Friday 30 March 2012

Walk as one (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Two cultures, one church

The church in Ephesus was as church of two different generations: old and new. It was a gathering of two conflicting cultures: Jew and Gentile. This was a church in tension. The two factions were under pressure to splinter and to split. What kind of church is this? A divided church? A disunited church? Some of us might even say, “This sounds like a Chinese Church!”

If you turn to the very beginning of the letter, Paul writes, “To the saints in Ephesus,” and most of your bibles will have footnote to that verse, which reads, “Some manuscripts do not have Ephesus.” What does this mean? This problem was not unique to its location. Paul was, in fact, writing a generic letter addressing a common situation. Unlike Romans, Galatians, Philippians and Colossians, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians does not mention any individuals by name. It does not contain any details specific to Ephesus (events or places), except, of course, for the opening address in Chapter 1, which the footnotes tells us, is missing in some manuscripts. The word Ephesus may not have been there in the first place.

What it means is: Paul was writing about situation that is real in, that is relevant to every church. Most likely, Ephesians was a circular letter: Paul did write this to Ephesus originally, but he wanted other churches to pay attention to the situation in Ephesus, as if to say, This is about your church. Their problem is your problem. And more importantly, their solution is your solution.

The issue is unity. How do you unite two cultures in conflict with one another? How do you reconcile two family members alienated from one another? How do encourage two different congregations - one speaks Putong Hwa, the other, English, mate; one likes slow songs, the other rocks out to Hillsongs - to love one another, to worship one God together, to meet as one church?

We will look at what the bible says under three headings:

(1) Our calling as the church: to be the body of Christ
(2) Our unity as the church: which we keep in the Spirit
(3) Our worship as the church: to the one God and Father of all

Our calling, our unity and our worship - as the Chinese Church here in Cambridge, as the people of God redeemed under Christ.

1. Our calling as the church

Paul opens with a passionate appeal. He pulls out all the stops. I mean, look at what he says in verse 1. You can almost hear the violins playing in the background.

As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Ephesians 4:1

This is serious, Paul seems to be saying. I am in chains. Locked up. If my incarceration means anything to you, please listen. More than that, if you have truly been called - referring to God’s call to you in Christ - Paul says, I urge you to do this one thing: Live a life worthy of that calling. Literally, Paul uses the word walk (peripateo in Greek). Walk in a way that is worthy of your calling. There is something visible about your walk, the way you live your life. When someone looks at you, they see the manner in which you go about your work, your relationships, your studies, and they see something that says This is where I’m headed. This is how I’m going to get there. The question is: what will they see when they look at you?

Back in Ephesians 2, Paul answered this question with two possibilities. Two walks. (1) You either walk in death: following the devil, following the world and following your sinful desires (Ephesians 2:1-3). Or (2) you walk in Jesus Christ, renewed in him, forgiven through his blood, enabled by God to do good works. Paul writes:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10 (English Standard Version)

And here, Paul says to the Christian, Walk this way. In a way or manner that is worthy, that is a result of (or working out of, see last week’s sermon) God’s call to you in Jesus Christ. In other words, walk in response to God’s call. That’s an important distinction. God’s call comes first, your walk comes second as a response to that call. Paul is not telling you to earn your salvation. Rather your Christian walk is enabled by your salvation. Verse 1 literally reads, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” God has already called you in Christ. You respond to that call by turning to him in repentance and trust in Jesus for forgiveness and new life. So Paul says to the Christian, You have been called, you have been saved. Now walk each day consistently with that call. God prepared good works for you to walk in, to display as the fruit of that call.

The question is: What does that look like? What does the truly authentic Christian walk look like?

Think about it for a moment. Should the authentic Christian be loving? Well yes, he should. Sacrificial? Of course, she must be. Generous? Certainly! And if you’ve peeked at the very next verse, all these ingredients are there. The difference is, Paul doesn’t list these qualities as individual traits, like on a CV (Hmm, I see that Mr X is responsible, patient and capable) - as impressive as these qualities are, as important as they may be for every Christian believer. Rather, Paul sets each and every one of these characteristics in the context of Christian relationships. Or to put it simply, Paul says, If you want to see the authentic Christian walk, look at the church.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Ephesians 4:2

The context of these characteristics is the church. Remind that to yourself this Sunday, The person sitting next to me is put there by God for me to relate to as my brother, as my sister in Christ. To be patient with, to be bear with, to love. It is not easy. Actually, Paul is saying, This will be hard. It is much easier to be proud; to want to impress our neighbour and get them to like us. It is much easier to be assertive with our views and our rights. It is much easier to talk to the people we already know instead of some stranger whom I do not know. But that is not the Christian walk. That is not the Christian church.

