The Power of Love: Speaking the Truth 14th Pentecost
Romans 13:8-14 September 6, 2020 Matthew 18:15-20
You all know what a scalpel is, right? It’s a small, very sharp cutting tool that is used by surgeons all around the world. In the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel can be the instrument of healing and hope. But, in the wrong hands, a scalpel can be an instrument of destruction and mayhem!
Did you know that our words also carry this dual possibility? When we use our words in the right way, they can be instruments of healing and hope. Used in the wrong way, they are instruments of destruction and mayhem. Even when we are speaking a truth!
Here’s what I mean: in the hands of a skilled surgeon, a scalpel opens up the patient and is used to cut away diseased or injured tissue. A sharp scalpel, carefully employed, causes the least amount of damage possible, and speeds the healing along. In the same way, words can be carefully employed to convey a truth in a way that causes as little damage as possible and helps to promote healing. If a person blurts out a harsh truth, speaking in disregard of how it will be received, it can cause tremendous hurt. That’s why Paul urges the Ephesians to speak the truth in love. Here’s what he says: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” This is the way to build up the body of Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Well, our texts for today are both about building up the body of Christ—the church. In Romans, Paul sums up the Christian faith by saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And in Matthew, we hear Jesus saying that carefully telling a brother or a sister the truth is the best way to restore a damaged relationship. It’s not about “being right.” It’s not about taking revenge. It’s all about building up one another—building up the body of Christ, the church.
One of the reasons that we truly NEED to hear the truth is that you and I are “flying blind.” We need feedback from others to help us live in a balanced reality, to get a sense of how we are interacting with our environment. We are “flying blind,” and others help us with our course corrections. This imagery really came into focus for me when we were still in the Apollo era of space exploration. When the astronauts were returning to earth, they had to turn their space capsule so that the “bottom” was facing earth for re-entry. That was where the heat-shield was. Problem was, turned in that direction, making their final approach was difficult. If they came in too steep, they would burn up in the atmosphere. If they came in too shallow, they would “bounce” off the atmosphere and fly off into space, never to be seen again! So they had a very critical angle in which to make their re-entry, and they were “flying blind.” That’s where Houston came in. Mission Control was able to give them feedback, telling them to adjust their pitch until they were just right. And with that feedback, the space capsules made their re-entry safely.
I sometimes picture myself as a space capsule, needing feedback from others to keep myself on a good course. Those who know me intimately and care about me help me make those “course corrections.” They tell me the truth in a way that helps me to understand. They hold up a mirror so that I can see things I could not otherwise see. They don’t condemn or judge, they just illuminate. They tell me the truth in love.
Now, some truths are pretty easy to tell. Like the friend who took me aside and let me know that my zipper was down! Or like when you tell a friend that they have green lettuce stuck on their teeth! Those things are simple when you care about a person and want to help them. But there are times when our caring has to be put into action by telling someone a difficult truth. It has to be expressed without judgment or condemnation, or it won’t get through—it will simply be rejected. It won’t do to just ignore something your brother or sister needs to know! But, even when speaking the truth is done with compassion and gentleness, there are still times when a person refuses to accept the truth. Jesus suggests in today’s reading that we then take reinforcements, “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
Isn’t this exactly what an intervention is? People who care about someone gather and confront their loved-one with their perceptions of the truth—explaining how the person’s actions have affected them—in the hope that the person will not be able to deny that it’s time to change course. It’s a way to facilitate a life-improving “course correction”!
Of course, we understand that people have the right to make their own decisions, and there are times when even the most persuasive intervention will be ignored. Jesus says that, if the person refuses to listen, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now, at first blush, this may seem like a command to shun the person, to give up on them, to say, “Well, I did my best to tell them the truth, and they didn’t listen. I wash my hands of them.”
But wait! If Jesus says to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax collector, we have to remember how JESUS treated Gentiles and tax collectors! (And don’t forget that Matthew, the author of today’s Gospel, was a former tax collector.) Jesus saw them as people who lived outside an understanding of God’s Truth. Jesus saw them as people to be loved, people to be sought after, people to whom he was OPEN. So if someone refuses to take the truth to heart, we don’t give up on them. We just love them the way we love children who don’t know any better. The way we love outsiders who don’t understand the things we understand. And we keep the door open to them!
One last thing about sharing difficult truths: sometimes we are cowards. Let me speak for myself. Sometimes, I am a coward. But if I truly love someone, I need to love them enough to hold up an accurate mirror for them—a mirror in which they can see themselves clearly in the light of love. God has NOT given us a spirit of timidity or cowardice, but a spirit of Power, and a spirit of Love! So I pray, “God, help me to love this person enough to tell the truth with compassion, and without judgment.”
Next week I am going to continue talking about the power of love, and will focus on FORGIVENESS. This banquet table laid out for us is a celebration of God’s decision to forgive us. It’s a reminder of the power of love to overcome even death!
Prayer: Almighty God, thank you for loving us. Thank you for doing everything needed to save us from ourselves. You promised us that we would know the truth, and that the truth would set us free. Today we ask you to fill us so full of your love that we will be able to tell others the truth with compassion and clarity. We ask this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.