is at work in us, wooing and winning us.
The second half of Ephesians is practical advice to the churches reading the book of Ephesians. Given what we understand about Christ in the first half of Ephesians, how shall we then live?
We need to understand that the second half of Ephesians was written for a moment in time, so it has to be read very carefully. For example, when the book of Ephesians says, as it does, “Slaves, be obedient to your master,” this teaching cannot be read as a timeless law. After saying this, Ephesians adds: “Masters, stop threatening your slaves for you have the same master in heaven who shows no partiality.” The seed of the abolition of slavery is contained in this idea that slave-owner and slave have the same master in heaven who shows no partiality. Ephesians, at the time it was written, was not yet able to grasp the divine vision of the eradication of slavery, but it was able to see the contradiction of slavery, and to move us in the direction of the Spirit’s leading.
We need to read the Bible within its context to see where the movement of the Holy Spirit is pointing us, rather than to read the Bible as though history were static. The limited vision of the biblical writers to understand the implications of divine revelation should remind us of our limitations to fully understand the movement of God in time. It should not be used to limit God’s spirit, which is always larger than our ability to grasp it.
So, the second half of Ephesians deals with how we live together in the light of what Christ has done and is doing in our world.
It addresses the questions: How do we live together in church? How do we live together in family and in our most intimate relationships? How do we live together in our economic relationships? And, in the passage we have listened to this morning: How do we live together as neighbors?
How do we live together as neighbors? How do we live together in our communities? How do we live together in civil society?
Ephesians is very interesting and provocative on this. The first thing Ephesians talks about in discussing our relationship with our neighbors is the importance of truth. Ephesians 4: 25 says: “So then putting away falsehood, let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
According to Ephesians, truth is the most basic ingredient of a healthy civil society. We need to tell the truth to each other.
The biblical scholar Francis Foulkes pushes ever further on this. He points out that the literal translation of the Greek doesn’t say, the way our translation does, “Let us speak the truth to our neighbors.” The Greek says “Let us speak the truth with our neighbors.”
The difference is significant. What Ephesians is talking about is not just my responsibility as an individual to speak the truth to others, but the responsibility of the neighborhood – the civil society, the community, the nation – to be a truthful community where people speak the truth with one another…where truth is the norm and the value.
Truthlessness undermines community. It destroys healthy relationships between neighbors. It undermines civil society.
And the reason a culture of truth-telling is important in the civil society, Ephesians says, is because we are all members of one another.
This statement in the New Testament is remarkable. It is nothing less than the first glimpse of an understanding of democratic society which did not exist anywhere in the New Testament world.
Ephesians, remember, is not talking about the church community here, but relationships between neighbors – the civil community. We would not have been surprised to hear the apostle Paul say this to church members – that we should be truthful to one another in our churches because we are all members of one body. This was a basic Pauline teaching. But now the post-Pauline book of Ephesians is applying this same image and principle to the larger diverse society. Ephesians is saying this about the relationship between neighbors: that we need to speak the truth to one another because all of us as neighbors are members of one another.
The welfare of neighbors is intertwined. There is no us-them within any neighborhood, within any civil society, within any nation of people, within (really) the world. There is no us-them.
The great danger in a neighborhood or in a civil society or in a world is that we will live by myths rather than by truth. And the only way to know the truth is to be in relationship with one another and to tell each other the truth.
This is why it is a shame the Greek is not translated literally in most translations. Literal translation: “Wherefore, putting off the lie … speak you truth each one with the neighbor of him or her, because we are of one another members.”
Wherefore, putting off the myths, distortions, and stereotypes, let us talk with one another and listen to one another so that we will be able to discern the truth because we belong, as neighbors, to one another.
Knowing and telling the truth is possible only through relationship. Lies breed and grow in the cocoons we use to separate ourselves from one another.
experienced this in two ways recently. Not long ago I was talking to
So Jana organized a meeting for the pastors of nearby churches, all of who have people sleeping on our church steps. We met with people who do outreach with the homeless in our community. They brought us the statistics for shelter use as of the last date available, which was last Monday night.
Monday night every shelter bed in the city of
Then the outreach workers invited us to visit some of our city’s shelters. They suggested that if we saw what some of our shelters were like, we might realize why people would choose to sleep on cold church steps rather than in some of the shelters.
I had been living by a myth – a lie – that there were plenty of available shelter beds in our city and that our shelters are good places to spend the night. Because I have not been in communication with the homeless people of our neighborhood, because I had not exposed myself to the truth, I was living by a myth and a lie.
Another example: someone whose analysis I particularly respect told me this week that he thinks the most important thing that has happened to our society since the year 2000 was Hurricane Katrina and the press coverage of it. There were whole populations of people in our country that the news media did not know existed until Katrina. We had no relation with these neighbors and so we did not hear the truth.
But, he told me, there was a news reporter for one of the news networks who watched someone drown during Katrina while she was on the air. She became hysterical. The anchor backing the network studio became hysterical. Someone was drowning before their very eyes and no one seemed to care.
Because we do not hear the truth, we live by myths and distortions and lies. Everyone is adequately cared for in our society, right? Only the addicted and dysfunctional are really desperately poor, right? Why not cut taxes? Why not cut social services?
I am worried about the way our society today is divided in such a way that we talk less and less to people who are different from us.
Ephesians says two more things that are important here:
We need to find the people whose paths never cross ours in our city, our silent neighbors, and listen to the truth.
I asked the outreach workers we met with this week how we could keep people from freezing to death on our church steps this winter. It happened at a neighboring church last winter. A man froze to death.
The outreach worker said: “You can only help people you know. Only those you have a real relationship with will let you get them into a warm place on freezing nights.” We can only help those whose truth we have been willing to hear.
And I want to add this: Many of us are going home this coming Thanksgiving weekend. Not all of us are looking forward to it. Some of us are going home to relatives and old neighbors who do not understand us. We need to listen to them, too. We need to listen with tender hearts. I know it is hard.
I had a
unique experience this past week. I was on a panel – a Pentecostal pastor and
me – to speak to a combined meeting of two campus clubs at a college outside
One student read a passage from the Bible about false teachers and asked if I thought I might be one. I was tempted to become defensive. Instead, I admitted that I was sure that there are many things about God’s truth I do not understand or know. But I asked, as gently and as caringly as I could, what if you are wrong, and you are keeping people from Christ because of your belief, he could not love them just the way they are.
So I encourage us, with as tender hearts as we can, to share our truth, even with those who think their truth is different.