Words matter. How many of us grew up with our mommas telling us, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”? If we were to boil down this section of Ephesians to one sentence, that’s pretty much what it would be.
But for the author of this book, there’s much more at stake in this saying than being polite with your words or not hurting someone’s feelings. The very life of the church is up for grabs. In our words. The author has spent considerable time establishing that the purpose of the church is to show the world what God is up to–to put skin on God’s love for the world to see.
The way the church deals with divisions, factions, deliberate spiritual growth, growing up in Christ either help or hurt the church in that purpose. Today, the author makes the case that the way the church speaks and acts toward each other is vital to its purpose with Jesus.
Vs 29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.”
I agree, not because it’s nice, but because we’ve all experienced the consequences of what the author calls “evil talk;” and we’ve all experienced the new life that comes from “saying what is useful for building up.” These are not trivial things. Words matter. They have the power to take life or to give live. And in the church, we are about giving life. That has to include our words.
Three and a half years ago I received an email saying that I was one of 16 pastors who had been nominated for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod. That email began a journey the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I am a very private person, and going through that very public process of electing a bishop brought out some very deep personal fears and insecurities I had been living with for my whole life. Now I could be ridiculed by thousands of people across five states.
That election process left me feeling really vulnerable and inadequate.
That descended into a realization that my always-trusty theology wasn’t adequate to deal with all this.
That descended into feeling like I was inadequate as a pastor, and therefore totally to blame for a six-year numerical decline here.
That descended into feeling totally incompetent as a pastor.
That descended into feeling inadequate as a human being.
That descended into a diagnosis of clinical depression.
Needless to say, I was in a pretty vulnerable state. Everything that I felt had given me a solid place to stand–even if just to rest awhile–seemed to be crumbling beneath me. I felt worthless, inadequate, incompetent, and a failure. I was very susceptible to what Ephesians calls “evil talk.”
Now, I realize that some of that “evil talk” just comes with being human, it’s unavoidable–and certainly comes with this job. Normally it slides off me pretty readily. But I was really vulnerable and feeling weak. I felt that everything I was feeling about myself was now being said by others too. In my state of doubt and vulnerability, I was in no position to defend or deflect the words.
I was feeling beaten down, battered, and bloodied. After 30 years of ordained ministry, 17 of which have been here, the rumors and ill-spoken words, betrayals and half-truths–what Ephesians calls evil words–had defeated me. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do.
All I knew was that I could not stand on my own.
It was at that point that I heard words of grace spoken. Words that (as Ephesians says) were kind, tenderhearted, forgiving. Words that revealed God’s mercy. Words spoken in love and care. Words that were true, not always easy, but were upbuilding. Words of life. Some of these words were spoken by God. Some by those who knew where I was. But many of these words were spoken by people in this congregation who without knowing it were reflections of God’s grace.
That, I believe, is what the author of Ephesians is talking about. The community of the church being imitators of God, reflecting grace and love and truth because they practice it and work at it. The words spoken within the church need to bring life.
And because of the words that were useful for building up, my path in the darkness began to lighten. There was a profound presence in words of encouragement that were sustaining and calm. The words brought rest in the arms of Jesus.
It was words that brought a change for me in the darkness. Evil talk had defeated me, but words that encouraged gave me hope and new life. Words matter. What we say to and about each other is the difference between being Christ’s church and merely a gathering of good people.
This is more important than we realize. This is life and death for the church. This is a place where words matter. Where truth matters. Where encouragement matters. To be the church Jesus calls us to be, this has to be a place of encouragement and words that are useful for building up. As the author says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”
To reveal God’s love in the world we all need encouragement and bulding up, words that are true and tenderhearted and forgiving. In Christ’s name, may LCM always be that place.