Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wednesday Night Devotions: Ephesians 4:1-16

Our devotional for tonight comes from the first half of the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. This letter, written while Paul was in prison, was a general letter addressed to the Christian communities in the city of Ephesus and its neighboring cities in what is now western Turkey.

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

One of the overriding themes in Paul's letters is the relationship between Christian faith and good works. Earlier in this letter, Paul talks more about our salvation – our rescue from the clutches of sin and our delivery into the power of God's love and rule. Paul stresses that this salvation is not a result of human works. It doesn't matter to Paul whether the works in view are good human morality and being a 'nice person' or the specific works commanded in the Jewish Law that was given to Israel through Moses by God at Mt. Sinai in Exodus. Neither of these has the power to save. Paul wants us to know that salvation can't be gained by simply being an obedient member of God's chosen ethnic group, nor by being a decent person who carries her neighbor's groceries, always has a smile on her face, and never hurts anybody's feelings.

Instead, Paul says, salvation comes only by the grace of God – God's gifts given in an attitude of favor toward us, even though we have a track record of awful ingratitude. The only condition of this generous gift is that we have faith, an attitude of loyalty to God (we should want to please him and stick by him through thick and thin) and trust in God (we should believe that his promises are dependable, believe that he can and will follow through on them, and actively depend on him to give us everything that he's promised us, which is just what we need). Paul mentions that even this faith doesn't come entirely from within us; it, too, is a gift of God. This doesn't mean, of course, that we have no role to play in our own faith. John Wesley wisely saw that, although it is true that human sin ruins our ability to even react to God's offer of salvation, this isn't the end of the story. Wesley – and here he disagreed with earlier Christian thinkers like Martin Luther and John Calvin – realized that God doesn't leave any of us entirely on our own without hope. God reaches out in what Wesley called 'prevenient grace' – that is, grace that 'goes before' – to open up our hearts and give us the ability to respond either positively or negatively to his first move. All the glory and credit for our salvation goes to God, but we still have the responsibility to react rightly.

Paul recognizes that we're fixed and put right before God only on account of faith, not because of anything we earn – and this is what distances Paul from the very popular error in which we pull ourselves up to heaven by our own bootstraps. But Paul also takes pain to distance his teaching from another mistake, which is the belief that once we say we believe in Jesus, how we live is irrelevant, and our Christian good works are still meaningless. Paul wants nothing to do with this crazy idea. In the first verse of this fourth chapter of Ephesians, Paul says that we have received a calling. All of us are called – not just some special group in the church like pastors, not just Christians from this background or that background, but all Christians. This calling is simply to live under the kingdoms of this world as representatives of a kingdom that isn't of this world. In the world we call our true home – the heavenly Mt. Zion – we're all adopted children of God, who join Jesus Christ in inheriting all of God's promises. By being joined with Jesus Christ, who is the eternal King of Kings and the sinless High Priest, we together become a royal Christian priesthood. That means that, simply by being drenched in God's Spirit the way we were when we were saved, each of us has become a king or queen and a priest or priestess – but it isn't our own royal or priestly family tree that gives us this, but rather membership in the Church, which is the body and bride of Christ. This is an incredible calling! What Paul begs Christians to do in this verse is, therefore, somewhat intimidating: live up to what God has made us to be. Note that we don't receive the calling by living up to it. Note also that there's no suggestion that God will cancel out our calling if we slip from time to time. But note also that God really does want us to live a certain way. For God, there really is a right way to live as a Christian, and a wrong way to live as a Christian. For a Christian priest-king or priestess-queen, there are certain actions and attitudes that are unacceptable, and certain actions and attitudes that are necessary.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” [[Ephesians 4:2-3]]

In these next couple of verses, Paul begins the lengthy process of spelling out for us exactly what kinds of attitudes fit together nicely with our calling as a royal priesthood in Christ. Paul says that part of that Christian character involves gentleness, humility, patience, and love. Later on, Paul spells out in more detail exactly what sorts of behavior these character traits would rule out. Paul's big emphasis here, though, is peaceful unity. In the early church, there were several different kinds of division that were very troubling, but one major kind of problem the church dealt with was the question of Jews and Gentiles. The Jews, after all, had a deep history of being the (tragically flawed) chosen people of God. They were the ones to whom God had given all the promises and all the gifts. Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jews, was born as a Jew, lived a Jewish life, surrounded himself with Jewish followers, and founded a movement that, at least at first, seemed to mainly attract Jews who wanted to serve the God of Israel in the way Jesus had spelled out. So it's understandable why some early Christians struggled with the question of on what terms non-Jewish outsiders – that is, 'Gentiles' – could join in the fun. Did these converts have to become Jewish first in order to become followers of Jesus? Did that mean accepting physical circumcision and setting aside delicious foods like bacon and sausage and trusting in obedience to the Jewish Law in order to stay in Jesus' good graces?

