One of the wonderful things about Paul’s writings is the fact that they are instructions and exhortations written to the early church, and yet his words to that church are still quite applicable to the modern church. This particular passage from Ephesians addresses a number of matters related to the church and the life of those who are a part of the church, but it all boils down to two basic matters: each of us is called and gifted in a special way, and we are to unite together in using our gifts to build up one another and the whole body of Christ. While this seems like a “no-brainer,” I contend that it is a bit more difficult than we make it out to be, especially considering our current circumstances. As a way of illustration, I would like us to watch a short video clip from one of my most favorite movies.
[Finding Nemo 1:16.39-1:18.16]
I love these seagulls in Finding Nemo. Of course, they are humanized in some sense, and caricatured like most animated characters, but that is what makes them so funny. They are focused and concerned about one thing and one thing only. Each one of those seagulls wants a taste of the fish. “Mine. Mine. Mine!” they say, over and over and over again. You can’t help but laugh as they relentlessly chase after the pelican and the fish. But it is in this relentless chase that the humanization of the seagulls becomes a bit disturbing, even as it is funny. We begin to see in the seagulls something of ourselves. How often have we chased after something with all our might? How often have we put ourselves above all else and selfishly pursued a dream or object only for our own gratification? I imagine that this is true for most if not all of us in this room today. But part of the truth in this reality is the fact that this is the way our culture has conditioned us. That is, our society teaches us that we should always be “looking out for number one.” Our lives should be centered around ourselves: advancing in the professional world, climbing the social ladder, and acquiring the greatest “toys.”
In short, modern society, particularly in the United States is individualistic, “me”-centered. We have allowed ourselves to be consumed and defined by what we accomplish or acquire rather than by who we are in relationship to God and one another. Like the seagulls, we are a resounding chorus, of “me, me, me.” The result is that in engaging such individualism we have disengaged ourselves, unable to truly relate to one another, and most especially to God. In speaking of modern society, John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit priest and professor at St. Louis University said it this way, “One’s heart, no longer a throne wherein the transcendent personal God might dwell, no longer engaged by a knowing and loving trinitarian encounter of other persons, is restless until it rests—now anchored or even chained by [self-absorption].” We have lost sight of our identity as ones created, claimed, and called by God to be in relationship and service to one another in this world, and instead we are absorbed by the cultural trappings of our modern society.
As those who attend church, we are at least somewhat familiar with the word “gospel.” When we hear this word, I’m sure many of us think of the first four books of the New Testament, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; or perhaps we think of good news, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Gospel can also refer simply to a message or teachings of a leader or something promoted as infallible truth. A gospel reveals who we are, what we hope for, how we may aspire to act, and what is of true value. Thus, a gospel is an expression of whom or what we value; who or what is our functional god. In a great sense, individualism has become the gospel of our modern times. But there is another gospel; the one we actually think of when we hear that word. One gospel reveals men and women as replaceable and marketable commodities, the other gospel reveals people as irreplaceable, unique, and free beings. But if we are to know the benefits of that greater gospel, the gospel that began with Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, then we have to turn aside from individualism and embrace our life and freedom in a different way. And in this passage from his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has given us instructions for doing just that.
The central theme of Paul’s message here is unity in the body of Christ. We are to be united with others who are seeking after Christ, which by default means obliteration of the self and individualism. Paul urges the reader on to maturity, which involves the community as a whole, not just individuals. And we are to be engaged in building up one another so that we might all grow to maturity. We should be so united with the church community and the church with the larger human community, that the bond is stronger and more important than any of the other alternatives of this world that may drag us away; like social status or wealth. Paul is very clearly defining an alternative culture; a culture of community and mutual up-building, a culture which is quite different from what we know in the modern world.
