Many pastors and preachers have probably at some point heard the quote often cited to Karl Barth that we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There’s some debate about if Barth actually said that, but in general the notion stands that as people of faith, not just preachers, we all need to be willing to put our faith tradition in conversation with the world around us. For those of us in the Christian tradition, anything less would be to limit the all-encompassing, holistic nature of the Good News that is meant to permeate all of life and not just prepare us for some ill-defined future existence.
And I think we in this congregation, no matter who is up here on a Sunday morning, do a decent job of approaching this pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But I’ve often thought that this idea needed an addendum, that we needed a third hand or at least a back pocket. You see, I believe that truly good preachers need to have a Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and a copy of the Church directory in their back pocket. Or as our installation this morning might suggest, a library cart full of copies of the Church newsletter following you around.
For just as much as the Good News is not confined to some otherworldly, spiritual plane of existence but is meant to transform the living, breathing, physical world around us, just as much as that is true, I think it is also true that this holistic Good News doesn’t take hold in some impersonal vacuum. The Good News of Christ takes shape through this weird, imperfect, hopeful, frustrating, and beautiful thing we call the Church. There is no one-size-fits-all gospel because Christ meets each and every one of us where we are and calls us together into new possibilities, into new life and new communion with God and one another.
And so we carry the Church directory in our back pocket so that we have a sense of who we are, the gifts, joys, challenges, and heartbreaks that we bring to this, the body of Christ. When I flip through its pages, I see faces that have known heartache and faces that I have had the honor of seeing on some of their most joy-filled days. I see friends with the kind of knowledge and wisdom that only age can bring next to friends that only recently discovered the sight of their own toes for the first time. I see those who love the world around them with a loud and fierce strength and those who love the world with quiet and contemplative wonder, and even those who embody both at the same time.
When I leaf through the pages of my directory, I see families who have known the joy of overcoming sickness next to those still mustering all the grace they can to make it through another day. I see those who have and still do wrestle with addiction alongside those who have and still do walk with them through those times. I see hands that have created things so beautiful that it made me catch my breath and lips that have sung melodies that made me cry. I see households that are still grieving lost loved ones and households that have welcomed new loved ones into their lives. I see young faces trying to figure out who they are next to older faces trying to figure out who they are in yet another new phase of life.
I see teachers and prophets and shepherds and those who proclaim good news in shouts or in whispers.
This morning we end our time in this second-to-last sub-theme for our Summer worship series by continuing to think about what it means to be called in to this congregation, to respond to the voice of God beckoning us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with this rag-tag group of people. When I think about what it means to be “called in” to this congregation, I can’t help but wonder at what an odd thing this calling really is. I can’t imagine any other context in which I would have the privilege of sharing life with such a diverse group of people.
I’m not saying this kind of diverse community only happens inside the Church, but I do think it is worth marvelling whenever and wherever it happens. This calling to come together in all our diversity to find unity as we build one another up in love is perhaps the highest calling there is for those of us who follow Christ because its fulfillment is what it means to know Christ.
The letter to the Ephesians is filled with calls for unity and pleas for the Church to live up to this “calling to which it has been called” because, indeed, this is how Christ lives through us. You may remember a few weeks ago when we held our “interpretive conversation” in lieu of a traditional sermon where four members of the congregation reflected on a passage from earlier in Ephesians that these were the same sort of themes and questions that came out of that reading as well.
One could probably make the argument that this question of unity within diversity is the question that has longest plagued the Church.
And while we know the text from today as being from the letter to the Ephesians, many scholars believe that this was likely a form letter meant for wider dispersal than just one congregation; it probably had a greeting added at the beginning and a benediction tagged on at the end to personalize it depending on the congregation. Furthermore, this letter is one of the many parts of the Bible attributed to Paul but likely not written by him personally. It is certainly in the same school of thought as Paul, but variances in content and style mark it as probably being written by someone else. All of that to say that these themes, these questions of unity in diversity were not isolated to one congregation or the pet project of just one teacher.
In the overall structure of this letter, our passage for this morning beginning in Chapter 4 acts as a sort of bridge between two movements that the author seems to be making. In the early chapters of Ephesians, the focus is on expounding the theology of unity, exploring what God has done and who God is. Two weeks ago when we were looking at a passage from Chapter 2, we read of God tearing down the metaphorical wall of hostility, Christ making peace with those who are far off and those who are near, and the Spirit reconciling all humanity into the household of God. The beginning of the letter is grounded in the grand, cosmic work of God and what God is doing to build God’s kin-dom.
The last few chapters of Ephesians are much more concerned with the ethics of what it means to live out what God has done and continues to do. There the author tackles very specific, day-to-day questions about relationships and how one should live in light of God’s work.
One way I’ve learned to be able to tell that shifts like these are happening in texts like these is by paying attention to the “therefore”s, especially in the parts of the Bible that are letters. These are often carefully crafted arguments, and a “therefore” both signals a shift and shows how things hold together.
