August 5, 2018

Preached by Rev. Yando on August 5, 2018.

2 Samuel 11: 26-12a
Psalm 51
Ephesians 4: 1-16
John 6: 24-35

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Getting It Together By Getting Together

This passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus contains both a wonderfully idealistic vision of the church and some very down to earth reality checks about the church. It offers up a big challenge to us here at St. Andrew’s. I suggest it calls us to ask some hard questions about how we are going to go about being church together as we move into the future.

Without going into a lot of detail, it may be helpful to be reminded that the theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about reconciliation:

  • between ourselves and God;
  • between one another as members of Christ’s Body, the church;
  • between ourselves and the world, as we seek to be the Body of Christ in the world, proclaiming God’s reconciling love in Christ, and serving as agents of reconciliation in the world for which Christ died to save.

The opening verse of this morning’s lesson from chapter 4 marks a kind of turning point in the letter.  Paul begins,I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Having spent the first three chapters of this letter on the theme of reconciliation, Paul seems to be anticipating an unspoken question here. It’s as if Paul were to say, “Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘So what? What does it all mean?  Practically speaking, when it comes down to living my life as a follower of Jesus Christ, what are the per­sonal, ethical implications of all that you, Paul, have been saying?’”

And assuming he has intuited correctly their thoughts and responses to what he has been saying, Paul responds, I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”Simply put, “to claim the name, you have to walk the talk.”

Reconciliation stands at the heart of the Gospel; recon­ciliation is central to one’s relationship with God, a rela­tion­ship made possible through the death of Christ upon the cross; recon­ciliation is crucial to relationships between believers; and reconciliation is the focus of our mission as we fulfill our calling to be agents of Christ’s reconciliation in the world.

Calling and lifestyle go hand in hand; if one claims to be called and to have responded to the call of Christ, than one’s life must of necessity reflect that calling.  If one’s life is unworthy of that calling, than one is unfaithful to that calling.  It’s as simple as that.  In answer to the unspoken question, “So what?  What does it all mean, practically speaking?” the answer follows in the remaining three chapters of Paul’s letter.

Let’s look at the ideal vision first. The picture of unity and oneness in this passage is beautifully expressed. 4 “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 Divine Parent of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Oneness! unity!  With Christ as the one head, we all grow into one body with every part working properly and harmoniously. United as one body in Christ we achieve our destiny – full maturity – being like Christ.

It is a glowing picture of Christian community – people totally committed to one another, loving one another and prepared to lay down their lives for one another. People who enjoy one another’s company and look out for one another – encourage one another, support one another, and care for one another. A wonderful vision, but is it realistic? Are there any churches like that? Is our church like that? Was the church as Paul experienced it like that?

Afraid not.  When you read the whole of this passage it becomes clear that Paul was well aware that the ideal he was holding up did not in fact reflect the everyday reality of life in the church. Even as he waxes eloquently about the vision, he’s also begging people to do their best to live up to it, to work toward making it a reality. Paul knows it’s not easy, and that it won’t be easy.  He knows it will take a long time and a lot of hard work before those who are striving to follow Jesus even come close to achieving that ideal. Listen to the language that spells out the reality of that challenge: “Bear with one another . . . make every effort to maintain the unity . . . be humble, be gentle, be patient . . . speak the truth in love . . . grow up!”

So Paul is heavily invested in this vision of the church characterized by oneness and harmony, but he is under no illusions about the gap between the dream and the reality.  He is acknowledging how tough it’s going to be for any community to live up to that vision, and grow into it.

As I’ve been reflecting on the passage, two things have become apparent to me, two realities are starting to sink in. The first is that Paul seems quite hopeful about the prospects, the possibility, and the process of growing into that vision. The challenge of dealing with the present reality is a positive thing, something to be welcomed and embraced because it is the very thing that will stimulate our growth as individuals.

I think the logic goes something like this: For each of us as individuals, our goal is to grow into full Christlikeness. To become more Christlike, we need to become completely, utterly and unconditionally loving, such that we become capable even of loving our enemies.  To become that loving will require effort, intentional practice, learning to love people we may not find easy to love.

What better place than the church to develop those attitudes; what better place to hone those skills than were we are teamed up with a bunch of people who are often not at all easy to love. We’re a mixed bag, really, some more loveable and more easily loved than others but that’s the reality.  A mixed bag of often unlovable people, bound together as they embrace a vision of unity and harmony.  What a tremendous opportunity for us to begin to stretch our ability to become more loving. And learning to love one another in the church is one of the basic Christian disciplines that we need to work at if we want to become more Christlike.

If we were to be completely honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that each of us – every one of us in this congregation – has at least one or two other people here that we find particularly difficult to relate to, to get on with, and to love. And the reality is that probably every one of us is that particularly irritating person to someone else.  And to those of you who might be thinking, “Who, me?” let me respond in the most loving way I can, “Yes, you!”

That may be news – or not – but that, too, is reality.  Most of us have times when we think that church would be much better if it was made up of people we could relate to better and if some of the really painful people would just quietly leave and go find so place else where they can be annoying nuisances.

But the fact is, that if everyone in the congregation was easy to get along with, then this church wouldn’t actually be a place that stretched you and challenged your ability to love. It wouldn’t provide the same stimulus to confront the limitations and the growing edges in your own ability to love others.

There are already lots of other places you can go to mix with people like yourself: special interest groups that are naturally self-selecting and become groups of like-minded compatible people. They can be pleasant to be part of and we all need some of them, to some degree. But they are not the places that challenge you to grow into the image of Christ.

If we really desire to grow fully into the image of Christ, we are going to have to first recognize that the difficult hard-to-love people in the church are gifts from God, absolutely essential to our growth. And then we’ll have to find ways of putting ourselves in a position where we have to live alongside and interact and cooperate with those difficult people enough to confront us frequently with the limits of our humility, tolerance and gentleness. And then we’ll have to tough it out, to bear with one another in love, as we grow into a genuine mature self-sacrificing love. It will be no easy road, but Jesus never promised that that fullness of life would come easily.

To the second insight that has arisen for me out of this passage:

To those who might have been asking Paul, or thinking in response to all his talk about reconciliation, “What’s in it for me?” Paul is saying, “the challenge and the goal of becoming more Christlike, and the opportunity to do so in the midst of a group of similarly like-minded, similarly goal-oriented people, the blessing of being together in that body known as the Church, as together you grow into that image of the body, a company marked by the attitudes and characteristics of love and unity and harmony.”  And the second aspect that makes the prospect of growing toward that standard is the possibility of doing so amid those toward whom we would have the most compelling reasons to be more loving: the fact that they are family.

The task of becoming more loving is challenging enough in the best of circumstances.  Those we find hard-to-love are easiest to avoid and dismiss saying, “He or she is just not worth the effort.” “I don’t need the hassle.”  “Why bother?” In response, and rather than criticizing and being judgmental and asking, “Who are you to judge whether or not they are worthy of your love?” let me gently remind you of the attitude of the One who isworthy to judge, the One  who has said, “Yes, they are worthy and deserving of your love. I love them; and I gave them to you to be family.”

There’s something I’d like to you do: take a few moments to re­member your baptism.  That’s right, remember your bap­tism.  For many of you who were baptized at six weeks or six months of age, that may be a tough as­signment, but I still want you to think hard and remember your baptism.          Bap­tism.  That’s where you became yoked to the church.  That’s where you were adopted and brought into the family of God.  No one is born into the church.  As someone has said, “God has no grandchildren.” There really is no such thing as “second generation Christians” because each of us has been adopted and brought into the church, fresh and new, by baptism.

By baptism each of us was adopted and brought into the family of God. And isn’t our faith amazing, this faith which makes rela­tives of perfect strangers? And what a strange creation this Church is: black and white, red, brown, and yellow; young, old, rich, poor, whole, infirmed, male, female, transgender, lesbian, gay, single, married, coupled, separated, divorced, widowed, the differences and distinctions go on.  While we rejoice in the diversity, we recognize that it’s not easy to get it together or to keep it together here in the church.  How on earth can we keep it together?

What is the mark of the true Church?  Pure doctrine?  Suc­cess at raising money?  A young, bright, charismatic preacher?  Good Bible preaching and teaching?  This morning’s text makes it clear – the mark of the true Church is its unity. Outsiders said of the early Church, “See how they love one another.”

But how could I be united with you? How could any – or all of us – be united with the others?  Yet in spite of all the differences and distinctions between us, we areunited, as family, in baptism, and in our common, shared goal of individually and collectively pursuing the ideal of becoming a  reconciled and reconciling community, a community marked by love, unity, harmony, and an unconditional inclusiveness befitting the family of God, the church of Jesus Christ.

So go ahead, look at those people sitting next to you in the pew on this fine August morning. Look at them and remember your baptism.  Look at them and remember their baptism as well. That is, remember that we’re all in this to­gether, we’re all family.

That’s what Paul is getting at when he begins this morning’s passage from Ephesians by saying, “I therefore . . . beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . . one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism. . . .”  Thanks be to God.

Amen.