Growing up, growing together (sermon)
Ephesians 4: 1-16
We are more than halfway through Ephesians… but most of my Ephesians sermons have not been at St Clair … so I need to offer a little background on Ephesians to put today in context. Today’s chapter begins like this:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
Interesting adjectives in the middle of Olympics when it is all about competition and strength and individual success… humility…, gentleness…., patience…, bearing with one another (or as it is put somewhere, bearing one another’s burdens)
3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Today is all about unity, unity by means of peace … and it’s no surprise, because Ephesians is all about the fact that a new source of unity, a new source of peace has entered a conflicted world. We tend to think, that peace (at least at an individual level) is easy… but according to Ephesians it is not. Peace is not natural to us. In chapter one and two we are told that the world is a struggle. God did not create the world as a battle ground, a cosmos as the Greeks imagined the world, ‘before the foundation of the cosmos’ (of civilization as we know it), God the creator had other plans. But in spite of those other plans this is how human life developed. We’re not born peaceful, we are born selfish. And we are not born into a peaceful world either. Selfish desires are cultivated, to become the way we structure our living. We want stuff. But not only do we want stuff, we want superiority, we want significance, we build an identity for our self over and against others who are different, whom we keep at arms length. Ephesians says we are born into a divided world and we contribute to that, in the way we form our identity. “We are children of wrath” But according to Ephesians Jesus interrupted this conflicted world to adopt us into a new family, a new set of human possibilities.
And Ephesians goes on to say that the thing about Jesus is that he made peace… in a world divided down the middle between Jews and Gentiles, Jesus of Nazareth, in his flesh, in his body, murdered by a minor Roman dignitary of the imperial system, murdered by those who wanted to keep Israel pure, Jesus broke down our dividing walls, he murdered our hostility. (that sounds violent, but it’s precisely the opposite, he didn’t murder us, he murdered our hostility).
So according to Ephesians our world had to be interrupted by God, by God in vulnerable human life, by God who suffers the violence that our systems of life create, by God who raised from death exposes those systems for what they are…
If there is to be peace God must enter into our life and restructure it, and create a community of peace. And that’s what church is,… according to Ephesians… a community of peace…
Make every effort, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…
(not make every effort to be nice to each other… avoiding anything too personal or difficult or controversial, not make every effort to be together in the same room for a while… make every effort to live in the peace that changes everything… so you end up being vulnerable to each other, rather than just tolerating each other… This is not the peace of democracy, this the peace of Christ
Because peace is what God does in the world, there is only‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…’ Not one body that sets itself over and against all other bodies, separated by the dividing wall of its own purity or superiority… one body created by God’s peacemaking for peacemaking…. one body whose very mission is peacemaking. The community that exists not for its members first of all, but for others… the body that is God’s body in the world
So says the letter to the Ephesians, what Jesus did, the risen Jesus, forgiving his enemies, what Jesus did, when he murdered our hostility, when he captured our captivity (great phrase… ie set us free from all those things that perpetuate our struggles, to defend ourselves, to defend our turf, our status in the world, things that capture us in violence) Jesus captured them. At the very point where the powers of the world, the powers that hold us captive appeared to have destroyed Jesus and won their victory. God raised up Jesus and turned the table, setting people free from this captivity
And in setting us free, he gave us the ability and power to act… Ephesians says he gave gifts… and I sometimes feel that we have so captured and domesticated that word gifts… to refer to handy skills for keeping the institutions of church ticking over, we have professionalized these so called gifts. Now pastors are university educated professionals with skills in church growth. And because we don’t appear to have apostles and prophets and evangelists anymore, we think they are ancient versions of what we now call ministers. So now we imagine that we have the gifts of Ministry (capital m) and the gift of hymnbook distribution, the gift of flower arrangement, and the gift of tea making. Not that I would in any way diminish those tasks… but the point is that I fear we have lost a sense of the context of these gifts.
It’s not for keeping an institution ticking over that Christ died.
When Jesus gives gifts, he gives the ability and power (to people who formerly were trapped in selfish desires) to give themselves to others for the purpose of building up this peaceable community of Christ. To be free, according to the gospel, is not to be free to do whatever I want, it is to be free from what has captured me, namely selfish desire which produce violence. To be free from selfish desires then is to be free for a non-violent community.
15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Free to grow up… and free to grow together. Free to speak the truth in love…. You see unity is not something we have because we all agree on something (perhaps we vote on it), unity is not agreement. Unity is not being the same. The unity of the Spirit, is what happens when we grow together, and come to be a people who can speak the truth in love. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: church is a community that is able to disagree with one another… because we have grown together.
I find that speaking the truth in love is incredibly difficult. I’d rather avoid the truth (in love… it’s not really love though). I’d rather tolerate others, and sit back and appreciate the diversity, than speak about things that matter and risk conflict or strong feelings. But the result of this is not growing together… at best it’s a growing alongside… and Ephesians would suggests its not really growing up or growing into Christ. It’s settling for shallow relationships or niceness and politeness.
What does this mean for us in Coastal Unity Parish, facing the growing pains of merging two congregations together into one and maybe in the end, merging three congregations together? Clearly the unity of the church doesn’t depend on all Christians in the world worshipping in the same place on a Sunday morning. Practical matters mean that church (the peacemaking work of Christ) happens in different places and times and ways…
For us in CUP we have spent nearly 2 years trying to speak the truth in love to one another about our future… to greater or lesser success… John Howard Yoder (The Royal Priesthood, Eerdmans 1994, p. 329) says that as we get accustomed to speak to one in love about the everyday matters of faith, our ‘tolerance threshold’ grows… fewer differences offend, mutual trust grows and with it the ability to deal with big issues. So I don’t know how successful we’ve been these last two years at telling the truth in love. But the conclusion of that truth-telling exercise seems to be agreement that practical matters mean two congregations will become one congregation (when Ken retires). We made that decision.
So the process of getting here has been an exercise in church unity… and the process of becoming a single new congregation is going to be an exercise in church unity. Not just spending an hour with some different people on Sunday morning, but growing together. What Ephesians challenges us with, it seems to me is this. Is it going to be about me having my church service that suits me. Or is it going to be about having Jesus break down the barriers in my head… that stop me growing together with others into one new community – a community that the world will see embodying the peace of Christ as it comes together.
Is church a commodity? Or is it a way of life? A risky growing together into Christ?