The second congregation I served was in Erzingen, a village in the south of Germany, on the Swiss border; lovely country, hills covered with vineyards; on clear days I could see the the Alps to the south. The bishop had told me the people there weren’t quick to embrace newcomers, but, like a good brick oven, once they had warmed up they would stay warm for a long time. The story I want to tell you, though, has nothing to do with the beauty of the land or the slow-burning love of its people.
The hospital was a few miles down the road, in the town where most of the stores were and the high schools and the doctor’s offices. One day I drove there to visit a parishioner, and when I walked into the room her doctor was with her, so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes. At the end of the hallway was a glass door that led to a small patio, and I liked the idea of sitting in the sun for a moment while I was waiting. So I stepped out on the patio and was about to close the door, when I noticed a man walking up from a room down the hall; dressed in a hospital gown, he was pushing an IV pole with a couple of bags. “Ah, looks like you want to get some fresh air, too,” I said, holding the door for him, but he didn’t respond. He stood close to the wall, rearranging the IV lines that had gotten a bit tangled, and then he reached into the pocket of his gown and pulled out a device that looked like a small, electric razor. He held it to his throat and I heard a voice like a robot’s say, “Thank you.”
“Throat cancer,” he said, pointing to a hole in his throat through which he breathed in and out. Then he reached again into the pocket of his gown and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He took one and the next thing I noticed was the size of the hole in his throat was just big enough to hold a filter cigarette. He had a smoke on the patio and I tried hard not to stare. How many times a day, I wondered, did he step out there just to give his body the nicotine it craved?
Taking off your shoes and pants, your shirt and undies and putting on a hospital gown is a lot easier than changing your habits. It’s easy to talk or write about change, as Paul did in this letter, “Put away your former way of life that was part of the person you once were. Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person.” But if change really were as easy as pulling a fresh shirt from the closet and putting it on, Paul wouldn’t have written about it. He knows that our new self is more than a matter of insight, personal reinvention, and will power. He writes to remind us that we become who we are meant to be not in solitary pursuit of whatever we perceive perfection to be, but rather together in the body of Christ. Our newness in Christ, the new humanity we are in Christ, has profound personal consequences for each and all of us, but it is a reality of cosmic proportions, not just another self-help program.
In Christ we are no longer condemned to live under the reign of sin and death. We are chosen and called to live according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. That life is already ours because Christ has made us his own, embracing every last one of us as his sister and brother, regardless of what the reign of sin and death has done to us. Regardless of what we have done to each other under their reign, he embraces us for the sake of true righteousness and true holiness. I emphasize true, because for some of us righteousness immediately triggers images of self-righteous hypocrites, and holiness sounds to many ears like sanctimonious arrogance. And as if he saw that coming, the apostle writes, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to each other.” He knows we’ve gotten used to wearing masks under the regime of fear that is the reign of sin and death. We’ve gotten used to wearing masks and masquerading around each other. We’ve gotten used to living as pseudo people. “So then, putting away pseudo,” writes the apostle, “let all of us speak the truth to each other for we belong to each other as members of one body.” Putting away bogus, sham, phony, mock, fake, false, pretend, and put-on let us speak the truth to each other. That’s a big deal. The apostle has a lot to say about anger and the devil, and about thievery and work in this portion of his letter, but before he gets to any of that, he says, “Drop the pseudo, be real.” That’s how we live into the life that is already ours because Christ has made us his own. We drop the masks. We stop masquerading and pretending. We allow ourselves to be the broken human beings we are and we allow the Spirit of God to heal us and clothe us anew.
On Thursday evenings, whenever I can, I go out to Riverbend prison to be part of a group of insiders and outsiders who learn together. We meet from 6 to 7:45; in the spring and fall we have a class where all of us are teachers and students, and in the weeks and months between semesters, we get together and let the conversation take us where it wants to go. We always do a round at the beginning where one of us asks a question and all of us respond; and the questions are not about our favorite food or our dream vacation.
“What gives you strength?”
“Where is your heart right now?”
“How do you keep hope alive?”
We go around the circle; we listen and speak; if any don’t want to respond, they say, “I pass;” but that doesn’t happen often. We talk and we listen, and the responses we hear can be deep, touching, funny, surprising and sad, but they rarely feel pseudo. The insiders, some of them have been in prison for fifteen and more years, have stopped pretending being somebody they are not, and that creates a space for us outsiders who come and go, to be real and vulnerable as well. We allow ourselves and each other to be the broken human beings we are and we allow the Spirit of God to heal us and clothe us anew.
John says, for him it’s like going to church. For me, it’s a gift and a challenge not to let that intimidating high fence, topped with coils of razor wire be a dividing wall totally separating “them” from “us.” Every time I look at that fence, the verse from Ephesians 2 comes to mind, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). That little group at Riverbend is a community of reconciliation, and being part of it has taught me dimensions of being a member in the body of Christ that I doubt I could have learned anywhere else. In Christ we become who we are meant to be as people made in the likeness of God not by hiding from each other or excluding each other, but by turning toward each other in truth.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” writes the apostle, “but only what is useful for building up (…) so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Let no evil talk come out of your mouths. That’s not the same as, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” which Thumper said, according to Disney. Words that give grace to those who hear aren’t necessarily nice or warm and fuzzy, but they are never violent or hateful. They emerge from the love that is building up the body of Christ, and speaking them contributes to the body’s growth toward fullness and wholeness.
We talk a lot about free speech, and rightly so, and we debate passionately if freedom of speech also protects hate speech. We have known for generations that words matter. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” our ancestors wrote in the book of Proverbs (12:18) for future generations to know and remember. Words build up and tear down, they wound or heal, they may give grace or condemn.
The apostle urges us to consider a different kind of freedom of speech. Because Christ has bound himself to us in love, we are bound to him and to the promise of life he has opened for us in his death and resurrection. We are free to be real, because he knows and loves us. We are free to speak non-violently, because his Spirit inspires us. We are free to speak the truth in love, cleaning the verbal air at the office or at school from sexist and racist talk, because we are not afraid. We practice holy speech, as odd and out-of-date that may sound at first. We practice speech that emerges from the deep love that constitutes the body of Christ. Speaking words that give grace to those who hear we contribute to their growth and our own toward the fullness and wholeness whose measure is Christ; we are changed.
Now to him who by the power at work among us and within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.