Converting our Tongues
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/10th August 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
A pre-school teacher tells the story of the four year old who was sent to apologize to a child he had hit on the playground. Several minutes later, he struck again. When the teacher called him over, he explained, “That’s okay. I’ll apologize to him later.” A major misunderstanding! It took the teacher quite a while to persuade him that hitting another child was never okay. That was not the point of apologizing. When a pre-school child comes up with a skewed view of the moral universe, teachers and care-takers wonder what the child sees going on at home. In that child’s world people don’t seem to matter. In that child’s world, language doesn’t seem to matter, either. An apology means very little – empty words.
This story directs us to the way we as Christians operate in our moral universe, the way we as Christians view people and the language we use when we interact with people. As human beings, we are blessed with the faculty of speech. We swim in a sea of language. Our humanity shapes the language we use and our language shapes our humanity. Our ability to speak and to create new worlds of meaning through the use of words is, for me, what it means to be created in the image of God. To be created with this imago Dei, this image of God, means that we are the product of God’s graceful imagination through which we were called into being when God spoke. We worship a speaking God, whose speech is creative and dynamic. When Yahweh speaks, things happen. When Yahweh speaks, people are formed and called into life. God said, “Let there be light. . . . (Genesis 1:3)” And there was: light. God speaks into the chaos and void and brings forth life. We are the result of God’s creative speech, we are God’s speech creatures, created with the faculty of speech to communicate with one another, but most notably created with the faculty to talk with God – to pray, to praise.
Words matter to God. Words are holy to this God who is the Word. Through words God communicates to us who God is and what God is doing. Words are meant to bless and heal. Words are meant to build up and strengthen. Words are meant to convey grace, love, and mercy. When the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth in the face of Christ, God couldn’t have been clearer in articulating who God is and what God is doing in the world. Language, words, speech are all important to God. It is through language that we continue to shape reality. Words matter, they effect the way we view ourselves, view others, and even God. This is why we use inclusive language about God in the church, in translating scripture, in our hymns and prayers and sermons; not because we are trying to be politically correct, but because we’re trying to be theologically correct. Scripture demands this of us.
If our capacity for speech reflects God’s image at work in us, the opposite is also true: our speech, the way we talk is also proof (as if anyone needs proof) that we are also fallen creatures, that the imago Dei, the image has been tarnished. Although I want to talk about Ephesians 4, it is James who sums up this point in his epistle, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. (James 3: 5b-10a)”
It’s remarkable. We use words to lift someone up when they’re discouraged; and we use words to pummel someone down into the dirt. We use words to foster reconciliation and peace; and words can persuade armies to go off and be slaughtered. We can use words to comfort; we use words to wound. We can use words to express the passions of the heart, “I love you.” Or, “I hate you.” We can use words to praise God. We can use words to curse God. This, it seems to me, is one of the most outrageous forms of blasphemy, to use words to curse God, the Word. Martin Luther (1483-1546), was right. We are both saved and damned (simul justus et peccator).
Yes, we often talk about converting our souls or hearts, but there’s no doubt that our tongues need to be converted, too. The Bible is full of warning about the evils of the tongue, the insidious nature of gossip, and slanderous comments that hurt and destroy. Our tongues can be like sharp swords that cut to the heart. We aim our words like a deadly arrow as if to kill (Psalm 64:3). We say things we don’t mean sometimes. And sometimes we say, regrettably, the things we do mean. Once it’s out of our mouth, it’s too late. We have all said things that we regret.
One Sunday morning I said something I regretted. The year after I returned from Scotland I lived at home with my parents in northern New Jersey. I was rushing out of the house on my way to Staten Island where I was to be a guest preacher. I was running late, a little frantic. I kissed my mother good-bye and she said to me, “Be careful.” Now I was 26 years old, lived away at school, lived abroad for the year and yet she was always telling me to be careful, and it was driving me nuts. I know parents say such things out of love; I have no doubt that my mother loved me. But hearing this was getting to me. So I got mad and said, “No, I’m going to reckless. I’m not going to be careful. Today, I’m going to be careless” And I left the house. Those were the last words I spoke to her.
In fits of rage and anger, we say hurtful things to the people we love which we wish we could take back (Maybe this was true for you this morning getting ready for church?). When we hear hurtful things said to us, it’s like a spear or sword that pierces our heart and it shakes our whole being. Sometimes it takes years to get over something hurtful that’s been said. When we say hurtful things, there’s a part of our hearts that are also wounded. We become the victims of a self-inflicted wound. All of this doesn’t do anyone any good.
As followers of Jesus we are called to a higher standard, a different ethic, a more perfect way. But as we learn from Ephesians, ethical maturity is very rare. These early Christians were not perfect. If they weren’t struggling with these issues, Paul wouldn’t have been writing about them. In this text vices are matched with virtues, virtues that need to be strengthened and cultivated both individually and together. The development and health of the whole church requires the well-being of its members. The health of the church is always threatened and weak when the members have corrupt speech. What is needed in the church is Christian speech. This is the way members who are bound to one another and to Christ speak to one another and to Christ. Christian speech is the way language is redeemed in and through the communal life of the church.
These sentences in Ephesians have to do with the way Christians speak with and about one another in the worshipping community. Christian speech is not anger, quarreling, bitterness, ruining the reputation of another, lying, or deceit. There is no place for obscene vulgarity. Foul language is inappropriate. But more than anything, anything that is slanderous or contemptuous is evil. Any talk that works toward the detriment of another person, either directly or indirectly is evil. Christian speech does not mean verbally assaulting others. There is no room for verbal attacks or verbal harassment. Christian speech recognizes the danger of gossip. 1 Timothy warns about “gossips and busybodies” in the church who idle and go from house to house with their small talk (1 Timothy 5:13). They have too much time on their hands.
