Growing in Truth and Love – Ephesians 4.1-16

August 23, 2015 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

What are you going to be when you grow up? How often have you asked that of a child or young person? Or how many times has it been asked of you?

I had a text conversation this week with a mom whose child was practicing passing the peace at home, asking to hold each person’s hand and then saying, “Peace be with you.” Another person in the conversation said, “What do you think she’ll be when she grows up?” To which the mom answered, “No telling. I’m going to be happy with a productive citizen.”

“What will you be when you grow up?” is not just a question for children. It is also a question for the church. The writer of this letter that we call Paul (who is most likely a disciple of Paul and not Paul himself) says, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ who is the head” of the body—the church. The answer that this letter provides to the question what will you be when you grow up? “goes something like this: ‘When we grow up, we will be a community capable of living the truth. When we reach maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ, we will [embody and demonstrate] the unity of a new humanity.”[1]

There’s a bit of bad news / good news in this question of what we will be when we grow up. The bad news is we still have growing up to do. The good news is…we still have growing up we get to do. Which is another way to say God isn’t finished with us yet. Or the hallmark phrase of the Reformed tradition: “The church reformed and always being reformed.” We are continuing to be renewed in our life together. The Christian life—as individuals or as a community—is not a static thing and it is not something we finish or from which we graduate. The Christian life—as individuals and as a community—is something we continually practice, reflecting on our learning, discovering our shortcomings, recognizing our strengths, and practicing some more.

The writer of Ephesians instructs us to practice humility. John Calvin said “humility is the ‘first step’ to unity.”[2] We set aside arrogance and false pride. We don’t puff ourselves up or boast about ourselves. If humility is the first step to unity, it must mean that we acknowledge what we don’t know—about ourselves and about others.

We practice gentleness. Allen Verhey and Joseph Harvard in their commentary on Ephesians write, “If humility stands in contrast to arrogance by not boasting, gentleness stands in contrast to arrogance by not…demean[ing]or despising the other for being different.”[3]

We practice patience, which more literally means “long-tempered”—while we’re usually more familiar with being short-tempered. “To be patient is to be… broad-minded, big-hearted, to tolerate the quirks [of others] for the sake of community. It is to be ready to ‘endure’ [some] discomfort for the sake of community with others rather than to assert one’s own way and rights.”[4] That is not very easy in our culture of individualism. We have been steeped in the assumption that says I have a right to have everything the way I want it—without regard to the needs and desires and well-being of the whole community. That’s an American assumption but it’s not a Christian assumption.

In my Doctor of Ministry class this summer we talked about the Ubuntu theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African idea of Ubuntu says, “‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, [writes Archbishop Tutu,] ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.’ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”[5]

This notion of Ubuntu is a description of the new humanity in Christ that we are called to live into.

Practicing patience for the sake of community leads to bearing one another in love. The literal translation of verse 3 leaves out that little word “with.” Which Verhey and Harvard say suggests “that the other can be and sometimes is a burden.” We are not called just to bear one another’s burdens but to “bear the other, even if and when the other is a burden to us.”[6]

Can you think of someone—particularly another Christian—who is a burden to you? You don’t have to raise your hand and I’m not asking for names. We can probably all ponder how much more growing up we have to do to become the unity to which we have been called in Christ.

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ who is the head, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

So, speaking the truth in love. Professor Jaime Clark-Soles says, “Mature Christians speak truth in love because it promotes growth.” It’s easy for truth and love to be separate entities. Some speak truth without love and it is caustic and drives people away. Some people speak a kind of false love “that produces only warm feelings and smiles and, therefore, can neither broach nor tolerate truth…Christians are neither to thrive on conflict nor to avoid it when it might reveal difficult truths.”[7] “We must learn to speak the truth in humility”[8] and to listen for it as well from others.

“To be a Christian community on its way to maturity does not mean that we will never disagree with one another…But to be a Christian community on its way to maturity does mean a readiness to engage in honest conversations with one another about those disagreements….Honest conversations are critical to the tasks of breaking down dividing walls of hostility in the church and society.”[9]

In 1994, after South Africans of all races were able to vote in national elections, and apartheid was officially over, there was still the question of how South Africans would “deal with the legacies of the apartheid era.” In his article about the Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu, Professor Michael Battle, who studied with Tutu, describes that “the African National Congress (ANC) tried to answer that question with what they called a ‘Truth Commission,’ but their adversary, the National Party (NP), advocated a ‘Reconciliation Commission.’ The ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, was concerned about the victims of the apartheid period, while the NP, F.W. de Klerk’s party, sought amnesty for the perpetrators.”[10] What was established in 1995 was the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which, in reading Ephesians, seems like a mission of speaking the truth in love. Archbishop Tutu was an instrumental person in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In talking about the work of the Commission, Tutu said, “the truth is sought, not for the purpose of prosecution; it is sought for the purpose of healing the land.”[11] That is, truth is sought for the purpose of reconciliation, for love, for the shalom and wholeness that God intends for all of creation.

“In the United States we have kept secrets about how we have treated one another, and dividing walls of hostility have been the result.”[12] Social media is busting some of those secrets as we see and read about the far too frequent deaths of young African American men and women. A few more people are beginning to recognize the reality that Michelle Alexander documents where the mass incarceration of African Americans in the US has become our New Jim Crow. Some people are speaking up about environmental racism as Dean Bucalos did in an article in the Courier-Journal this past week.[13] And some people are beginning to break the secret of white privilege that makes the democratic ideal of “equal opportunity” a sham.

“Without the truth we cannot repent, and without repentance the past is our fate. Without the truth we cannot be free. The reconciliation God desires for us requires a community of truth tellers who speak the truth in love.”[14]

What will we be when we grow up? “When we grow up, we will be a community capable of living the truth.” [15] When we reach maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ, we will be a demonstration, an embodiment, of the unity God has created in the new humanity in Christ.

“Telling and hearing the truth in love have the power to enable us to repent and forgive, and to grow up in Christ.”[16]

May it be so with us.

* * *
[1] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Ephesians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 169.
[2] Ibid., 138.
[3] Ibid., 139.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Quoted in Ibid., 140.
[6] Ibid., 140.
[7] Jaime Clark-Soles, “Ephesians 4.1-16: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 305-307.
[8] Verhey and Harvard, 170.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Michael Battle, “A Theology of Community: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu” Interpretation, April 2000, 174.
[11] Ibid., 177.
[12] Verhey and Harvard, 171.
[13] accessed 24 August 2015.
[14] Verhey and Harvard, 172.
[15] Ibid., 169.
[16] Ibid., 173.


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