Summary: Discerning our call and living that out in the body of Christ.
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.