Read Ephesians 4:25-5:2.
I remember as a kid hearing that old nursery rhyme: sticks and stones may break my bones but… word will never hurt me. It was one of those adages that I heard thrown around which didn’t really make sense to me. Of course words can’t physically hurt us the way that a stick or a stone will, but heaven knows words have this profound impact on our very being and our soul. Words matter. They really matter. Words make a deep impact on us.
They have the ability to express our deepest longings, our deepest desires, our hopes and dreams. Words have the ability to inspire and to uplift, to encourage and to comfort. They have the ability to just change everything about your day, your week, month and even year.
How many of us have had this kind of experience: we are just having a day. We woke up and it seemed like everything was stacked against us. It was a struggle to get out of bed. The drive to work was just terrible, everyone cutting everyone off, the honking and even though you left with plenty of time you get to work late, you’re tired, and you’re frustrated. And the day just goes on from there. Everyone in the office is stressed out and on edge, your boss is coming down hard on you for a minor mistake you made. It is one of those days you just want to crawl up in a ball and wait for it to pass.
But then, out of nowhere someone says something kind, a word of grace, a word of hope and suddenly it is as if it is all just lifted. Everything is just lifted in that moment. The sun comes out, shines warmly upon your face, all of the past frustrations and anger just slips away. You start to walk a little lighter, freer. It all comes down to the power of words. Words from another person, words to ourselves, words have the power to build up and the power to tear down.
Because even though we have all, hopefully, had that experience of being built up by the power of words, most of all, a dare say all of us, have probably had the experience of being brought down by the power of words. Maybe it’s that snide remark about our weight or our appearance, the insult about our intelligence, the mean comment about a loved one. Those same words which could be arranged to bring about so much joy, peace, assurance and love can be rearranged to cut to the core of our deepest insecurities and fears.
Just as you can have that kind word that breaks into the pattern of a terrible day bringing a new sense of love and life; you can also being have a wonderful, everything is going your way and life is good kind of day, when all of the sudden someone says something that just completely derails everything. So much so, that as you laying there trying to go to sleep at night, you are not thinking about the million things that went right during your day, but you are thinking about that one thing that was said that hurt you so deeply.
Words are powerful. We are reminded of this truth in our reading today from the New Testament which comes from the Letter to the Ephesians. The passage we heard is from the fourth chapter of the letter. The first three chapters of this letter focus on building up the community of the faithful to be united as the body of Christ. You might remember that the early Christians church was struggling with it’s identity as it became a larger movement and the church was growing more and more diverse.
The church was struggling to know and live into it’s call to welcome all people into the beloved community regardless of their background, their race, their class, etc. This was a point of tension for us as the Holy Spirit guided the church to become more and more and more inclusive. This tension hasn’t gone away mind you. Our very own United Methodist Denomination continues to struggle with the issue of inclusivity.
The author of Ephesians penned this letter to bring about a reminder for the church in Ephesus, but also other early churches, that God calls us to be a counter-cultural community where we welcome the stranger in our midst as a beloved child of the most high God. To remind the church that we welcome all who no matter how different they are because all, and I mean all of us are created in the image of a loving God and all of us have inherent sacred worth.
The writer spends the first three chapters of this letter grounding us in the theological reason for this unity. God has called and is calling all people to be one in Christ Jesus, even in the midst of our diversity and difference, because, although God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, redeemer and sustainer, God is one.
So after spending the first three chapters grounding us in our Christian beliefs and tradition, the writer then turns from the communal to the personal, from the macro to the micro. There’s this pivot point in the letter where the author moves from these big, beautiful and expansive ideas about God and Jesus and he Holy Spirit, to the deeply personal, every day kind of stuff that makes up our basic human life.
I love this. I love how the Bible and this letter have this ability to draw us into the world of ideas and prayerful reflection on the deepest questions about the nature of God and then at the same time, scripture gives us some practical, useful, everyday kind of theology. Or another way to say it is this, how are we as a church community going to live differently this week because we went to church today. How does our faith actually change the way we live and move about this world?
And we see this so clearly in the passage we read today. The writer has been exploring these huge ideas about God and now starts to talk about how these beliefs and ideas actually change us from the inside out. Because that’s the whole point of this Christian thing, that’s the whole point of this following Jesus thing, that we are transformed in love from the inside out.
