Building the Body of Christ
Ephesians 4:1 – 16
Building the Body of Christ
Are you a list freak?
That’s the question I was confronted with this week, as I spent some time researching how to be more effective with my diary and my task lists.
“Lists are life, in a single column”, I was told!
A list is everything that matters, in a neat line!
None of this necessarily helped me in organising my life, but it was interesting as I was preparing to speak on this passage, because this section of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, contains 2 lists, that Paul lays out for his readers;,
One list of 4 things,
One list of 7,
And it might not be everything that matters in a neat line, but there is so much contained in these first few verses, immediately applicable for us as a church, that we’re going to spend most of our time this morning looking at these 2 lists.
So if you look at your watch and think there’s still 8 hours to go, don’t be dismayed. We’ll have to come back to the rest of the chapter, another time.
I think I’ve spoken before about the man who went along to church for the first time ever, with a friend, and, understandably, didn’t quite know what was going on.
So every time something happened, he’d ask his friend what it was about.
Service leader says, “We’re going to pray”,
“What’s that mean?” “It just means we’re going to talk to God.”
They have a time of confession. “What’s that mean?” “It just means we’re going to say sorry to God.”
After a while the preacher says “And in conclusion, ”, the man turns to his friend, “What’s that mean?”
And his friend replies, “Absolutely nothing at all!”
Well, the Apostle Paul, was very clear in the turning points in his letters. We’ve been saying for a few weeks, we’re getting close to the turning point, and here it is, chapter 4 verse 1, As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you.
That’s the turning point, now we’re into Paul’s extended application, through to the end of the letter.
Not that there’s no theology or doctrine in what follows, but Paul’s focus shifts, from primarily expounding the truths of God, to applying the truths of God.
Literally Paul says therefore, as a prisoner of the Lord, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
You can see it’s translated then in our Bibles,
But it’s Therefore, in the light of everything I’ve just been saying, I urge you
Having seen the great task set before Christians in the church, to demonstrate God’s wisdom into the heavenly realms,
And having seen the great calling on Christian people, to be brought to all the fullness of God, Christ-likeness, by the Spirit of God, now Paul changes gear, and says let’s start thinking about what it looks like, to live out that high calling in your life;
How to live a life worthy of your calling in Christ (v 1 – 2)
Really the whole second half of the letter, is an extended application of chapter 4 verse 1, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
And it begins right here:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
How does a Christian person live a life worthy of the calling they’ve received from Christ?
Well, here’s our first list. And just to mix our metaphors, let’s say these are 4 sides of the same coin! Which I realise , doesn’t work!
But these are all parts of the same whole.
It’s not like a multiple choice exam, “Pick any 3!”
Each of these is essential.
Firstly, humility, being completely humble.
We tend to think of humility as a virtue. We react against the opposite, pride or arrogance, when we see it in others.
But in the first century, and actually, in most cultures that haven’t been significantly influenced by Christianity even today, humility was not a virtue.
In fact there was a Philosopher named Epictetus in the first century, who put this word, at the top a list of behaviours to be avoided at all costs!
It was Jesus who changed the associations of this word forever.
Jesus made himself nothing, for the benefit of others.
Jesus put others’ needs before his own.
Jesus treated other people, better than himself.
And that’s the pattern that all who would follow after Jesus are called to follow. If you’re a Christian, you’re saying “I’m a follower of Christ.” Therefore, there’s no option but to follow Christ in his humility.
Tim Keller, in his book, The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness, reminds us that humility is not so much thinking less of yourself, as thinking of yourself , less. And he says this kind of self-forgetfulness is only possible as we view ourselves from the vantage point of Jesus himself.
But there are lots of opportunities, aren’t there, to think of ourselves more, even in church:
“My opinion should be listened to, because,
I should be asked to do such and such,
Why wasn’t I given this responsibility, or that task?”
Paul is right to highlight this for us, isn’t he?
To live a life worthy of the calling we’ve received, to grow into the unity of the Spirit, is to walk in humility as demonstrated by Jesus himself.
