"Truth with Love, An Impossible Pair?" Ephesians 4:14-16 by Pastor Sean Baker - July 2, 2023
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ in Telkwa…as some of you know, it had been my plan and the plan of the church’s leadership that I would be with you this morning, in the flesh. We regret that as of this recording, we still have not resolved the passport issues that would allow me and my family to be with you. And so I find myself feeling very much like the apostle Paul who frequently writes about how much he wants to be with a church, to visit a church, but being prevented from doing so, and so when Paul could not be with a church, he would write a letter. And for our sake, I’m so glad that he did. He would write a letter and he would hope and pray that somehow through that letter, the good news of Jesus Christ would break through. And so here I am recording my letter to you…in the hopes that the God who unites us to himself will also unite us to one another even across national boundaries this morning.
Our scripture this morning and throughout this month actually comes from one of those letters, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians was likely written by Paul in prison. This was a church he knew and loved, but he had some things he needed to say to them. And since he couldn’t do it in person, he sent a letter instead.
As you may know, the letter has a nice balance in its structure: The first half, chapters 1-3 lay out the good news of what God did to save us in Christ and create a new community of both Jews and non-Jews. The next three chapters talk about how that good news should practically affect the way we live our lives. Starting in chapter 4, Paul contrasts an old way of life with a new way of life, a new way of life made possible by the good news he’s sharing. Old way is anger, the new way is peace; old way stealing, new way generosity; the old way revenge, new way forgiveness, you get the idea. We pick it up where Paul is doing one of these back and forth contrasts in vs 14:
14 Then we will no longer be infants (old way), tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
One of my favorite books is a little novel by Wendell Berry called Jayber Crow. The novel is about a man named Jayber. He’s a simple guy. Lives in a small town in Kentucky, in the American South. I think Jayber is what you’d call, “old-school”: he’s suspicious of new things. He’s the kind of guy who winces at words like “efficient” and would roll his eyes if you talked about “pushing the envelope” or “making a splash.” But he is also a very gentle, quiet soul. He’s the town barber. Which means every day, the menfolk in the town stop by his shop: they read his paper, drink his coffee, talk about the news and the weather, and sometimes, they even get haircuts.
In the book, Jayber has a rival, Troy. Jayber’s too nice for Troy to know that there’s a problem between them. But secretly, Jayber can’t stand Troy. Troy is everything Jayber dislikes: he’s flashy, always wants attention, always trying to “push the envelope” by making his farm bigger and more “efficient.” In the process, he ruins the land he farms. But even worse for Jayber, Troy cheats on his wife, Maddie, a woman Jayber secretly adores.
Well, one day, Troy is in Jayber’s barber shop and the conversation of the men in the room turns to the Vietnam War, which is just winding down at this time. And Troy, “wanting to make a splash,” tells everyone in the room that they ought to put all those dirty war protesters and all the communists in a room together and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.
Jayber, who’s describing the scene says, ‘nobody quite knew what to say at that point.’ And it was quiet for a while.
Until finally Jayber spoke. He almost never said anything in his shop. Certainly nothing controversial. But he stopped cutting hair. Looked at Troy and said, “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you.”
And Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at Jayber. He asked, “Where’d you ever get that garbage?”
And Jayber replied, “Jesus Christ.”
It’s a sweet moment in the book. You can just imagine Troy’s smirk melting off his face. We’ve been waiting for Jayber to put Troy in his place for most of the book now.
But Jayber, reflecting on the scene, saw something different. After he quotes Jesus’ line from Luke 6, Jayber tells the reader, “It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity. Except that I did not love Troy.”
Speaking the truth. Paul tells the Ephesians, “Speaking the truth in love.”
For Christians, the rules for speaking truth are a little different. It doesn’t just matter if you’re right. It doesn’t just matter if they needed to hear it. You can have the best line, you can deliver the most necessary truth, you can quote Jesus Christ himself: but if you do not love the person you're speaking with, it does not count.
Or as Paul says it in another letter, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
It’s a beautiful idea, isn’t it? Speaking the truth in love. But it’s hard. Love and truth often seem to be in such tension with one another. And so we often obscure the truth. We soften it.
I think it was one of my university professors who wondered about how to give a letter of reference for a colleague when you don’t think they’re very good at their job.
He suggested lines like” “I can’t say too many good things about him.
You will be fortunate if you can get him to work for you.
He does work of a quality that can scarcely be imagined.
He wants to help students in the worst way.
These are kind of cute examples but…they point to something real. It’s hard to speak truly with love.
Especially when we’re feeling kind of anxious. When the stakes seem high, that’s when it’s easiest to compromise.
I see it in my work all the time. I work for the Christian Reformed denomination. And a lot of my work is coming alongside churches that are either in conflict or who are trying to make decisions on contentious issues which could turn into conflict. It’s fair to say that business is booming. It’s booming because this is so hard to do.
So I’ll often sit with a council that has just completely lost its nerve. So concerned about offending anyone or dividing the group that they’ve lost the courage of their convictions. They barely even consult the Bible anymore. They test the wind of popular opinion, they hedge every bet. They have the backbone of a bowl of oatmeal.
And the next day, I’ll sit with a council that has all the tenderness of a cinder block. A council so sure of its rightness that it treats those who disagree with contempt. And when their coldness is pointed out to them, they say, “Well, it’s a justice issue.” Or they’ll say “We’re just standing on God’s word,” as though nothing was more obvious than that we must sacrifice kindness to each other in the name of justice and God’s Word.
“Speaking the truth in love.” I’ve been thinking this week about which is harder.
I suppose each person is different. We’ve got truth-leaning people and love-leaning people, but on the whole, for most of us, I’d guess that truth is harder. I think that’s because, certainly in the short term, speaking the truth often risks causing real tension in a relationship.
