Outside of the US the world enters a football frenzy every four years. We have a soccer world cup that all of the world is actually invited to (Unlike the World Series). The unifying effect within each country represented is astounding. All kinds of neighborhoods in England had English flags hanging from their windows. In the minds of the fans the ethnic background or colour of a player fades into insignificance compared to their gifting on the field. If they play welltheir country idolizes them. This wasn’t always so, when I grew up I remember being shocked that fans would make monkey or gorilla noises when a black player got the ball. Now all of England runs out of the pub yelling in jubilation whether the black player Jermaine Defoe or the white David Beckham bends the ball into the goal.
A mixed group of Englishmen, Hungarians, French and Dutch grip my attention every week. I rush downstairs at 9:00 on a Saturday morning, plug in to the internet and hear how they are doing in my home town of Plymouth. They are overcoming differences in language, culture and ethnicity to pursue their dreams. Half the group is black and half is white, but that seems to make no difference to their unity and resolve. I wish I was talking of a ministry team that I am keeping track of or some multi-ethnic church plant. I am talking about Plymouth Argyle, a soccer team from England.
They have successfully made their way to being in the last eight teams of the F.A. Cup in England. I wear their jersey with pride, and hope to visit their ground in March.
We have all had to overcome differences within our families, workplace and schools. The church seems quite far behind. I have heard it said that 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. Have we tend ed to go to a church that is monochrome? Do our differences in taste dictate our friendships or our cliques? How does this translate into the way we live? Do we tolerate others ways of eating, dressing, singing and socializing only when we have to? Or do we embrace others and show an interest in their ethnic heritage or cultural background?
The Bible gives various accounts of those who had to overcome their differences to live out God’s calling in their lives. Daniel had to learn how to live in Babylon, Jacob learned to live with Laban, Joseph learned how to live in Egypt. The apostle Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, went to many urban centres and set up churches that had to deal with all the diversity of the Roman Empire.
We are going to take a look at Ephesians in particular. The book was written to people who lived in an urban setting like Chicago. It was a gateway in trade joining a land route across Asia Minor with a sea route across the Aegean to Greece and Rome. The financial success had led to a plurality of religion where Jews, pagans and Christians lived side by side. The architecture reflected the wealth of the community climaxing in one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Temple of Artemis or Diana of the Ephesians.
Chicago is an important link between air, land and sea. The commerce here has attracted people of diverse cultures and ethnicity. However, each group has tended to settle in its own neighbourhood. It is not so much a melting pot as a smorgasbord; variety that does not mix. We see how whites have been guilty of protecting their neighbourhoods or resorting to white flight in the play and movie Raisin in the Sun. Although much has been done, tensions and differences remain in Chicago, where I live, as they did in the times when Paul wrote to the Ephesians.
The early part of the book of Ephesians tells us of God’s glorious act of reconciliation. Jesus came in the ultimate act of mercy and took our punishment for sin so that we are no longer enemies of God. We have received such boundless grace that it defies imagination. What has been lavished on us is breathtaking to consider.
This reconciliation between man and God raises a question in the context of Ephesus. How do Christians living in a multi-ethnic, pluralistic, commercial hub live life in light of God’s act of reconciliation?
In light of God’s reconciliation Christians must reflect the unity of God in the body of Christ. In other words, we show that God is united by the way that we are united in our faith. Ephesians 4: 1-6 says:
4:1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 [There is] one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul writes in chains. This is probably while he is under house arrest in Rome. Here he uses the evidence of his own commitment to the faith to encourage commitment in others. He pleads with the believers of Asia Minor to live in a manner worthy of the calling. This calling is laid out clearly in the previous chapters. It is a calling by God out of sin and into a life of service through good works. How should our lives show this? We should not spend a lot of time pushing ourselves to the front of the line. We understand who we are in God and that is enough. We aren’t charging around full of self-importance and breaking things. There’s no rush. We give other people the time they need. The term patience is translated at other times longsuffering. I prefer the term longsuffering because it shows that waiting for someone is not always pleasant. If someone needs time, we give them time.
The phrase ‘in love’ is repeated six times in this letter. This reflects the thrust of a parallel passage in Colossians 3 which tells us to wrap love over ourselves like an outer garment. The overarching principle that defines Christians’ actions is a self-effacing, self-denying, self-sacrificing love. Those reading Ephesians are forced to ask, “Am I immersed in love so that it is the first thing that others will see?” How does such love show itself? It shows itself through tolerance. This does not mean that we assimilate the beliefs of others around us. It does not mean that we have to give up those things that are different, but that are not sin. It means that we embrace others without holding their sin or differences against them. This is a hard action for the heart to sincerely engage in. We often tolerate others from a lofty position of pride. We look down on those that we permit to exist. They are deficient in our eyes because they have not grasped certain truths that we understand or held on to cultural practices that we don’t see value in. The lack of humility in a proud approach should be glaring. We, like the Ephesians, need to remember that in light of God’s act of reconciliation we all are equal.
