Pentecost 11B; Proper 14
Few texts spark as much controversy and contention as those written by Paul, or those attributed to Paul.
Ephesians, as the latter, is no exception. This letter of membership with one another has, at times, been used to coerce reconciliation and forgiveness and to map the work of Jesus Christ onto every single human relationship without giving attention to the dynamics of wealth, power, race and status. Thanks be to God, the way out of such a flattened or even abusive reading of this text is, of course, through it.
Exploring the order of the imperatives in this portion of the letter to the Ephesians provides a nuanced reading of the text:
Put away falsehood. Speak the truth.
Be angry. Do not sin, and do not make room for the devil.
Give up stealing. Work honestly and share.
Let no evil talk come from your mouths. Give grace to those who hear.
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.
Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice.
Be kind and tenderhearted.
And only then: Forgive.
Imitate God. Live in love.
By my reading, this list starts with telling the truth, and it ends with living in love. Forgiveness is not the only part of it, and it is not even the most significant part of it. How might this text be preached in a way that does not fetishize forgiveness, but instead places it alongside many other important and complicated expressions of belonging to one another, including truth-telling, an end to slander, and even anger? What does the ordering of these imperatives mean for preaching this text, and for putting forgiveness in its proper place without absolutizing it?
I am reminded of Waltrina Middleton’s writings on forgiveness, as she tells of her family being made to forgive the murderer of her cousin DePayne at the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015. She writes of how “forgiveness remained the story line, with racism a hidden note.” She names that narratives of immediate forgiveness eclipse the importance of her family’s grief, saying: “I am a Christian. I am a minister. And I do not forgive. My lament does not make me less Christian, and it does not disqualify me as a woman of the cloth. It affirms my humanity; it rejects the moral injuries that plague our society. My lament draws me closer to Christ, who also lamented.”
According to this Ephesians text, there is a time for telling the truth, for putting away falsehood and dishonest gain, and there is a time for anger. And importantly, grief is featured prominently: The Holy Spirit is herself grieved by the harm humans inflict upon one another.
It might be time for United States Christianity to have a different sort of relationship with forgiveness. Again, the tools for a careful, complex and honest understanding of forgiveness are there in the biblical text itself. To absolutize forgiveness, and to demand it of those whose pain we do not bear is, in Reformed theological terms, idolatry. We must strip away the idolatries of elevating forgiveness above other moral calls to belong to one another, with all the messiness that entails. Forgiveness is one way to name the work of Jesus and the work of Christians in the world. It is not the only way. When forgiveness is presented – particularly by the powerful to those who have been subjected by that power – as the sole option for Christians, as if real relationships are not marked by all manner of complex dynamics that can never fit into a single word or idea, the demand for forgiveness can itself prevent true healing.
So maybe it’s time – particularly for those of us from historical positions of power – to set aside coercive forgiveness and simply ask: Are we telling the truth? Are we living in the love of God? Maybe if we honestly face these questions, forgiveness will come in time. And maybe it won’t. Because, in the end, it has never all been up to us. We can, in our very limited ways, imitate God. But we cannot be God. And that is the good news of Ephesians.
Questions for reflection:
- Have you ever been made to forgive before you were ready? What did that feel like? Have you ever asked this of another?
- Where is the Spirit calling you to put away falsehood and tell the truth?
- What are concrete ways you can imitate God, even while admitting your own limitations?