Ephesians 4 (selected verses)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The letter to the church in Ephesus is likely not to have been written by Paul himself, but by one of his followers who is taking care to reinforce some of what Paul was trying to inculcate into the new gatherings of people he called the ekklesia, which literally means “called out,” and is often translated as “church.” Paul is determined that the people whom God has called out to become the church are to be markedly different than the Gentile culture at large and also different than those who had been called together in Judaism. The rules and the roles have been changed. “You are no longer to walk as the Gentiles,” we read in the letter.
This is an interesting cultural shift, reinforcing that Christian community is to be in the world, but not of the world. There are going to be different standards and expectations of behavior of the members of this community, and at its core, the expectations center around love for one another. The writer of this letter calls out “humility, gentleness, magnanimity, bearing with one another in love” in order to keep the unity of those gathered. We are to shed our old way of being and develop a new community. “Let each one of you speak the truth to your neighbor, because we are one another’s corporal members,” that is, we are part of a single body, which is the body of Christ, the Anointed.
Over the next month or two, I’m going to be talking about the first concept mentioned in our new strategic plan: becoming Beloved Community. That may be a new term for you, and for others it will rings some bells as a concept used by MLK in the struggle for racial justice. To be sure, justice is a part of it. And there is much more. The early 20th century American philosopher, Josiah Royce, coined the term “Beloved Community,” and describes its Pauline roots this way: “The Apostle [Paul] has discovered a special instance of one of the most significant of all moral and religious truths, the truth that a community, when unified by an active indwelling purpose, is an entity more concrete and, in fact, less mysterious than is any individual man, and that such a community can love and be loved as a husband and wife love; or a father and mother love.” Beloved Community has a macro sense, a societal sense, but it also has the sense of being most readily at play in a community of faith.
That Beloved Community is one of the first aims of our strategic plan, and it is the kind of community Paul was aiming for in the first century. And like the Kingdom of God itself, Beloved Community is elusive…we only catch fleeting glimpses of it being manifested, but those brief appearances are important, because without them, we have no vision of the future God is calling us toward. And so, too, it embodies the second piece of our mission statement of inviting, transforming, and sending. We not only need transformation, we will be transformed whether we like it or not. The question is what is the result of our metamorphosis? Will we move to become more Christlike or will we conform more to the culture around us? What does transformation mean for you, relative to becoming Beloved Community here at Plymouth?
The epistle-writer describes our growth this way: “So that we might no longer be infants, wave-tossed and carried about by every wind of teaching, by men’s sleight of hand, by villainy attendant upon error’s wiliness, but rather, speaking the truth in love we may in all things grow into him who is the head,” namely Christ. And we all have growing still to do.
You probably have heard that phrase before: “speaking the truth in love.” And like most parts of trying to lead a life of faith, it is not an easy task. Most of us would rather not speak an uncomfortable or an inconvenient truth in a loving way, if at all. And it certainly is not the norm in American political discourse.
In my family growing up, there were uncomfortable or inconvenient truths we never mentioned at least to my parents. It was hard to move to a new place so often…I attended four high schools in four years. Speaking the truth in love might have been having a sit-down with my parents and letting them know how difficult it was, but instead of doing that, I just stuffed it and learned to adapt again and again. We learned in my family not to rock the boat, to withhold truths that were too difficult to enunciate or to hear.
How was it for you growing up? Was direct, loving communication typical in your family, or was it more like mine…or somewhere in between? If you have kids, how did or are you raising them in terms of encouraging them to speak the truth in love? How is it for you and your spouse or partner or dearest friend? Are you able to speak the truth in love? Sometimes, it’s easier to avoid…but that poses problems in the long run.
Direct, loving communication is difficult, but it is healthy — in relationships, in families, and in organizations, and it’s a hallmark of Beloved Community. Matthew’s gospel advises us what to do when we have been slighted: “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. You may have found this to be true in your closest relationships and in your family, but it is also true in organizations and especially in churches. And we have some growing to do in this area at Plymouth.
This week, I shared some difficult personal news in a letter to our members. I’ve been treated twice for prostate cancer, and early this spring, my PSA levels began to rise, signaling a biochemical recurrence of prostate cancer. It’s scary and daunting for me and my family. And it isn’t easy for me to share that news with you. I’m kind of a private person and to be honest, I’d rather just keep it to myself as I learn more about the progress of the disease and what treatment options are available. Part of the reason I am being open and transparent with you is to demonstrate what it looks like to use open, direct communication: speaking the truth in love. And I trust that you will receive this message in the same spirit in which it is offered, and I ask that you, as Beloved Community, remember me in your prayers.
The other important piece of community that we read about in this epistle is saying that anger is okay, but rather that we shouldn’t let it fester. It’s normal for couples, families, people in congregations to disagree, and that’s okay, even when it results in someone getting angry. The trick is not to let anger stew within you and turn into bitterness. That’s good advice in relationships as well as in churches. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in couples’ counseling, but don’t these words ring true: “Let all bitterness and animosity…be removed from you.…Become helpfully kind to one another, inwardly compassionate, forgiving among yourselves.” It can be hard to “practice the pause” and not be reactive when someone says something that ticks you off, but to wait for even a few seconds and say to yourself, “Oh…I wonder if he is having a hard day,” or “Yep, that snippy response probably came from a place of hurt, rather than from animosity.” Or maybe realizing it’s how you’ve heard something with your own background issues at play: Maybe taking a breath and realizing, “That is really pushing my buttons….maybe I’m getting triggered by something that has nothing to do with her or the issue at hand.” Pausing and reflecting helps us to be more compassionate with one another…and to become more Christlike.
What happens if we avoid open, direct conversations, even those that are a little bit scary? It means that we are not able to be fully authentic with ourselves or with others, and it’s impossible to grow into Beloved Community without being authentic. We need to be a little bit brave to engage in Courageous Conversations. So far as I know, nobody has died from having a Courageous Conversation in church…at least since the wars of religion following the Reformation in the 16th century.
Nobody ever said that Christianity or Beloved Community was easy…it’s not. But there is something I know to be true: it can be and often is a source of awareness, connection, meaning-making, and joy. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even in light of institutional racism, even in the wake of insurrection, it is possible for us to find a sense of joy in Beloved Community, which is another way of incarnating the kingdom of God.
May you be challenged, goaded, guided, and graced by the Spirit as we grow together.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.