Today we continue our sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Again, this morning’s passage is rich with poetic phrases, dense in meaning and ideas, and in general, a beautiful reading. We heard the beginning of chapter 4 which marks a transition from statements about Christ’s work to more practical, ethical implications. As we look at the portion for today I want to focus on a few words from it. You may want to take out the leaflet to find these as I talk about them.
The first word I want to highlight is actually removed from your copy and you might have missed it as it was read. That word is “therefore”. The first sentence of chapter 4 began, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord”. The word “therefore” is important as it points out something about the structure of the letter. The basic theme of Ephesians is how the Universal Church, described as the body of Jesus Christ on earth, is established to carry out and continue the work of God’s eternal purpose. The book can be divided into two parts, the first deals with what God has done, and the second is how his people, (understand, that means us) are to respond to these gifts from God. In some ways the book is like a mathematical theorem. The first half is the “if” clause and the second is the “then”. If, then. If we have received numerous blessings and gifts from God, through his son, Jesus; then we are to act in this manner. The “if clause” reminds us of the good news of the gospel and the conclusion, the “then clause”, is what we are to do and why we are to do it. As with mathematical theorems proving the theorem does not necessarily mean that the converse is true. The first clause implies the second but the reverse is not always true. In this case, the first clause forms the foundation of the second.
The next word I want to highlight is “one”. Now this is easy to find in the morning’s reading as it is repeated seven times. When Paul uses this word he is again taking the characteristics of God and moving that to the church. Paul is calling the church, made up of many people, to be at unity, one with Christ, one with our foundation. The passage also points out that unity does not mean uniformity. Paul makes that very clear and he uses the word “gifts” (my third) for us to understand. Human beings have received gifts of grace from Jesus that are not all the same, parenthetically, aren’t we thankful for that! Each of us is different, delightfully different, each of us has different strengths, different weaknesses, and each of us is important. All of our gifts must come together to build up the body of Christ. All of our God given gifts are a part of the whole. The whole is much stronger when it includes everyone. The word, “one” does not mean all the same, it means all working together using our “gifts” which have come from Christ, for Christ. One and gifts, words two and three.
I want to step away for a bit from looking at my specific words from this passage to tell a story. You may have heard me tell this before but it is such a good example that I want to use it again. It is a story of unity through diversity, which I think is the type of unity Paul is talking about here.
In my life before being a deacon, some of you may remember, I was a swim coach. And in the late 90’s my son and I coached a special and memorable team of young men. It was a small group with a wide variety of ability and training. Several of the young men were from different countries; my son and I learned the names of the swimming strokes in Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Cajun French, and Portuguese that year! While some of the young men had participated in swim teams since they were young others had never been on a team before! One of them could not even swim an entire length of the pool when he began. For the first weeks of the season we separated the team by experience. One of us worked on basic skills and the other on actual training for competition. To add to that mix at the time Urbana did not have its own pool and so we drove each day to a facility on campus that was built as a water polo pool. There were no starting blocks, it was shorter than regulation length, but it was water! Oh, and being on campus also meant plugging the parking meters with an ever ready supply of quarters.
It came time for the first meet. We excitedly rode the bus to Normal—which had a real pool! As I said it was a small number of people so everyone was needed to race, and if they swam legally, they could earn points for the team. Legally was the key word here.
It was the first time that some had seen starting blocks and while they could dive in from the edge, this was different. At first I worked with those separately, using a chant of the steps of how to do it. Toes over the edge, etc. They would repeat the words as each tried to accomplish it. Soon, the others who were accomplished at the task, joined in. The entire team began giving encouragement shouting out step by step.
After making a successful dive the young man from Taiwan looked up in amazement and shouted, “It worked!” It wasn’t all that pretty, but it worked!
While before that experience these young men were separate individuals, afterwards they were a unified team. And that unity was not just at the pool. They developed a secret hand-shake and would greet each other in the hallways at school. Some would help others with homework before practice began and others would bring favorite dishes they had prepared at home to share. Everyone took a turn plugging all the meters with those quarters so the others could continue to practice. That unity through diversity became the buzz word for that team all season. Each person’s gifts were necessary to the whole effort and each one was valued and respected. They were one in their focus but many in their deeds.
This example of unity through diversity is so strong for me that even twenty years later it stands out and while their unity was to a sport I liken it to what Paul is saying here. Everyone is not the same; we each have been given different gifts and yet we are all to be one in our reliance on the giver, Christ.
“Therefore”, “one”, “gifts”, the next word I want to highlight is “equip”. The phrase Paul uses is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. This word equip is an interesting choice. While we might think equip means some form of training or education, that is not necessarily what Paul meant. The word equip comes from the Greek, katartismos (ka-tar-tis-mos), which literally means setting of a bone. When you think of a broken leg, generally before a cast can be applied, the bone must be straightened or realigned. Equip as used in this phrase, “equip the saints for ministry”, means being aligned with God.
Being equipped means being in accord with Christ, learning to be more Christ-like, shaping our lives after Christ. Each of us, to a person, is to grow into the likeness of Christ so that our ministries add to the growth of the body of Christ. We are equipped for ministry when we follow Jesus’ teachings and example. Number four, equip.
The last word for this morning is “love”. Paul uses the word a few times but the specific phrase I am mentioning is to speak the truth in love. Love does not always mean the same as nice. When we see someone doing something that is not healthy or not Christ-like, the nice thing to do, the polite thing, might be to look away. The loving thing, Paul reminds us, is to speak to the problem. This kind of love is an action of will, rather than feeling. It means that we see and treat others as we are seen and treated by God. We each of us are a beloved child of God. And just as we do with our own children when they are going in a wrong direction, we gently correct that because we love them. To not tell them might be nice for the moment but certainly not an action of love. Speaking the truth in love requires courage and humility and patience as Paul says but when we do that it reminds us as well as others that Christ is at the center, not us. Christ is the foundation, not us. Christ is the head; Christ is the giver; Christ is the focus.
I hope you will take the reading home and read it again in its entirety, listening for these words: therefore, one, gifts, equip and love which I have highlighted today. After you have done that, read it a second time and hear its underlying message. Each of us is valued and each of us is necessary to the work of Christ’s body, the church. Having the same foundation we are to use our different gifts to build up Christ’s body which is and has been founded on the love of Christ himself.