Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 19 • 9 Aug 2015

2 Samuel 18:5-9. 15, 31-33
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Rev. Chris Udy

Dr Anita Kelly
is Professor of Psychology
at the University of Notre Dame.
Last August she presented a paper
to the American Psychological Association.
It was the latest report of her study
into the “Science of Honesty” -
in which she found that
“Telling the truth
when tempted to lie
can significantly improve
a person’s mental and physical health”.
Apparently American adults
tell an average of 11 lies each week,
and Dr Kelly wanted to see,
first, whether people could live without lying,
and, second, whether not telling lies
made them feel better,
either physically or mentally.
What she and her team found
was that people could find ways to be honest,
and that when they did,
they did feel significantly better.
They were less tense, less melancholy,
and they had fewer sore throats or headaches.
Those who lived more honestly -
who reduced the number of lies they told -
including even those little white lies
that we tell to keep other people happy -
those who lived more honestly
reported that their close personal relationships
had actually improved,
and that their social interactions
had gone more smoothly as a result.

At the end of the study,
those who had been told
to avoid telling lies
described how they had achieved their honesty.
According to Dr Kelly,
“some said they realized
they could simply tell the truth
about their daily accomplishments
rather than exaggerate”;
“others said they stopped making false excuses
for being late or failing to complete tasks”,
and others again said
that they learned to avoid lying
by responding to a troubling question
with a question of their own.

“So then,” we read this morning from Ephesians,
“putting away falsehood,
let all of us
speak the truth to our neighbours,
for we are members of one another.”

It seems such a simple thing:
to tell the truth;
to be who we are;
not to exaggerate, not to excuse,
but to live and speak honestly;
to reveal how we feel,
and what we think,
in a way that others can trust
to be sincere.
It’s obviously good for us;
it’s clearly better for those we love
and who love us,
and ultimately it’s the only way
our neighbourhoods and communities can work -
but it’s also radically strange
and quite uncomfortable.

We’re so used to being lied to -
by the advertising industry,
by politicians and their minders,
by media organisations through their bias,
by competitors in business and society,
and even by the members of our family -
we’re so used to being lied to
that we come to expect it.
We construct our world
assuming that the information we receive is suspect;
we create a shell around us,
a facade - a mask, or a role -
to protect ourselves
from the world’s deceit and damage -
and that means what we present to the world
becomes, in itself, a lie.

And, tragically,
although we’d like to hope
that, at least, in matters of faith
we might be honest -
often it seems easier
to tell and live a lie
than admit to others - or to ourselves -
or even to God -
that we have questions, and hungers, and doubts,
and sometimes it’s beyond us to believe.

“So then, putting away falsehood,
let all of us
speak the truth to our neighbours,
for we are members of one another.”

We’ve been reading passages
from the letter to the Ephesians -
and today our reading includes
these wonderful paragraphs
full of little nuggets of wisdom
that, for many people, have become
personal proverbs or spiritual mottos:
“Be angry, but do not sin”.
“Do not let the sun go down on your anger”.
“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”,
“be kind to one another,
tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Together, they’re a description
of Christian character -
what it means to live peacefully, and hopefully;
how to become a person
who sustains and encourages life,
rather than someone who damages and drains it -
how to be a source, and not a sponge -
but there’s also a little irony
in this part of the letter.

Traditionally the letter to the Ephesians
has been attributed to Paul.
It starts with a greeting from Paul,
it includes descriptions of Paul’s work,
and it ends in a very similar way
to the letters we know he wrote -
but there are some problems
with the style and detail of the letter,
and it reads quite strangely
as a letter to a community
where Paul had established
warm and close friendships,
and where he’d lived for a significant time.
Apart from the greeting,
it never mentions Ephesus,
or anyone who lived there,
and it just doesn’t sound
like the letters Paul wrote to places he knew.
It has none of that a healthy mix
of frustration and affection
Paul expresses in his letters to Corinth, for example.
So many of those
who know Paul’s writing best
think that the letter to the Ephesians
was originally a general epistle,
probably not written by Paul,
but by someone who respected and admired him,
sent out, in his name, to encourage and teach
all the Christian communities in Asia Minor.
Sometime later, they believe,
someone also tacked on a beginning and an ending
that mentioned both Paul and Ephesus,
because general letters
weren’t read with the same kind of interest
or copied with the same kind of authority
as letters that had an apostle’s name on them
or were associated with an important city.

