On the occasion of the rebuilding of the body of Christ in a community that suffered deep division.
Text: Ephesians 4.1-24
Normally the first thing I do to prepare a sermon is read through the scripture passages assigned in the lectionary for the week, several times. In most cases the message of one or more resonates with me and seems especially pertinent, and I have a clear sense of its content and application long before I begin the more serious task of studying the text and preparing the actual sermon.
This week was a bit different. I had an idea of something we needed to address, but the readings for the day went elsewhere. When I considered them in detail, I started down a path that fit well with a recent study of forgiveness, accountability, and reconciliation. The title “truth in Love” comes from that direction.
The more I worked with the passages, though, the more I realized I was imposing an idea and the selections were going elsewhere. As I struggled, a few calls came in, and I was unable to escape my earlier thoughts, and so I returned to the passage from which we get the phrase “truth in love,” Ephesians 4.
I tell you all of this for a reason. What I am about to say is the result of a long period of prayer and reflection—longer than usual. I firmly believe that what we will consider today must be understood if we are to continue to become the church Christ requires us to be. And so you should know, before we start, that “truth in love” refers more to how I am about to speak than to what I am about to say.
Today, we will not examine what it means to speak the truth in love, I plan to speak the truth to you in love, and I trust you will receive it as it is intended and as the Holy Spirit makes it known to you.
Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Then let us hear from the apostle Paul.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 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.
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4.1-24, NRSV)
Most of us know that a good look in a well-lit mirror will tell us a great deal of truth about ourselves. We may choose to think of ourselves as the way we used to be, young and handsome or beautiful. We may imagine the head of hair we used to have, picture ourselves with trim body and rugged good looks or lovely curves. We may feel young at heart and retain an image of the way we were when we liked ourselves the best.
A quick look in the mirror will usually shatter many of these false images—the gleam from the light bulbs off the all-too-bare and growing forehead…the deep crevices between wrinkles, the furrows in the brow, the bags beneath the eyes…the sag in the shoulders, and the paunch in the belly…chicken legs and knobby knees, spider veins and droopy thighs.
The image in the mirror is the truth about our physical bodies, the truth that shatters our false ideas about ourselves. It’s a truth that may affect the way we behave around other people. And it’s a truth that elicits one of two responses.
Some will view such truth as motivation for change, incentive to stick with the thigh-master or the bowflex. They’re determined to realize the ideal image they have of themselves and to make the truth in the mirror match the ideal. They work hard and grow in confidence. They may buy tailored clothes, the new bathing suit, the beautiful new dress and like to be seen.
Others resign themselves to the truth of what they see. For whatever reason, whether a lack of time, energy, or determination, they change the image in their minds to match the truth shown to them in the mirror. They become the middle-aged woman or the old man. They buy clothes to hide the imperfections, the blemishes, the sags. They live the image they see and do little to change it.
In our passage for today, Paul gives us an ideal image of the church and the mirror by which we see the truth of who we are. The church is a body, he writes, “…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” (4.16). Earlier in Ephesians, he writes, we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2.19–22).
This household, this body, is the “…likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness” (3.24). It’s the “…unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” which in maturity is “the full measure of the stature of Christ” (4.13). In this body, we are all to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in live, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4.1–3).
There’s the image and the mirror all in one, for when we look into this mirror it’s very easy to see that we are not all that we should be.
We’ve looked in this mirror before, haven’t we. These passages are familiar and this language well-known. We’ve even been examining the church in some detail lately. We are becoming quite familiar with the concept of the church as Christ’s body. We’ve begun to realize that the church is Christ’s real presence in the world. We’ve begun, praise God, to understand the community of faith in new ways and to rethink our place in it.
We’re intimately familiar with our wrinkles and our sags, our bald spots and our blemishes, and we’re pulling out the bowflex and the treadmill. We’re determined, by golly, to whip this body into shape and realize the ideal we see in the mirror, and when we’re done, we’ll be clothed in righteousness and holiness and we can strut our stuff in the world and all will see the body of Christ—buff and beautiful. And so we know the great truth about the church, what it should be, what it is, and what it will be.
We’re quite comfortable with this idea so far, aren’t we? On the surface, at least. We all try to be gentle and loving. We agree with the concept of unity, and most of us are willing to do something to make it happen. We’re all for harmony and peace in the body. We look for the kind of place and the kind of people who make us feel welcome. And we’re doing a pretty good job of getting there.
