Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 2nd, 2015.
Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 4:1-16
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15).
Last week Beth asked the question: Why go to church? I want us to hold up that question again this morning and look at another way that Paul begins to answer it. Why go to church? Because it is in the Church that we come to understand the truest dynamic of life. That our life has a goal, an end, towards which it is being pulled by God and thus an end towards which God orders it. The theological term for this is providence: “the ordering of historical particularities by God for a single divine purpose,” (Aquinas) That is to say, God’s good and true purpose is comprehensive and encompasses all of creation and all of time. And that everything that is, all the particularities of life, are pieces in the mosaic of history that, together, reveal the great picture of God’s purpose (Radner).
In light of this purpose, Christians are called to a certain type of life. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord,” writes Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Therefore. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Up until now I’ve told you the truth of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how he brought us from death to life, and of His great plan to gather up all things in Christ. Now here is the sort of life that corresponds to that good news.”
One of the things that jumps out at me here is how the gospel loads grace up on the front end. The gift of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is not something we earn, it is not the reward for a life well-lived. Not at all! The gift is not the reward but the seed which, when planted in our hearts and minds, grows up into a life that bears a certain fruit.
And so, this grace of God in Jesus Christ calls us to a different sort of life. Not our old life, improved. But our old life, dead and in the grave with Jesus, that we might rise with him to new life. Immediately after the portion of Ephesians that we heard read Paul writes, “put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and…clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” (4:22, 24). Christians are called to a new life which begins with Jesus, and ends with Jesus: “We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Consequently, in light of what Jesus reveals about life, the Church is everywhere called to resist all lesser interpretations of life—resist them in love, but with firmness and consistency, hoping that God might use just such a community of resistance to turn the world away from destruction and towards Jesus Christ (B.I. Bell).
We begin to see here a glimpse of the vocation of the Church. God calls the Church to a peculiar life so that He might use it to achieve His purposes in and for the world. As Paul wrote earlier in the letter: “[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (1:22-23). That is to say, God is gathering up all things into Christ, and He is using the Church, the body of Christ, to accomplish this in some way. Indeed, we have received the Holy Spirit in order to be just such a people (4:7ff).
There is a certain distinction to our common life in Christ which confronts the society around it and stands in opposition to it. In every age this is part of the Church’s calling. Yet the Church has often forgotten this, preferring instead popularity and if not that then at least respectability. But we cannot compromise our opposition to the world without ceasing to be Christian.
Consider the strangeness of the early Christian community as it grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire in places like Ephesus to which Paul wrote. The gospel opened these early Christians up to a new moral horizon, previously unimaginable, which forever changed the world. Among some of the practices which the early Christians held to that confounded their pagan neighbours were fidelity within marriage, treating women with dignity as equals, treating slaves with respect as brothers/sisters, not scorning and excluding the poor but seeing in them the face of Christ, and refusing to expose infants—a practice that involved leaving new born children to the fate of the gods by exposing them to the elements and whatever else may come (if you’ve been paying attention to all of this Planned Parenthood news over the last week, well then you know that we live in a culture that is still fond of exposing our infants only we are more intentional about determining their fate). My point is that for those early Christians in pagan Rome, following Jesus entailed resisting and rejecting what were otherwise run-of-the-mill, normal practices. And, for many of them, this came at a cost, sometimes an extraordinarily high one—their life. Other times it just meant being peculiar, weird, and unpopular.
Are we living in very different times now? Does following Jesus for us, like our brothers and sisters before us, not demand a similar sort of reappraisal of our lives in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I’m thinking of some cultural norms that we perhaps may take for granted: consumerism, the pursuit of power and social prestige, a sexual ethic with no end other than our own gratification and self-realization, racism, and confusion about the purpose of marriage. Does following Jesus disrupt any of this? Should it? Have our imaginations been formed in such a way that we think even to ask these sorts of questions?
And so, the life which Christians are called to live—one rooted in God’s grace in opposition to the wisdom of the world—this is a life that must be willing to suffer. Remember Paul’s exhortation with which we began: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul is writing this letter from prison. And, of course, the life of the One who calls us was marked by the sort of self-giving love that results in crucifixion at the hands of the State and the religious leaders. The life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called is not Your Best Life Now. It is a life of faithfulness to the crucified Christ and thus a life marked by suffering.
In this mornings’ passage from Ephesians that means at least two things. First, it means a willingness to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” writes Paul, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” One cannot grow up into maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, apart from the humility, gentleness, and patience required to love one another as Christ has loved us. This is especially the case when we have to suffer one another. For it is just here, as members of Christ’s body, that we are equipped with every grace to be just such a patient people.
Second, it means a willingness to suffer for the sake of right doctrine. Paul warns the Ephesians, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine,” (4:14). What we believe matters. It matters so much to Paul that he is willing to suffer for it (2 Tim 1:11-12). Elsewhere he encourages his friend Timothy to, “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us,” (2 Tim 1:13-14). And then immediately after this Paul encourages Timothy to endure the suffering that will come as a result (2 Tim 2:3). Indeed, towards the end of Ephesians we’ll see that Paul counsels us to, “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” (6:11). Walking in a way that is worthy of the One who called us means a willingness to suffer for the gospel.
Yet, we’re so unwilling to suffer for either of these reasons. For example, rather than bear with one another in love, we’ll readily leave the church. Or, one church will make important decisions by itself, refusing to submit to their brothers and sisters elsewhere who might be asking them not to proceed. And when it comes to our unwillingness to suffer for the teaching we have received, well there are numerous examples. They all involve the re-tailoring of the one faith we have inherited to better suit the tastes and preferences of the surrounding culture. However, if we are willing instead to share in the suffering of Christ, to find our life hidden there in his death, we might find that God is able to use even such suffering and affliction to achieve His purposes.
And with that we return to where we began—the purposes of God which order our life, both individually and as a community of faith. In Jesus Christ, we have been brought from death to life. Now, in this new life, we are called to grow up from infancy to maturity: “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” May we own and embrace the resulting weirdness rather than be embarrassed or feel the need to apologize for it. Because following Jesus is weird—it opens us up to a new life. May we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, giving us the courage to give our lives over to the good and true purposes of God, that our life, and the life of the world, might be drawn ever deeper into the mystery of the fullness of Christ. Amen.