UNITY AND DIVERSITY IN THE CHURCH
by Rev Bill Stewart audio
"There is ...
one God and Father..." (see Ephesians 4:4-6)
We get the feeling that Paul is trying to make a point, don't we? And in theory at least his point is simple: "maintain unity":
"I therefore ... 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" (vs. 1-3)
I ask myself, what is driving Paul here? Is he just playing "happy families"? I don't think so. Paul begs the Ephesians to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace". Have you noticed how often Paul refers to "Spirit" and to "peace" in his letter to the Ephesians? Paul mentions the "Spirit" 14 times, at least twice in every chapter [read 1:13, 17; 2:2, 18, 22; 3:5, 16; 4:3, 23, 30; 5:9, 18; 6:17, 18], and he refers to "peace" 7 times [read 1:2; 2:14, 15, 17; 4:3; 6:15, 23]. And later in his letter in chapter 6, verse 15 – in that famous passage about putting on the whole armour of God, Paul says to the Ephesian Christians: "As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace". The gospel of peace! For Paul the gospel itself, the "good news" of Jesus is about the creation of peace.
Two weeks ago in the reading from Ephesians we heard that powerful image of Christ "breaking down" the "diving wall" (Eph 2:14):
"For Christ 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. ... that he might create in himself one humanity in place of the two [Jews and Gentiles] thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off [the Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [the Jews]; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father". (vs. 14-18)
The church is the place where peace has been restored and the hostility of the world is broken down; (1) firstly, with God in the Spirit and (2) secondly, with each other. Paul is convinced that unity is fundamental to Christian's "calling" (v. 1) as the people of God: our calling to be the place not just where people HEAR the "gospel of peace", but also where people SEE the "gospel of peace".
Last week Chris reminded us of what an incredible thing God has done in Christ in bringing such different people together in the church: in the Church at Ephesus, Jews and Gentiles; and in the church at Burwood, English speakers and Cantonese speaks, Mike's mates, STOMP, Tom's crew, CLAY youth group, the 8.30 congregation, the 10.00 congregation, the 11.30 congregation, the 6.00 congregations, etc. etc.
If we were able to ask Paul, What does the gospel look like?, I think he would probably say it looks like a group of people at peace with God and at peace with each other. The visible sign of the "unity" between them all is the way that, as different as they are, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, they bear with one another in love" (v. 2).
For Paul this is all based upon a simple equation. In fact, Paul's maths is so simple even I can understand it (and I don't need to ask my wife for help!):
1 God = 1 people of God (church).
At heart Paul is writing as the devout Jew that he is. In his day it is probable that Jewish people had already begun their tradition of reciting their confession of faith, their core belief and core value (their creed, if you like) twice every day, morning and night. This text from Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4: is called the Shema Israel, or just the Shema, after its first word "Hear", in Hebrew "Shema":
Shema yisra'el adonai eloheynu adonai ehad =
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4)
What was Jesus' answer when one of the scribes asked him, "Which commandment is first of all?":
"Jesus answered, 'the first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Mark 12:29)
It's worth noticing I think that after the words of the Shema, Deuteronomy goes on to say:
"Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates". (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
I have a Jewish friend who follows the Jewish tradition of literally having these texts on the doorposts of her house. You may well have seen them in a Jewish home. We Christians don't tend to take this text as literally. But if we were looking for an equivalent New Testament verse to recite to recite to when we lie down and when we rise, this is probably it. Paul essentially takes the Shema confession of faith and adds to it the new work of God in Christ and in the Spirit:
"There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all" (vs. 4-6)
The Message translation of verse 6 says: "Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness".
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he was, as he says in verse 1, a "prisoner in the Lord". But if he had been personally speaking with the Ephesians, rather than writing to them, I suspect he might have said something like this:
Bill, you are a member of the same "body" as Chris.
Anna, the "Spirit" bringing peace to you is the same Spirit bringing peace to Pat.
Louise, you have been called to the same "hope" Sau-Choi has been called to.
Sam, you are a servant of the same "Lord" Robert serves.
Annette, the good news you believe is the same "faith" Don believes.
Margaret, you were baptised with the same "baptism" as Norah.
Elspeth, you are a child of the same "God and Father" as Michael.
If you weren't mentioned insert your own name here! As is often the case, the great Christian teacher John Calvin, has a real way with words when it comes to explaining these verses:
"For God invites all with His one voice, so that they may be united in the same agreement of faith, and study to help one another. ... Christ cannot be divided; faith cannot be rent; there are not various baptisms, but one common to all; God cannot be divided into parts. Therefore, it behoves us to cultivate among ourselves a holy unity, composed of many bonds. Faith and baptism, and God the Father, and Christ, ought to unite us, so that we coalesce, as it were, into one man. All these arguments for unity ought to be pondered more than they can be explained. ... The unity of faith, which is here mentioned, depends on the one eternal truth of God, on which it is founded". (Calvin's commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians)
(2) "Christ's gifts" (vs. 7-13)
Of course unity and uniformity are not the same thing. Christians are united, but Paul goes on to say in verse
"But each of use was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift".
Then Paul goes off on this weird and confusing tangent about "ascending" and "descending" and "ascending" again. Thankfully these verses are not as confusing at they seems to be the first time you read them. Actually what Paul does is quote from Psalm 68 where it talks about God as a king who has been victorious in battle ascending a mountain in a sort of victory parade. Now Paul says we know that the King who ascended into heaven victorious was Jesus. His ascension, going up into heaven, implies that he first descended. Paul assumes here that his readers will understand that Jesus victory was his death on the cross. But Paul observes one difference from the King in the Psalm. Can you see it?
17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
thousands upon thousands,
the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.
18 You ascended the high mount,
leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from people,
even from those who rebel against the LORD God's abiding there.
8Therefore it is said,
"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people."
9(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
The King in the Psalm "received gifts from people" (Psalm 68:18), as victorious kings do. But when Jesus ascended victorious, Paul points out: "he gave gifts to his people" (v. 8). For Paul this is not a tangent. Christ can give gifts precisely because he is the victorious King.
When he finally gets around to it in verse 11, Paul tells us:
"The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers..."
I don't think we were meant to understand these gifts as an inclusive list. In other letters Paul gives other lists which include other gifts. I think Paul is saying, "Let me see. I mean gifts like apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, for example." And Paul made it clear, didn't he, that "each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift" (v. 7). The gifts Christ gives are individual people dedicated to tasks of service in the church. Paul doesn't say so in as many words, but I think it is strongly implied here that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Because "each of us" has been given gifts, it follows that there are no spectators in the worship or the mission of the church. Each of us is out on the field. We are playing in different positions, but each us is a vital playing member of the team. And even these gifts, although they are different for different people, are intended to create "unity":
"to equip the saints for the work of service, 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" (vs. 12 -13).
(3) "Grow up into Christ" (vs. 14-16)
I wonder if you've ever had another Christian talk to you about "speaking the truth in love" and you've known that they are just about to give you an earful of what you're supposedly doing wrong. In my experience this is one of the more often misused texts in the Bible, and probably because it is often read out of context. When Paul talks about "speaking the truth in love" he's not talking about airing our personal grievances, but about teaching that builds up the whole group into a mature relationship with Jesus. We've called this sermon "Unity and diversity", but it could just as easily have been called, "Unity and maturity" – not just individual maturity but the maturity of the whole church.
Picture a boat out on the water in a storm, Paul says: "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming" (v. 14). If you're not a boating person, and feel sick at the thought of being out on the water in rough weather, I expect you'll identify with Paul's image here. Paul doesn't develop the image but I think we could say that his point is that unless the church is firmly anchored in the truth; in a mature understanding of who God is and what God has done "in Christ", it will inevitably be blown in whatever direction the wind blows. Instead, he says,
"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". (vs 15-16)
Paul stresses the unity of head, Christ, and the body, the church, and presents Christ as the nourisher and source of growth, of maturity. Christ's "very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God" (v. 16, The Message). Calvin suggested that here the church is like "a tree drawing sap from the same root" (Calvin's commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians).
Can we conclude by standing and joining in saying together the following prayer which brings together many of Paul's theme's in Ephesians:
Lord God, bring us together as one,
reconciled with you and reconciled with each other.
You made us in your likeness,
you gave us your Son, Jesus Christ.
He has given us forgiveness from sin.
Lord God, bring us together as one,
different in culture, but given new life in Jesus Christ,
together as your body, you church, your people.
Lord, bring us together as one,
reconciled, healed, forgiven,
sharing you with others as you have called us to do.
In Jesus Christ, let us be together as one. Amen.
(A prayer book for Australia, p. 203)