For the past several weeks, we have been on a road trip with God. Every Sunday we’ve looked at the Scripture passages for the week as though they were scenic stops along the way, and we’ve asked ourselves what these sights and sounds might have to teach us. I imagine that some of these scenic locations have connected with each of you differently, some leaving a fleeting impression and others sticking with you and leaving their imprint on your heart.
We are drawing closer to the end of our journey, but we have a little ways yet to go. We’ve consulted the itinerary. We’ve navigated roundabouts and stopped at rest areas. We’ve stopped to be refueled and we have paused to reflect on the journey along the way. Today, as we prepare to get out of the car and examine Ephesians 4, we notice that the check engine light has lit up on the dashboard. Ugh.
I don’t know about you, but few things in a car have the ability to get my heart rate up and make me panic like the check engine light. That little light tells us that something needs attention right away, and it could be triggered by anything from a faulty sensor to something far more serious and expensive.
In this letter to the Ephesian church, we see a call to pull over and to run a diagnostic scan. We are urged to examine our hearts and to make sure things are in good working order. So, I hope you’ll bear with me and the panic of that little check engine light for a few minutes as we pull over the car and make sure we are ready to get back on our journey with God once again.
When I was a kid, my family was returning from a road trip when the check engine light turned on. We were not very far from home when it happened – I think maybe fifteen miles or so. We drove up a hill just before our exit that would take us back home when the car quit working completely. My dad quickly shifted the car into neutral and we coasted back into town. The reason the car quit working? It turned out the engine on our car couldn’t handle the percentage of ethanol in the gas we had most recently filled up with. We were fortunate that all we needed to do was gas up with the right kind of fuel the next time. But, had we been farther from home when the car stopped running, we would have ended up stranded on the side of the road. And this was before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket or purse, so who knows how it all would have turned out. In our case, the check engine light was a warning that all systems were about to shut down. The car needed immediate attention, which meant pulling over, evaluating the problem, and fueling up with the right kind of gasoline so that we could drive again.
The very end of Ephesians 4 might read at first like a disjointed collection of things to do or avoid doing, but I believe the key is in verse 25: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Let’s allow this verse to be our check engine light calling us to explore what’s going on within our hearts. And, if we take this verse apart piece by piece, we will discover what’s needed so that we can get back on the road again.
Verse 25 begins with these two important words, “So then.” “So then” lets us know that what we are about to read is the tail end of an argument, which means we need to back up and read what came before it. It is a way of saying, “Because of all of this, here’s the next step.” “So then” is a lot like the word “therefore,” which reminds us to back up and ask what the “therefore” is there for.
If we back up to the beginning of the chapter, we read this: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” For the Ephesian church, this unity was a way of demonstrating the way Christ had unified both the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in their community. As it says earlier in Ephesians, “For [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” (Ephesians 2:14). As Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament at Emory University, puts it, “In the larger context of the letter, the gift of God in Christ has brought about reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles, creating one community, which the author describes metaphorically both as Christ’s “body” (e.g., 1:22-23) and as a building (2:21-22).”
“So then,” because Christ has unified us as a body, because everything that separated us from one another has been set aside because of the love of Christ, we are called to “[put] away falsehood” and “speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Unity is what holds all of it together, but underneath that umbrella of unity, we are called to put away falsehood and to speak the truth to our neighbor.
First, we are called to put away falsehood. The word “falsehood” in the Greek is the word “pseudos,” like in the word “pseudonym.” Falsehood can be false religion, a false sense of identity, or even lying. Falsehood is the opposite of truth, and we are told to “put off” falsehood. That word “put off” appears just a few verses earlier in Ephesians in verse 22: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). We need to take off the false self, the old identity, and be clothed with the new self.