            Humility and gentleness (literally, lowliness and meekness) are words used in the Old Testament of the poor and the oppressed. In other words, when Paul says, Be completely humble and gentle, he is telling us to empty ourselves and to relate to one another as beggars, as slaves, as orphans. I was very encouraged recently by a brother in Thailand, who has been cycling around the country visiting orphanages dressed as Superman. Looking at the photos he’s posted on Facebook, I’m struck by how excited the kids are to have Superman turn up in their classroom teaching them English; how joyful these kids are to have Superman hanging out with them in the playground and swimming with them at the lake. Now my point is not that you should dress up as Superman in church next Sunday (though I’m sure the kids at Sunday School would love that!). And yes, there is a lot we could learn from our brother in Thailand in terms of his sacrifice, love and generosity. But my bigger point is this: We need to learn from the orphans. We need to learn from their humility, their gentleness and even their joy. Sometimes we turn up in church acting like we’re Superman. We’re in disguise, of course, but we say to ourselves, If only these guys could see that big red S on my chest, boy, they’d be impressed. We forget that we are all orphans who have been adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. We forget that we are all beggars brought into God’s banquet at his expense.

So the first set of qualities talks about an inner weakness within ourselves - Be completely humble and gentle - but now, the second set of qualities deals with external weakness in others - Be patient; bear with one another in love. I like the translations which preserve the phrase “long-suffering” in place of “patience” here in verse 2. When I say the word patience, people think of a late bus or a delayed flight. But mention long-suffering and you start to hear stories of that unreasonable boss who makes you work overtime on weekends or the insensitive neighbour who stays up all night playing Halo on full volume. Those are the kinds of situations Paul has in mind. Those of the kinds of people Paul is telling us to love here in the church. The ones who annoy you. The kids who make a mess and don’t clean up. The adults who act like they know everything and keep telling you what to do. Bear with one another in love. Imagine that, Paul is actually telling me to love that person, whom I finding it so easy to ignore and hate. Now, notice this: Paul does say, Bear with one another. Meaning, even when you’re hurt and you’re really mad over something a brother or sister did that was unloving towards you - You can still be patient. You might not be able to hug it out, but you can hold back from retaliating. That, too, is loving.

This isn’t a lovey-dovey list of mushy nonsense, now is it? The bible is teaching us how to deal with our weakness and how to respond to weakness in others. The bible is defining love. Love isn’t turning up in church one day, buying everyone chocolates and roses and saying, “I love you!” That’s sentimentality. Love means emptying yourself to fill another person’s need. It is saying to that person, I am willing to enter into a position of weakness so that you can be strong. That is why all these qualities are seen most clearly in Jesus who approached us in humility, with gentleness, who bore our sins and who loved us from the cross. He emptied himself so we could be filled. He humbled himself so we could be glorified. The bible is calling us to do nothing that Jesus did not do himself, which God now empowers us to be able to do through his Spirit.

2. Our unity as the church

Make every effort to keep the unity (or oneness) of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:3

When there’s a dispute within the church, when two factions are at odds with one another, this is the response. This is Paul’s strategy in dealing with conflict: Do everything you can to keep the oneness of the Spirit. That’s counter-intuitive. It’s almost paradoxical. Because on one hand, you make every effort, you explore every solution - you don’t just leave the situation as is and hope for the best. Instead, you make it a priority and you do something about it. On the other hand, what you’re focussing on is not the conflict itself, not the internal strife, but an external solution: The unity of the Spirit. It’s an internal problem with an external solution.