As many of you know by now, I have a younger sister. Her name is Lindsay. When Lindsay and I were younger, we were quite different in many ways. But we did both have a bit of an independent streak in us. I was known around the house for my willingness to voice my opinion about just about anything, particularly when I was in a grumpy mood. In fact, my regular outbursts, earned me the nickname, “Grumpy Bear.” My sister’s independent streaks were of a slightly different nature. She was of the “13 going on 30” variety, and Lindsay always wanted to act older than she was, which in her childhood years meant that she wanted to do everything by herself. Quite appropriately, her nickname became Lindsay “I-can-do-it-all-by-myself” Travis. Certainly, my sister’s aspirations were noble, but rarely was she able to accomplish by herself the task after which she was striving, particularly in her very youngest years. Most of the time, my sister required the help of someone else. This is precisely the point which Paul is trying to drive home in this passage. We can accomplish so much more when we are united together in service as the body of Christ, “the whole body joined and knit together by every ligament.”
This body of Christ, however, is only healthy and efficient when every part is thoroughly coordinated, which means that we must have an understanding of our identity as ones called and claimed by God. Paul urges the readers to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul is operating on the assumption that we are all called by God in some way; that we all are gifted in a special way for service in this world. As the creator, God certainly has specific hopes and plans for each of our lives. Our task is to discern to the best of our ability God’s calling on our lives and to live that out as best we possibly can in this time and place. The body of Christ is at its best when every person can look beyond herself and respond to the promptings and nudgings of God.
Let me tell you another story about my sister. Now in her adult life, I think Lindsay is probably one of the most remarkable people out there, though I am sure I am somewhat biased. Lindsay is a teacher, a very wonderful teacher, which in and of itself may not seem very noteworthy. Except that Lindsay does not teach in a mainstream classroom. Lindsay teaches a class of elementary aged children with autism. These children are so severely autistic that they cannot be a part of regular elementary school classes at all. So each day, Lindsay patiently teaches them basic life skills. She endures kicking and biting on a regular basis; she has to deal with parents who are stressed in the face of their child’s condition, and an administration that this past year moved her classroom three different times during the course of the school year. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy and my sister has felt frustrated plenty of times. But in the midst of it all, she still loves her job, she loves the children who are in her classroom each day, and the students love her. They are learning and progressing well, she is a great teacher. I see so clearly in my sister the happiness of a person who has found her calling from God and pursued it. But I also know that my sister would tell you she could not do that job on her own. In a classroom of five or six students, my sister has two aides to help her, aides whom she relies on heavily. And beyond the classroom, she counts of the support of her husband, my parents, and her church family in the midst of difficult times. This is the body of Christ at work, people offering their gifts for the support and building up of others.
Certainly, our willingness to follow God’s calling in our lives and to live a life worthy of that calling is instrumental to the body of Christ functioning appropriately, but in all things, we must look to Jesus Christ who is the head of that body. And we must remember that though we are unique individuals, we are united as Paul tells us by one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, a common hope and purpose, and “one God who is father of all, above all, through all, and in all.” Joined in this way, we also have a common aim as those who are part of the body of Christ. We are called to equip one another, the members of the church that is the body of Christ such that all are educated, guided, cared for, and sought out. So that whenever anyone “is tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery and deceitful scheming,” that person is able to withstand in the name of Christ Jesus. Simply put, we are to strengthen and build up one another and bring all members into unity. And in all things, the ultimate aim is that we help one another on to perfection, until Jesus Christ is clearly reflected in the lives of all who are a part of the body.
So each of us has a purpose, and each of us has an aim. In the same way, the body of Christ which is the church has single hope, that all might know Christ. But if each of us individuals in the church are only working for ourselves, only striving after what is best for us, then the body of Christ will not function properly, which in the end will hurt us too. Living in Christ requires two things of us; that we discern and strive after our calling from God, and that we use that calling in service to the church that is Christ’s body. We must be willing to put aside our own agendas and stop saying, “Mine, mine, mine!” Instead, we must look to Jesus Christ who is the head; we must seek out our calling within that body, and we must strive to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. When we can do that, then in united strength, we can stand against the toughest of tests and grow up in Christ, encouraging and supporting one another along the way. Our greatest call in life is not one defined by modern culture, but one which comes from God the Father of all. When we can turn our faces to God and reach out our arms in service with and to all who are around us, then we will know what it is to be built up in love, even as we build one another up in love.
 John Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 13.
 Kavanaugh, 25.