How to live as a united church.
The book of Ephesians encourages us to look at other people with completely different eyes.
On one side there were the Jews
On the other side you have Gentiles
Paul is saying that now, in Jesus, who was a Jew, but who died on the cross and then rose again, there is a new way of being, a new way of living.
If you are with Jesus, you are no longer to identify yourself as a Jew, or as a Gentile – but as a new person. ‘His purpose was to create in himself one new person, out of the two, thus making peace’ (Ephesians 2:15)
And you will realise that what Paul is saying here about Jew and Gentile can equally be applied to all our human distinctions – black/white, male/female, lived in Bury all life/newcomer, English/Scottish, Academy (two tier)/KEGS (three tier)
When we are with Jesus, we are no longer Jew/Gentile. We become new people with a new identity, a new purpose, and a new unity.
And in Ephesians 4, Paul is saying Guard this unity
‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (v3)
And he goes on to say, in verse 4:
‘There is one body’.
There is a picture of Jesus which expresses this.
Paul is saying to the Ephesian Christians: ‘When you became believers, whether you were from a Jewish background or a Gentile background, you became part of this picture’. Guard it.
Don’t be the person who says, ‘I am going to be bigger than you’, because when that happens people won’t see Jesus
Don’t be the people who say, ‘well we don’t agree with you on this, so we need to airbrush you out’, because when that happens people won’t see Jesus.
The visible church is divided: We have St Peter’s on one side of the Hyndman Centre car park, Westgate on the other; the Cathedral on one side of the great churchyard, St Mary’s on the other and St Edmunds just down the road; And yes, we do have our own distinctive shapes and styles and beliefs; we may hold to things that the other cannot really agree with – but in the end there is only one Church, one body of Jesus.
And I am aware that there are questions of boundaries and we can’t ignore them; I am aware that we may think that some others are profoundly wrong, and we need to hold on to the convictions that we have, but we also need to be very careful before we personally draw the line between who is in and who is out.
If we think our purpose is to identify those people who claim to be in but should be out, then we have really missed the point. Rather our aim should be to draw those who are definitely out, in.
There is only one body. And it is God who ultimately knows who is in and who is out.
There is one Spirit: The same Holy Spirit who came on the Jews at Pentecost came on the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house.
We can liken the Spirit to air. It is around us and we are in it. But it is also in us, and it gives us life. So, in the same way, the Spirit also lives in the Christian and gives us life. But the Christian also lives in the realm, kingdom, arena of the Spirit.
We share one Spirit. And there is something mystical, indefinable that happens when two believers meet together – even if they come from very different backgrounds. The Spirit who is in one calls out to God the Father; the Spirit who is the other calls out to God the Father; and there is so often a recognition between believers: Spirit calls to Spirit.
We have one hope.
It is the hope of sharing in the resurrection from the dead, of sharing Christ’s glory.
We have one Lord.
The earliest Christian creed was ‘Jesus is Lord’. It was the single statement that defined the early believers. Jewish believers said ‘Jesus is Lord’; Gentile believers said ‘Jesus is Lord’. At times they disagreed about what that meant in practice, but they still had that common confession.
They followed Jesus. They walked the Jesus way. They seriously wanted to do what Jesus wanted them to do.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit”.
As Christians we have one faith.
We don’t put our trust in being good people; or in money; or in ourselves; or in a particular style of worship that we prefer. What unites us is that we put our trust in a person who lived 2000 years ago, who we believe is the eternal Son of God, who died for us and who rose from the dead. Because of him we have forgiveness. Because of him we have our hope.
We have one baptism.
There was only one mark that identified the early Christians. And it was an invisible mark. Everybody who confessed Jesus as Lord had been baptised.
