Summary: It grieves the Holy Spirit when our broken, crazy, noisy world has more effect on our actions than does our experience and knowledge of the love of God.
A couple of weeks ago I flew out to Minneapolis for just 36 hours to see my
godson Ted in The Music Man. If he hadn’t skipped the cast party and come home early Thursday night I wouldn’t have gotten to see him off stage at all. But there we were, at 10:30 at night, both exhausted and happy, talking about - would you believe it? Moral relativism! Ted is taking philosophy this year, and to my delight, he loves it. When I asked him what he liked about philosophy, Ted told me that he likes the questions it raises. I asked for an example, and he said, “Are moral standards absolute over time, or do they change from culture to culture?” Well, as you can imagine, this led to an absolutely terrific discussion which ranged from Plato to Calvin. I just hope he had as good a time as I did. Anyway, what makes this anecdote relevant is that my initial response was that morality is absolute at the core, in its internal dimensions, but that its appearance changes from culture to culture. And thinking about it over the next few days, I boiled the essence of morality down to two words: Integrity and Respect.
Imagine my surprise - and delight - to discover that the key concept in my favorite commentary on the passage we are looking at today was integrity.
But what is integrity? The primary definition of integrity seems to be a matter of persons integrating various parts of their personality into a harmonious, intact whole. Basically, that persons of integrity are the same on the inside and on the outside, the same to their superiors and subordinates, and the same on Mondays as on Sundays. For a Christian, of course, that means that we have an obligation to act like what we claim to be. Last week we called that “putting on Christ”, that is, not just wrapping our old selves in a word but wrapping ourselves in a new way of thinking and being in the world.
In this text Paul gets more specific about how to go about doing this. He addresses our feelings, our actions, and our words. And in every one of these arenas, the standard is - of course - the character of God himself. Of course, in many ways we cannot copy God; we cannot, for example, imitate his omnipresence or omnipotence, nor are we asked to. We are asked to imitate God’s character, as expressed in his speech and behavior. And that requires integrity, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Mt 5:48]
This is not new. Human beings started out from the beginning as image bearers. At the dawn of creation, God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” [Gen 1:26-27] Well, as you know, this initial lofty purpose didn’t get very far before humanity went off the rails but it’s still God’s intention for humanity. Our call as Christians is to advertise God-likeness to the world. We are to reflect God’s attitude and acts toward us to other people. And the central fact about God is the story of redemption, through Jesus crucified and resurrected. God is not “out there” to dream about, but present here and now to change lives. He is the standard. We have received grace and forgiveness from him, and we are to show these qualities to others as well.
Paul starts out with the absolute necessity for truth. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “By a lie a man throws away, and as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” [Immanuel Kant, Doctrine of Virtue] But it isn’t only the self that is destroyed. Since Christians are actually, organically, functionally part of each other, as one writer put it, “a lie is a stab into the very vitals of the Body of Christ.” [John Mackay, God’s Order] How strange that one part of the body would deceive another part, as if the eye would lie to the foot about some danger it sees. Lies distort reality and accompany every form of wrong-doing. Psychiatrist Scott Peck identifies the core of evil as the lie, which is only another way of putting what Jesus said: “the devil... is a liar and the father of lies.” [Jn 8:44]
The only way anyone can live meaningfully is with the truth. It is not an option, it is the ground on which we stand. As my sister Kathleen puts it, “Life is confusing enough without falsifying the data.” Truth - that which corresponds to the facts and on which we can rely - is both necessary and freeing [John 8:31-32]. Truth encompasses the totality of life, including relation with God. If God is real and has sent Christ, then living in relation with God and speaking the truth includes communicating the reality of life with Christ. The issue is not just words, but an integrity - see that word again? - marked by the correspondence between word and act.