Ephesians 4:15 – 5:2
August 9, 2009 - Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
The cloudy mist drizzled down, the flames flickered and sizzled around wet wood, and we sat on logs and talked with each other. That was the scene Thursday evening as our church backpack trip got off to a soggy start. We are all a little cold and a little wet, but the conversation around our campfire was warm.
We talked about what we were thankful for, and our hopes for this fall, and heard those who are going to be seniors share their plans for college. We kidded each other and told some stories and laughed as we shook Jiffy Pop popcorn over the fire. As the evening broke up and we headed for beds hoped would be dry and warm, I had the sense that everyone had been listened to and welcomed and encouraged. It was good conversation.
In our text today, Paul wrote to the Ephesians urging them to engage in good conversation with each other. As verse 29 says, he wanted them to talk together in ways that help and build up each other. You and I are encouraged toward that same kind of good conversation.
Good conversation begins where we started in verse 25, with the truth. The foundation of all helpful and encouraging talk is speaking truth. And that’s the way it should be translated here. It’s not an adverb as the NIV/TNIV has it, “speak truthfully.” That sounds as if we might merely try to speak in a truthful direction, to say things that have a true ring to them. No, it’s simply, “speak truth to your neighbor.” Say that which connects with reality, that fits the facts, that reveals how things actually are.
If we’re going to have good conversation, it has to be the truth. If we deceive or mislead those around us, what we say will not be helpful. It will only lead to harm and pain. Yes, we can all come up with extraordinary situations that seem to justify telling a lie. If the Gestapo are beating on the door and you’ve got a Jewish family hiding in your basement, then isn’t it acceptable, even right, to deceive the soldiers with a few carefully chosen falsehoods?
Let me say what I said to my theology class two or three times a week ago. Don’t build your ethics or your theology or your way of life on the rare exceptions to the rules. Sure there are times when we feel like we have to weigh one good against another or choose the lesser of two evils, but 99.9% of life is not like that. We don’t live between the pages of an ethics textbook. We live right here in the midst of flesh and blood friends and relatives and neighbors who will be damaged and discouraged and torn down if we fail to tell the truth.
What’s even more, Paul says, we need to speak truth because “we are all members of one body.” Literally, he says, “we are all members of each other.” Here in the Church we especially have a reason to be honest. Being members of the Church is not just being participants in a volunteer organization, like the members of a club or a credit union. It’s being the body parts of each other.
So to tell a lie to another Christian is like a hand that feels the shower is too hot telling the arm and back and legs and rear end connected to it that the temperature is just fine. A lie in the Church means we’re all going to get burned. It’s like eyes or nostrils that detect the lunch meat in the back of the refrigerator has gone bad, but fool the hands and mouth into eating it anyway. A lie in the Church means we’re all going to get sick.
We belong to each other. As we heard Eric preach from the first part of chapter 4 last week, we are growing up together as the parts of a body, as parts of Christ’s Body. If we fail to tell the truth in the Body, then we only hurt each other, hurt the whole Body.
Yet telling the truth is not the same as speaking every thought or feeling that comes into your head, especially about another person. Remember that what we want is good conversation, talk that helps and builds up. That’s why verse 26 turns to another detriment to healthy speaking, the sin of anger. If you speak what is factually true but with the aim to hurt another person, that’s not honesty. That’s anger.
Sometimes this verse is used to justify what is called “righteous anger.” “In your anger do not sin,” is supposed to mean that you can be angry for good reasons, angry about injustice, or sin, or poverty, or mistreatment of another person. And there is such a thing as righteous anger. Jesus got angry with the moneychangers in the temple and with the scribes and the Pharisees who distorted God’s law. But that’s not what Paul is thinking about here. He’s just assuming that we will get angry with each other. It happens. You and I will feel angry sometimes. And when we do, we’re not to let in grow into more sin.
There’s a great practical rule here that’s often applied to married couples. “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Don’t go to bed mad at each other. It’s good advice for husbands and wives, but it’s also good advice for anyone. Don’t let anger catch hold and grow. It’s like fire. Even though it was drizzling, when we left camp on Friday, we poured several gallons of water over our fire pit. Take no chances with something as dangerous as fire or anger. Give it a chance and it will blaze up and consume everything and everyone in its path. Do your best to ask God’s help and forgive and apologize and reconcile before your anger has more than a day to really get going.
One reason for dealing quickly with anger, says verse 27, is that we don’t want to “give the devil a foothold.” It’s not just our emotions we’re battling, but that there’s a larger spiritual battle at stake. If we let the flame of anger keep burning, Satan will come along and pour some gasoline on it. But Paul just leaves it at that. He’s not all paranoid about the devil like some Christians who are always worrying, “The devil is tempting me with that,” or “Satan is trying to get at us like this,” or whatever. No, it’s just a little reminder that we do have an enemy that will take a mile if we give him an inch. But we don’t need to focus on him. We need to focus on seeking the Lord’s help with the sins which give Satan room in our lives. And so we need to deal with our anger.
Next, if there’s going to be good conversation, then there needs to be an overall honesty in the Body of Christ. It’s not just telling the truth, not just refraining from anger. In verse 28 there’s a warning against theft, coupled with a call for everyone to be productive, working and doing something, not just to make a living, but so that they can have enough to share and be generous with others in need.