And , just think about it, perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, it’s Christian people who should have this right , lowly view of themselves, because we are those who have come to understand that there is nothing about us that could make us even appealing to the God who made us!
A Christian is someone who recognises that every part of their live is tainted by sin!
Little wonder that Paul sticks humility at the top of this list! If we claim to be mature, Christ-like, humility should be a very obvious outworking of our Christian calling.
Next on the list is being gentle. And this is another word that has suffered in our day. It’s the word for meekness, which is often confused with weakness.
And yet if we know our Old Testament, we’ll recognise that this word was used time and time again to describe people who,
Often without many resources at their disposal,
Often oppressed by those with power over them,
And yet they trusted in God, that he would work his purposes out for them.
This gentleness is the non-reactive,
Non-defensive, nature of a person, who doesn’t fight back when they’re hurt, or slighted,
This is the person who holds their tongue, when people speak ill of them, or think ill of them.
The gentle person lets their priorities, especially their preferences for themselves, slip away, as they work towards a greater goal.
The gentle person says “I waive my rights, for the sake of someone else, because, like those Old Testament saints, I trust in the God who sees all.”
And of course they can do that because they realise, in God’s eyes, they have no rights at all,
There’s nothing that they can insist upon.
None of the blessings we enjoy, do we enjoy by right, but only by grace, God’s undeserved kindness to us in Jesus.
Be completely humble, and gentle;, be patient,.
This was the word that described someone who did not to have wrongs committed against them righted.
This patience is also seen in God’s character. God is described as being patient with humanity;, giving every opportunity, for people to repent of their rebellion against him.
That definitely increases the expectation, doesn’t it?
If God is still patient with his rebellious world, 2000 years or so after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, that certainly gives me an indication of the measure of patience expected of me, as I live in community, among this new humanity which Christ has made, with brothers and sisters who, no doubt, will wrong me, try my patience.
The old English versions of the Bible used to translate this as “long suffering.” That gives us a pretty clear idea of what patience is going to be like, doesn’t it?
There’s no sugar-coating here! To live a life worthy of the calling we’ve received in Christ Jesus, is to endure long suffering!
That old translation also gives us a pretty good idea where to look to see this in action.
Jesus suffered , long for us, didn’t he?
Again, call myself a follower of Jesus? I need to be willing to follow this example of long suffering, for the sake of others.
Paul rounds out his list, be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Again, this forbearance, is an attitude that the authors of the Bible ascribe to God. We could say that God is not asking us to do something that he’s not willing to do himself.
bearing with one another in love, means we allow for each other’s weaknesses,
We don’t stop loving someone, because they’ve offended us,
Because they disagree with us,
When tension and conflict arise in the body of Christ, we resolve it within the context of love for the other person, not within a context of seeking my own good, and who cares about them?
See, all of this has led me to conclude this week, that it’s relatively easy to live a life worthy of your calling, if no one ever sins against you,
Or hurts you,
Or fails you,
Or disappoints you,
But it’s exactly in those moments of hurt, and sin, and failure, that Paul urges the Ephesians to live lives that are worthy of their calling,
To demonstrate that their lives are the lives of forgiven sinners, saved by grace.
That their lives are the lives of those reconciled to God and reconciled to each other.
Paul expects, that there will be times of disagreement, and sin and failure within the community of God’s people.
If Paul thought that once people were forgiven,
Once people were reconciled to God, and to each other, that no Christian person would try the patience of another,
No Christian person would speak against someone else,
If Paul thought that no member of the church would ever stumble, in weakness in a way that negatively impacted on others around them,
If that was what Paul thought the church was going to be like in Ephesus, or throughout history, these verses would not be here, would they?
There would be no verse 2.
There would be no verse 3.
Paul would simply move from an exhortation to live a life worthy of the great calling we’ve received in Christ, into the distribution of gifts that comes in verse 7.
But Paul knows, God knows, life in community,
Life as the new humanity created in Christ Jesus,
Will require us to Be completely humble and gentle;, patient, bearing with one another in love.
