Ephesians 4:1-16 10th Sunday after Pentecost Ascension / Resurrection 2/8/15
God builds his Church
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:1-16 ESV)
Continuing our listening to Ephesians, we have ‘Pastor Paul’ in prison writing to you. How would you feel if your pastor is sending messages to you – the Sunday sermon for example – from prison? My guess is that it would depend why he was in prison! Presumably it is something related to the Christian Faith so then technically or potentially you might also face social sanctions of some kind but this reminder of the prison context of Ephesians underlines a truth expressed in the phrase ‘in the world but not of the world’. Christians are in the world. The Church is in the world. But what does this mean?
And the Church has been answering – or trying to answer because over the centuries there have been different answers – ever since.
The trajectory that leads to the ELCE or to the Lutheran churches from which we’ve come involves stories of engagement by our ancestors with both the church and society and disengagement as well. Summarised in historical sound-bytes or iconic moments the ELCE tells the story late 19th century of the six German bakers who desired a Lutheran Church which would eventually describe itself as ‘the theology of Luther in the language of Tyndale’ and sought to establish the same by asking Lutherans in the US to send over a pastor, not withstanding that European Lutheran churches – seaman’s missions and royal patronage included – had been operating for centuries. Yes, “there is church here but not ‘our’ church” is the story of denominations – it is part – not the whole – of the Lutheran story in Australia and the US – it can be seen behind the rise of Methodism in the Church of England landscape – and also seen earlier still in the denominations emerging from the Reformation. Yes, organisationally the Christian Church certainly becomes a complex diagram for the past 500 years but that isn’t to say that everything was settled and peaceful for 1500 years before that.
We have the break between Eastern and Western Christendom marked by 1054 but the previous centuries and the stories of the ecumenical councils are not noted for their irenic behaviours, humility and patience, and diplomatic politics. And then we should note also that the Church has existed as both pariah and popular in the Roman Empire and existed after the empire didn’t. The answer to ‘What is Church?’ – the ‘Why are we here?’ question – varies throughout time and we do well to study the Scripture for our answers as well as understanding our historical lineage. This was brought home to me in one of the lectures I attended when in Jerusalem on the Christian presence there and hearing about the various bishops and patriarchs (including the Lutheran bishop) but how churches came and went over the centuries leading to the situation that exists now – and explaining why the Eastern Orthodox Church claims a pre-eminence there – with a bit of a ‘why are you here?’ to the other churches – since they’ve been in Jerusalem from the beginning of the church – and the arrival of other churches into Jerusalem is what brings the divisions! (So everyone says.)
We have – and we haven’t – come a long way from Paul’s urging the disciples of Jesus to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord – not to create unity but to maintain it in the bond of peace for what didn’t and hasn’t changed still today is there is truly one body and one Spirit – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
Did our grandparents hear this message and live it differently?
How will our grandchildren regard these verses?
The disciples of Jesus – Jews and Gentiles worked it out in Paul’s time, how to live as the Body of Christ in Ephesus – and we do the same but with the advantage of all the church history that we can draw on – what to do and what not to do – as our world changes. At the moment we face a shrinking word with communication technology and we live in the interplay between social cohesion, equality, and religious freedom. Each generation of Christians face their own issues of how to walk worthy.
And Jesus still gives his gifts to his church as Paul appropriates an idea from Psalm 68 about God’s victorious ascent of Mount Zion and like a victorious king gives out plundered treasure to his followers so now God gives gifts so that he and his people dwell together. The agent for this of course is Jesus – whose ascension is possible because of his descending to the very depths of God forsakenness – and who has won victory and plundered whatever lurks to destroy us – sin, death, and hell – each of them have been neutered of their fury – “one little word can fell them” to paraphrase a rather well known Lutheran hymn. These gifts of words bring life, identity, knowledge, maturity as the Church grows to the fullness of Christ himself. Paul doesn’t talk about all the gifts he mentions in other letters – here in this segment, he’s focussing on words spoken by apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers – performative words in the absolution and the sacraments, teaching words, apologetics, comforting words and challenging words spoken into specific situations so that the Church – so that Christians – may not be blown off course, deceived by other words, schemes, and cunning. And this is true for a group – a congregation – and even a congregation or congregations – as it is for a 6 year old or a 96 year old. Now more so than ever, we are drowning in words, opinions, and theories for that is what social media amplifies around us. And so that the unity of the Spirit is maintained, God’s gift of speakers who speak the same message – to use Lutheran jargon we’d say ‘Law and Gospel’ and whose messages are grounded in the person of the Word Made Flesh – the Word of God incarnate. Today we call them pastors – though there are other titles as well now in the Church.