In fact, if you look at the work of the Spirit of God, the passage tells us, you see that the Spirit is a unity and brings unity. The Spirit is One and makes everything One. If the Spirit of God is at work in us, and the world we touch, there should be a harmony that occurs when God’s people work together. It should not be a fierce, rugged harmony that occurs on my terms. The oneness of God and His work is repeated for emphasis in the passage. The totality of the unity that God brings is cosmic in its scope. It transcends our understanding just how far this unity reaches, but when we act in unity we affirm the unity of the church’s mission. When we are a purpose driven church, we are a united church.
I first experienced the racial division that exists in the churches in America when I wandered into a Black Baptist Church one Sunday morning. It was 1991 and my mother and I were tourists in California. When the congregation gathered, we saw that we were the only whites. I think that my mother and I were ignorant that we might have broken any taboos. We were welcomed at the end by an energetic woman who embraced us and said, “The Lord loves you no matter what your colour!” We were united by our faith.
When I first preached at Hi-Praz Bible Fellowship, in Bellwood Illinois, I was nervous. Bellwood is black and the people of the church are black. I am white. I wondered whether it was certifiable to fill a pulpit on supply in a black neighborhood. I felt out of place in the streets and I felt like my Anglo-American culture was not the culture of this church. I tried to focus on the one hope, one faith, one baptism that we share. It was hard, though, when some people openly expressed their disappointment that the interim preacher was not a black man.
I remember that Albert Green took me to one side and was very straightforward with me. He said that he could see that I felt out of place, but he told me plainly not to be. As the year progressed I started attending local CAPS (Police) meetings. I looked for ways to serve in the church and the community and the church accepted my wife and me. We focused on the gospel that drew us together and were open about our differences. The fellowship’s battles became my battles, and we loved each other.
Moving away from Hi-Praz was a difficult experience for me. Working with this church changed us all. Kelli and I looked to move into a racially diverse neighborhood and the members of Hi-Praz decided that the colour of their next pastor was not an issue.
If we remain comfortable in our seperate but equal institutions, we do not reflect the oneness of God. We are prone to rest in groups that share our priorities. We do not reach out to the lonely girl who eats alone because we are enjoying our own group of friends. We do not reach out to the unknown community on the other side of the tracks because we are concerned for our safety. We do not reach out because we don’t really care.
We must be relationally aggressive. This is a phrase that the Junior High Pastor of the Chapel in Grayslake taught me. To be afraid of rejection does not show due diligence in preserving the bond of peace in the church. We need to move in the Spirit to take the peace to those who are not like us. Maybe we are people who think we have fashion sense and we see those who have none – we need to embrace them. we tend to create category names and divide people up by them. The nerds are called to the same faith as both jocks and geeks. It would say something to the world if the able-bodied and disabled would be one in the Lord. Why must we keep dividing our churches into age brackets, interest groups, language groups and nationalities?
This week look for an opportunity to talk to someone who is not like you. Ask them about themselves. Don’t do it as a service project, but genuinely seek to understand what opportunities there are for you to be united with your brothers and sisters.
So we see that in the body of Christ we should reflect the unity of God. The passage goes on to say that an appropriate response to the reconciliation between God and man is to use the gifts that Christ has given the church. The church must be active in the use of the gifts Christ has given.
Verses 7-13 read:
7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” 9 (Now this [expression], “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) 11 And He gave some [as] apostles, and some [as] prophets, and some [as] evangelists, and some [as] pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
Jesus gives the church gifts from his grace. But Jesus has given us grace as he sees fit. Today our focus on equality would balk at grace being handed out in a different measure to different individuals. However, the parable of the talents reinforces that grace is given by God in varying degrees. Jesus told a parable where the character who represents God gave out 5 talents of money to one, 2 talents to a second and one talent to a third. We are not told why the master in the story gave each one the amount he did. We shouldn’t raise a cry of injustice. If we got justice, what we have been graciously given would be taken away and we would receive nothing (or worse than nothing). Jesus gives to us as he sees fit. When Jesus ascended to heaven he sent the Holy Spirit to bestow gifts for the building up of the church.
