10th Sunday after Pentecost

August 1, 2021


We need the organisation but don’t let it become a god!

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)

From a human point of view, the Christian Church just shouldn’t have been able to happen because it presented a continuity with the past – Jesus is both the Messiah and the Lord – who draws people to himself – all people: Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, and free – and isn’t anchored in a place that is essential to it like the Jewish Temple or even the temples of Greek or Roman deities or later such as the Ka’aba in Mecca in Islam or sacred shrines to nature. Instead wherever the followers of this Jesus gathered what was essential was Jesus because he was alive again and his ascension meant we didn’t have to go to one place but that he came to his people and this was radically new. No matter your geography the followers of Jesus were one Body with Jesus as the Head and this was seen to be true both locally and internationally even though it was obvious that there were many groups of followers of Jesus seeking to follow Jesus. The many and the one, the one and the many – perhaps there is a reflection of the Trinity here – and the usual ways for people to bind themselves together – place, clothes, rituals, behaviour – were not important in themselves but were important as they conveyed, hosted, presented Jesus. So what quickly became important were the words that were said because hearing created faith and when the words were from and about Jesus as the centre and flowed from him and back to him what is created is the one holy Christian and apostolic Church.

We are here with an awareness of 2,000 years of Church history and, I think, should marvel that there are still Christians today who say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and point again and again to him crucified and to the mystery that he is present with his people – still – through words, water, bread and wine. We hang our heads somewhat and are definitely saddened by the many Christian groups today not because we’re squabbling of over whether our headquarters should be Rome or Canterbury or Wittenberg but because we recognise that what binds us – the words from and about Jesus – are different now – and yet Paul’s vision of the Church is often not embraced today – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:5,6) – because we are now so institutional and seemingly more so as each new person with a desire to do church work seems to want to do it themselves and set up another group.

The Christian Church is about words because it is about faith and a trust in God through Jesus Christ and Paul recognised this which is why he describes Jesus’ victory over captives and his descent into the lower regions, the earth in terms of Jesus giving gifts now to his people so that the words will build up the Body of Christ, bring about a unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God so that there will be unity, a working together, a drawing closer to Jesus, in a way that is working together and building itself up in … love.

It is this gift of this word via many mouths in the Church – to the Church – and for the world – 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. Today we have shrunk all the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers into the office of pastor. Thus this modern view of pastor-as-trainer can quickly generate all sorts of issues – spiritual pyramids of control – where today’s organisation of congregations, bank accounts, constitutions, committees, whatever which have a place for good order and accountability and when working well do facilitate care for members and care for the world – but and, this is significant, the danger and the temptation for any leadership and any organisation is that is start to exist for its own sake – for its own survival – and the people it seeks to serve become food to gobbled up by the organisational machine. In such an environment it is easier then to berate the members of poor results and to talk more law and law – all for the sake of the Gospel.

Part of the problem here is a contemporary misreading of verse 12 where the purpose of Christ’s gifts to the Church is seen as me training you, equipping you for ministry and for building up the body of Christ. I am the trainer, you are the doers. However the Greek doesn’t translate in this way and instead says that Jesus gives speaking gifts to the Church for three distinct reasons – so that we can be trained in the faith, for the business of serving others, and the building up of the Body of Christ.

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, Jesus is not giving you these gifts – himself through Word and Sacraments – as pep talks 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? This is not pyramid spiritual selling where the more people we get in, the more rewards we get.

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 – and yes, we can slip up here but Jesus gives us his gifts – his Word – grounded in him and authorised by him – and food (himself!) for the journey – 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 seeking to get membership scalps but as living individuals – disciples of Jesus who are loved by God and are happy to share that love each day. And in the sharing of that love the Church does grow – in its own way and its own time.


Bible References

  • Ephesians 4:1 - 16