Unity is not something you can ever create within the church. Unity is external to the church. What we are called to do is maintain this unity. To keep it. Now, that’s radical. Why? In a business environment, you foster unity by sending employees on team-building exercises: paintball sessions and away day programs. In sports like basketball and football, it is vital that teammates work together towards a common goal, that everyone does their job and plays their part. In other words, we create unity by finding common ground, establishing better communication, by working towards a common goal. That sounds good, right? Yet, remember the tower of Babel. “The whole people had one language and a common (or literally, one) speech” (Genesis 11:1). They had one purpose: to build a tower reaching the heavens, to establish a name for themselves. They had one strategy: make bricks of stone, use tar for mortar. In other words, this was a strategy for uniformity - every brick was exactly the same, held together by the same material. God saw the pride in their unity and responded with judgement. God did not destroy the tower; the building wasn’t the object of his judgement. He struck at the heart of their unity - their language. “That is why it is called Babel (which sounds like the Hebrew word for confused) - because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). The tower of Babel is there in the bible to remind us that there is such a thing as bad unity. Unity for the sake of our pride. Unity that emphasises uniformity. Unity in rebellion to God’s sovereignty.  This is not the unity that Paul calls us to maintain. This is not the unity of the Spirit.

            Paul calls it a bond of peace. It’s like a rope that tie us up or a seat belt that keeps us down. That might be an uncomfortable picture for some of us to have in our minds. We would much prefer handlebars of peace, which we hold on to and let go at any point. The mention of peace however is an important reference back to Jesus in Chapter 2. There we see that Paul calls Jesus “our peace”.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one humanity out of the two, thus making peace and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

Our hostility with one another is first and foremost a hostility against God. The way Jesus deals with our hostility - our anger, our hate, our suspicion of another, our racism towards one another, our pride over one another - is he “puts it to death”. He takes it into his body and he kills it. The cross is the symbol of our hostility to God and to one another. And the cross is the symbol of the price Jesus paid so that we can be reconciled to God and to one another. He is our peace.

And we are his body.

3. Our worship as the church

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when 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.
Ephesians 4:4-6

In all things, we see the oneness of God. By oneness, I mean God’s diversity: as Father, Son and Spirit. By oneness, I mean God’s exclusivity: there is only one God, echoing the Shema: “Hear O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). By oneness, I mean God’s sovereignty: God stands over and above all things as creator, judge and saviour.

            Which leads me to conclude that there is another dimension to God’s oneness, a more important one, that isn’t simply reflected in the unity of the church. As important as unity is as an expression of the Spirit, as a reflection of the work of Jesus Christ who is our peace, these closing verses are drawing our attention away from our unity as the church to God’s unity in himself. This is a call to worship:To worship the one God as the Trinity, the only God in his exclusivity, to praise the sovereign God in his majesty. God’s unity is seen in our worship as his people. God’s oneness is displayed in our walk as the church. Paul began with the passionate appeal to believers to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called. Here he ends by clarifying what that walk looks like, what our daily lives entail, what our relationships with one another in the church is truly an expression of: It is worship! Our walk is our worship before God.

            You could turn verses 4 to 6 into a song (or better still, a rap - one Spirit, one Lord, one God; of all, through all, in all - uh huh!) And many scholars think that Paul has adapted an early Christian confession. I don’t think so. I think what we have here is spontaneous from Paul (and maybe even slightly clumsy, especially where he says, you have been called to one hope when you were called). It is worshipful praise. Now what has caused this? Paul has been reflecting on just how difficult and tricky it is to get a church to function together as one body. To love another, or even just to put up with one another. They have to make every effort to do this, to keep their focus on the Jesus as their peace, to apply the fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives. That’s hard. That’s challenging. But as Paul writes this and reflects on how God is working powerfully behind the scenes to make this happen in his church, Paul can’t help but explode in praise. He looks at this church in Ephesus, with its factions, with its problems yet held together by the gospel and he sees God working in all, through all, over all things for his glory.

            This is worship. Worship isn’t the thirty or so minutes you spend on a Sunday singing choruses and waving your hands. It’s not just that. It’s the way you greeted one another as you sat down. It’s the way you go out for ice-cream afterwards and talk about your lives (and maybe even this passage from Ephesians). It’s the way you walk across the hall to say hello to someone who comes every week but who is always sitting alone. It’s the way you forgive a brother or sister who has hurt you. It’s the way you put yourself in a position of weakness to strengthen another.

This is 24/7, authentic, Spirit-filled worship. Every step of the way as you follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour: Your walk is your worship. Walk in a way that is worthy, Paul says, and the result is a reflection, not simply our oneness as the body of Christ, but a powerful display of God’s oneness. There is one Spirit, one Lord, one God who is Father of all, who is over all, who is through all, who is in all.

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