Body building - Ephesians 4:1-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be marooned on a desert island all by yourself? I guess for many of us the idea sounds wonderful: All that sea, that beautiful sand, fresh fruit to eat plucked from the trees and plants, beautiful scenery, and above all time, time to think and relax and enjoy your own company without the hassle of everyday life. Well the romantic ideal has been smashed to pieces recently in Tom Hanks latest film Cast Away. In the film, Tom Hanks plays a man who is washed up on a remote Pacific island after a plane crash. He is completely isolated with very little food, no mod cons and no way of escape. Much of the film shows the man alone on the island, desperately trying to survive against the odds, even to the point of doing some DIY dentistry with an ice skate. If you dream of spending your days on a desert island, then you need to watch the film. It brings you back down to earth with a bump.
But as I came away from watching that film, I couldnt help thinking that the possibility was actually reality, that many people are actually living cast away lives, even in the middle of big cities. Its no secret that our society is becoming ever more individualistic, as nuclear families become nuclear individuals. 30% of people now live on their own, and we exist in isolated little units, with our own close knit circles of friends, living in closely guarded homes. The irony is that as the world gets smaller, the people get more insular and independent. The Tube in London is a classic example. I used to travel on the Tube frequently when living in London, and if I crossed London from the North to the South, a journey of about an hour, I would be very surprised if anyone spoke to me, except to ask for money. Were actually living on our own islands, without the sea and sand, but just as isolated and lonely.
And it is very easy for us Christians to act the same, to be castaway Christians. The danger is that we simply turn up on a Sunday once a week to a gathering of individuals, sing a few songs, have some coffee and then go back to our homes and meet up a week later. The danger is that we become a church in name, but not in action. But that is not the way that God wants it. Rather God is building for himself a new society, a people built together on the foundation of his Son, a people who are united under one Lord and who exist together and work together for the spreading of his gospel. This people is the church, and weve been seeing some incredible things about Gods church in the past few weeks. And this week is no different. Paul will teach us from Ephesians 4 that Christians are a body, a fully working, caring, moving body, all devoted to the same task, but all doing different jobs. And that is a message we need to hear. For we are to be counter cultural, letting Gods Word shape our minds and actions, living as the people of God are meant to live, not becoming more isolated, but growing more together. And in verse 1 of Ephesians 4 Paul urges us to live a life worthy of the calling that we have received. We saw something of this amazing calling two weeks ago. And now Paul tells us to be who we are. If we are the people of God, called by God, then were to act as the people of God. So what do we learn about what it means to be the people of God from this passage? Well Paul will spell out three things for us this morning:
1) Our Unity (vv 1-6)
2) Our Diversity (vv 7-12)
3) Our Maturity (vv 12-16)
1) Our Unity (v 1-6)
So first then, Paul teaches us about our unity. Now before we immediately leap to thinking about church unity and the denominational unity that many people work for, we need to remember that that is not what Paul is addressing here. He is addressing a local church and talking about their unity. If Paul were here in person, hed be saying exactly the same things to us, as he did to the Ephesians. Its possible these verses have a secondary application to unity beyond the local church, but our focus this morning is ourselves and what Paul is saying to the local church. So what does Paul say to us about our unity. Well first he talks about the character of our unity. And its character is loving. Verse 2: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." This, says Paul, is what it means to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Paul doesnt start with structures, he starts with love. Were to be completely humble, to put others first, and to be willing to play second fiddle. The church is not the place for showing ourselves off or for climbing over others to get to the top. Rather we are humbly to recognise the values and strengths and concerns of other people. Were to be gentle with others, not putting others down, but being gracious with them. Were to be patient, bearing with one another in love. How easy it is to get short with others, to find fault in them and to become irritated with one another, forgetting the planks in our own eyes, when we see the specks on others. And do you notice that all these things could be said of Jesus? He was the model par excellence of humility, gentleness, patience and love. He placed others needs above his own, considering others needs more important than his own.
Now it is pretty obvious that a church which is founded on those principles will be able to maintain its unity and togetherness. We will be prepared to let things happen which we may not like but which we know others want and which are for the good of the church. Well be willing to lay aside our own small hang ups for the sake of others be they theological or otherwise. But what happens when petty jealousy and rivalries take over. If you reverse these qualities what do you get? Pride instead of humility, bitterness instead of gentleness, sharp tongues instead of patience, hatred instead of love. How often do we see that in churches? Churches are more often than not split from the inside out, than from the outside in!
Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of two unmarried sisters who shared a single room. And as people who live in close quarters are apt to do, they fell out. The dispute was over a theological issue. The trouble was that the dispute was so intense that they didnt agree to differ, they simply didnt speak to each other, ever again. And it got so bad, that these two sisters drew a line with chalk down the middle of their room to mark off their respective territories. They continued to live in the same room together, but never said a word as long as they lived. Each one endured the silence of the other as friends came round or they ate meals. And so in this way, the two sisters lived out the rest of their miserable lives together. Pride and selfishness are so often at the root of disunity, and if we at St. Johns are to grow together as a church, then these loving qualities will have to be at the very heart of all we do. And that will be costly. Putting ourselves second and loving others first is always hard, but it must be the character of our unity.
But Paul doesnt leave it there. He goes on to teach us the grounds of our unity. Were not just a bunch of people who love one another because we support Leeds United, or spot trains; rather our unity is based in the gospel. Verse 4: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called, one Lord, one faith [probably referring to the gospel itself as opposed to our belief in it], one baptism; one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all." Notice that this gospel is rooted in the Father and the Son (who is the Lord) and the Spirit. Since there is only one God, then there can only be one faith, there can only be one baptism, the marker of those who come to him, there can only be one hope, and for this reason there can only be one body, his church. Paul is thinking here of that universal heavenly gathering around the throne of heaven, of which St. Johns is an earthly manifestation. And that is the gospel each one of us have come to believe and accept. It is the grounds of our unity. And therefore it means that if someone who claims to be a Christian does not hold to these fundamental truths of the gospel, then we cannot by definition be united with them. They believe something else. By all means dialogue with them, but lets not term it unity. For it is the gospel that is to be the bed rock on which Christ builds his church, made up of those who confess this truth. We are a people born again through the Spirit, and so we have a God given unity in the truth. But notice before we move on what Paul says in verse 3: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit." Unity is not something we have to make up- We have it through the Spirit in the gospel. But now we have such gospel unity, we need to keep it that way. And that, says Paul, will mean the hard work of being loving and humble. Each one of us has experienced something precious in the saving work of God. So, says Paul, make sure you dont destroy that gospel unity because of your selfishness. And its a timely warning for us too. We must not be complacent. Many a good church has been ruined by complacency! Were to live a life together which is worthy of the calling weve received. Were united through the gospel, so lets keep it that way. Our unity.
2) Our Diversity (vv 7-12)
But secondly Paul teaches us about our diversity. Whilst we are unified, yet we are not uniform! See what Paul says in verse 7: "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it." Pauls point here is that the risen and ascended Christ has given each one of us unique gifts. We are uniquely made. And notice that those gifts are given- our skills and talents are God given, not to be used selfishly but for the benefit of others. The exalted Lord Jesus has given each one of us wonderful gifts to use. That is what Paul is saying in these slightly baffling words in verses 8-10. If youre confused then you are not the first! Paul is quoting from Psalm 68 which tells how God goes up to his city, Zion, in victory leading a whole train of captives. And he is giving out the booty of the victory. And Paul sees that Jesus has fulfilled these verses by his own ascension and exaltation. The Jesus who came to earth, descended from heaven and who humbled himself, even to death on a cross, is the very same Jesus who now rules the heavens and equips his church. It is this risen and glorified Jesus who has given us gifts. And in the NT there are about 20 such gifts mentioned but it is clear that those lists are not meant to be exhaustative. Gods people have a whole range of gifts.
But in verse 11, Paul mentions four in particular. "It was Jesus who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers." Now why does Paul single out these gifts? Well the reason is that these people have a unique role in preparing Gods people for works of service. Its likely that Paul intends us to see the apostles and prophets as foundation gifts for the church. He says as much in 3 v 5 and 2 v 20. These are the original apostles and prophets of the OT and NT who laid the foundation of the church and we have their teaching in the Bible. In this unique sense they have been and gone. But the evangelists and pastor-teachers are still very much around and needed. The evangelists are, if you like, the spiritual midwives. They are the ones who lead others to new birth, who bring non-Christians to a faith in Christ. And the pastor-teachers, Paul links the words in the original, are those who teach the people of God. They have a job of shepherding the flock. Thats what the word means. And they do it by teaching Gods Word, by teaching the apostolic and prophetic foundations. As John Stott comments: "Nothing builds up the church of God better than the Word of God." So the reason that Paul mentions these gifts in particular is because these are essential for the growth of the body. As Paul says, they prepare Gods people for works of service. Without evangelists and pastor-teachers, the church will die. Thats why good and godly leadership is so essential for the body, and its why there are more stringent tests for leaders in the NT than anyone else. They will be held accountable for their work. So do pray for those of us who teach Gods Word. We are in a serious business, and we need your prayers as we do that work.
