Lectionary Texts: Second Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 34: 1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
This morning I would like us to consider Paul’s words to the Ephesians about guarding our speech. Language is an amazing gift from God. It’s one thing that distinguishes us from all of God’s other creations on earth. It enables us to bless God, to praise Him, to give Him our thanks; to sing to Him, as Paul will say just a few verses later, with our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
On the human, interpersonal level, speech is also a treasured gift from God. With it we can try to express our deepest feelings, share words of love, affirm and encourage each other, write poetry, record history, provide entertainment and humor, offer consolation, tell stories, describe things we have seen, recall experiences. It also enables us to share our faith with others. And that’s just a short list of positive things speech can do for us.
On the other hand, we know very well what Paul meant in today’s epistle reading when he warned about the negative consequences of speech. We recognize that while actions may indeed speak louder than words, it remains difficult and often impossible to take back words once they are spoken in anger, in falsehood, in blasphemy, in bitterness, in slander or in malice. Proverbs 11:9 says, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor.” Just imagine the destructive power that’s ours! A few chapters later the author writes, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Then he adds more poetically, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:1, 4).
The harshest words in all of Scripture about the tongue are found in the Epistle of James, where he writes: ”The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. No one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the image of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing” (James 3:6, 9, 10).
Does this sound over the top? Or does it sound strangely familiar? There’s a broad consensus today that our own country is more sharply divided now than it ever has been throughout our entire lifetimes. Whether or not that’s true, one thing is certain. Never before has “freedom of speech” meant what it means today: the freedom to spew out the most venomous and vitriolic language without a thought of censorship or the offense of others. We tend to ignore altogether Paul’s admonition in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” This strongly suggests that we need to think carefully before responding and to measure our responses in terms of graciousness.
Instead, families, churches and community groups are fiercely divided and are feuding over an endless succession of political and social issues. And once a position, any position, is assumed and articulated in a mean-spirited fashion, the damage is done and the differences are seen as irreconcilable. At best, the damage control is daunting. To use the language of Facebook, a language with which I confess to having no more than a passing acquaintance, we live in a society where, once we have spoken out for a particular position, we simply “un-friend” those who hold a different one. “Healthy dialogue” has become a thing of the past.
What does the Apostle Paul have to say in our epistle reading regarding our speech? He begins by making an appeal to lay aside falsehood and speak only the truth. Here he definitely has God on his side. Looking again to the author of Proverbs, we read that “there are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him,” and number 2 on that list is “a lying tongue” (Proverbs 6:16-19). If a lying tongue sits that high on a list of things God hates, we need to take great care that we are speaking only the truth and, as Paul admonished us in last week’s epistle, we must safeguard our speech so that we are “speaking the truth in love” to the end that we are contributing to “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15, 16).
Then, in addition to our speaking only the truth, Paul raises the bar by saying, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Let me read that again: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” That’s a loaded statement that would challenge nearly everything that comes out of our mouths. Seriously, how hard do we work at saying only those things that edify others in the very moment that we say them? And notice that here Paul has moved from saying that our words should be “gracious” to saying that they need to impart grace to those who hear them. That’s definitely a statement that moves well beyond the negative and resoundingly into the positive. Wouldn’t that be a great goal for every Christian, to be a grace-giver in our conversations with all who cross our paths?
Many of us could throw in the towel right here. But Paul is not finished. It’s in this very context of what comes out of our mouths that Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Do we grasp that thought? Does is even cross our minds? Paul takes it beyond offending the human targets of our speech to saying that we are grieving the Holy Spirit of God, something that none of would wish consciously to do. This may not be a matter of committing the so-called unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but it seems precariously close. At the very least we should be quick to say that we would choose to guard against grieving God’s Holy Spirit. And that, in colloquial language, translates into “watch your mouth!” No wonder some of our mothers took that to mean “wash your mouth” with soap.
