When you hear the word “Church” what kind of picture comes to mind? Do you think of our new church with its unique architecture and decorations? Or do you picture the people who gather to worship here? That’s really the better way to picture the word “Church” because the Bible uses that word to refer to believers rather than to a building. OK, so if the Church is the gathering of believers, how would you draw a picture of such a gathering? Would you draw people arm and arm with big smiles on their faces—one big happy family? Or would you draw the people in groups here and there, each one with arms folded and glaring or at least looking suspiciously at the other groups? Sadly, that’s often the reality isn’t it when it comes to Christian congregations? But it doesn’t have to be that way, not when we come to appreciate the God’s-eye view of the Church that the Apostle Paul will give us this morning in our continuing study of the New Testament book of Ephesians.
Paul begins our text with this encouragement. “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Did you notice how Paul said, “Make every effort to keep the unity,” instead of “Make every effort to become unified”? The Church, including our congregation, is already unified! That shouldn’t surprise us, not when we hear Paul remind us that there is only one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. So although we were all baptized at different times and perhaps in different places, it’s the same baptism that we received and so the result is the same: we were each washed clean of our sins and given the gift of the Spirit—the one Holy Spirit who leads us in the one faith that Jesus is the one Savior from sin. In a way we’re like basketball players who have been given the same uniform. That makes us into a team so that during a game we’ll all shoot at the same basket.
But you know enough about sports to realize that just because athletes wear the same uniform doesn’t mean that they will work together. There’s often the player who thinks he’s the team all-star and shoots the ball every time he touches it. His teammates get annoyed at this and so stop passing him the ball. Before you know it, you have a team that is squabbling during timeouts. They might all wear the same uniform and be shooting at the same basket, but no one is having much fun on such a “team.” Likewise, Paul teaches us that while unity in the church is a gift, it’s also a task. It’s something we need to keep working at maintaining because Satan keeps trying to destroy the unity and uses our own selfishness to accomplish that.
That’s why Paul also wrote: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2, 3). The key to maintaining unity is humility. And note how Paul urges us to be completely humble and gentle—not just humble and gentle most of the time or when it suits our needs. But it’s hard to be humble and gentle when others, even fellow Christians, can be so hurtful! Paul understands that. That’s why he also urges us to “bear with others in love.” Jesus modeled what it means “to bear with others in love” when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus could have justly cursed those who were crucifying and mocking him. Instead he took the abuse, praying that these soldiers and others would see the error of their ways. And if they didn’t? Well, Jesus would leave that to his heavenly Father to sort out. Jesus hadn’t come to judge the world, not at his first coming. He had come to save the world.
Nor have we been sent to judge the world, brothers and sisters. We’ve been sent to save it by spreading the message of Jesus, and by modeling his patient love. Of course, bearing with others in love doesn’t mean that we will never point out when they have hurt us. But bearing with them means that we will also let them explain themselves since it could be that we misunderstood what they said or did. If it becomes clear that their words and actions towards us were indeed mean-spirited, we will urge them to repent. But our purpose here is not to rub their face in their sins. Rather, we also want to be able to announce to them that Jesus paid for that sin and God has removed it from his sight, just as we have removed that sin from our own sight too for Jesus’ sake, and for the purpose of maintaining the unity of the Church.
Thankfully we don’t have to try to maintain this unity on our own. Paul went on to write: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people’” (Ephesians 4:7, 8). Paul quotes Psalm 68 which serves as a prophecy of Jesus’ coming down to this earth to win our salvation. The translation of the Hebrew psalm into Greek leaves us with some interesting wording. It literally says that Jesus came and “took captivity captive.” What was it that had captured us? Satan. Sin. Death. Hell. But Jesus in turn came to capture them. As Martin Luther once put it so well, “Jesus came to exterminate my death; he came to damn my hell!”
Once Jesus accomplished that through his death and resurrection, he ascended into heaven. Psalm 68 refers to that triumphal ascension and it compares Jesus to a conquering king returning home with all the spoils of war. But Jesus didn’t keep those spoils for himself. Rather, he shares them with the Church. Paul wrote, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 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).
Jesus’ gifts to the Church are spiritual leaders like pastors whose job it is to equip you, the saints, so you can continue to maintain the unity of the Church. And what are the tools that I use to help you maintain the unity of the Church? God’s Word. Paul describes the positive effect the Word has on believers who continue to study it. Paul wrote: “Then 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” (Ephesians 4:14-16).
To build each other up in love. That’s our goal as members of the Church. In fact you could say that every Christian is a body builder, that is, every Christian’s goal is to build up other Christians, for by doing so we build up the body of Christ—the Church. So why is it then that we often act more like cast members on the reality show Survivor than members of Jesus’ body? Since only one contestant on that show will get the prize, the participants are at each other’s throats from day one. If they forge friendships, it’s only because they think the other person can be useful for a time. Eventually these alliances will dissolve and bitterness will ensue as each strives to step on the other to get ahead.
The fact is we are survivors—survivors of a fallen world desperately making our way to our home in heaven, like survivors of a shipwreck who have managed to pile into the same lifeboat. I imagine that survivors on a lifeboat get sick of each other after a few days. But what are they going to do? Jump overboard and swim for it? Not if there’s no land or ship in sight. Instead they will just have to bear with each other, and learn to work together or they’ll never reach their goal of getting home.
So the question that we, as members of the Church, want to keep asking ourselves is “What can I do to ensure that those who have gathered in this lifeboat called St. Peter Lutheran Church make it to heaven? How can I help my family and my fellow members stay close to Jesus?” One thing we’ll want to do is “bear” with each other. But once we get to heaven will we call to mind these differences we had? If anything, we’ll probably be embarrassed about the squabbles and unspoken rivalries we nurtured along the way!
One of my favorite memories so far at St. Peter’s is the group picture we took at our building dedication. While others were snapping still shots, I was videotaping. Have a look. Does it seem as if anyone is talking about the hard work or the frustrations we endured to get to that day? No. We were celebrating a victory God allowed us to enjoy. Forgotten were the challenges along the way. Isn’t that how it will be in heaven, only way better and forever?
Unity. It’s what the world desperately seeks. But we Christians already have it. Why wait to heaven to enjoy it? By being completely humble and gentle, and patiently bearing with each other in love, we can and will enjoy its benefits right now. And we’ll do this with the help of the one Lord who sent his one Son to save us, and now, through his one Spirit, has unified us. Amen.
What picture would best define the word “Church” as the Bible uses it?
Why did Paul urge the Ephesians to “keep” the unity rather than to “become” unified?
Explain: Church unity is not only a gift, it’s also a task.
Paul urges believers to be completely humble and gentle, bearing with each other in love. Why is this hard to do? Why is it easy? What will this (being completely humble…) look like in your life THIS week?
To put the previous question another way, how are we like survivors in a lifeboat rather than cast members on the reality show “Survivor”?