But what does that mean for the rest of the body? Well Paul says that they are prepared for works of service? So the idea is every member ministry. The church is not meant to be a bus: the pastor at the drivers seat, maybe the curate taking the fares, but everyone else sitting on the bus enjoying the ride. No the church is like an orchestra, everyone playing their part, with the leader keeping everyone in time. Everyone is special. Many Christians down the ages have exalted the vicar or pastor above their station. For instance, Debbie and I were on holiday a few years ago, and we were sitting in an airport departure lounge in another country when I saw three seats set apart from the others. They were plush and clean and then I noticed a sign above these seats: "Reserved for clergy". A friend of mine told me that in America he had seen threes types of toilet: "Men, women, clergy." This only reinforces the stereotypes. Yes, the pastor is important but hes not that important. He is simply one of the body, where everyone has a role to play. We are diverse, uniquely gifted by the risen and exalted Lord Jesus to do works of service.
And so we need to ask ourselves, are we just along for the ride? Or are we using our God given gifts for the benefit of the whole body? I rejoice that there are many different gifts at St. Johns. I delight in those who are musically gifted, or have the gift of administration, those who are brilliant at encouraging others, those who are good with their hands. For every person, there is another gift. And that is the joy of being part of a body. No-one has everything. Everyone has something. For some it will mean getting stuck in where previously you havent. Maybe others will be thinking, well I feel I can offer less than I used to be able. But let me encourage you by saying just by turning up on a Sunday you are encouraging others. Maybe you have more time to pray for the church. That would be brilliant. Maybe you simply get along side one or two people at the back of church, or take the time to visit one or two in need. Well it all counts. Its like the conductor who stopped the orchestra one day and said: "I cant hear the triangle!" Every part matters, and when one bit is not functioning the whole body is affected. Each of Gods people are to do works of service for the benefit of the body. Are you involved? Or are you just a spectator? Were united in our diversity.
3) Our Maturity (vv 12-16)
But then finally Paul teaches about our maturity. And that is our goal as a church: maturity. Have a look a verse 13: Paul says that these gifted evangelists and teachers are there to prepare Gods 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." Now there is a sense in which this will not happen completely until we get to heaven. Only there will we have complete unity and maturity, and only there will we attain to the measure of the fullness of Christ, that is be like Jesus perfectly. And yet our task in this life is to press on as far down that road as we can together in Gods strength. We will be longing to grow in understanding and love of Christ together. And well be longing to be more united in our focus and mission. And notice that Paul understands this maturity to be corporate. As individuals well be growing each day in Christ likeness, and yet we need one another to do that. One day well presented before God as a mature, fully formed body, with Christ as our head. He says literally that we will become a "complete person". So I cannot be maturing in my Christian life unless I am contributing to my fellow brothers and sisters maturity. And if you have a rather relaxed view of church, a take it or leave it attitude, then Paul would want to question your maturity. He would say youre still a babe!
So are you growing in the faith, are you growing more mature in the knowledge of Jesus Christ? For only then can you resist the winds and waves of doctrine. So many young Christians are blown about by the latest fads and theological crazes. If we are to steer a good course, then we need the rudder of Gods Word and the support of one another to do it. One of the incredible stories of this week is how a group of English tourists managed to be rescued from the seas off Bali near Indonesia. They were rescued because one of the girls on board their stricken ship sent a text message on her mobile phone to her boyfriend in Cornwall, and so the Cornish Coastguard managed to contact the Indonesian authorities, via Australias coastguard. And yet for over 24 hours, these young men and women were at the mercy of the high waves and ocean currents because they had no engine and their rudder couldnt work. But the healthy Christian church need not be tossed around in this stormy world if it is rooted in Gods Word and is seeking to apply it to its lifestyle. I think that is what Paul means when he tells the Ephesians that they need to be speaking the truth in love. Hes not simply talking about not lying. Literally the word means "truthing in love". They are lovingly to apply the truth to their lives and to help one another to do so. Then they will be a growing and maturing church, growing up into Christ their head, as each part of the body fulfils its role. Thats how a church matures: When the Word of God is taught and applied and lived out in love together with other Christians. Its a wonderful picture isnt it. A fully working, maturing, growing and loving body. Thats our maturity.
So which would you prefer? To be a castaway Christian or to be part of this great body that Paul has taught us about this morning? Well actually at the end of the day, there is no such thing as a castaway Christian. Its a contradiction in terms. All of us act like it sometimes. All of us should repent of it! Rather Paul has taught us this morning that we are a living, breathing and growing body: A body which is united around the gospel and living in love, a body which has many diverse gifts with each part contributing to the growth and a body which is maturing, fed on the Word of God and growing more like Jesus. Lets live our corporate life worthy of the great calling we have received!
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