Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high
he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from 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. (NRSV)
Paul seems to have accepted a prison cell as his primary office and prayer closet. He does much of his best work while incarcerated for having affirmed the lordship of Christ in a culture ruled by Caesars who declare themselves—quite literally—divine, and who expect their subjects to treat them accordingly. A god-complex seems to be characteristic of despots and tyrants who demand absolute loyalty and uniformity.
So, Paul’s preaching naturally creates social and political backlash, because, in proclaiming Resurrection, he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority in Creation, and he affirms the holy beauty of God’s diverse humanity—female and male, Gentile and Jew, poor and rich, immigrant and resident. Paul knows that speaking this truth will cause many to charge him with getting political because the grace of God always defies the ideals and arrangements that allow Caesars and Pharaohs to try to bend the world to their desires.
Undeterred, Paul speaks God’s truth in love and urges all followers of Jesus to do the same. In his letter to the Ephesians, he “begs” the congregation not only to speak the truth in love, but to demonstrate God’s truth in their living. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” he says, and “with all humility…gentleness…patience…[and] love…maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Paul is calling his readers to far more than being nice. He’s calling them to let go of prejudices, fears, and misplaced allegiances, and to receive each other in the name of God’s Incarnate Love. He’s calling them to open themselves to each other the way God opens to us in Christ. And he’s calling the church to grow in witness through a radical transformation that endangers the community even as it grows.
Paul reminds the Ephesians that even Jesus experienced this endangering grace. “When it says, ‘He ascended,’” writes Paul, “what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” In the Apostles’ Creed, when we say, “he descended into hell,” we acknowledge that Jesus bore, in his own body, the full weight of humankind’s brokenness. He bore our selfishness, our meanness, our love of violence. And I do not believe that his death had to happen to appease a god who is just as selfish, mean, and violent as we are. Any god who can become so powerlessly offended as to need to watch a beloved son experience betrayal and crucifixion just to be able to love again, well, such a god is just that, a god, a small-g god—a projection of our own self-serving fears. All such idols, just like all the world’s Caesars and Pharaohs, dismiss as weakness the humility, gentleness, patience, love, and unity that Paul implores the Ephesians to demonstrate as they struggle with disunity.
I hear Paul calling us to trust that through Christ we can overcome the things that divide us by seeing each other as bearers of God’s holy image rather than bearers of issues. We begin by seeking the Christ in each other, and only then can divisive arguments become healing conversation.
Such unity, however, is something for which we must work. Hard. Intentionally. Every day. And we have to learn to fail with grace because, from time to time, we will, inevitably, succumb to all the things that run counter to Paul’s teaching. We’ll succumb to pride, violence, greed, fear, and tribalism.
The paradox of our unity in Christ is that it’s both eternal and tenuous. As permanent as God’s love is for us, and as sure as God’s love will, finally, prevail, humankind just can’t keep from competing with each other, making and destroying enemies, and generally finding more reasons to fear rather than to love each other. And Paul calls such behavior childishness.
While there is great virtue in child-like-ness, that is in living in wonder, trust, and hope, there’s no virtue whatsoever in selfish grasping. That’s why, when Jesus’ disciples argue with each other about who is the greatest, he says that to follow him they must become as children, and welcome each other as they welcome children. (Matthew 18:1-5)
At the core of Paul’s teaching is his own commitment to follow the welcoming ways of Jesus in a world that condemns those ways as naïve and foolish. And in Ephesians, he says unequivocally, “We must no longer be [childish], tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s…deceitful scheming.”
Don’t listen to those who sow seeds of hate, cries Paul. Our loyalty is to Jesus alone! And that means acknowledging God in every human being and in all of Creation. (Romans 1:20-21)
Again, I’m under no illusions about how difficult, or even how dangerous it can be to profess faith in and loyalty to Christ above all else. All around us and among us there rages an escalating contest for control. And it seems that as the Church gets caught up in the deceitful scheming, in this devastating sibling rivalry, Jesus is being kidnapped and co-opted by competing sides. Even followers of Jesus have accepted the assumption that there must be winners and losers. In our public discourse right now, that assumption is making us treat each other like adversaries whom we must conquer rather than brothers and sisters with whom we must live, on whom we must depend, and in whom we are called to see the image of God. And as different as we may be, even more so are we gifted, called, and equipped by God. And only as we develop and share those gifts do we, as Paul says, “come to the unity of the faith…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Porter Taylor, a former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western NC, wrote that when Paul speaks of God’s gifts equipping the saints, he’s not talking about people “accumulating skills or knowledge.” Taylor points out that the Greek word translated “equip” derives from a word which means things like to set a bone and to reconcile.1
“To grow in one’s ministry,” says Taylor, “is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately.” That means that the standard against which we measure ourselves is Jesus’ standard of love.
So. Maybe. If we can see ourselves more like broken bones in the same body than distinct bodies in competition with each other, then there is hope for us. We become our truest selves only in loving relationship to each other.2 We become the unified body of Christ only when we align our broken selves in mature, compassionate, justice-seeking, Christ-like love for each other, for the earth, and for those who are, as Jesus says, hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, andimprisoned. (Matthew 25:31-46)
Brothers and sisters, we may argue about exactly how to demonstrate the re-aligning love of God in Christ. But we don’t have time to argue about whether or not to do so.
May we go into the rest of this day, and into all the coming days with fresh commitment to claim our gifts, to celebrate those of others, and to discover the unity, the peace, and the hope that God is offering to us in Christ.
1G. Porter Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 304.