Ephesians 4:1–16 (NRSV)
Unity in the Body of Christ
4 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.
There is much talk about the future of the church. Are we seeing the beginning of the end or just a renewal? I find that the book of Ephesians really speaks to this transitional period. As we learn more about the time and people that first received this letter, we learn just how much this letter speaks to our current condition as well. As scholars have dug into the writings we know as the Dead Sea scrolls we find that the religious order known as the Essenes taught things very similar to that of Jesus, and that these teachings eventually made their way to the dispersed people of Israel. The city of Ephesus was a city that became the home for many of these dispersed people. For over three hundred years Jewish people lived, worked and taught alongside people who followed the cult of Diana. The teaching of the Essenes intrigued the pagan people, it opened the doorway to uniting the people of Israel and the Gentiles of the empire. The first couple of chapters of Ephesians were written to the Jewish people, letting them know that according to the teachings of the Essenes all people were born as Gentiles that all people, including those that came from the roots of Jacob, are born uncircumcised and must be joined into the community. From the third chapter on, Paul teaches both the Jews and the Gentiles together, because he teaches that all people are equally in need of hope that is found through Jesus.
What then is the purpose of the church? This is the question that we all ask as we approach the future. This is the question that we as a community ask ourselves. Just as the Jewish people of the first century looked at spiritual landscape around them and saw that things were changing, we too see things around us changing. The things they once knew were changing, they were once known as the chosen people, yet as they were dispersed throughout the empires of Greece, Persia, and Rome that standing took on different meaning. The teachings of the prophets made their way to their scattered communities, which taught them to live within the world, to lay roots, to work for the good of the people around them. This is a different pathway, a different way to consider the world they lived than what they had known before. These teachings made it to the very heart of the empires. The prophet Daniel was held in high regard by the leaders of Babylon and Persia, these empires profited from their wisdom. Though this wisdom was given through the chosen people but it was not for them alone.
As the people made their way back to the land of their ancestors they brought with them the cross cultural forms of faith, expressions of faith that emerged when there was no temple and no sacrifice. Those that lived in Jerusalem returned to former ways of life but those that lived outside took hold of the teachings of the exiled because they too were people of exile.
It was the Essenes that taught that not even the Jewish people were righteous enough to enter into the kingdom, they set their communities up on the eastern banks of the Jordan, they taught about cleansing the body and the soul of unrighteousness. They taught the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans all who would listen and all who would repent.
It is from this school of thought the people of Ephesus began to see the church emerge. The church welcomed all people who believed in God and who repent. The church, the community was filled with Jew and Greek, but it was divided. The lines that were drawn revolved around outward expressions of faith expressions, physical expressions. Paul writes to them that this is nonsense. We were all born of the same essence, born uncircumcised. Division, Jew or Greek, Male or female, slave or free. This division was killing the emerging church. This division was cutting the very heart of the church apart, slicing away the very essences of its purpose.
Paul pleads with them, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Listen to that plea. Hear the words that the apostle writes, feel the tears and anguish in which the pen carves the words into the paper. The community of God fearers was ripping itself apart, they so early forgot what and how they were brought together in the first place. The Jewish people listened to the words of the prophets yet failed to hear, the gentiles listened yet they too out of pride failed to hear the spirit behind the words. The Spirit that says from the cross, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” They fail to hear because they are too busy, they are too busy seeking their own ways instead of submitting to the ways of the one who does the calling.
Lead a life worthy of the calling. Consider that statement for just a moment. Every one of them and every one of us are not worthy of the calling that we have received. None of us are worthy of the title child of God. Each of us in some way have failed to live a life worthy of that call. Why then do we divide and try to prove which of us is better than the other. Through our struggle to prove who is right we end up cutting off part of the body off and leaving ourselves crippled and unable to move forward. That is the church of Ephesus. The church that the apostle John penned the Revelation of Jesus to. Honoring them because they had toiled and endured, how they were intolerant of evil among them, yet condemning them because they abandoned their first love. All their toil, all their correct doctrine all their righteousness was seen as empty because they had removed their heart, the source of their love leaving only a cold shell behind. Yet Paul pleads with them to lead a life worthy of the calling, to live in humility, gentleness, patience and love.
