But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
– Ephesians 4:15 (NRSV)
“I love you, but…”
We’ve all heard those words. Maybe we’ve even said them.
They are painful words to hear, because they assert that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the person being addressed… that there is something in that person that desperately needs to be changed. It’s the little word ‘but’ that makes all the difference in the world. Once we say it, we shift focus away from the love that purportedly binds us together and onto the judgments that inevitably tear us apart.
Part of the problem is this: There is no recognition in these words of the fact that the person who speaks them has any problems of his or her own. The speaker is the one who gets to determine who is love-worthy and who isn’t. The speaker also gets to decide whose sins need to be corrected and whose don’t. When we say these words, we are typically painting ourselves as the very incarnation of love. Unfortunately, however, the scope of our love is limited by the judgments we then go on to make about the (real and apparent) sins that we encounter in others.
According to most translators, the writer of Ephesians is admonishing his readers to speak “the truth with love.” And yet, it is clear that speech is not the writer’s exclusive or even primary concern. The writer has simply taken the Greek noun for ‘truth’ and turned it into a verb. As a consequence, that verb should more appropriately be translated as “do the truth,” or “live out the truth.” We, as the Church, are not being called merely to speak words of truth so much as we are being called to embody the truth of Jesus Christ in practical ways that exhibit authentic love.
Surely this means that we have to maintain clarity about who we are as God’s people. We need to hold one another accountable to standards of behavior that build up the body of Christ. We need to call ourselves to faithfulness in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. But we need to do all of this in a way that recognizes that each of us is a child of God who, though created in the image of God, has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Our call to live out the truth is not a call to judge each other so much as it is a call to support and care for each other as we work and grow together to build up the body of Christ.
We are a people in process, learning together how to love each other in a way that binds us in community rather than splintering us into factions. The author of Ephesians is not encouraging us to speak truth about the sin that we perceive and judge in others – however loving we think we are trying to be. The truth that we are being called to live out is the truth of God’s amazing grace that enables us “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It is the truth to which we aspire as those who, to use the words of John Wesley, are learning how to “love alike” even when we cannot “think alike.” It is the truth that “promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph. 6:16)
God of abundant and amazing grace, open our eyes to perceive your truth. Open our minds to embrace your truth. Open our hearts to embody your truth in love. Amen.
Rev. Frank Wulf
Pastor, Echo Park UMC