Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 5, 2018
Ephesians 4:1-16 Commentary
E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) is one of the United States’ oldest mottoes. It originally referred to the diverse American colonies’ desire to unite into one nation. Throughout American history people have also seen it as the motto for the incorporation of diverse people into American society.
However, Ephesians 4 implies that E Pluribus Unum might be one of the Christian church’s mottoes. After all, it reminds its readers that a wide variety of people with diverse gifts and interests make up Christ’s worldwide Church.
Yet diversity makes unity an elusive quality. We live in a balkanized society that forms special interest groups to advance our own specific causes. Both those who proclaim and those who hear Ephesians 4 also tend to spend our time with people who share our interests and perspectives. Little even seems to unite even most Christians. We have not only diverse interests and perspectives, but also varied talents and gifts.
Yet in Ephesians 4 Paul insists that God expects disparate Christians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (3). God’s adopted sons and daughters do this by, among other ways, acting, thinking and talking much like Jesus Christ. After all, we enhance Christian unity by being what Paul calls “completely humble and gentle,” and as well as “patient, bearing with one another in love” (2).
Yet how do those exhortations differ from, for instance, a pep talk a principal might give on the first day of school this month? Verse 1’s word “then,” better translated as “therefore,” signals the basic difference. It connects those moral qualities Paul praises with what he has written in the passage before it.
So as Joel Kok (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Eerdmans, 2001, 326), to whom I owe a lot for this Commentary notes, Paul’s moral imperatives grammatically flow from his indicatives about God’s work. To put it more simply, his description of how Christians ought to live grows out of his description of what God is doing in the church and in Jesus Christ.
God is working, writes Paul writes Ephesians 1:10, to “bring all things together . . . under . . . Christ.” Christ came, in fact, according to Ephesians 2:16, to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles “to God through the cross.” In other words, while Christians are naturally alienated not just from God but also each other, God, by the Holy Spirit, is working hard to make us one.
However, the apostle also expects God’s children to make a deliberate effort to contribute to that unity. Enhancing Christian unity requires what Kok calls counter-cultural, Christ-like attitudes and actions. In a world that increasingly seems to embrace arrogance, violence and short-temperedness, God through Paul calls Christians to embrace humility, gentleness and patience.
Yet, as Kok also points out, Paul’s words may sound almost graceless to those whom God saves by God’s grace that we receive with our faith. His call in verse 1 to “lead a life worthy of” our calling may sound like a call to somehow earn God’s great grace.
That’s why we need to remember grace’s transforming power. God, after all, doesn’t just graciously accept and save sinners. God also regenerates us, that is, God’s Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus Christ. So when Paul challenges God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in a way that’s worthy of God’s saving call, he’s simply describing the most appropriate response to God’s amazing grace.
God’s beloved children respond to God’s grace by no longer following a path of faithless disobedience. Instead we “walk” in a way that honors God, in humility, gentleness and loving patience. Christians walk in ways that work for peace among all people. You and I make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Kok insists that we can’t really overstate how important keeping this unity is to Paul. The apostle expects God’s people to do everything in our power to enhance the church’s unity as well as make it more visible. However, since at least some of us could walk to a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist church in our neighborhoods alone, his plea may sound rather naive.
That’s, as Kok goes on to note, why for Paul the “unity of the Spirit” is based primarily in the triune God’s unity. There can be “one body” only because there is “one Spirit.” There can be one Church only because one Spirit, one Lord and one Father are three persons who together are one God.
That is to say, Christian unity isn’t found in the fact that all Christians believe the exact same thing or worship in the exact same way. No, our unity is found in the triune God whom Christians worship through Jesus Christ. God’s people can be diverse in our beliefs and practices, yet make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit because the God whom we worship is one.
So those who worship this triune God can recognize our differences, even as we long for the day when they will disappear in the dazzling light of God’s glorious presence. We can also work to express our unity by working in missions and ministries with Christians from diverse faith traditions.
In fact, Christians can also look for ways to work with Christians whose gifts differ from theirs. After all, “there are different kinds of gifts,” as Paul writes in I Corinthians 12, “but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”
So there is much diversity within the Church of Jesus Christ. Christians come from different backgrounds with different personalities and interests. God also gives God’s children a very wide variety of gifts and talents to work as preachers and teachers, musicians and artists.
Yet it’s one God who, by God’s Spirit, gives us all those diverse abilities. So those very gifts that sometimes seem to divide us actually unite us because they’re all gifts of the one Spirit.
When Christ returned to heaven, he shared gifts with his people on earth. Through his Spirit, he gifted some to be “apostles” (11). While there are no apostles in the strictest biblical sense of the word anymore, we may say that some have apostolic ministries. God has gifted some of God’s people to do apostolic things like lead and plant churches, as well as do missionary work both at home and abroad.
Paul goes on to say that God gifted other people to be “prophets” who speak for God to God’s people. In the strictest sense there are no more prophets than there are apostles anymore. None of us, after all, can claim to be divinely inspired the way, for instance, God inspired Old Testament prophets.
But we believe that God still uses people to speak God’s truths. The Lord still gives some the gift of not only understanding Scripture, but also communicating it well. Others God gives a unique ability to understand and speak to the times in which we live.
Still others, Paul writes, God gifts to be “evangelists.” Of course, God calls all of us to share the gospel with those who haven’t yet received his grace with their faith. To some, however, God seems to give special gifts for relating to unbelievers and addressing God’s Word to their circumstances. These we might call modern evangelists.
Finally, Paul describes the gifts God gives to “pastors and teachers.” Here he seems to be thinking of people who care for God’s people by teaching them the Word, as well as encouraging them in their love for God and each other. He may, in fact, be pointing ahead to the work done by those who read this Commentary.
God doesn’t want God’s people to be “ignorant” about those incredibly diverse spiritual gifts God has graciously given us. God has given us those gifts, after all, for very specific purposes. Paul says that Christ gave us all our spiritual gifts in order to prepare Christ’s church for service. He also challenges and me to use our spiritual gifts to help God’s people become spiritually “mature.”
Yet those who proclaim Ephesians 4 might focus their reflections on Paul’s claim that God gives us spiritual gifts in order to more and more unify God’s church. He points out that God gives us diverse spiritual gifts to, among other things, build God’s church toward deeper and deeper unity in our knowledge of God in Christ.
After all, in verse 12 the apostle insists that God gives God’s children our diverse gifts in order to “build up the body of Christ.” And in verse 13 he calls us to use the talents God lends us to lead people toward “unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”
By knowing and using those gifts, we more clearly demonstrate that unity. However, as God’s adopted sons and daughters use the spiritual gifts God gives us, the Spirit will also build a stronger sense of that unity.
One of the quickest ways to feel a part of any community is to participate in its ministries. As Christians both learn and use the gifts Christ has given us, as we participate with others in our various ministries, we increasingly recognize the true place God has given to not only us, but also our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Some things hinder our ability to use the gifts God has given us. Most of God’s people are busy people. Some of God’s adopted children are also plain worn out from using our gifts for many years. That’s why those who proclaim Ephesians 4 might encourage all of our hearers to both know and use our spiritual gifts. That way even God’s busiest and most tired people can continue to serve God in some way with our talents.
In his book The Life of Johnson, James Boswell quotes Johnson: “Providence has wisely ordered that the more numerous men are, the more difficult it is for them to agree in anything, and so they are governed. There is no doubt, that if the poor should reason, ‘We’ll be the poor no longer, we’ll make the rich take their turn,’ they could easily do it, were it not that they can’t agree. So the common soldiers, though so much more numerous than their officers, are governed by them for the same reason.”
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