But that’s the problem with mirrors, isn’t it. They show us the truth about ourselves on the surface, but they can’t see or show the truth of our inward selves. The appearance of our bodies may belie what’s inside. The wrinkled skin on the old woman’s face fails to address her gracious and joyful heart. The slouch in the shoulders and the paunch on the belly of the balding man does not convey his generous nature, nor his courageous determination. So also the youthful glow of the skin may mask a gnawing hunger for something better. The firm body and handsome exterior may not reveal the hardened soul and selfish heart. The beautiful curves may yet cover the disease within that may soon change the outward truth long before age. The appearance of age and decay fails to show the beauty of grace and maturity within, while the valued youthful exterior hides the childish self, the self of sin and decay.
If all we do is look in the mirror that reflects our outward appearance, we will not know the truth about ourselves. If all we do is look at the mirror of God’s word for a surface reflection, we will not own up to who we are before God. If all we do is look to our outward appearance for that which makes us feel comfortable, and if all we do is work casually to become that which looks good on the surface, we will not only fail to know the full truth about the church, we will fail to ever realize the image of Christ in ourselves and the church.
And so, the partial truth of the mirror that sees only the surface becomes the great lie. And partial truth, we know, is not truth at all. Partial truth, especially in matters of life and faith, is the same as death and faithlessness.
So what is the real truth about the church?
When we look deeper into the mirror of God’s word, what is it we discover? Paul writes, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (4.17–18). “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4.14). I beg you, he says in verse 1—“lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called!”
Because he is speaking to those who are not fully “renewed in the spirit of [their] minds,” not clothed “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4.23-24). They are behaving like those who are futile and self-centered. They remain children who are blown to and fro by doctrine, fad, and personal desire. They are not functioning as the body he’s describing.
On the surface, they are the church. They see their blemishes and warts, and they’ve been on their treadmills a bit to tone up some, but they get winded easily, and they’re failing to fulfill their calling, and Paul calls them on it.
So Paul speaks the truth in love, sometimes quite sharply, for he loves them enough to see them both as they are and as they should be, and to motivate them to change. In another letter, to the Galatians, Paul screamed, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (3.1; 5.7, 12)! To the Corinthians, “I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient [emphasis added]” (2 Cor. 13.2). To Titus, “There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers…they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach” (1.10–11). Later, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. …After a first and a second admonition, have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned” (3.9–11). And to Timothy he admonishes: “Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6.2–5).
Make no mistake, we know much about these kinds of problems in the church. We have in many ways been moving beyond the most obvious and most destructive of this behavior over recent months. In many ways our endurance has improved, and our health returned. But our joy over what we’ve endured and how far we have come should not give way to complacency. Now more than ever, as we delve deeply into what it means to be the community of Christ, his body, we need to, as Paul said, examine ourselves, and make sure that we are leading lives as individuals and a life as a body worthy of our calling in Christ.
As we examine ourselves, the enemy will do everything possible to feed us lies, to dissuade us from our path, to lull us into a false image of who we are and to mistake a surface reflection in our mirror for the truth of ourselves.
So now let’s look deeply into the mirror to see the full truth of who we are, and what we must become. Yes, this is where we will speak the truth in love.
The image Paul upholds for us is the image of the body—the new self (and the new community) created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. We’ve already read about the characteristics of this body and all of us who make up its parts:
–Unity—in which we become one with Christ and each other
–The fulfillment of our calling and vocation in Christ—in which we exercise our gifts, not for our own benefit or edification, but for building up the body of Christ
–Maturity, the measure and stature of Christ—wherein we not wind-driven but Spirit-driven, joined and knit together and working properly
We’re reminded by Paul and others that the likeness of God means all this and more, for it means:
– Unity with Christ in his full abandonment to the will of God, full obedience to the Father in service and sacrifice, and full participation in his resurrection in renewal, re-creation, and restoration to his image
– Making all of our lives the vocation of Christ, fulfilling the calling to His purposes as his church in all the world—our jobs, our families, our leisure, and most certainly our worship, ministry, and fellowship
– The maturity of loving God will all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and loving others as we love ourselves—which means turning all of our priorities on end
– Living a life in which God is first and we give ourselves in service to all others
This means, and let’s be very clear about this, that everything we do, all that we spend time and money on, all that we give thought and attention to, must be shaped according to this image and the priorities it dictates. Every commitment, even those to our family, have lower priority than our commitment to Christ and his body. In fact, when we have conflicts between seemingly good priorities and the church, we should always reevaluate the other commitments.
We do not serve our families, our friends, our neighbors, our work mates well at all when we compromise our primary commitment to Christ and his body—even when it’s in the name of spending time with the family, opening doors of friendship with the lost, making sure our children find good opportunities in school, sports, or other pursuits, building our businesses or advancing professionally, or finding much needed rest or quiet time.
In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that our families are best served when we spend time with them in the context of the body of Christ, in worship, fellowship, and service to and with other Christians. This means that we teach our children by example and by helping them get involved in the body of Christ that any other priorities are secondary, joining them as they participate in the life and mission of the body of Christ for the sake of one another and the world we serve.
