(Proper 13B2) Ephesians 4: 1-16
Good morning and a word of welcome to all. Grace and peace. The first Sunday of August and I always feel we’ve turned something of a page on the calendar: not simply from one month to the next, but “early summer” to “later summer.” We’re still in all this heat and humidity, of course, and very much aware on Sunday mornings and through the week of all the calendars of vacations and special events that make scheduling for Altar Guild and Readers and Acolytes and Pews and Sittings and all the rest always a challenge. (Bill and Peg, was it a hot weekend for your wedding day in 1987?)
But at the same time also aware that we’ve passed the midpoint, and just a few weeks now and the universities will be opening for the fall term. It’s all “Back to School” now in the department stores. And our Round Up Sunday just a month away.
We do have a few weeks to go in our Sunday morning lectionary with St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and it has been helpful for me actually in this season both in terms of our life here at St. Andrew’s as we look forward to the new cycle of the fall and here in our diocese as we are turning a new page in so many ways with the welcoming of our new bishop, and then also in the wider frame, as I reflect on the experience of participation once again in the General Convention of our Episcopal Church during the first part of last month. A touchstone. A lens, a thematic frame for reflection and interpretation. Background music. This letter which is both a letter to a specific Church, a particular congregation in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. But also a word of general significance, to and for the whole Church.
The Church in Ephesus was special to Paul –as I noted last week. He and they had been through so much together. This cosmopolitan city and something of a pilgrimage destination for devotees of a number of the pagan deities of the Greek and Hellenistic world, and especially with a devotion to the goddess known in Greek as Artemis, in Latin as Diana. There was as well a significant industry in the production of religious items—statues, coins, medals, icons, and so on. And in the midst of this a small Jewish population that kept mostly to itself, but now emerging from that community a new sect, I guess you would say, these Christians, first Jews but then increasingly gentile converts, who all of a sudden aren’t keeping to themselves but going out into the public square and preaching a new message, about the love of God and the saving work of Jesus Christ at the Cross. With energy, and enthusiasm. And it’s an attractive word, calling people away from the worship of the old gods and into a new life of faith. And as the message gets out it begins to have some impact, traction, and there are dramatic miracles and healings, and old worshipers of Diana make a public demonstration of their renunciation of that old at one point dramatically burning their old religious books and discarding their statues and medals. And suddenly the officials and authorities of Ephesus are concerned, begin to feel threatened. And there is confusion, rioting in the streets, the beginnings of persecution, and with some real intrigue Paul and the leaders of the community are barely able to escape with their lives.
A great story, mostly in Acts 19, and filling in the background for the later scene in Acts 20 that I talked about last week, when Paul met with the leaders of the Church at Ephesus for the last time, and their tender and tearful parting. They had been through so much together, pastor and people.
All that context and background for the Letter to the Ephesians that we’ve been reading these past few weeks. Paul encouraging them now not in person but at a distance, written from the time of his imprisonment in Rome, years later, after that final farewell, and perhaps not long before his execution, which was probably in the years A.D. 67 or 68. And his theme and prayer and longing over and over that this Body of Believers, his spiritual children and pastoral care, would grow ever more deeply into a maturity of faith that would be manifested in, demonstrated by, their spirit of unity. And of course that might speak to us both in our society and in our wider church, as we have been through and in many ways continue in a time of polarization, division, disharmony, seeking often victory, rather than a common mind in Christ.
For the Ephesians, a unity that they would find not because they are from the same ethnic and social and cultural and educational background, because they are not. Jews and Greeks, Asian Turks and Europeans, affluent professionals it seems and laborers and domestic servants. Not because they were similarly gifted and shared common interests. Not because they all were at the same place in their devotional life, in their understanding, in their theological perspectives we might say.
But because in the midst of all those differences they were committed, heart, mind, soul, and strength, in loyalty to Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. What they shared, in spite so much of what we would call “diversity.” So, in the words from Ephesians 4 that our 1979 Prayer Book repeats in the service for Holy Baptism, at the very foundation of Christian life, “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.”
This almost organic unity that echoes Jesus in John 15, “Abide in me, as I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” Although the image is both of the branches simultaneously growing out from the vine, and growing into the vine, ever more deeply rooted in the source of life, Jesus himself.
“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 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.”
A little later this morning I’m going to have a few words to say as our good friends Bill and Peg Ghrist renew their marriage vows, but I would just say here that over my eighteen years now of life and ministry here at St. Andrew’s they are two people who have in their marriage, in the way that they live their lives and in the vision and care and support and encouragement of the life of this congregation in so many ways, been really wonderful and inspirational examples of the vision of the life of the Christian family that St. Paul is talking about here. With prayer and generosity, wisdom and intelligence, good stewardship, good humor, a spirit of grace and forgiveness and kindness. “Growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . and building itself up in love.” Thank you both so much for your friendship, and for everything that you share with us.
At the beginning of the third Christian century the Roman historian Tertullian reported that when outsiders looked at the ancient church of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs, they would exclaim, “these Christians, how they love one another!” A reflection of Jesus in John 13, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” When Christ is center, conforming our lives to his will rather than to our own. Offering up our brokenness for his healing.
It is breathtaking. And it is simply so much more, so much more, than we so often seem to settle for. At church or anywhere in our lives. A group of people we like and get along with. Friends. People with whom we share perhaps some interests, life-experiences, cultural and social values. All of that good, in its own way, I suppose. Though perhaps because it may be comfortable, perhaps too easy. Jesus doesn’t say, “by this all will know that you are my disciples, that you like one another.” It’s the hard part that gets measured not when we’re all happy together, but when there are differences, conflicting interests and values and goals. When we find ourselves trying to manage in the context of people-who-aren’t-like-us, in whatever configuration that may be. Easier not to be challenged. Easier to live in smaller circles of compatibility. That a road with fewer bumps and fewer potholes. A mutual admiration society.
But that would be short of the hope that God has for us. In a season when we wrestle with differences and brokenness of relationship, alienation and estrangement, in the world and in the church. As we think about the life and labors of those who came before us, heroic witness, in persecution and distress, generation after generation, and of the love that lead Jesus to the Cross, to hear not simply with our ears but in our hearts this plea from Pastor Paul, as our reading begins this morning, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” That’s the test that we need to bring to the table, this morning, as we kneel and pray, “Lord, I am not worthy,” and then to hear the word, “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
To be worthy not by taking it easy, but in his mercy, “with all humility and gentleness,’ and with prayers that we would know and continue to know and to grow in this spirit, as we turn in our lives to know and to grow into him, “with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”