The parenthetical statement in verses nine and ten seem to be talking about either Jesus incarnation or the coming of the Spirit. In either sense Jesus’ domain covers the heavens and the earth and shows the transcendent, cosmic unity which He fills. The gifts for the church flow from this abundant filling.
The people of God are agents of His grace when they act out roles listed in verse eleven. I could preach a sermon on each of the roles mentioned here. I’ll summarize them. Apostles, in this context, are those sent by God. We would probably call them missionaries today. Prophets speak God’s truth to the church. Evangelists are responsible for preaching the gospel. Pastors administrate and look over the congregation to see that all is well. Teachers instruct the congregation in Biblical truth. And what is the result of all these different people in the church working in harmony? The members of the congregation have the tools that they need to get the job done. This of course presupposes that each of them is an active participator in the church. Each member contributes so that there is perceivable growth.
How can we measure whether those serving each other in the church have been effective? There are three things that Paul gives us to look for: Is the church united in its faith and knowledge? Is the church mature? Is the church attaining the measure of the fullness of Christ? A church that is equipped rallies around the beliefs that it holds to and the things that it knows. Of course effective teaching and preaching persuades people of the truth that they are taught. It doesn’t just lay it out there and hope for the best. As more of the congregation is persuaded to accept more of God’s truth they become united around the knowledge and the faith that they share. The maturity that Christ desires in his church is unpacked in the next paragraph. The fullness of Christ means that the church is showing a growth in its use of gifts that Christ has given it.
My experience in Moody Graduate School was life changing for a number of reasons. I was part of a racially diverse group of about 25 students from different parts of the world: England, China, Russia, The Philippines, America, and Canada. There was quite a mix of ethnic backgrounds even from within the USA. Our teachers, though, had a love for God and the gospel that seemed to light them up from the inside. They taught us with words, but also with lives of active love. As they used their gifts of teaching and hospitality to instruct us in the truth we sometimes gave them a hard time: “Are you telling me that my Grandmother, who has been a Christian for forty years, is wrong when she gets a message from the text that is different from the intent of the original author?” Over time, though, we saw the mature wisdom of our teachers. Dr. Fuder took us on trips into the underbelly of Chicago; Dr. Newell took us on trips around the world; Dr. Green came to England and spoke at Kelli and my wedding. They equipped us by their example and the use of their gifts. We grew together as a body. I learned to accept Christ’s grace and to move on with confidence in God. It was Dr. Green, a professor here, who referred me to Hi-Praz. It was Dr. Fuder who inspired us to look for a multi-ethnic neighborhood. The church as a whole grew in stature around the world because the teachers of the Grad School exercised their gifts.
How have you received God’s grace? What gifts has he given you? Are you looking to get a job that sets you up for a senior pastorate? What opportunities are there for service that you haven’t even looked at because of prejudice or fear? Could he use your gifts in another country? Could you be called to the other side of the tracks?
Moody students are frequently used to build bridges between estranged groups. You can use your gifting to minister to people who are like you, or you can step out of your comfort zone and build into those who are left on the sidelines. I am happy when I see white Moody students befriending Hispanics and working in their churches. I think that it strengthens the body of Christ when black Moody students decide that they can be ‘the raisin in the oatmeal’ as a black friend of mine once said who served in a white church. It is a mature Christian who can step away from their support group and bring their spiritual heritage with them and serve cross-culturally.
There are those of you who are gifted students. You can look to teach those who struggle. You can partner with kids from inner city Chicago who don’t have some of the privileges that you have had.
We have seen that we respond to God’s reconciliation by reflecting the unity of God in the body of Christ. We also exercise our gifts in the church as God has equipped us. Now we shall see that Paul expected the Ephesians to respond to God’s act of reconciliation by reflecting the maturity of the body. We should show grow up to be like Jesus.
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all [aspects] into Him who is the head, [even] Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
Children are unstable. Paul wanted the Ephesians to be firm in the face of religious pluralism, the onslaught of legalism, and the temptations of hedonism. There were lots of pressures on the early church to change its beliefs. Gnosticism taught a secret knowledge that had to be known. There were other secret societies that would seduce members of the church by saying that the doctrine of the church was incomplete. Rome demanded that the emperor be worshiped as a God. Jews demanded that to be a real Christian you had to keep all of the religious rules and rites of the Old Testament and Jewish traditions. In a city like Ephesus there were plenty of pleasures to pull an immature Christian in. “Why not drink and feel the light-headed rush of drunkenness? Why not bury your troubles at the bottom of a glass?” Sex and drinking were integrated into religion. To sleep with a stranger could be seen by some as a respectable thing to do. Why get married?
