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Unity not Uniformity

Ephesians 4 vs1-16

A sermon preached by Canon Simon Everett

on Sunday, 5th August 2018

at St Martin’s Church. Sandford

 

As we pass the mid point of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, there is a change of tack, as the focus moves from the spiritual privileges of the Church to its spiritual responsibilities.  Having established how glorious and gracious God is, Paul now gives an exciting and invigorating call to the Church to live and grow in the service of God, and this has two main thrusts.  First Paul reminds the Ephesians of the unity that they share and second, he explains that that unity does not mean uniformity.

“There is one body” Paul says, and if this is to be healthy then it need to be in total harmony with itself.  Our human bodies are made up of hundreds of millions of cells, if just one of these starts to grow and multiply too much, that is how cancer begins.  It is not too dissimilar if one or two people in a church start to rebel and go against the rest, the damage it can do is huge.  it not only weakens the church, it disrupts and undermines many of the good things that go on.  That is why I have been so vocal in condemning the critical spirit that I have seen at work in certain parts of the parish.

It is the easiest thing in the world to criticise, but more often than not it comes from a deep-seated, pride, self-importance or selfishness –E.g. “You’re not doing it my way, and I’m right therefore you are wrong”. Or, “If I can’t have it my way I am going to create until I can!”  This has no place in the Christian life and therefore in Christ’s Church.

Paul urges the Ephesians to, ‘live lives worthy of the calling they have received.’ (v1)  This means being humble and gentle, patient, and forbearing with each other. (v2)  Not one of us is perfect; we are not a perfect church.  I make mistakes, you make mistakes.  I have strengths and weaknesses, and so do you.  It’s because we are human.  We need to make allowances and focus on what is good in each other, rather than any shortcomings those around us may have.

And it’s not just at an individual level, for too many centuries the different denominations focused on the differences between them rather than what they had in common.  Many, saw themselves as the only way to be church and therefore looked down their noses at any other expression of church, or worse persecuted them (just think of all the Christians burned at the stake because they happened to be in the wrong denomination, or believe the wrong thing).  Thankfully in more recent times there has been a greater desire among the churches to work together and see the strengths in the different denominations rather than the weaknesses, and with regards to the differences of doctrine and interpretation, there is a healthy respect, to agree to disagree.

At last the churches are taking Paul’s words seriously, ‘There is one body and one Spirit – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (vs 4-6)  In other words, our unity is to reflect the oneness of God, who is three persons and yet one God.

With unity established as being paramount, Paul expands the matter by explaining that unity does not mean uniformity. 

Christ himself gave that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…’ (v11,12 a slightly different translation to pew Bible)

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul had already spoken about various spiritual gifts that God had given to the church members there.  That passage includes a slightly includes longer list than we see in Ephesians, but neither of these is definitive.  The Holy Spirit has a variety of gifts to impart, and the unity of a Christian community consists in the interdependence of members with different gifts and offices. 

Paul puts this in the context of an OT psalm (Psalm 68:18), interpreting it to mean that Christ, who has ascended to heaven as conqueror, gives gifts to his conquering troops.  Of course it is Christ alone that has won the victory, but all who put their trust in him receive the benefits and, in addition, gifts for building up the church.   Each church member will have their own particular gifting.

And this highlights another reason for unity and goodwill between church members, the Church will only function properly if all members are sharing their gifts and using them in accordance with God’s wishes, rather than bickering or criticising each other.  There needs to be a mutual trust among the church members, that the others gifting is truly of God, otherwise there will be the temptation to undermine the other.

Again, it has been unfortunate that in the past, many parish churches simply let the parish priest carry out the ministry, maybe with a select few to assist, but otherwise the congregation were there to listen and obey!  This is not how Jesus ministered with his Apostles and neither is it the way the early church grew and reached out to the people around.

In 1 Corinthians 12 we catch rare moment of humour when Paul talks of every member of the church having a part to play, each having a different gifting. 

‘Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body … 14 And so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.’  (1 Cor 12:12-20)

 

St Teresa of Avila captures this sense of the Church being the body of Christ in her well known prayer,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.’

As Jesus ascended he commissioned his Apostles, and the Church they would bring into being, to make disciples of every nation.  This would involve preaching and teaching, healing and nurturing, giving and administrative organisation and many other tasks.  No one person could do this on their own, it required all believers to work together, with the equipping of the Holy Spirit.  Then the Church will grow to maturity, ‘…attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ (v13)

Then, says Paul, ‘we will no longer be 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. 15 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. 16 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.

So what Paul is saying is if we work hard to be one body, each using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given us, exercising the ministry God has called us to.  And if we immerse ourselves in Christ and his teaching we will grow ever spiritually stronger, and become more like the one we serve until we meet him face to face when our earthly pilgrimage is complete.

Let us remember, ‘We are the body of Christ, in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.  Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.’ (Common Worship, Holy Communion service).

 


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