When we practice our faith, when we follow Jesus, we are changed, we are transformed in the day to day of our life. The early Christians called this repentance, or metanoia in the Greek, which means the transforming our hearts and our minds. Or as we hear it in Ephesians, putting away our old life and living more fully into our new life.
Let’s dive in and see some of the teachings for our daily Christian living. First, lets talk a little bit about the sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. We hear in the passage today in verse 29 “ Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As Christians we are to let no evil talk come out of our mouths.
It seems like we have been hearing about all sorts of different speech over the past few years in our world. We have heard talk of hate speech and cyber bullying, we have had long public conversations about the role of free speech. This is particularly timely as we remember the tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia which happened just one year ago. One commentator on the scripture for this week posed this interesting question, in light of all that we hear about in our world today, what is Christian speech? What does Christians speech look like or sound like in our world.
“Let no evil come out of your mouth but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” We are called to guard our hearts and our tongues. We are called to think before we speak and to watch out to make sure our words are intended to build up others instead of tearing them down. I don’t know about you but this is a good reminder, a good word for me in my life.
A reminder that as Christian people we are called to be reflective and mindful. We are called to be completely grounded and present in the moment, to recognize with awareness our physical location but also our spiritual location in each moment and to be not be governed by anything other than love.
Along with this teaching on watching out that evil words don’t come out of our mouths the writer of Ephesians also teaches that we are to speak the truth to our neighbors because we belong to one another. As I reflected on this portion of the passage I thought about a book we recently got for our daughter Olivia, called “Being Frank.”
It’s a great story about a boy named Frank who believe honesty is the best policy. So because of this he is frank with everyone in his life. He soon discovers that his honesty is not so welcomed because he often shares it in a way that is hurtful or insulting. He tells one of his friends that her freckles look like the big dipper, another that her singing sounds like shrieking and on and on and on. Finally, after a long day he ends up on the porch with his grandfather.
His grandfather teaches him that honesty is the best policy, always, but it also depends on how we share that honesty with others. Frank learns to be honest and to share exactly what he is thinking but to do so with love and care for the other person. Frank told his friend that he liked her freckles because he likes dots better than squares and the other friend that when she sings she can really hit the high notes. He learned that speaking the truth to our neighbor matters but also that we should speak the truth in love.
There’s so much here in this passage. So much which impacts our day to day life. And at the heart of what the writer is teaching us in these verses is that we are to guard our hearts from the things in this world that are corrosive and life-diminishing. We are called to put away from us “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” We are called to be imitators of God, which is to be an imitator of Jesus Christ, God’s self-revelation of grace made flesh.
Now this isn’t easy. It’s not easy to let go of things like anger or bitterness. These are parts of what is means to be human. Who here among us gets angry? Right, we all do. I think that key to all of this is that as spiritual people we are not be governed by these feelings and experiences. We need to put away anger or bitterness, slander or malice. We need to put it in it’s proper place and never let it lead the way.
The reality is that we will get angry at some point, we will feel bitterness or resentment toward something or someone in our life. It will happen at some point along the way. The key to the spiritual life is to become mindful enough, aware enough of our inner life to recognize these emotions and feelings as they arise, to allow them to come and go without letting them have control.
There’s a great Christian Buddhist teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh. I was listening to a podcast where he was teaching on anger and mindful living as a Christian Buddhist. He has this soft, centered and peaceful presence even through a podcast. He said “as I go about my day whenever I feel anger arise within myself I pause internally, I notice that anger within me, I embrace it gently as a friend and then I let it go.”
The reality is that as human beings we can sometimes become imprisoned by these evil things in our world and our lives. We can become prisoners of our own anger, malice, contempt and bitterness. We can walk around day after day with our head turned down and our self-turned-in because of these feelings we have within us.
As we learn to let go of these things, as we learn to put them away from ourselves we open ourselves up to receive the grace of God, the tenderhearted presence of our loving God that makes us whole. We are forgiven for all of the anger and bitterness and we are set free.
So friends as we go about our day to day, as we experience this life with all of its glory and all of its agony, may we learn to put away from us the things in this life and this world which take us away from love, the things of this world which want to lay claim on our hearts and to guide our thinking, may we stick with the truth, may we stick with love. May we speak words of grace to others and build them up and may we resist those who would tear us down. And in those moments when we don’t know what to do, we don’t know which way to go, may we remember to try to imitate Jesus, whose go to move is always , love, forgiveness, mercy and grace. Amen.