What is your false self? What falsehood needs to be removed, taken off, and put away? When I was a kid, I was a bit of a chameleon, or maybe more like modeling clay. I was quiet and shy and I went along with what people around me did. If they were saying hurtful things about other people, I didn’t join in, but I didn’t speak up either. If they told jokes that were demeaning or offensive, I didn’t laugh, but I didn’t tell them how those jokes made me feel. I went along because I wanted to be loved. I wanted a place to belong, a group where I fit. It took me time to realize that fitting in doesn’t matter if I have to clothe myself in falsehood in order to do it. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to grow up in the age of social media influencers, TikTok views, and hot takes. The pressure to clothe ourselves in a false self or a sense of identity is so strong today I don’t know how I would have handled it.
In Henri Nouwen’s book Here and Now, he tells the story of watching a mime routine in which the mime was struggling to open the three doors in front of him. He pushed and pulled and kicked and fought to open those doors, but none of them would open. Nouwen said this about what he saw, “It was a ridiculous, yet very hilarious sight, because the man was so concentrated on the three locked doors that he didn’t even notice the room had no back wall and that he could simply walk out if he would only turn around and look! That is what conversion is all about. It is a complete turnaround that allows us to discover that we are not the prisoners we think we are.”
We do not need to cave to the pressure to put on the false self that we think others want to see. We may get clicks, or likes, or some prestige or popularity when we put on our false self, but we are missing the way out. We are missing the wide open door that leads to the loving embrace of God.
In today’s world, it is difficult to put off the false self. We are urged to entrench ourselves into camps of like minded people. We are encouraged to group people together, to judge them, to either accept them as one of us, or to identify them as the enemy. This push to lump people together and to lump ourselves in with people just like us is a daily exercise in putting on the false self. Friends, we have to find a way to pull off the false self, to turn around, and to walk through the wide open door that leads to life.
Let’s put off the false self, and then let’s “speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Perhaps this makes you wonder, “What is truth?” or perhaps you’re already sure of what truth the writer of Ephesians was referring to, but in either case, we need to remember that not long ago in the book Ephesians we are told to “speak the truth in love.” So, whatever truth we are speaking, it needs to be done from a place of love rather than judgment or condemnation.
But, who is my neighbor? Is it the person who goes to church with us? Is it the person who lives right next door? Is it the person at the gas station who is grumpy every time they see us? Yes. This word neighbor means just that. It’s the one who is nearest to us at that moment. And the reason we are supposed to speak the truth to our neighbors is not because we are supposed to correct them, or because we want them to be more like us. The reason? “For we are members of one another.”
The person who disagrees with me on social media, the person who irritates me whenever we are together, the person who is kind to me, my neighbor who puts up with my weedy yard – we are members of one another. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we chose to believe that? What would happen to all of the division and anger and hostility if we truly believed we were members of one another?
Perhaps we would find ourselves living out Ephesians 5:1-2: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” I’m going to be honest. Sometimes it is hard to live in love and to offer myself up for others. After 18 months of hyperfocusing on taking care of others, I’m exhausted. Sometimes it is tempting to give up, to focus on caring for myself no matter what it costs others. Sometimes my heart feels so compassion-weary, so tired of trying to live in a way that lifts others up and knits us all together as one body, as one family. Sometimes, when I’m in that place of compassion-weariness, it is tempting to stop caring about others. And it is tempting to call that self-care.
This week when I was out in my garden, I felt overwhelmed by how weedy and terrible it looked. I looked at the neglected weedpatch and thought to myself, “Why try? There’s always next year.” And then I came inside and read this in my Bible from Galatians 6, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
This week, my check engine light came on, and the diagnostic scan showed that I still need to work at putting off the false self and speaking the truth to my neighbor. We are members of each other. One body. One family. One community.
What would it mean to live that way in all the small decisions we make? What would it look like to live in a way that acknowledged that our neighbors are members of us? What decisions might we make in the grocery store? In the phone conversation to the person we’ve been putting off calling? In our interactions with friends and family who see things differently from the way we do?
This week, let’s take some time to scan our hearts. To adjust where needed. And then turn around and walk through the wide open door to freedom and abundant life. Holy Spirit, guide us and change us we pray. Amen.