The church can be full of gossip and rumor. One Sunday at the church I served in Mendham, NJ, a newer member came up to me during fellowship house and wanted to talk. There was a rumor going around about me and he wanted me to know. At the center of Mendham, at the corner of Hilltop Road and Main Street sits Robinson’s Drug Store. People had seen me going and coming from the back door of the pharmacy and were wondering why. It seemed an odd way to enter and leave through the back door of a pharmacy all the time. Well, I explained to Ron that I live in the apartment above Robinson’s and that the entrance to the apartment is in the back of the house, through the middle door where the stair case leads to the second floor! He was embarrassed. Sometimes I think people have too much time on their hands. They should take up a hobby. Do something creative, be productive.
Christian speech requires the truth; a dedication to the truth, otherwise half-truths becomes full blown lies. There is no room for slander, character assassinations, or any desire to destroy or undermine the integrity of another human being. Christian speech avoids wrangling or clamoring, words that are shouted with malice and anger. So you did not learn Christ (Ephesians 4:20).
What, then, is Christian speech? I have only talked about what it is not. Christian speech consists of the words we use to bless one another. It is the language of truth, where we speak truth to our neighbor. Now, this does not mean speaking the truth as you see it, this is not the truth of your own opinion (even if it is true). This verse doesn’t give you the right to tell everyone what you think. It’s speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 5:15). Love builds up, it does not tear down. The purpose of truth is not to destroy or hurt or wound, but to build up. To be a member of a church means that we covenant together to care for one another, to build one another up, to affirm and to strengthen each other as we seek to be faithful, “for we are members of one another. (Ephesians 4: 25)” Because of the strength of this fellowship – because we are committed to one another -- there is an “openhearted candor.”
Christian speech is truthful, helpful, and positive, it builds up, it is kind, has a vocabulary of forgiveness. “Let your speech always be gracious,” writes Paul in Colossians, (and I love this) “seasoned with salt.(Colossians 4:6)” Language becomes a means of grace. Or as it reads in Ephesians, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4: 29)”
Christian speech is conversational. By this, I mean the purpose of speech is communion. In the exchange people are known and grow closer. There is mutuality and in the give and take a relationship develops. This is what God wants for humanity, which is why prayer is so important. The God-human relationship becomes the model for human-human relationships, too. Remember staying up all night in college with your roommate and just talking, talking, talking until 5 a.m.? Or the hours spent talking with someone you loved and were growing to love. The more you talked, the more you affirmed each other, the more you encouraged each other, and the more you held each other up in your speech the closer you became. It’s a conversation that yields unity.
That’s what the church is supposed to be like. It’s our conversations that build a sense of unity. When we stop talking, when gossip and slander, and less-than-truthful talk make its way into the body, the Holy Spirit is grieved. But when we are taking care of each other, offering a kind word, a word of encouragement, a word of challenge, a word of truth spoken in love, we extend a word of grace to our hearers.
When this happens, conversation actually becomes benediction. I love this! In our speaking, full of grace and seasoned with salt, we have the capacity to bless the lives of people through our words. Words are holy, created to heal, to restore, to create, to explain, to give meaning, and to help us to praise God.
With our tongues converted the Christian speaks a word of praise – the purpose of language, you see, is doxological, doxology, words of praise, glory: words of praise of people, words of celebration and joy, words of praise to God. This is what we are to be about. We were created to use our tongues for praise and glory.
But nothing can happen unless our hearts have been converted first. If we had more time I could show you the way throughout scripture there is a connection between the tongue, the ear, and the heart. It was John Calvin (1509-1564) who believed the way to the heart was through the ear. That is the way language pierces the core of being, through the ear. Words of love and affirmation and praise throughout a life-time produce an open, soft heart. Words of hate and condemnation and fear throughout a life-time harden the heart into an organ of stone. It’s your heart that produces your speech. What does Paul call for here? That in our speech we be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Emphasis added)”
What comes out of your mouth is a good indication of where your heart is. What you say to people and say about people, what you say to God, speaks volumes about what’s really in your heart.
It’s because of the anger in the human heart that our language is so corrupt and corrupting. It’s the human heart that needs to be healed.
What can you do? Offer your heart, the core of your being, to the One who formed you with the words of love. And with the “ears” of your heart, listen to what God has said to us over and over again and ultimately in Christ. Let these words penetrate your heart and pierce your being:
“You are forgiven.” (Psalm 130:4; Matthew 9:2; Luke 5:20, 7:48)
“I love you.” (John 15:12, 19)
“You are the apple of my eye.” (Psalm 17:8)
“You are precious in my sight.” (Isaiah 43:4; 1 Peter 2:4)
“You are mine. You belong to me.” (Isaiah 43:1)
“You are a work of art created for my glory.” (Isaiah 43:7;Ephesians 2:10)
“You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)
“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14)
Cited in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 431
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 430. As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it, “The practice of the ethical life of believers is a communicative strategy; a discourse of some sort . . . .” On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 198.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 359ff. This understanding reflects the way the postexilic community of Judah was urged to keep covenant with one another. As Zechariah states, “Each of you must speak truth with his neighbor.(8:16)”
 Theologian T. F. Torrance has shown that for Calvin, our “knowledge of God is reached primarily by hearing rather than by seeing.” This was also true for Luther who encouraged his congregation to “stick their eyes in their ears!” The “auditive element” is “basic and essential” in theological knowledge, because “biblical and theological statements are basically heard-statements.” See Torrance’s chapter, “Knowledge of God according to Calvin,” in Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), p. 87.