In Christ, we really are like the parts of the body. It’s not that some are givers and some are takers in the Church. Again, leave aside the rare exceptions. Yes, there are times when someone may be so sick or handicapped or weak as to be unable to offer anything back. But for the most part, most of the time, we were all meant to receive and all meant to give as parts of Christ’s body.
One of my pastor friends suffered through a case of someone embezzling church funds. He has an incredible sense of humor, so he put it this way: “Yes, last year our church had 123 giving units and one taking unit.” But that means a member of the Body of Christ was sick. No healthy body part only takes. Stealing must not happen. Each of us is meant to give something back to the rest.
As we were hiking along Friday, Jacob shared with me that medical science has discovered that what seemed a relatively useless organ, the spleen, actually has a larger role in fighting off infection than we thought. No part is useless. Everyone in the Body has something to give, something to share in our good conversation.
Verse 29 comes back around to how we talk with each other by first asking us to avoid “unwholesome” talk. Just after our text, in chapter 5 verse 4, Paul unpacks that a little by asking us not to engage in “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” Not that we can’t have fun, but the aim of our conversation is not vulgar silliness, but “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
We watched “Gran Torino” last week. In that film there was lots of vulgar talk, which I would not recommend anyone copy. But there was also conversation that built up. A young priest tries to care for Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt. A Hmong girl befriends him. And Walt himself begins to take her brother Thao under his wing to teach him some self-confidence and work skills.
Despite swearing and ethnic slurs, Walt was more or less on the right track in a scene where he takes Thao to the barbershop to teach him to talk like a man. As Walt says to the barber, he’s just trying to “man him up.” Leave out the swearing and slurs and it’s what we all should be aiming at, to “man” or “woman” each other up into the people God wants us to be. We converse with the aim of helping each other learn how to live.
I grew up on the King James Version. There the word “conversation” meant something like “conduct” or “behavior.” There’s an example just before our text in 4:22. The word that was “conversation” in the KJV is translated “way of life” in the NIV/TNIV.
It’s an obsolete meaning, but there’s still a connection between conduct and conversation. You can’t talk well with someone else if you don’t behave well with them. That’s why verses 30 and 31 ask us not to behave in ways that grieve the Holy Spirit. We’re told to “Get rid of,” the sort of conduct that ruins conversation, “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Instead, says verse 32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” That’s good conversation.
It sounds so fine. Tell the truth. Let go of anger. Work hard and share. Talk and live with our friends and neighbors and family in ways that help and build each other up in kindness and compassion. It is so simple. Yet telling the truth demands that we confess that we frequently don’t talk like that. We don’t live like that. We tell lies. We voice our anger. We take without giving back. We tear each other down in words and actions. Our conversation is meager and mean, rather than generous and kind.
So Paul ends on the note that we always come back to in the Body of Christ. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Good conversation ultimately rests on forgiveness. If you’ve been dishonest, you can’t really talk with the people you’ve deceived until you confess and seek to be forgiven. If you’ve quit speaking to another person out of anger, then there’s no conversation until forgiveness is offered. If someone has been torn down, forgiving the one who did it is the only way to hear the words that build back up. Forgiveness is the word that needs to be spoken and God is the one who spoke it first.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God. He’s the Word that must be spoken and heard in order for there to be good conversation. We are able to forgive each other and talk again only as we remember that God forgave us in Christ. Our good conversations with each other always go back to the model that God gave us in Himself. The Father speaks the Word and the Word gives Himself up to the Father and the Holy Spirit carries that holy conversation in our hearts, into our mouths, into our lives.
There’s an unfortunate break between chapter 4 and 5, but most modern translations connect them together so that you can see how verse 1 of chapter 5 continues the thought. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Literally it says, “Mimic God…” “Become imitators of God…” It sounds ridiculous. It sounds sacrilegious. But it’s the only way to live well, to converse well. Become like God.
Of course we aren’t meant to become like God in power or in glory or authority. Paul spells it out for us in verse 2, “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” That’s the story we live by. That’s the story we talk about together. That’s the story that shapes our lives in the Church. It’s the story of our Savior Jesus Christ giving up His power and His glory to die on a Cross for everyone of us. It’s that story which always makes for good conversation.
I saw it again in “Gran Torino.” Whenever someone wants to tell a really good story, they always go back to our story, to the story of a Man who gave Himself up to save His friends. Lives are redeemed and renewed and built up as someone makes a sacrifice, offers up himself or herself in love for others. Sometimes I think there’s really only that one story in all the world and every other story that’s ever been told is just trying to tell that one again. And it’s that story which ought to fill and shape our conversation together as members of the Body of Christ, as children of God.
Paul said Jesus’ sacrifice for us was “a fragrant offering,” literally “a sweet-smelling smell” offered up to God. Those on our backpack trip sat around burning logs on Thursday and had our conversation. If you met us as we arrived home, you knew we had been around that campfire by the strong, good smell of wood smoke clinging to our clothing. That’s how it’s meant to be in all our conversation in the Church. The smell of the Word we’ve been sharing and hearing, the good, sweet, strong smell of Jesus’ own sacrifice will cling to us and to our words.
Our family and neighbors and friends—and our world—are all waiting to smell that good smell on us. They’re all waiting to be welcomed into a good conversation. May we imitate the sweet odor of our Lord. May our words be truth. May our speech build up one another. May we give ourselves up for one another, and take time to talk with those who haven’t yet joined the circle. May our lives and our talk carry the sweet scent of Jesus on into a great, good, glorious conversation which will go on forever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj