Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 1, 2021
Ephesians 4:1-16 Commentary
E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) is one of the United States’ oldest mottoes. It originally reflected the diverse American colonies and colonists’ desire to unite into one nation.
However, Ephesians 4 implies that E Pluribus Unum might also 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 one worldwide Church.
Yet diversity makes unity an elusive quality. North Americans live in an increasingly balkanized society that forms countless special interest groups in order to advance our own causes. What’s more, at least many Americans also spend much of our time with people who share our interests and perspectives. On top of that, little even seems to unite even most Christians.
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). He summons Jesus’ friends to the countercultural, sometimes-hard work of being peacemakers rather than warmongers, of being unifiers rather than dividers.
The apostle suggests that God’s children do this by, among other things, acting, thinking and talking much like Jesus Christ. After all, he calls us to be “completely humble and gentle,” as well as “patient, bearing with one another in love” (2).
Yet Jesus’ friends may wonder how those exhortations differ from, for instance, a pep talk a principal might give on the first day of school later 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 much for these 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 expects God’s children to make a deliberate effort to contribute to that unity. Yet such contributions require 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, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s words may sound graceless to those whom God saves by God’s grace that God’s adopted children receive with our faith alone. 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 God’s beloved people never forget that God 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 life for which the Spirit equips Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters.
God’s beloved children respond to God’s grace by no longer following a path of faithless disobedience. Instead we “walk” in ways that honor God, in humility, gentleness and loving patience. Christians live in ways that work for peace among all people. We 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 may pass on our way to our own churches at least a Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist church, his plea may sound rather naive. That’s why, as Kok goes on to note, for Paul the “unity of the Spirit” is based primarily in the triune God’s unity. There can be one Church 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 same way. 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 in the new earth and heaven. We can also work to express our unity by working with Christians from diverse faith traditions.
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.”
Christians come from different backgrounds with different personalities and interests. God also gives God’s children a wide variety of gifts and talents to work as, among countless other things, preachers and teachers, musicians and artists. Yet it’s one God who, by God’s Spirit, gives us all those diverse abilities. So those gifts that sometimes seem to divide us actually unite us because they’re all gifts of the one Spirit.
When Christ returned to the heavenly realm, he lavished diverse gifts on his friends 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, some of Jesus’ 21st adopted siblings have apostolic ministries. God gifts some of God’s people to do apostolic things like lead and plant churches, as well as do mission work.
Paul goes on to say that God gifted other people to be “prophets” who speak for God. 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 prophetic 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 especially 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 forward to the work done by those who read this commentary.
God has given God’s dearly beloved people those diverse gifts 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 Jesus’ followers to use our spiritual gifts to help God’s people become spiritually “mature.”
However, Ephesians 4’s proclaim 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 unity.
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.
In almost 34 years of ordained ministry, I’ve found that 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.
Of course, 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 worn out from using our gifts for many years. That’s why those who proclaim Ephesians 4 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.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 4 want to look for examples of how God’s diverse sons and daughters who have diverse gifts and talents have united to serve God and our neighbors. I cite the work God has done through our food pantry.
For more than 9 years our church hosted a monthly food pantry for approximately 100 of the households of our neighbors who are hungry. When the pandemic broke out, we began distributing food to 600-900 households of our neighbors who are hungry every week.
This would not have been possible were it not for God’s people from a variety of denominations and perspectives coming together to donate as well as help distribute food. Members of Roman Catholic as well as Protestant, Reformed as well as non-Reformed churches united to bless more than 5,000 of our neighbors who are hungry each week.
Perhaps more amazingly, however, members of several local Orthodox Jewish synagogues joined this ministry by both donating and helping to prepare to distribute food. God’s Spirit, in other words, united people of various faiths as well as no religious faith to serve our neighbors.
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