Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to 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. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’
(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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. 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.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted 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.
Ephesians 4:1-16- Growing in Every Way
In a recent conversation with my colleague Rabbi Erica Asch, she said that she thinks when certain ideas are repeated in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they are important, it also means that they were hard for people to learn. God, and our ancient teachers, have to keep repeating themselves because we keep forgetting the lesson. Our reading from Ephesians carries with it a lesson that might seem familiar to people who have heard different parts of the Bible. You may have heard something like it when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves in the Gospel of Mark. Or maybe you heard something similar in the letters to the Corinthians when the people argue about, well, everything. I imagine that this reading may feel familiar if you’ve ever been a part of a group of people that has struggled to have one single identity when members of the group feel like they are really different from each other. Being a church, a group of loving but fallible humans, has never been easy. It wasn’t during the earliest days of this movement and it’s not now. But, it is possible to have rich, gracious Christian community shared among all kinds of people. We just keep needing to be reminded of that fact. This portion of Ephesians shows how one particular group of Christians kept learning how to be church together.
Scholars tell us that Ephesus was an important and diverse city in ancient Rome. It is not surprising that the church reflected the community in which it developed. Some of these Christians were Jewish. Some were Gentile. The early Christian movement became well known for including people of lots of different ethnicities, as well as different social classes. Slaves, wealthy widow women, everyday tradespeople, fishermen, and farmers all came together in many ancient churches. While it was great to live in such a diverse community, it could also be difficult to build relationships class and ethnic boundaries. This is certainly true of the diverse church of Ephesus.
They were complaining about each other, specifically about who got to have the most authority and privilege in their community. According to the scholar Grace Ji-Sun Kim, it appears that these Christians wanted to draw lines of privilege based on both ethnic background and type of service to which one was called, types of service that I imagine may be connected to levels of education and training that people had attained. Thankfully, the author of this letter knew that Christ calls us to a community that is guided not by old social divisions, but new love in Christ.
Some people thought that the Jewish followers of Jesus, who had been Jewish himself, should have greater authority than people who came to Christ from other religious and ethnic groups. This author had to explain to them that Christ had broken down the divisions between Jew and Gentile, and that they were to no longer be bound by this particular cultural divisions. In chapter 2 of Ephesians, this author explains it this way: “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us... he came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Jesus himself gives people a special revelation of God that is not bound to their ethnic group.
There is a second, also important conflict in this community. That is the main point of this part of chapter 4. Not only are they having trouble navigating the old division between Jew and Gentile, they are also arguing about what kind of spiritual gifts are most important. Apparently, rather than celebrating having members who have a diversity of talents and gifts from God, they were arguing over who's gifts were most important. It would be like our Sunday School teachers, choir, trustees, and deacons all fighting over whose job was more important to the church. They apparently spent at least part of their precious time together jockeying for position, trying to assert that prophets were more important than pastors or teachers more important that apostles.
This author had to explain that such arguments were a waste of time and took away from the unity that they were seeking in the Gospel. He had to explain that all people received grace through Christ, and that just because the gifts may be different, that doesn't mean that one set of gifts is better than the other. These folks needed to be reminded that it takes all kinds to build the church, and it does the Gospel no good to pit people in the church against each other based on what they have gifts for doing at church. As scholar Susan Hylen put it, Christ does not require uniformity to create unity in the church. Grace abounds in many different forms and the church is richer for it.
On this day, when we welcome two people into Christian community through baptism, it is helpful to read this reminder that all of us have gifts that strengthen the church. We are a whole body, knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped. These two, Autumn and Charlotte, bring with them gifts and abilities that make us stronger and more ready to follow Jesus. This reading and their presence reminds us that each part of Christ’s body has been given gifts that allow us to serve our neighbor. We are called to use all these gifts for equipping the saints so they can better follow the Gospel. There isn’t a hierarchy of gifts. Being the body of Christ means that we are working together enriched by our differences, not divided by them.
While I think this author may underestimate the gift of childlike grace, I do think they were on to something when they talked about “growing in every way” so that we become more like Christ who is leading us. It’s like we are all puzzle pieces, holding a small spark of God, that can only be clearly seen when we join together. Without each of our gifts, we miss something of the Divine. When we all aren’t present, we don’t have all the ligaments that help us move. Even though we are spending our day celebrating Autumn and Charlotte’s baptism, and we typically aren’t arguing about prestige and authority, I think it’s good to be reminded just how necessary we each are to the whole. It is our calling to equip the saints in our lives and to recognize the gifts they bring to the church. The gifts don't have to all be the same. The people don’t have to be all the same either. We just have to be ready to use what we have to serve God and neighbor. God has never needed us to be all the same. God has just needed us to be ready. Are you ready to grow in every way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5203
Brian Peterson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3749
Sarah Henrich: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2599
Susan Hylen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=373
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, "Proper 13 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.