Paul’s heart is bleeding for these people, his tears are running down his cheeks and falling on the very paper he wrote these words, he cries. He knows the passion of the Jewish people wishing to keep the faith pure. He knows the hope of the Gentile that was grafted into the community through the blood of Christ. He knows both sides of this community and that the future of the community is in unity.
Unity is the goal that every community should seek. That is the calling that Paul hopes to spark in the hearts of this community. Unity is the point and the purpose of the gifts that the Spirit gives us. These gifts are given to bring hope to the hopeless, and to encourage and bring healing to the hurting. The Spirit of God is calling each of us to participate in the uniting of the community. He is calling us to do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
Live a life worthy of the calling. We all have an idea of what that is supposed to look like. The question is if our ideas of a life worthy of the calling of Christ is filled with unity or division? What are our ideals of the holy life filled with? If we were to step back and examine our lives for a moment would they be filled with humility, with gentleness, with love?
The past few months I have really considered this in my own life. In my dealings with those around me am I being humble or am I making people think too high or low of me? In my dealings with those around me am I gentle? Am I listening to their spirit and encouraging them to take steps of faith forward or am I in my righteousness putting them in their place? You know what I find when I examine my life, when I ask those questions of myself and allow the Spirit of God to answer them for me? I find that all too often I am not who I think I am. Because to be humble, gentle and to act out of love in the efforts of making peace and to promote unity means that I have to step back. When we are able to take that step back something begins to happen, we begin to hear.
Several years ago we as a community were faced with an uncertain future. That future is still uncertain in many ways, but we did something at that time. Our meeting was dividing, it was being split in half and before we did anything we prayed. We opened the meeting house and pleaded that we pray together. Something amazing happened when we prayed. We got a brief glimpse of what Paul pleads the church of Ephesus to take hold of. Out of our prayers we prayed that God show us who we really are and what He wants us to be. For a year we discussed this and we it wrote down as our mission. “Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of God with others.” That statement of who we are and what we are doing is important because there is no gray area in that mission. You are either doing it or you aren’t. The same can be said about the church of Ephesus. They are called to live a life worthy of the calling that they have been called: a life of humility, gentleness, love, and peace. You see there is no gray area you are living it or you aren’t. We can try to justify our actions all we want but if we want to be honest if we justify our actions we have already admitted that we failed.
We are living in a time of uncertainty. We are living in a time where the things we once place our hope seem to be failing all around us. Could it be that we have divided ourselves to such a degree that we have removed the very essence of who we were supposed to be. Could it be that we and our community are without hope because we do not even know where to find hope anymore? Paul wrote this letter to a divided church, a church that was split between Jew and Gentile. For so long we assumed he wrote this only to the Gentiles to give them hope in Jesus, but no he wrote it to all people. To all people that live a divided life. A life that is split between work and family, secular and sacred, and countless other factions. He tells them that we are all the same, born without hope destined to fail but there is one who can speak to our condition. There is one that left His throne in the heavens to live among mankind, one who took on himself the division allowing it to rip his very heart in two, and one that rose again to give hope to each of us. There is only one body, one Spirit, one hope to which we are called, One Lord, one faith, one baptism which truly cleans, one God and father to us all. He is not the God of the Jews, He is not the God of the Gentiles, it is not the faith of the Catholic or the Quaker but it is one. You cannot live divided it will consume you, we cannot live divided because it will consume us from the inside out. Division causes fear and hopelessness, Jesus is calling us to something more. He is calling us to unite in love and live a life worthy of that calling. He is calling us to be people loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. There is no division if that is our vision and our mission personally and as a community. As we enter a time of open worship and holy expectancy I pray that that vision will become ours today and for all eternity.