Monday, May 21, 2018

Truth and Love

A Sermon preached on Whit Monday (May 21 2018) at the  „Gottesdienst International“ in the Marktkirche, Wiesbaden on Ephesians 4: 11 - 16

The word or phrase that jumped out to me and that I want to talk about is in verse 15: “But speaking truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head.” In the German, at least in the Lutherbibel it actually sounds quite different: “Lasst uns aber wahrhaftig sein in der Liebe und wachsen in allen Stücken zu dem hin, der das Haupt ist.” The ultimate aim, the head, is the same, the path sounds different. I have to go the Genfer Bibel or to the Einheitsübersetzung to find something similar to the English: “Von der Liebe geleitet an die Wahrheit halten” or „In einem Geist der Liebe an der Wahrheit festhalten.“ Who would have thought that Geneva and Rome were so close theologically ….. 

As an aside – this is a great example of how every translation is also an interpretation and why we have to be very careful when someone says they know exactly what the Bible is telling us to do … except for me of course, in this reflection.

The call to speak the truth in love is I believe a key quality for all Christians. It is what builds up the body of Christ that is the church, it is what is required on our part to bring about God’s kingdom. But it’s difficult. Too often we do one and not the other. When John the Baptist calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers, (Matthew 12:34) I’m not hearing the love. Even Jesus seems to miss the mark sometimes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You blind fools,” (Matthew 23:13, 17) sounds to me as if his impatience at their inability to understand who he was, why he had come, and who had sent him, was getting away with him. So, don’t get too worried if you do not always manage either. Just keep trying. 

There are two problems if we only speak the truth without any moderation. For one thing, if it is too aggressive, too loud, and too strident, people won’t hear what we are saying. They will clam up. They will close their ears, they will go into the defensive. The other problem is that it is not Christian. The truth of the God of love cannot be commended by loveless speech.

On the other hand, speaking only in love, at least a misunderstood form of love, could mean not calling people to account, not criticising at all – because everything is OK, not warning about harm, including the potential to self-harm, and not using our prophetic voice to say what has to change so that we can all grow into the full stature of Christ.  

How do we speak truth in love, how do we manage what is an inherent tension between love and judgement? 

Even when we disagree violently with another person we must never forget that they too are made in the image of God, they too are fully human. To take two recent negative examples. Talking about immigrants, Mr. Trump said ““These aren’t people, these are animals.” On the same subject, Alice Weidel from the AfD referred to „Kopftuchmädchen und alimentierte Messermänner und sonstige Taugenichtse.“ Both of them are plain wrong, both are dehumanising others. They have a right to criticise what they see as mistakes, but they have no right at all ever to use these terms. However difficult it may be, and in the case of those two persons I find it difficult, I must nevertheless always respect the person, just not their cause or their case. 

When we speak truth in love this also happens at a personal level, one-to-one, it is not just a political matter. One aspect is to know not just how to speak truth, but where to do it. The Bible teaches us to confront someone privately (Matthew 18:15), not publicly. But nowadays we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Personal confrontation on social media or via mass email will never be speaking truth in love. 

One of the virtues which made the early Church so revolutionary was how its members treated one another. “See how they love one another” is what the Romans are supposed to have said about the early Christians. Everyone has a place at God’s table, all are dignified reflections of our creator. If we think someone has sinned, we confront them humbly, with genuine concern and strong conviction. 

Most of all speaking truth in love is always constructive. It is a gift, just like the various functions the author mentions. But its sole purpose is to promote the church’s and the world’s growth in building itself up in love (Eph. 4:16). If it does not do that, it is either not the truth or not in love.

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