Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Each Other’s Keepers

Eph. 4:25-5:2[1]

I may just be getting older, but it seems to me that the fabric of society is coming unraveled around us. Yes, we have all kinds of new hi-tech ways to keep up with people who live all around the world. That’s one of the great features of the internet— with web cameras and internet phone services, distance no longer has to be an absolute separation. But ironically, some are coming to the conclusion that perhaps all this “connectivity” is actually isolating us from those who are in our presence. One coffee shop owner commented in the Wall Street Journal this week that when people in his café put their laptops away, they actually engage each other in conversation!

I think the increasing isolation in our society also has the effect that we really don’t think we owe anybody anything—not courtesy on the highway, not consideration for a particularly bad day, and certainly not any kind of real concern or compassion. If that isn’t bad enough, the really sad thing to me is that this state of affairs is also taking over in the church. Not necessarily in the local congregation, mind you (and not in other small communities like non-profit agencies). But I think it most certainly is true in the larger bodies of faith—and perhaps even at the level of Presbytery, as evidenced by our debate about ordination standards last February.

I think we can see this above all in the way in which we talk to and about others. Words have become weapons—either used offensively or defensively. And if that weren’t enough, we have lawyers to come up with whole new ways of using words as weapons (nothing against lawyers per se, they’re just protecting us from the other lawyers!). It comes into play especially when it comes to matters on which we disagree. It seems that we in the church, the Body of Christ, have adopted the same modus operandi as the rest of society: say whatever it takes to get what you want without having to give up anything to anybody.

But the letter to the Ephesians takes a completely different approach. It insists that we are members of the same body, and therefore we have a responsibility toward one another. And that applies as much to the way we speak to and about one another as to any other facet of life. From this perspective Ephesians says that our words should convey “truth” and “grace” to each other. By “truth,” I don’t think it means a theoretical approach—it’s not about a courtroom inquiry, or academic research, or philosophical contemplation. [2] Rather “speaking truth is a practical matter, as the prophet Zechariah puts it: “Speak the truth to one another. In the courts give real justice - the kind that brings peace. Do not plan ways of harming one another. Do not give false testimony under oath. I hate lying, injustice, and violence” (Zech. 8:16-17 TEV). From this perspective, “speaking truth” is a way of fulfilling our commitment to relate to one another in ways that promote peace and justice. When that is the case our words “convey grace”, they “become a vehicle and demonstration of the very grace of God.”[3]

This is in stark contrast to the anger and bitterness and strife that seems so prevalent in human experience. While we may say what's really on our minds when we're angry, that doesn't mean we're speaking "truth." When our words are motivated by anger it seems they are much more likely to be “rotten words” (Eph. 4:29). The English Bible tradition has tended to interpret these “rotten words” as profanity, but I doubt very much that is the point here. The point is that “rotten words” are like “rotten fruit”—they are the opposite of the “good fruit” that should characterize our lives in the body of Christ.[4] They are words that are harmful, words that destroy the “bond of peace” and poison the body of Christ. I think, more often than not, they are words that come from anger.

I must hasten to add that this passage does not forbid anger. But I think there is anger, and then there is anger. There is the kind of anger that feels deeply the injustice of oppression. It is an anger that motivates us to do something that will relieve the suffering of the oppressed. Then there’s the kind of anger that I think is much more common to our experience. It’s the kind of anger that, if we had a special weapon that could vaporize someone on the highway and get away with it, we might just do it. No, we would definitely do it. It’s the kind of anger that refuses to see the humanity in the object of our anger. It’s the kind of anger that makes us think we have every right to sit in judgment and pronounce final sentence on another human being—you know the sentiment: “off with their heads!” It’s the kind of anger that always constitutes a dangerous sin because it destroys relationships. [5]

Paul calls it “grieving the Holy Spirit.” The truth of our existence is that we really are each other’s keepers. We have an obligation to one another—particularly in the context of our mutual faith—to relate to each other with love and kindness and compassion. Make no mistake: it grieves our loving creator when we fail to do that. It grieves our creator when we act in ways that positively destroy the fabric of humanity that the Spirit weaves among us.

The way to keep the body of Christ whole and healthy is to practice forgiveness. It is the only true antidote for poison of bitterness and anger.[6] I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. There are people who have harmed me in ways that still make me angry. But if I don’t forgive them, the bitterness consumes me. The only way to avoid being destroyed by that kind of unmitigated anger is to be kind and sympathetic toward one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to imitate our God by walking in love. It is the only way we can fulfill our calling to “be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.”[7]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/9/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 512

[3] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 520

[4] Cf. Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 518.

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “Tempering the spirit of wrath: Anger and the Christian Life,” The Christian Century (June 18, 1997): 589: “even though our anger is not necessarily sinful, sin is a constant danger where anger is concerned.”

[6] The Confession of 1967, 9.22, puts it this way: “The new life takes shape in a community in which people know that God loves and accepts them in spite of what they are. They therefore accept themselves and love others, knowing that no one has any ground on which to stand, except God’s grace.”

[7] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 116: uses the category of “friendship” to describe this new humanity.

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