Chapter 4 begins, “I, therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
Here at this transition point, we find ourselves in a shift between these two movements, in a sort of rhetorical blending between these two ideas of the cosmic work of God and the day-to-day ethics of individuals. As a bridge between these two, the author builds a vision for an ecclesiology of unity. Ecclesiology is just a big word that means how we understand and put together this thing we’ve come to call the Church, and here the author begs the congregations reading his letter to strive toward unity, to bear with one another in love, and to use the gifts that they have been given not for self-glorification but for building up one another in love.
And through it all, the author emphasizes the already-but-not-yet aspect of what it means to be the Church. Biblical commentator Thomas Yoder Neufeld writes, “Believers are to live presently by the power and the values of that which they will most certainly receive fully in the future. They are already the body of Christ, and already enjoy the fullness of God, but they together with all things have not yet fully grown into Christ. They are still in the process of being filled. They have been saved to participate in bringing salvation to completion.”
Becoming the Church is hard work, and we always need to remember the already-but-not-yet reality of this call. God has already torn down the wall of hostility, but we have not yet figured out how to live without tidy borders. We have already been made one by the God who is over all and through all and in all, but we have not yet fully realized this unity in our life together.
It is impossible to tell exactly what the author is alluding to when he writes that mature believers will no longer be tossed around by “every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” but we know from other letters in the New Testament that one of the main problems Paul wrote about was the prevalence of false teachers who insisted that the only way to follow Jesus was to become Jewish, through a literal circumcision and adherence to Jewish customs and Laws. When I said earlier that the question of unity within diversity was perhaps the question that has plagued the Church the longest, this was the specific context from which that question took shape in its earliest form, but it has certainly been asked in many different contexts since then.
So when the author of Ephesians writes about these false teachers tossing new believers to and fro, I think one important way to read this is that false teachers are those who insist that there is only one way to follow Christ, that in order to know God and have access to the Divine, you must first become this or that kind of person. This kind of theology and teaching tosses people around as they try to live up to the latest false notion of what one must do to earn grace.
On the other hand, mature followers of Christ know that this kin-dom of God project that we are called to live into is one that is, at its core, expansive rather than restrictive, that there is more than enough room at the table for anyone that desires to come, and that grace is not earned but is a reality to which we are awakened and live accordingly.
And it’s a grand vision and a high calling, to be sure, but it doesn’t say a lot about how we are supposed to make this thing work. It’s no wonder that Paul’s letters and other writings of the early Church are filled with treatises weighing in on this or that disagreement. The divisions within the early Church were not always simply about finding unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were differences over whether it was ok to eat meat sacrificed to idols, congregations with unequal practices of the Lord’s supper, and lawsuits between believers.
Finding unity with those who are different, those who don’t look alike, those with power imbalances, those who have experiences we cannot comprehend, this is the calling to which we are called. Between this grand vision of unity and the day-to-day decisions about what life looks like, lives the Church. And it is into this space that the author of Ephesians offers not easy answers, but a metaphor.
We are the very body of Christ. In the book, Transforming Congregations Through Community, author Boyung Lee notes that this metaphor for the Church, which pops up a number of times throughout the New Testament, is one that emphasizes both unity and diversity. We are not all the same, we don’t all have the same function or gifts but when we work together to build one another up we become a unified body; it’s an organic kind of unity that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts, just like a body, or a person. By finding unity within diversity we become Christ.
Lee writes, ““The reason why Paul pays great attention to both unity and diversity is to prevent unity from becoming uniformity...Individuality coupled with commitment to the well-being of others makes each person a responsible partner of a larger whole. If the body’s unity results in destroying individuality, then the unity is no longer unity; rather it is totalitarianism gussied up as unity.”
This navigation between the individuality we each bring and the unity to which we are called is work without a clear blueprint or easy answers, and no metaphor is probably going to fix that. And as someone who has spent my fair share of time within the Church, I would probably be one of the first to admit that we have not yet fully lived into this grace that we have already received.
But what I take away from this passage is that swinging too far in either direction, whether toward a rampant individualism or a stifling unity is to fall short of the Good News. At the same time, I don’t think it’s about finding some perfect middle ground between the two either. This call requires us to show up every day and respond to the new challenges that come our way with all the grace and love that we can find, even if it throws us off balance and pulls us out of a comfortable middle ground.
As we ponder this call that feels too big for us, I want to return us to the “therefore” I mentioned earlier that opened our passage for today. The “therefore”s in scripture help us to see not just where a transition is happening but also how an argument holds together and builds. So we ask, what is the “therefore” there for?
I already mentioned that the earlier chapters talked about what God has done to build unity and reconcile the world, but right before our passage for today is a prayer the author offers. The end of that prayer reads:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Our call to be the Church is an impossible call for us to fulfill, but the Good News is that God is able to accomplish far more than we can even ask for or imagine.
And so, my wish for us, my friends, is:
- That we would rejoice in the grace we have already received but continue to speak the truth in love about all the ways we have not yet realized its true potential
- That we would refuse to allow our differences to divide us but would insist instead that it is in serving one another that we become the body of Christ.
- And finally, when this calling becomes too hard, when our imagination fails or our vision becomes too small, my hope is that we would trust in the God who is able to do more than we can even ask or imagine.