For Paul and other major leaders in the early church, the answer was no. Paul held out a special place for Jews but stressed that it was nothing to boast in. Both Jews and non-Jews had sinned against God, and the God of Israel was God over the whole world and everyone in it, whether or not they recognized him. The God that the Jews had been worshiping wasn't a God they were ever supposed to pridefully keep to themselves; he was and is a God they were always supposed to invite people of every nation to come and share on very open terms. Still, even though Paul explained it so clearly, social and political pressures led some groups within the church to resist Paul's radical idea. (For one thing, by accepting Gentiles on non-Jewish terms, the early church made it easier for non-Christian Jews to say that Christianity wasn't a legitimate form of Judaism at all – which meant that Christianity wouldn't be eligible for special protections like exemption from the Roman requirement of worshiping the Roman emperor as a god.) Even though these groups caused trouble – which came out most clearly in the Christian communities in Galatia, as Paul's very angry letter to them made perfectly clear – Paul stuck by his message. Divisions like being Jewish or non-Jewish, being rich or poor, being a man or a woman, or being a free citizen or a slave were just not important when it came to finding our identity or calling in Christ. For that reason, those divisions shouldn't be relevant for living life together in the church, which is why Paul begs Christians to do everything that they can to keep living as one church that goes beyond silly racial or social or economic or political barriers, rather than splitting into separate parties. Paul wants us to remember that the unity we're called to in Christ isn't some fancy idea he or anyone else came up with. It's nothing less than a supernatural work of the Spirit of God, and shame to us if we rip up a miraculous gift for our own petty agendas.

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]]

Some Jewish writings around the time of Jesus – give or take a century or two – use the idea of monotheism (belief in just one God for the whole world) for some interesting arguments. They stressed that there has to be a match between God and certain other things – for example, the number of broad communities who worship God. We've talked in church not too long ago about the Divided Kingdom, how after Solomon's death Israel got split into a Northern Kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam and a Southern Kingdom of Judah under Rehoboam. This sort of thing badly troubled some Jewish authors. They said that, if there's only one God, then there should be only one people of God. If there are two separate 'peoples of God' who don't appear to get along, then this makes it look like they must have different gods, which is exactly the opposite sort of witness that Israel had been created to give in the first place. Similarly, the Samaritans eventually founded their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria to rival the Jewish temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. But Jewish authors stressed that, if there's only one God, then there shouldn't be a need for many temples. They developed a strict 'one temple per God' rule. Later on, when confronted in John 4 by a Samaritan woman about the temples at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Zion, Jesus answers that the question of which to choose is about to become irrelevant. Since God isn't a physical body and isn't restricted to just one area, there's no reason the temple has to be a place at all. Instead, both the true temple on Mt. Zion and the false temple at Mt. Gerizim were getting replaced by the end-times temple, which isn't a building or place at all, but the whole united people of God who make up the body of Christ, since Jesus is our true temple and we as his body are the temple also.

Christian authors borrowed this theme. For instance, John 17 has often troubled people. Some groups, like Mormons – who also violate Jesus' teachings by building hundreds of separate physical temples on the earth today – try to argue that when Jesus said he was one with the Father, he just meant that they always agreed, but that he never claimed they were one and the same God. They point to how Jesus paralleled the oneness of Christians with the oneness he had with his Father, and they claim that since the unity of Christians is allegedly just a unity of mindset and purpose, this must be all Jesus meant for him and his Father, either. But when we understand this background, we can see that Jesus was saying that, just as he and his Father are one God, we as his followers should be one people, with all that that entails. And, since the one God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is full of perfect divine love between all the persons of the Trinity, so the one Church of all of us should be marked by God-given love for one another, which means we should keep peace and hold together in unity.

That's what Paul is drawing on here. If we all have the same God (the Father) and the same Lord (Jesus Christ) and are indwelt by the same Spirit, then it should be obvious that we all got the same baptism, since all of us were baptized 'into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'. All of us, then, should have the same faith and the same hope and the same calling – and if that's the case, then there can't possibly be any basis at all for driving a spiritual wedge between groups of faithful Christians. And that goes for a wedge between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians... or between rich Christians and poor Christians... or between male Christians and female Christians... or between ordained Christians and non-ordained Christians... or between Republican Christians and Democrat Christians... or between American Christians and Chinese Christians and Israeli Christians and Palestinian Christians... or between Lutheran Christians and Baptist Christians and Presbyterian Christians and Roman Catholic Christians and E. C. Christians. Just the opposite – quicker than 'Mr. Gorbachev', Jesus tore down all the 'dividing walls of hostility'!

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says, 'When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.' What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” [[Ephesians 4:7-10]]

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” [[Ephesians 4:11-13]]

Paul wants us to know that, although there is only one church and we must stay united, this doesn't mean that each of us is identical. He wants to remind us that each of us has received certain spiritual gifts from the risen and ascended Christ. Paul uses a cryptic quote from Psalm 68:18 here to make his point. In that psalm, the image is of Israel's God, Yahweh, coming to his permanent mountain home as a victorious warrior leading an army of chariots. The Lord Yahweh rides up from the Sinai Peninsula to his holy mountaintop temple, carrying away captives and giving many gifts. In Paul's use, Christ is Yahweh, the God of Israel. Christ had to first go down from heaven to earth. But after his resurrection, Christ continued rising into heaven itself, and indeed 'higher than all the heavens' to the very throne of God, where he sits as the ruler of the entire universe. Because he is ascended and exalted, Christ can give any gift to the people he loves.

But these spiritual gifts aren't simply for our own personal use. They're for the church. They let us each bring different things to the same overall mission. In his first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, Paul used a popular image from political speeches of his day, where a city was pictured as a body. Instead, Paul adapted it to the church. The church is like a body, and the body belongs to none other than Jesus Christ. He's our head, meaning he's the chief and the source of everything else. We're all parts of that body, and all of us are necessary. But even though we're all the same body, we're all different parts; and even though we each have different functions and purposes in the body, it's still only one body, and we need to work harmoniously with the other parts of the body. Here, like the parts God put in a human body, so Christ gave to the church all sorts of spiritual gifts in the lives of various people. Paul's examples here are various leading figures that the church had in his day. As one gift to the church, Christ picked one group of people to be apostles, or missionary church planters. As another gift to the church, Christ picked some people to be prophets, who bring God's word into the worship service and into times of trial. Christ also picked some people to be especially powerful preachers of the good news everywhere. Christ picked still more people to be shepherds who are filled with love for the church and want to guide the people and nourish them and take care of them, and teachers who understand the Bible and the people and can pass along with clarity and passion what the church was taught by Jesus in the first place. And Christ gave many more gifts.

But why did Christ give all these gifts to the church? What relationship do they have for the rest of the people? Doesn't it sound like maybe these specially gifted people Paul mentions are set up above the rest – and so there'd be a place for division after all? Well, no. Christ says that all of these gifts are given for one purpose: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. These people – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and any others – don't get their gifts to puff themselves up. They get them so they can use them to help others grow. And by helping others grow, they get the rest of the church prepared to serve God better. As a result of their ministries, the church as a whole can carry out its ministry. And as the church carries out its ministry, the body of Christ is built up. Eventually, Paul says, there are three ultimate goals: (1) unity in the faith; (2) unity in the knowledge of the Son of God; and (3) maturity. We might summarize these as peaceful love, solid teaching, and overflowing holiness. That, as far as Paul is concerned, is our end game and our target. That is what Christ wants from us, and Christ himself took the initiative by giving us people who can help us find our way down that road. In the meantime, the church needs to daily become more unified in the faith, more unified in the true knowledge of the Son of God, and more mature in holy love.

Then we will no longer be as infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” [[Ephesians 4:14-16]]

The goal, Paul says, is for the church to be like a well-adjusted adult person. But he worries that, instead of being the body of the Good Friday Jesus or the body of the Easter Jesus, maybe the church is just the body of the Christmas Jesus. If we aren't mature in our faith, we're like babies. And babies, says Paul, get tossed back and forth by the waves. I'm not sure where Paul saw newborns getting dumped in the ocean, but I imagine it's true. There isn't much a baby in the sea could do to stop from being batted around by the waves. A baby isn't strong enough to swim in the sea. A baby isn't strong enough to be stable. And if a Christian is still like a baby, then a Christian may not be strong enough to resist a different kind of wave: false teaching. It isn't popular today to talk about some people being – oh no! – wrong. But Paul doesn't share our scruples. Some teaching is false teaching. And while we like to talk a lot about having a relationship instead of a religion – never mind that every religion in Paul's world was a 'relationship' – that can take our eyes off of the need to teach the truth and not give in to charming presentations of what turn out to be mistakes at best and lies at worst. We've all met people who are spreading false teachings. We meet some at work, others at school, and still others on our doorsteps at hours of the morning we'd rather be asleep. It's tempting to just put up walls and disregard all these 'cunning', 'crafty', 'deceitful' people – but we also have to remember not to shoot the messenger, even when the message is a false teaching. Even the people on our doorstep, or the angry atheists in the news, may be sincerely misled.

What does God want us to do? The next verse tells us: just speak the truth in love. There are two easy ways to get this wrong. On the one hand, we could speak the truth without love. We could condemn sin all the day long, pour scorn on the media and American culture, and separate ourselves from the world and all the impure people in it. But last time I checked, when Jesus wanted to give the disciples a good example to follow, they were tax collectors and widows and Gentiles, and not Phil the Pharisee down the road. The church has gotten itself into a lot of trouble by speaking the truth without letting its love shine through – and, more often than not, that just drives people deeper into the arms of their errors or their sins. On the other hand, we could speak in love and just fudge a little bit on that troublesome 'truth' thing. I mean, after all, if the Bible's “Thou shalt not” gets under people's skins a bit too much today, well, maybe it wasn't for today after all, then, right? Worst of all is if it sounds to someone somewhere like it might discriminate or make anybody feel excluded! Well, it may be true that a lot of people today say that ideas like 'true' and 'false' are outdated – at least, until you challenge something they deeply hold to be true. But as a third-century Christian named Tertullian once put it, Jesus called himself the Truth, not the Custom. As Christians, we can't afford to compromise on our message. And if our message itself (and not just the way we say it) is an offense to someone, then as much as our culture hates anything offensive (unless it offends people who don't matter, like those silly Christians), then offensive is just what it'll have to stay. We need to share the truth. We need to share what we know. And, although we Americans are a complacent people who don't like to have to think to hard, we need to hear the truth from the pulpit, put simply but not oversimplified, whether or not it seems 'practical' or 'relevant' or 'useful' or whatever standard we've come up with for what we personally want out of our preaching this week. Because if we aren't getting deeply into the truth in our sermons and our Sunday schools and our prayer meetings, then we might as well be eating from jars of baby food – nutritious, sure, but how fast will we grow into the 'mature body of Christ'?

But as Christians, we also can't afford not to let the world know that we love them and would die for them. Jesus died for the world on his cross, even the atheists and the sex fiends and the God-haters and the dictators – and it may just be that, when he defined discipleship as taking up our crosses and walking in his footsteps, he might have envisioned something of the same attitude in our hearts. These days, when the average American thinks of a 'Christian', the first thought that flashes through her head is probably not, “Oh, they're those people who built that free clinic that took care of my son when he got sick and we couldn't afford treatment, and who brought me groceries when I was out of work, and who helped me find a new job that treated me better than my last one, and who also taught me patiently what they believed and invited me into a life of following this strange, deep, challenging man named Jesus”. They probably think of some much less pleasant things. But if we speak the truth in love, real love, then we'll at least have given them a reason to think of the better things. And Paul says that, if we as the church go around speaking truth in love, then that is how we mature. We mature together, not separately. Because we're not just a collection of people who all just happen to have the same bumper stickers and T-shirts. We're one body. And if each of us will truthfully, lovingly, and faithfully serve the church with whatever spiritual gift Christ has given us, then that is the way that 'the whole body grows and builds itself up in love'.

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