Next Paul gives a sort of summary statement of ways that we cause offense with our mouths. He does so by providing one of his oft-encountered grocery lists of negative things: “ Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (verse 31). Imagine: no bitterness, no wrath, no anger, no quarreling, no slander and no malice! What about those who love to quarrel? I’ve known devout Christians and even clergy who seem to feed on quarreling. They may use a gentler term for it, but it comes across to others as a quarrelsome spirit.
What about anger? Wasn’t Jesus angry on at least one occasion, when he made a whip to drive the money-changers out of the temple, those who had turned His Father’s house into a den of thieves? But Paul already has answered that question up in verse 26 when, quoting from Psalm 4:4, he writes, “Be angry yet do not sin.” There he’s drawing an important line between righteous indignation, as exhibited by the sinless Jesus, and anger, as often exhibited by the rest of us. For us, it’s very hard to draw that inconvenient line between righteous anger and sinful anger.
And Paul also warns us not to go to bed angry. We may think this is good advice for getting a better night’s sleep, but that clearly is not on Paul’s mind. Rather he says that when we do it, whenever we go to bed without resolving our anger towards another person, we’re opening a window for Satan to attack us (verse 27). I imagine that every one of us knows exactly what Paul means by that! Deferring the resolution of anger rarely helps it to go away more easily. Deferred anger festers. We may hope that somehow it will go away by itself, and occasionally it appears to have done so. But when we leave it to chance, we’re passively depending on the other person’s grace rather than actively imparting grace to that person.
Does Paul offer any helpful and positive antidote for all these speech problems with which every honest person is all-too-well-acquainted? Indeed, he does. In the final verse of this chapter and the opening two verses of the next chapter, Paul counterbalances his grocery list of common faults in our speaking with an incredibly valuable grocery list of ways we can do better. There are 5 of these:
- Be kind to one another. “Speaking the truth in love” would be high on the list of ways we can exhibit kindness to others. We’re not asked to compromise what we believe to be true, but we are shown that our truth-speaking needs not to be too edgy. Is Paul speaking directly to some of us on this subject? I think he is. Try never to be the one to whom someone says, “You could have been kinder.”
- Be tender-hearted. I love this one. I happen to know that some of you are genuinely tender-hearted persons. And when you wear your tender-heartedness on your sleeve, others are likely to cut you a lot of slack when you occasionally and inevitably slip up in what you say.
- Be forgiving. For many of us, the opposite of being forgiving may not be being unforgiving. Rather it’s being dismissive. It’s much easier to “un-friend” someone than to repair a relationship through forgiveness. We once had a person say that we only need to forgive those who come and ask us for forgiveness. But Paul knocks that spirit out of the equation at once by saying that we are to forgive others “just as God in Christ has forgiven” us. When we pair that with what Paul had written in Romans 5 (8, 10) about Christ dying for us when we were sinners and were His enemies, we get the point. If we take the initiative in forgiveness, we are imparting grace by our godly behavior. When we harbor resentment and withhold forgiveness, we’re hurting both ourselves and the other person.
- Be imitators of God as beloved children. Now Paul is saying something really broad and really daunting. Jesus and virtually all the New Testament writers call us God’s beloved children. And that is what we are positionally through our adoption into God’s own family. We need to be acting out that position by imitating God in our interpersonal relationships and in our daily speech. If you don’t find that challenging, then I can only assume that you aren’t paying attention to what Paul is writing here.
- “Walk in love as Christ loved you and gave Himself for you, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God” (5:2). As we remarked last Sunday, these are words with which we preface every Eucharist. We say them at the very point when, in thanksgiving for what God has given to us, we present to Him our offerings of substance, bread and wine. But the offering that God repeatedly says He desires most is the offering of ourselves. If we do that, and “walk in love,” we may also speak in love.
May we all renew our commitment to these things today. May they effect a change in us that, far from grieving the Holy Spirit of God, will instead rejoice His heart. When that change occurs, it will show up in our speech patterns. And when that happens, it will transform our relationships with others in positive ways that will bring glory to God Himself.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.