Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Unity in the Body of Christ
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 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. 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.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From in him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
This reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was actually from the listed reading for yesterday, when we reflected on the legacy of Martin Luther King. But we should spend some time thinking about this passage before we move on, because it has some especially important things to say to us about the life of a follower of Jesus, and about our life together as the church.
Let’s start with a reminder of something we said last week about this Letter to the Ephesians: Scholars say this is one of Paul’s letters that was intended as a general letter to all the communities of faith he had established in the course of his missionary travels. So it was meant to be used like a Sunday School lesson – to teach people the beliefs of the Christian faith.
As you probably remember, Paul was commissioned by Jesus to go into the gentile world to tell the story of his death and resurrection, and to start communities of faith – churches – as he went. But of course, Paul would also need to teach people what the life of Jesus’ followers was supposed to be like. Unlike those of us who are at the end of a 2,000 year history of the church, the converts Paul was making had no pattern for the ‘Christian life.’ So Paul wrote his letters in part to teach them.
It seems that the actual teachings of Jesus were being passed along by those who had known him and followed him in person – people like Peter and John. Those teachings were eventually recorded and published in the gospels. But as he was organizing churches, it fell to Paul to show new Christians how they were live out their faith that the death and resurrection of Jesus had given new life to his followers.
Some of the new Christians had been raised as Jews, so they at least had the traditions of their people to go by. And those traditions gave them some guidance, but Jesus had established new priorities for relating to God and other people. (That’s probably what Jesus had been talking about when he talked about the futility of putting ‘new wine in old wineskins.’) And people who had been gentiles – who had been raised worshipping pagan gods like Zeus and Artemis – they had no pattern at all for life in the community of followers of Jesus. So Paul had to teach people what ‘living like a follower of Jesus’ meant. That’s what he’s doing in this part of his letter to the church in Ephesus.
Paul begins by writing that followers of Jesus should be “completely humble and gentle,” and “patient, bearing with one another in love.” The members of the church are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Sadly, it’s become ‘way too common to hear people who call themselves Christians criticizing and judging one another with such bitterness and self-righteousness that God must want to throw up. In fact, for some parts of the church, condemnation of other followers of Jesus has become a defining characteristic. That kind of bitter discord apparently went on in Paul’s own time (as you can tell by his letters to the Corinthians), and sadly, it still goes on today.
By contrast, Paul says that we followers of Jesus should be committed to a gentle and humble version of the faith that nurtures a sense of unity within the church. (And that would mean, not just within our own little congregations, but within the one body of Jesus in the world.)
Since an important part of Paul’s work was helping people put the teachings of Jesus into practice, this section of Ephesians might be seen as practical interpretation of something important that Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus had told them, “A new command I give you: Love one another . . . by this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Then Paul points out that it’s Jesus who gives each of us the various roles we play in his church. And whatever role we’ve been given to play, we’re supposed to be treating each other with respect and patience and generosity, so that we show the character of Jesus into the world. That can only happen, Jesus said, when the world looks at us and says, “See how they love one another.”
The church is meant to be distinct from any other organization or movement. In spite of how we think of it, in God’s eyes the followers of Jesus are not volunteers. We’re supposed to understand ourselves as ‘draftees’ – as people called to Jesus by God. (The New Testament Greek word for the church is ekklesia, which means ‘those who have been called out.’) And when we get on one another’s nerves, or when we disagree about a point of doctrine or governance, we’re not supposed to respond the way people do in the world outside the church. We can’t claim to be faithfully following the teachings of Jesus if we get into shouting matches or gossip bitterly about one another. Nobody ever looks at that kind of behavior and says, “See how they love one another!”
Instead, even in times of discord, we are commanded to demonstrate patient, humble, gentle love for one another, so that even times of discord become opportunities to demonstrate the unity God calls us to. If the world sees that even when we disagree with one another, we conduct our disagreements with love and humility and mutual respect, then the world really will see the image of Jesus being displayed in us. And that’s an important element of what Paul has in mind as “the Christian life.”
Let’s pray. Lord, we ask you to nurture within us a spirit of gentleness and patience, especially toward other believers, so that we can serve you together gracefully and model your love for the world to see. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 123 and 146; Isaiah 44:9-20; Ephesians 4:17-32; and Mark 3:19b-35.)