It is this gift of this word via many mouths in the Church – to the Church – that has been the focus of much attention – particularly when looking at Ephesians 4 which popularly – and only recently (about the last 70 years) has been understood as pastors exist to train the congregation to do the ministry. These days we have a lot of baggage to unpack about pastors and congregations – roles and tasks – always being clarified – and I dare say that while sin is the reason behind all friction and fracture in the Church, this relatively modern view of pastor-as-trainer is a reaction to issues of clergy and power. We live today with congregational organisations, constitutions, bank accounts, committees and what might have began as a coordinated way of serving each other and the world can easily turn – as seen through countless examples – into an organisation that exists for other reasons but mainly itself and where people fit in on the basis of how well they support and contribute to the organisation. On a bad day, this is the corporate Body of Christ that isn’t living and growing into Christ the head but which is seeking its own survival above all else.
In the corporate Body of Christ it is easier for me to berate the workers for their slackness in mission, for the poor results, for the lack of outcomes – and the word becomes law and more law – and for congregations to find fault with their supervisors.
Ephesians 4:12 has been translated for about the last 70 years – according to the reading I’ve done – by taking out a comma that was in the KJV that reflected three phrases in the Greek and which now declares that the purpose of the gifts are twofold – to equip the saints for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ (as said in the ESV). The Greek however has three phrases – for the training of saints, for the business of serving / ministry, and for the building up of the body of Christ – and the Greek literature that we have just doesn’t support the combining of the phrases as in the modern translations. Why did God give the speaking gifts to the Church?
So that each person – each Christian with their gifts – maybe perfected in Christ and by Christ – so that they may live and grow individually and together in love. Spiritual maturity involves seeing things as God sees them. Jesus’ words open our eyes about ourselves, each other, and the world. We see with our ears. Paul has got lots more to say about Christian behaviour – listen in next week and the rest of Ephesians for that – but at this point when he is talking about unity, spirit, and God’s gifts he is not giving you these gifts – himself through word and sacraments – as a pep talk to get out there in the world and get results for him. Can you hear that such a message from me – such an expectation that my role is to train you for results – will simply become burdensome and those who are successful will come and hear more and receive accolades and the strugglers will struggle and maybe not come after a while?
I am not suggesting for a minute that the disciples of Jesus do nothing when they follow Jesus but I am saying that this passage which focuses on living out one’s faith in humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance is possible because Jesus gives you his gifts – his Word – grounded in him and authorised by him – so that we may speak the truth in love, so that we may grow in our faith, grow in our maturity – not as corporate cogs but as living individuals who are loved by God.
What does it mean that the Church is in the world? For all the programmes and strategies and committees and organisations we have – and yes, some are necessary so we work together peacefully and in good order – but how much do we need? I suggest to you, not a lot.
For as disciples of Jesus follow him each day – where their faith is active in love – where this isn’t just talk but lived out – where their persona and lifestyle are marked by daily repentance and the mercy of God – so both the congregation and the world that is in contact with such disciples are blessed by God. God builds his Church. God reaches out to world so that all people may come to know the truth that is Jesus. In the Divine Service of worship God serves you so that you may live for his glory in your relationships. That is full-time. Do you have time for anything more?
And in all the living of forgiven sinners – remember one Lord, one faith, one baptism? – so the Body of Christ continues to reach out to love the world.
- Ephesians 4:1 - 16