Paul says that we are to speak the truth in love. Maturity leads to stability in the face of enticement. Pleasure-seeking hedonists seem foolish when you understand where the pleasure of a moment will take you. Paul is saying, “Don’t let anyone play you for a fool?” The language he uses is from the unscrupulous dice playing that Romans would engage in. The dice players would draw you in, lie to you and let you gamble away your money. Paul doesn’t want that to happen. People will offer all kinds of wisdom that deceive. The Christian is always looking to discern truth from falsehood. Even if the ideas presented are from a so called “Christian” source.
Mature relationships, built in love, mean that the truth can be told. Christ was the Truth and so could obviously handle the truth. We are to be like him. Christians don’t just feel their way to truth. We study and learn the fundamentals of the faith. We grow together as the body of Christ as we unite around that which is true. There is a sense in the passage that the whole body is held together ligament to ligament starting from the head. If there was no head the whole system of connection would fall apart. Joined to the head the church is joined to each other. Member mutually supports member and matures as one as each connected individual grows. There is a unity and a diversity in the body of Christ. Each person is different. Each member has a different function, but anchored to the head we all are joined.
The body of Christ is joined whether we like it or not. A fight for independence is a fight to be immature. As the body matures it accepts its oneness. Differences do not become issues of hatred and fear. Where differences need to be addressed the debate is held in the attitude of love. If an argument is won and love is lost a ligament is weakened.
I think that I am guilty of racism. When I watched the movie Crash I was jolted by how far I have fallen. When I ministered in Bellwood the issues of the church there were my issues. I was united with Albert, Steve, and Grandma Billie. When their children were shot it was my problem too. I was connected to them by the strong sinews and ligaments of a common faith. I was part of a church where God was a democrat and Bush was the devil.
Since I left Rogers Park Community Church and moved up into the suburbs I see only white people. McHenry is white and that’s where I live. God has changed his allegiance and now votes Republican. Somehow the memory of Black America and its evangelical churches has been put to sleep. But I know I am guilty of snapping a ligament. I am guilty of a sin of omission.
We, the whites, think that the racial divide in America is over because we have stopped burning crosses and hanging strange fruit from southern trees. The racial divide still exists. It is up to those who hold the power to exercise it to improve the education and the opportunities of those who are powerless. The snapped ligament of racism needs to be spoken of. I need to hear the truth of my passivity spoken to me in love.
We are immature if we can use excuses to keep us divided. In this age of technology geography is no reason why the church of God can not be united. The troubles of the church in China are our troubles. The suffering in Sudan is our suffering. The songs of Australian Christians are our songs. The perseverance of the church in Europe is our concern.
But let’s bring it closer to home. Are you connected? Have you been reconciled to your brother? Did a tendon snap between you and a friend because they were your rival over a man? Did a muscle rip because someone got praise and you went unnoticed? If there is someone in the body from whom you have become disconnected, you must reconcile. You are one in Christ and whether you like it or not you are going to spend eternity together.
Maybe there are those who have not made connections. It’s time to leave the nursery and grow up! Maybe you think that you and your computer have a close enough connection. Maybe your i-pod keeps you happy enough. But that is immature. You need to step out of your comfort zone and embrace God’s children. Maybe you do have a group, but they are all like you. You have a huddle that you are quite happy with. I have a friend who pointed out what a Holy Huddle looks like to people on the outside – it’s all backs and butts. It is more winsome to look out for those who are not connected. Maybe they are a different race from the majority, maybe they like different music, maybe they they have different issues.. Jesus hung out with lepers.
There are those of you who do live out this passage. I’d like to encourage you to keep it up. You respond to God’s open arms by connecting with those around you. You look for opportunities to be united with those who have the same faith. You naturally try to learn new songs in Urdu to have fellowship with your Pakistani friends. You love to plan worship with whomever you deem to be the cool and the uncool. You are willing to give up your preferences to preserve unity.
God has gifted you and you thrive on using your gifts in God’s church. You aren’t looking for the praise but for the growth. When you see your weakest brother or sister become strong you rejoice.
You’re connected. Connected to Jesus who is your joy and your strength. You’re connected to your brothers and sisters in their positions of strength and weakness, sickness and health, poverty and riches.
Think of someone with whom you need to be reconciled and write their name on a piece of card now. Maybe it’s your spouse. Maybe it’s someone you said something harsh to. Maybe you took offense at someone’s recent behavior. Write their name down and make a plan for reconciliation.
Be reconciled. Pursue Unity. Exercise gifting. Grow up!