In today’s second reading, St Paul offers clear instructions for how the followers of Jesus should live. Some divisions or tensions must have been surfacing among the members of the church in Ephesus, and Paul is anxious to address them.
So he warns them to never hold grudges against others, or lose their temper, or raise their voice to anybody, or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness. Be friends with each other and kind, he tells them, forgiving each other as readily as God has forgiven them. They must follow Christ by loving each other as Christ has loved them. Paul’s message to the Christian community is about respect, tolerance, gentleness, love. His words are as relevant for us today as when he wrote them almost two thousand years ago.
We are all familiar with the old expression: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But we know that it is simply not true. Words have extraordinary power and can do enormous damage. They can scar for life; they can destroy. And the world wide web and modern means of communication mean that words have a greater capacity to hurt than ever before. Think of the internet bullies, who, often under the cloak of anonymity, use Facebook or Twitter or online forums to abuse and smear and ridicule those they don’t like or with whom they disagree. And think of the victims whose lives have been damaged or even ended by such abuse.
Words have enormous power and can inflict enormous harm. As people of the word, Christians need to be conscious of the words we use, and ensure that what we say and how we say it always gives glory to God.
One way to try to do just that is by living according to what I like to call the three Cs: The first C: be clean. The words I use should be wholesome and pure, never coarse or crude. We tend to use bad language for emphasis, for effect, but bad language is so commonplace today that we can become immune to it. We may not even be aware of the extent to which we use it casually ourselves. The English language contains more than one million words; there are plenty of ways we can express ourselves colourfully and with emphasis, without the need for vulgar talk.
The second C: be courteous. Our aim should be to talk to and about others the way we would like them to talk to and about us. Whether it’s on social media or on the road or street or the sports field, we know that common courtesy is becoming less common, that we are becoming more rude and less civil. Think of the amount of online trolling that is taking place and how road-rage incidents are growing in frequency. Whenever or wherever we encounter people, no matter how trying or testing the situation, no matter how angry we may become, we are called to be courteous and considerate in how we communicate with them.
The third C: be constructive. We should always use words that build up not knock down, that encourage not destroy. Sometimes it’s necessary to challenge or criticise another but we should do it in a way that is positive and gentle and that honours the other by treating him or her with respect. We should never use words to humiliate or diminish another human being. Pope Francis has spoken frequently about the harmful nature of gossip, which he has described as a plague worse than COVID-19. We know what it’s like to be gossiped about; we also know how easy it is to indulge in gossip. We should always talk to or about others in a helpful, generous manner.
Christians are people of the word. As St Paul reminds us, we must use the gift of language in such a way that it lifts people up rather than knocks people down. To be clean, courteous and constructive is to build God’s kingdom and give God glory.
Integrity is at core of our Christian faith. It is about having a moral centre that shapes and guides everything we say and do. Jesus was a person of integrity because he was true to himself whatever happened. His dedication to living truthfully, to standing up for what he believed in, to treating people with love and respect, meant that he did not back down before evil, but went all the way to the cross. For the Christian, to be a person of integrity means following the example of Jesus
Think about your use of language. Do you always respect the Lord’s name? Do you use words that are sexist or racist or homophobic? Are you rude or uncouth or demeaning in what you say or how you talk to people?