So, unfortunately,
the letter begins and ends
with what are probably little white lies -
added on because whoever did it
thought that would give the letter
more significance and status -
and ever since,
whenever people have read and studied the letter
there’s been a little discussion like this,
wondering whether Paul was its author
and who it was first addressed to.
Thankfully the letter to the Ephesians
contains a number of profound and important
insights for Christian faith -
so it stands on its own merits -
but, like all questionable representations,
whether they’re white or dark,
ultimately the exaggerations just don’t help,
and they may do a great deal of damage.

“So then, putting away falsehood,
let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours,
for we are members of one another.
Be angry, but do not sin;
don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”

At its best,
Christian community values everyone
as worthy of respect and attention.
Sometimes we lose our way
and discriminate according to sex,
or age, or wealth, or public position,
but when we do that
the Body of Christ is poorer and less healthy.
“We are members of one another”, Ephesians says,
and when we stop listening to those
who have reason to be angry or distressed,
we’re like a body that can’t feel -
we open ourselves to damage and infection.
So living honestly
includes saying and hearing things
that aren’t always comfortable,
but if we want to grow to maturity,
if we want to become who we’re meant to be,
we need to pay attention to the pain,
and provide the resources
our wounded members need
to find healing and grow strong.

Unfortunately there are passages in Ephesians
that have been used to silence those
who have good reason to complain.
Those who trafficked in slaves
often quoted Ephesians 6
as a justification and authorisation
for their ownership of other human beings.
That same chapter has been used
by parents who have dreadfully abused
and controlled the lives of their children,
and in chapter five there are passages
that men have insisted give them automatic authority
over their wives in marriage.
Ephesians isn’t always consistent -
either with the rest of the New Testament,
or with itself.
In Galatians,
a letter we are certain came from Paul,
he writes:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
And just a few sentences
after Ephesians says “Be angry, but do not sin”
we also read “Put away from you
all bitterness and wrath and anger” -
but that’s probably nit-picking.
Ephesians isn’t perfect,
but it does encourage us to honesty -
not for the sake of malice, or mischief,
but to build relationships and communities
that have the potential to be lively, healthy and strong.
“Do not let the sun go down on your anger” -
don’t let a hurt or a problem
fester and get inflamed -
but also “let no evil talk
come out of your mouths,
but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need,
so that your words may give grace
to those who hear.”
“And be kind to one another,
tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

There is a guiding image in Ephesians.
It describes the Church as the Body of Christ -
not just at the local level, in congregations,
but globally - in every place
that Christians live and work.
That’s partly what gives it
the sense of a general epistle.
Together, it says, as the Body of Christ,
we continue what Jesus did when he was here:
we work for reconciliation -
for peace with justice,
not just among ourselves,
but in the world.
Like Jesus, we need to listen and respond
to those on whom the weight of the world descends.
We need to listen for and speak the truth -
because that’s the only way
that we and the world
can become as God intended -
a place of beauty, and blessing,
and hope and grace.
Like Jesus also, we need to mature into
and reflect the character of God,
and the character of God –
God’s essential nature -
is truth in love.
We listen for and speak the truth
as faithfully and carefully as we can -
even though we know it will never be perfect -
because it’s in the truth
that we most clearly encounter God,
and it’s when we speak the truth in love
that we reveal God.
“Therefore” our reading from Ephesians ends
“be imitators of God,
as beloved children,
and live in love,
as Christ loved us
and gave himself for us”. Amen