In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best way to reach the lost starts with being the church, the community of Christ we’re called to be, and the best way for them to encounter Christ is to encounter his church in its commitment as the body. The witness we have to the world of the reality of Christ and salvation is as much corporate as it is individual. The way we worship, live, love, and work together as his body is the most profound proclamation of the kingdom fo God to those who are not yet a part of it.
In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best opportunity we can cultivate for our children is to be a fully committed, obedient, and participating member of the body of Christ. They can be the best soccer or baseball players, get into the best colleges, and find the best internships and jobs, but it will matter not at all if they are lost themselves.
And yes, in the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that even our vocation—our businesses and our jobs, are subject to the rulership of God, and this does not merely mean being a good witness at work or conducting business ethically. It means being prepared to make sacrifices and changes in our careers to honor our commitment to Christ and to accommodate the needs of his kingdom and our obligations to his body. Certainly it starts with the recognition that all we have is God’s, and not our own, and so our financial commitments should reflect our commitment to Christ and his body. But it runs deeper with the recognition than nothing, not even our employment, should get in the way of our place in and responsibility to the body of Christ.
As for our own rest, most of us are fatigued and burnt out from trying to meet obligations that compete with Christ and service in his kingdom. When we’re tired, we’re almost always willing to set aside commitments to the body, but we will rarely set aside ball games, school events, or overtime at work.
In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that God’s model is that each of us pour ourselves out in service, to him and each other. When we are all doing our part, when, as Paul says, “each part is working properly,” the body grows as it should and no one is forced to bear more than they can handle in and with his grace. Only when members of the body don’t do their part, make commitments and back out, fail to find places of ministry, withhold time, money, prayer, and encouragement, the body grows weak as the few do the work of the church and bear burdens their brothers and sisters should be able to relieve.
When we look into the mirror with Paul’s image in mind, his ideal of who we should be, we see
– Weary faces
– Blemishes and imperfections
– Sagging skin, wrinkles, pimples, saddlebags, and crow’s feet
This is the truth of the mirror, we think. We’re not perfect, just saved. We’re doing our best, and God loves us for who we are. We need to be loving and forgiving and learn not to expect too much, from ourselves or others. Look at our nice new clothes, they hide quite a few imperfections, and they make us quite presentable—we’re more joyous than we used to be, we have more people dong something in the church now, we’re doing well enough—we’re becoming presentable!
It’s true—we have blemishes, and we will make mistakes. Not all of us are mature and fully toned, and God is infinitely patient with us. Not all of us are spring chickens any more—we can’t be expected to do everything. So what if this body has a few aches and pains—they’re not major, we’ll get along just fine.
Yes, it’s true. But when we look in the mirror and allow the truth of our imperfection to become the comfortable norm by which we live, we begin to live the great lie of the enemy. This is the lie of complacency. This is the accommodation of unhealthiness that let’s us feel comfortable with the status quo. This is the disease of the false self and the denial of the new self. This is not the image God want’s us to see when we look into his mirror.
Let me invite you to look just a little deeper with me now—for when we look into the mirror of God’s word in the full reflection of his grace, we can yet discover the truth about ourselves.
– “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul said (Ephesians 4.1)—don’t try, do it!
– “There is one body and one Spirit,” he says (4.4)
– We were “given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift”—not our own need or comfort—and those gifts were to build up the body of Christ until all of us “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure for the full stature of Christ”—not for us to fiddle around with at our convenience as we remain happy where we are (4.13).
– We “…must [emphasis added] grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”—it’s not a choice for us to eat our meat and vegetables, get our exercise, and tone our body (4.15).
– “I insist,” Paul says, “you must [emphasis added] no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds” (4.17). Don’t live that way and keep on insisting that it’s okay because you’re just human and forgiven—“This is not the way you learned in Christ” (4.20)!
And here’s the crux of the matter—this is the truth of our image in the mirror
For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by it’s lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (4.21-24)
Look deeply into the mirror!
We are a new creation, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness—we’re not fakes, the image of God is realized in us, in his church. Let’s live like it! Let’s live the truth, not the lie. Why stoop when we can stand up straight? Why live with a little pain when God has made us new?
No, he’s not asking us to achieve everything overnight, for us all to become fully mature in one stroke, but he is asking us to live and grow in his image—not to become comfortable with what we first see in the mirror. He’s asking for us to envision, become, and embody his likeness in the body, the church.
This is the truth of the church—this is what we see about ourselves when we look deeply into the mirror of God’s word. I pray you will receive this truth in love and live this truth in love. Let’s examine ourselves in the mirror of God’s word and live up to his image of us as the body of Christ in true righteousness and holiness.