Now some of us may have been baptised or christened as babies by sprinkling; others may have been baptised as adults by dunking. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of us has been baptised, and has had a common experience. We have died to ourselves, and we have come alive to Jesus. In our baptism, and I am not talking about the event of our baptism, but in the reality of living out our baptism, we have come down from the heights of where we were – and we have come into the pit with Jesus
And of course we have one God and Father of all – it almost certainly means that he is God and Father of all things. He is over all, through all and in all. He is in Jews, in Gentiles. He is over them, even if they do not recognise him. He works through them and in them, even if they do not recognise him. Jews think that God is on their side; Gentiles think that God is on their side. Christians recognise that God is not on either side, but that he longs to draw all to him – whether Jew or Gentile - and discover that he is bigger than Jew or Gentile.
When we are here, we already have an amazing unity.
It is a unity which is expressed particularly when different churches meet together for worship. (Churches Together service); friend at Taize; working together here in town – town pastors, BCY, Sporting 87, CAP, fair trade and the St John’s centre.
But we are also called to guard this unity
Four significant virtues that we need to develop (v2):
a) Humility – not thinking more of yourself than you should.
Conflict happens when one person thinks that they are more important than another, or when we think we are always right and other people are always wrong.
King Saul is hunting down David because he is jealous of him. When they do meet, David says to Saul, ‘Why is the King so uptight about me. I am nothing. I am a dead dog’. If we are to keep the unity in the church we need more dead dogs - people who realise that, compared to others, we are nobody.
b) Gentleness – a gentle person is someone who could crush another person, but who does not. Indeed they do the opposite.They try to build up the other person. A gentle person does not fly off the handle when another person messes up. They recognise how precious the other person is.
This is not to say that a gentle person will never act forcefully; Jesus acted forcefully when he turned over the tables in the temple. But we are to be known as people who use force only when it really is the last resort.
Unity is broken when people start to think that they can force others to do what they want, because they are stronger or have more clout or can shout louder.
Jesus, we are told, did not break a bruised reed. He ruled not by standing over others, but by kneeling down before others and washing their feet.
c) Patience – unity is broken when we lose patience with each other, when we demand recompense immediately someone sins against us.
We need to ask God to give us this patience, this ability to wait, to recognise that God’s time is not our time, that other people do not become saints over night. The word that is used here is particularly used of being patient with others when they wrongus. It is about not writing them off immediately
d) Bearing with one another in love:
Love is the gift of God, which comes from the Holy Spirit.
When we allow God’s Spirit to work in us, we begin to see other people as God sees them. We begin to delight in them for who they are: someone made in the image of God. But love does not settle with simply accepting people as they are. Love sees them as who they could become as a fully mature follower of Jesus and member of the body of Christ.
William Temple said, "We must be treated as what we actually are but always with a view to what in God's purpose we are destined to become."
St Augustine said, that “we love our enemy now in order that they might become our friend in Christ”.
In Verses 7-16 Paul develops this idea that we are one body.
We have different gifts; they come from God; the gifts Paul stresses here are the foundational gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. When the church is based on the word of God others are released for service. And when we use our gifts and serve God in other people, we will reach a unity in faith and in knowledge (verse 13).
That is why unity will come not when we talk about it, but when we worship and pray and serve and witness together.
I remember when I was at theological college. There were students who I considered to be heretics! But then we all went on a mission together, and I was astonished to see these "heretics" preaching Jesus with far more clarity and power and conviction than I ever could.
So I do note the stress on the fact that what is important here is what we do. V12: ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service’. And v16, ‘As each part does its work’
This body is like a choir. Each voice is unique and necessary. If you weren’t there you would be missed (probably!). On your own, in your bath, you are good. But together you can be so much more. You can create amazing harmony.
So Paul is saying to the Jewish Christians: you need the Gentile Christians. He is saying to the Gentile Christians: you need the Jewish believers. It will be hard; there will be conflict; for them it was over circumcision and what you ate. For us, it is about music or worship style, about when we should be baptised, about ways to interpret the bible, and gay marriage or women bishops. And it is usually not that one side is right and the other is wrong, but that as the people of God come together under the authority of the word of God, with the default position that we recognise each other as part of the body (even if we are convinced 'they' are wrong), so we often discover that there is another way. The heavenly conductor will tell us to listen to each other, to sing quieter or louder or correct us when we are singing the wrong tune or out of time. And when we listen to him, and do what he says, there will be harmony.