But in our passage today, truth is no less essential than love.
Just look at the contrast from verse 14 to 15: it hinges on truth. Paul says that “We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by...” what: what’s blowing us here and there? Is it narrow-minded moralists? No. “We are blown here and there by lies, by half-truths, by untruths, by every wind of teaching,” he says, “and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” It’s a warning: we live in a world that traffics in lies and half truths.
What blows us back and forth is not unloving truths, it’s untruths. And Paul’s answer to these liars is that we should speak the truth and we should speak it in love.
When I meet with a council and we’re trying to get to the bottom of some challenging situation, in my first conversation with them, I’ll often quote Ephesians 4. And I’ll say, “I need you to speak the truth in love. Because without the truth, we won’t make it very far. (In Paul’s words, without the truth we’ll be blown off course, we lose our way). Without the truth, we won’t make it very far. But without love, we won’t make it far together. Truth and love mean we can go farther together.
Of course, some of the sharpest philosophers of the past 150 years have helped us see the ugly side of truth claims. Philosophers like Foucault and Nietzche argued that what society considers true is often based not on the merits or on the evidence, but it’s often decided by whoever happens to be in power.
So for instance, there have been these fights recently in parts of the United States about how the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement should be talked about in school textbooks. Did these textbooks change because some new evidence came to light? Did we recently learn that slavery wasn’t so bad, or that black segregation was actually a nice way to organize society? No, it just became clear to those in power that a certain kind of pride or patriotism is more useful than shame. And so the truth has changed to suit those in power.
You don’t have to have ever read Nietzche to be sympathetic to these ideas. This is in the air we brave. We get anxious about truth claims. We worry it’s an excuse for a power play.
And Foucault and Nietzche were not alone in pointing out the dangers of truth and power.
Another famous teacher once called out the truth-telling moralists of his day by saying, “Woe to you, because you love the seats of honor and being greeted in the marketplace. You love the power. But woe to you because you load people down with burdens they can hardly bear, but do not lift a finger to help them.” (Luke 11)
Maybe you hear that and you think: Man, where’d you ever get that garbage?
Jesus Christ said that to people who were certain of God’s truth. You load people down with burdens they can hardly bear, but do not lift a finger to help them.
Jesus Christ said that. “Jesus Christ, who,” John 1 says, “came from the Father full of ….” Do you remember? “Grace and Truth.”
In John 8, a woman is accused of adultery. It’s worth mentioning there’s no man with her, so she must have committed adultery on her own? Anyway, a group of religious leaders has gathered around to stone the woman. According to religious law, they understand the need for justice. If you turn a blind eye to adultery, what’s next? They are legally in the right.
But Jesus shows up, surveys the situation and suggests that why don’t we begin the stoning by having those of us who haven’t sinned throw the first stones.
You probably know the story: One by one, the leaders dropped their stones and left until it was just Jesus and the woman. And he asked her, “Where did everyone go? Has no one condemned you?” And she said, “No, no one.”
And so Jesus said, “then neither do I condemn you, go now but then he adds: but leave your life of sin.”
I wonder if Paul had that story in mind when he wrote to the Ephesians. This whole chapter, chapter 4 is a picture of Christians growing into maturity. Remember Paul keeps going back between the old way and the new way, how they used to be and how they should be.
And it’s clear that Paul is enormously concerned that they hold to the truth and reject what is false. The stakes are high.
In vs 14, he warns about people who scheme and teach deceitfully. In vs. 17, he warns of having futile thinking. In vs 18, he cautions about us having dim understanding and ignorance.
For Paul, maturity in Christ involves knowing the truth. We must know the truth, love the truth. He says elsewhere, “Rejoice in the truth.” And yet smack in the middle of this section full of concern about truth, Paul inserts this most memorable phrase: “Speaking the truth in love.”
This is the mark of maturity.
It’s really the line that pulls the whole chapter together. A chapter full of references to the truth and the importance of truth, is also a chapter that begins “Be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love.” And it ends “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Paul imagines that for mature Christians, of course truth will be spoken, but the ones speaking it will ooze humility and gentleness, compassion and forgiveness. They will be people of great love.
That’s Christian maturity. To be more like Christ. Christ who never compromises. He knows when mercy is called for. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But he is no sentimental pushover either. He says without wavering, “Go and leave your life of sin.”
“Speaking the truth in love.”
Jesus is, of course, our model for this. But actually holding love and truth together is not just something he modeled for us. Holding love and truth together is also the means he used to save us.
Because here’s the truth for you and me:
The truth is that we are dead in our sins.
The truth is that we cannot save ourselves.
The truth is that we deserve even death for our sins.
The truth is, we’ve made a mess and justice needs to be served.
Jesus knows the truth. And he never compromises the truth.
He knew that with a mess like that, a price needed to be paid. He knew a punishment needed to be served. And he knew we couldn’t do it ourselves. Dear Friends at Telkwa Church, Jesus knew this was a burden greater than we could bear.
And so he found a way to hold love and truth together. He found a way to pay the price himself. He decided that the punishment that brings us peace would be upon him. He did a lot more than just lift a finger to carry our load. To bring together his love for us and the truth of our condition, he decided that by his wounds we would be healed. He took our burden. He paid the price. That’s our model. And that’s our salvation.
To save us, Jesus didn’t just pick and choose between truth and love. He didn’t lose his nerve. He didn’t hedge his bets. Instead, he took all the tension and held it in himself. He paid the price for holding that tension: it was the only way.
Thank you for holding the demands of love and truth together for our sake. Forgive us when we compromise love or truth. May we grow everyday more in your likeness: to be people of great and sacrificial love who are also not blown off course from your great plans for us and this world. Amen.