And when we’re in the midst of it, we think that’s hard.
Which it is.
We think that costs us, position, or esteem, or influence.
Which it does.
But we are able to do it.
What is impossible without Christ,
What no secular worldview, or even religious worldview, can achieve,
Is possible, for those who have come to learn what it is to bear with one another in love.
To do any of this list, requires love.
To do any of this requires us to have understood the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus, which is exactly why Paul spent those previous verses praying that God’s people, would grasp the measureless love of Christ.
We cannot, friends, be completely humble and gentle,
We cannot, be patient,
We will not bear, with one another, as God would have us do, demonstrating his wisdom into the heavenly realms, if we do not have, and know, and experience, the love of God shown to us in Christ.
And maybe, there are some of us today, who recognise, actually these things are becoming increasingly difficult for me.
I am increasingly less humble, than I know I ought to be,
More and more I struggle to be patient with the weaknesses of others,
I can’t be gentle, trusting only in God’s provision, and God’s vindication.
Maybe I know all-too-well that I’m suffering because of others, but I find it entirely beyond me, to suffer long, for the sin, or thoughtlessness, or weakness, of other believers.
Maybe, for some us, part of what it means to live a life worthy of the calling you have received, is to dwell, deeply, systematically, regularly, in reflection of the love of Christ, seen , most supremely at the cross.
And to pray, that having seen what it is to be loved while unlovely,
Having seen the cost of Christ’s love,
Having seen something of how wide, and long, and high, and deep, is the love of Christ, then to pray that the understanding of that love might so change us, that we can demonstrate that same costly love, to those around us in Christ’s church.
How to keep the unity that comes from God (v 3 – 6)
But wait, there’s more!
The way that Paul launches straight out of the list into this discussion about Christian unity, tells us that he thinks these 4 “graces”, as the old scholars liked to call them, that’s part of how we keep the unity of the Spirit.
Verse 2 and verse 3 are intended to be read in parallel.
If we are living a life worthy of the calling that we have received, that’s almost synonymous with, keeping the unity of the Spirit.
Once again, the fact that Paul imagines that it will take every effort, verse 3, to maintain this unity of the Spirit, I think ought to signal to us that this is going to be hard work,
Not hard work at the expense of others, though, this unity is kept through the bond of peace.
Here’s the reality check, isn’t it?
There will be threats to Christian unity, both from inside the church, and outside.
And it’s going to be costly.
It’s actually because of the very unity that he wants to see maintained that Paul is in prison.
Paul preached the good news that division between Jews and Gentiles was a thing of the past.
Gentiles were no longer excluded,
They no longer had to become Jews, in order to come to God,
One new humanity, the church.
For preaching that very message Paul was arrested, and was now in chains in Rome. Acts 21:28 – 29 will give you some of the background.
Paul knows that keeping this unity is going to be costly. And yet he doesn’t back off.
He knows that his message of unity is enough to get someone put in prison. And he knows that the Ephesians know, that this message of unity is enough to get someone put in prison!
And yet still he says, Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
But, while it’s good to realise the effort that this kind of life requires of us, let’s remember this unity, isn’t a human achievement, but the work of God,
It’s a unity that Spirit of God as already brought to us, as a result of Christ’s reconciling death on the cross.
Which means, that if we refuse to apply ourselves to responding to Paul’s exhortation in verse 2,
If we think too highly of ourselves to be humble,
If we say “it’s not in my personality be gentle”,
If we can’t find the time to be patient,
If we refuse to bear with one another,
If we think that it’s someone else’s responsibility to live out their calling, through these 4 graces, not something that requires our effort,
Then friends, hear this warning, our refusal to live out the grace of God in this way, would mean we are working against the unity that the Spirit of God has already given to Christ’s church.
Got no time for humility? You are working against the Spirit of Christ in his church.
Not willing to suffer long, at someone else’s sin and weakness? You are undoing the work of the Spirit of Christ in his church.
But what is this unity?
Does this all mean that Christians have to be united on the type of music we sing in church, what kind of instruments accompany the singing?
Does this mean , unity around what translation of the Bible we think is most helpful for the reading and understanding of God’s Word.
Does this mean , unity in our understanding of church governance?,
Do we have elders?
Do we elect elders?
Does this mean , unity in our initial experience of coming to faith in Jesus? Does everyone have to have exactly the same experience?
And maybe you might think. “What sort of stupid examples are those? Clearly no one would think that the unity of the church is related to unity on those issues.
But I know Christians, who insist, that the unity of the church is absolutely dependent, on unity in each one of those areas,
The unity of the Spirit, they say, is absolutely a unity around one or another of those factors. And there are some here, I know, who have been excluded from churches, because they haven’t adopted the prevailing view on whichever one of those was the issue in that particular church.
But it’s not like it’s hard to work out exactly what Paul understands the unity of the Spirit to be!
He gives us a list!
And this is list number 2. Verse 4, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all
Here’s a list of what the unity of the Spirit covers, and,
Style of music,
Whether youth group should be on a Friday or a Sunday,
And whether church planting is better than growing megachurches, Those things don’t even rate a mention!
Clearly none of those things are central to the unity of the church,
In fact those might be the very issues, the very disagreements, that give us the opportunity to practice being humble and gentle.
It might be your disagreement with me, on whether the new NIV is better than the old NIV, that gives you the chance to be patient, and gives me the opportunity to bear with you, in love.
There is a , nearly inexhaustible tally of things the church does not need to be united on, but here is a list on which we must be united.
This is the unity of the Spirit.
Yu may have already noticed that this is a list of 7. And in the Bible, 7 is use as a symbol of completion.
That’s not to say that these are the only things that are the core fundamentals of the Christian faith, but it’s a good comprehensive summary, of the core things Christians are united on.
In fact these words may even have been the first century equivalent of the declarations of faith we say when we gather. This may have been their statement of faith.
So, list number 2, let’s have a look.
We enjoy unity as one body. That is, when God looks at the church, he doesn’t see multiple churches, but one body;, the body of Christ. I don’t think this is saying that denominations like Baptist, or Presbyterian are wrong. Mostly those are the result of history or geography, and sometimes preference. You can identify with a denomination, as long as you recognise that the only identity that really matters, is membership of the body of Christ.
We’ve seen Paul’s understanding in Ephesians already, that the body of Christ is a heavenly gathering around Jesus, currently taking place in the heavenly realms.
That body is made visible through the local church. But all who are gathered around Christ through faith, are members of the body, regardless of what label they have attached to them here.
There is one Spirit Paul says, which is the first of the references to the Trinity in these verses. This summary of Christian belief, what it is that we must hold in common, is very clear, that the God in whom we believe is one God in 3 persons.
It’s by the work of the Spirit of God that we become part of the body of Christ.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Spirit draws us in, builds us in to the body through entirely the same means each case!
For some, it might be a dramatic conversion,
Someone else comes to faith in Christ as the result of many, many conversations with a friend,
For someone else, it’s the shock of some personal tragedy, that the Spirit of God uses to draw them to faith in Christ.
The means might vary, but one Spirit draws us to Christ.
Paul then says you were called to one hope when you were called
I get to take quite a few funeral services, and, one of the great blessings of being at a Christian funeral, is that we get to hear so clearly of the sure and certain hope held out in the gospel of Jesus.
In fact those are the words we use in the funeral service, “the sure and certain hope”, whene we speak of the resurrection from the dead, guaranteed by Jesus’ own resurrection.
The sure and certain hope of the resurrection,
The promise we cling to, that one day we will stand with Jesus, freed from the suffering, and hurt, and brokenness of this world, that is the hope to which you were called.
Take that hope out of the Christian message, as sadly, many are seeking to do today, and you do not have the Christian message.
The resurrection is not an optional extra in Christianity.
This is part of the unity that we share, and to move beyond that, is to step outside the unity that the Spirit brings to the church.
And here we see the working out of the first point on the list, the one body. It is possible to be a member of a denomination, and yet not part of Christ’s church.
It is possible to be a leader of a local church organisation, and yet not be part of Christ’s church.
Think of the bishops around the world, who deny the resurrection,
The local church leaders in our region, who deny the resurrection. By stepping outside of this unity, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, and of glory that is the hope of every believer, from the moment of their calling, in denying this, these leaders have stepped outside of Christ’s church.
There is one Lord Paul says. Maybe not immediately obvious to us, but this is speaking about Jesus. To say, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ”, was perhaps the most basic, the earliest Christian creed.
For Jesus to be Lord, means I am not Lord.
It means that everything in my sinful nature that pushes myself forward,
Seeks to elevate myself,
Seeks my own good and preference,
If Jesus is Lord, then all those things must be subject to him.
My preferences couldn’t matter less, if Jesus is Lord.
And of course, let’s not miss the significance of this title.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel was Lord.
To say Jesus is Lord, to say there is one Lord, is recognise that Jesus is equal to his Father,
Not one among many,
But one Lord.
And one faith, as Paul continues.
Probably what Paul has on view here is the content of our faith, the things we believe.
Paul’s saying, right theology matters.
The content of the Christian faith is not up for grabs.
We don’t decide on it.
We don’t take a vote, you know, two thirds majority to decide what you need to believe in order to have eternal life.
No! The content of the Christian faith is the same, whether you’re a Christian in jeans and jumper, meeting in a Lutheran school in Mount Barker,
Or a Christian in a long black robe, matching your long black beard, if you’re a bloke, meeting in an ancient building, or even in hiding, one Friday morning, while the Muslims pray, somewhere in Libya.
Who cares what the externals are, the content of the faith is the same; God sent his son to die, to take the punishment we deserved for rebelling against God. If we believe that, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.
Can I say, If you’re with us today, you’re not a Christian, but you’re trying to work out what Christians believe, there’s your answer! I’m sorry it took so long to get there, but that is the content of the Christian faith.
That’s what we’d love you to come to know, and believe.
And just is there is one faith, one body of belief, Paul says there is also one baptism.
Now here, maybe this is where we start to think, hang on! This is one of the areas where Christians think differently.
Christians genuinely have different convictions,
About the amount of water required for baptism,
About the age of people who can be baptised,
About whether someone being baptised needs to be able to explain what they’re doing, or whether the baptism itself explains enough!
How can Paul possibly say there is only one baptism?
Well, because Paul knows, that there is only one kind of baptism that matters, and that’s the baptism that identifies someone with Jesus,
The baptism that marks somebody out as a disciple, a learner, of Jesus.
Does it take a thimble full of water? Or a bath full?
Does it have to come up to your head? Or can it just do the top of your head?
It doesn’t matter!
Paul’s eye is on baptism as a sign of a spiritual union with Jesus, being identified with Jesus. And if you received the mark of discipleship with Jesus one way, and some other Christian received it a different way, it’s still the sign, the visible word, as the Anglicans say, of union with Jesus, of being a disciple. You have , the same baptism.
Finally, Paul says, there is one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all
To recognise God as Father of all, I guess means we don’t get to choose who are our brothers and sisters! That’s always good to remember when we’re thinking about unity.
And if God is Father of all, and over all, and through all, and in all, well, once again, the unity of God’s people, is a unity brought by God himself.
And I think it highlights that warning to us, not to create divisions, to disrupt unity.
If, Paul says here, the unity of the church, is a direct reflection of the character and the nature of God, how foolish we would be, to try and, create divisions.
The unity in the church comes from one God.
We could no more have divisions in the church, than we could have divisions within God!
And we truly grasp the fact, that it’s God’s church,
Brought into existence by God’s Son,
Made up of God’s people,
Drawn in by God’s spirit,
If that is what we see, when we look at this particular representation of Christ’s church, Then we ought not find it , too difficult, to put our hand to the task before us,
Living a life worthy of the calling we have received, Making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.