Ephesians 4:1-16 CEB
Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.
What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything.
He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.
Looking back over the past several weeks, we’ve had a bunch of exciting things happen. We’ve had new members join and we’ve even had a baptism over in the PTL service. If you were at either of these services, you may remember that there was a piece in each for the congregation to say. Interestingly enough, whether it is for a baptism, new members joining, or even confirmation the response from the congregation is the same for each. This response from the congregation is a powerful reminder of our responsibility to each other as a community. One line stands out for me from the response: “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, so that they may grow in their trust of God.” It is an important reminder that being a community of faith, being of the body of Christ, takes work. Ephesians this week hits on what it takes to be this kind of united and vital community, and Ephesians agrees that it takes all of us working together with our God given gifts to make the body of Christ a healthy one.
We have spoken a bit about the body of Christ in the past few weeks in Ephesians, but I think the way it is expressed this week is unique in the way it expands our concept of the body. Tell me, when you imagine the body of Christ, how do you see it? What I mean is do you see Community Federated Church as one body and Risen Son as another body and Holy Trinity Episcopal church as one more? Maybe it’s not quite that small in your mind, do you see each denomination or maybe each town as one body of Christ? The reason I ask is that I am fascinated how Ephesians sees the body. Starting about verse fifteen of chapter four, it reads: “[...] let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him.” Here there is a sense that there are not multiple bodies, but each of us is part of this one, universal body of Christ. We all participate and are a piece of this one body that stretches back two thousands years and stretches out into the far future. Community Federated is just one part of this amazing whole.
Ephesians doesn’t stop there however, instead it expands upon the part we play in the body by the end of verse sixteen saying, “The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each does its part.” There is just one body of Christ and all the parts of it, including us, play into the growth or even the stagnation of the larger whole. Ephesians here speaks of unity, but it is the kind of unity that we must all work together to build and maintain. It is a beautiful reminder that we are connected to every other worshipping body across the entirety of the world and of history. For us in the Community Federated Church, it means that we are connected to one another, whether in the 8:00, PTL, or 10:30 service. It means we are connected as one body whether we worship in the pews or worship online or at home or living at the Pioneer Home. It is the kind of connection that supersedes distances of time and of space. It is also the kind of connection which nourishes or starves the whole based on the choices each part makes.
How then do we encourage the kind of unity that allows for the body of Christ to remain vital? Ephesians again gives us something to think about this week in verse eleven, where it says Christ gave us “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,” and each of us share in the purpose to “equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.” However we have been blessed by God, whatever gifts we have, whether a pastor or an usher or choir member or volunteer or any of the other ways we support the church, each is vital and needed for the overall health of the body!
I have to say, this truth is something refreshing and needed in a world that often celebrates individual skill and achievement over the ways that we are all connected. You see, there is no competition in the unity of the body. We don’t need to be the best to be a blessing. We don’t need to beat anyone else to earn our spot. We are not limited to singing or participating or preaching or volunteering only if we are skilled and talented enough! It’s not about who is the best or the most skilled, all the ways we live out our God given gifts together promotes the kind vitality the church needs. It is not about perfection, it is about living out God’s truth in your life in this community. We are not a people of personal accolades, we are a people living together with patience, gentleness, and most of all humility.
You know, humility is one of those funny words for the ancient Christians and for us today. In those early days, many Greeks and Romans could understand the virtues of patience and gentleness, but humility stood out as a foreign and disreputable concept. A familiar word to the Jewish people but to non-Jews, humility suggested a kind of demeaning lowliness that stood at odds with a strong desire for achievement and self-worth. I think that can still be true today. I think we are often awestruck over someone with an impressive resume, the one who has spoken before thousands or has earned millions and won award after award for their work! To only recognize and value this kind of person stands in opposition to this Christian value of humility. Maybe that’s why churches had to put into place quiet disciple awards to recognize the people that don’t bring honor to themselves but instead work to build up the community, build up their neighbors. This is the kind of work valued in Ephesians as well. This is the work of those seeking unity in Christ.
You see, the work of unity is the work of the mature Christian, the kind of maturity exemplified by the quiet disciples who used their gifts to empower and equip others. We have gifts and blessings from God to lift up our neighbors and be lifted up by them in turn. The body of Christ’s vitality depends upon everyone doing what God has called them to do and doing it well, and our mission is not only to live out our callings but help others do the same! We are only as strong as the sum of all the parts of the body of Christ. We are only as connected as our most disconnected part. We are only as faithful as our most disillusioned part. We are only as loving as our most unloved part. We are only as welcoming as our loneliest part. I could keep going too, but do you see now why those words after a baptism and a confirmation and a new member joining are so important?
Our health and wellbeing as the body depends on our commitment to work together toward unity. We are promising to move as individuals and as a community toward and into Christ to lift up our struggling parts and make them strong. Unfortunately, we often get distracted, especially by our own personal preferences. You see, personal preferences are those little truths in our lives, like whether you prefer traditional hymns or contemporary songs to sing in church. They are true to you but they are not necessarily essential to the unity of the church, for they are not the big truths of God. This is a challenge for all of us as we can take these little truths, our preferences, and make them essential. We draw lines between one another and say we can only be united if you accept my little truths. We sever the links that make us whole in favor of the personal truths that make us feel comfortable. Bishop Paul Marshall puts it another way by asking us, “which of our own preferences do we value more highly than the experience of this God-given unity [and] to what degree do we desire less unity than God intends?” God desires for all of us all the world over to be a part of this body together; to be unified by our trust in God and to share in the knowledge of the power of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. However, I have heard from our own mouths, “Well, I don’t see how you could believe X, Y, or Z and still call yourself a Christian.” I have seen with my eyes people turn away and shun another trying to speak a prophetic word because it did not echo the hearer’s own little truth! I have witnessed people say they are too busy to be a part of a community of faith. Do we seek unity in Christ only when it is convenient? Do we strive to love each other only when it is easy to do so? Are we only willing to speak truth when it cuts into another’s life but not into our own? If any one of us is harmed, the body is harmed. If any one of us is held back from living out what God has placed into our hearts and minds and souls, then we are all stunted! If we live and flourish, it is together, and we are held responsible for that flourishing by our God.
Our tasks then are twofold. First, we must ask how we can encourage and equip one another to ensure this part of the body is whole and healthy, promoting the growth and vitality of the universal church. We must look to what we are actively doing for one another to ensure we are all flourishing as the people of God. Secondly, we must ask ourselves how am I blessed by God to bless this body? Remember, you do not need to be perfect or the most skilled or talented for your gift to matter. You have been wonderfully and fearfully made by the Lord Almighty, and God does not waste God’s creations. We have all been gifted and we have all been tasked with not only living out that gift but working to ensure everyone can do the same with their gifts. This is the kind of unity and love that will shock and transform this divided world! This is the kind of body that will help us all be “true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman