Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-16
I do not know about your household, but in ours we have a countdown going on right now. We are just days away, five days in fact, until the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games. My wife loves the Olympics. It is pretty much a given, that from this Friday until the closing ceremonies on August 8th the Olympics will be about the only thing on TV in our house. I get it, a lot of people love the Olympics and the drama of international competition. I do find it interesting the way the Olympics have evolved over the years, especially in regards to the athletes. Some of them have specialized in a very specific skill, pole vaulting for instance, and they pour hundreds and hundreds of hours into being the best at that one thing. That is quite a bit different than it was when the Olympics started. In those early days, countries sent their best athletes who then might just do a little bit of everything. Consider German gold medalist Carl Schuhmann who competed at the 1896 Olympics. His primary sport was gymnastics where he achieved gold in vault, team parallel bars, and team horizontal bars. However, Carl also competed in Greco-Roman wrestling where he also won gold. In addition to winning gold in two different disciplines, Carl also competed in weightlifting and just missed the medal stand. While he did not medal, he also competed in several track and field events that same year competing in long jump, triple jump, and shot put. There are some modern day examples of athletes crossing over from event to event, usually in the form of track and field runners also being part of their country’s winter Olympics bobsled team. However, in this day and age the idea of an athlete competing in three completely different disciplines (gymnastics, wrestling, and track & field) would be unheard of and just about impossible. Over the past 125 years, athletes have become more and more specialized and as a result the level of completion has elevated.
As I read this morning’s scripture, I cannot help but think that in the church we have done the opposite. We can find books on Christian living that lift up the importance of prayer and how we should start every day in hours of prayer. We can find other books that tell us the importance of memorizing scripture and how we should invest our time in doing that. Other Christian authors lift up the importance of serving in the community, or advocating for policy change, or intentionally building relationships outside the church. Yes, all of those things are important and need to be done, but it sometimes feels that if we take all of the recommendations of things we should do as faithful Christians we are being asked to do 30 hours of stuff in every 24 hour day. Not only is this impossible, it is not healthy. It creates a sense that we are never doing enough, and we are always failing at being the follower of Christ we should be. This morning’s scripture lays out a vision for how the church should work, where individuals are called and equipped by God to unique specializations. This morning’s scripture give us a model where each one of us lives into the grace that has been given as Christ apportioned it and in complete unity we work together to reach maturity in faith and change the world into a more kind and loving place.
At this point we have centuries of Christian tradition to draw upon. When it comes to how to be a community of faith, we have hundreds of field-tested, results-proven methods and models available to us. Given that the scripture is so often the basis for all these resource we have available to us, it can be easy to forget that the churches of the first century did not have any such resources. For instance, the church in Ephesus that this morning’s scripture is directed to, is one that Paul founded. It is a first generation church. They did not have centuries or decades of traditions to draw upon. There were no long memories to say “well, we’ve always done it this way” because it had never been done before. This is one of the reasons why Paul wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus. He wrote the letter to encourage and guide them in how to be a community of faith that glorified God, collectively had a deepening faith, and spread the good news of grace to the world. He recommends to the church in Ephesus two elements that could equip the church to be a powerful witness and catalyst for Christ in the world.
First, Paul lifts up the primary element they need for this in verse 3: “May every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I do not know about, but when I read that part of this morning’s scripture, the wind goes out of my sails a little bit. This scripture can be disheartening, because unity has not always been the strong suit of Christians. This is especially true when we consider denominational divides that sometimes have centuries of bad blood between them. However, I am more encouraged when I realize that the scope of this morning’s scripture is not directed to the universal church. Paul wrote this scripture with a local church in mind. We can do little to control the disunity at universal church levels, but we can strive for unity among each other at the local, congregational level. We can keep the bond of peace by remembering what unites us is far stronger than anything that might divide us. This morning scripture plainly states: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
We are united by a common faith, a common purpose, a common savior, and by the same God whom we worship. Those connections are the basis for our unity, but we have to be careful not to fall into the trap that happens far too often. We are called to unity, not to uniformity. We are to put what we hold in common above our differences, we are not to try to stamp out our differences. What truly makes unity an ideal to pursue is that we are able to say we claim each other even though we are not all the same. This is why verse two of this morning’s scripture urges us to be humble, gentle, patience and bearing with another in love. We take steps to unity when we celebrate our common bonds and we give people space to not fit a pre-defined mold. The rest of this scripture uses a very specific example, but it even goes on to state that we should celebrate our differences.
The specific example of differences to celebrate that Paul gives as an example, are the differences in how God differently calls people. Paul defines these different callings in verse 11, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” These are all very different roles and they are clearly meant to be fulfilled by different people. This is the second element this morning’s scripture gives us that equip the church to make a real difference. We are not meant to be super-Christians who are good at everything. As individual followers of Christ, we are not suppose to shoulder the whole work of being all things to all people. It is not God’s design that we all be perfect at every facet of the Christian life. We are not supposed to be one person who brings home gold in radically different event, but like modern athletes we are to specialize in what we are best gifted and suited for. That is the model lifted up in this morning’s scripture.
As we look at these different roles mentioned, we can quickly see that it is terribly unfair to expect one person to fulfill all these roles and it is impossible for one person to do so. We can run through these roles in detail. An apostle is an entrepreneur of the church. These are the people who can go and start something from nothing. They are the missionaries and church planters. Prophets are the people who question and reform. They are the voices that push the church to reach out to the people who are overlooked, they are the ones who make sure the good news leaves no one behind. Evangelists are the extroverts who never meet a stranger. They are the ones who effortlessly start up conversations and able to spread the good news of grace far and wide. Pastors are the ones who nurture a community, they are the ones who make sure everyone feels included in the community of faith. Finally teachers are the ones who facilitate others into growing in scriptural truth. They are the ones that help others connect the dots to live faithful lives. These roles put together are what a church needs to be vital, to be fruitful, to grow. As Paul puts it when these roles are all in place “the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
I think one of the reasons why some people never attempt to discover or live into God’s calling is because they know they cannot do all of these things, so they never even try to do one. The reality is that one person cannot fulfill all of these roles. It is the height of hubris and foolishness to even try. It was not God’s design for one person or even a small group to fulfill all of these roles. Twenty percent of the people doing eighty percent of the work is not the model that churches are supposed to operate with. It is supposed to be 100% of the people doing 100% of the work, in complete unity, joined together, and building itself up in love as each part does its work.
I think an image of how this works is an orchestra. A single piano or violin could carry the tune, it could get the music across. However, the single instrument lacks a lot. When the percussion adds a steady beat, when the woodwinds bring a depth to the sound, and when the brass brings the noise the song gets inevitably better. When the full orchestra is playing the song has strength and volume. Its ability to be heard and to impact a person greatly increase. It is also being presented in perfect unity. The loss of any section of the orchestra diminishes the song. All are needed to play their part in coordination with each other to produce something amazing and beautiful.
In the same way, when we work together as the body of Christ, as the church, fully united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all then we also become something amazing and beautiful. We become the body of Christ in the world, sharing the good news, making disciples, and bringing about transformation.
This morning’s scripture gives a handful of specific specializations, and if that is yours then live into it. If you are an evangelists then share the good news, if you are a shepherd who nurtures others then reach out and let the people know you care, and if you are a teacher then proclaim the truth of the scriptures. If your role is prayer, then pray fervently. If your role is to be present and do what needs to be done, then work with joy. Each and everyone one of use have a role to fill in the church. So may we be fully united in our common faith and our common purpose. May we each play our part and in doing so may our work as North Judson UMC be a beautiful song in the ears of our God.