You may have noticed that over the past few weeks we have been working our way through the letter of Ephesians. The Epistles are interesting to me because they give us such a glimpse into the life of what we like to label the Early Church. I think that these letters also give us a glimpse into the heart of humanity. One of the things that I often have to bring back to mind, however, is that we are hearing only Paul’s side of the conversation. Whatever exhortations Paul makes, we can only understand from his perspective. That truth makes understanding the relationships within the text difficult.
“In those early chapters, the author has laid out the new reality, that in Jesus God has broken down the “wall” between Jew and Gentile, now offering through the blood of the new covenant, salvation and koinonia to all persons. The letter speaks directly to its Gentile audience (Ephesians 3:1), believers gathered in communities in cities throughout ancient Asia Minor. These cities, already ancient in Paul’s day, were major urban areas with all the diversity of population, trade, religious groups, and social classes that was typical of a Greco-Roman city.”[i]
Paul works hard through the first three chapters of this letter to establish his authority and to earn the right to be heard. But it should also be noted that Paul is using a gentle “tone” in this letter to the Ephesians – at least, scholars seem to think his “tone” is gentler than how he writes to the Corinthians or the Galatians. In this letter Paul speaks frequently of love and the importance of kindness and gentleness in relationship. This is but one example of how we can all live like Christ, following Christ’s example in relationship with one another.
And so, our reading begins: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called (4:1) – this is perhaps something we would rather not hear; it is a request that is certainly not easy to follow. It sounds a bit like being scolded, and I know that I, at least, have never done well with being scolded. But my immediate thought during my studies was that the more time passes, the less people seem to change.
“No racially or economically diverse modern congregation had anything on the church of Ephesus. Its diversity was apparently not just a cause for celebration, however, but also the occasion for division and conflict. Yet in Christ they are all one body. All are creatures of the same Creator. All are saved by the same death and blood of Christ. All appropriate this free gift of God the same way, by faith. All are brought into the church by the same sacrament, baptism. All are servants of the same Lord, Jesus Christ. What human differences there are ethnically, racially, economically, and socially are not counted by God. All people are alike before God. All have been built into the same building, grafted as members into the same body of Christ. There the functions and gifts of each, while diverse, can be used to build up the one body to which they all belong. There is unity in this diversity, because all of it is God’s creation… We are all one in Christ, and differences of color, age, sex, and social stratum should become invisible when we become church members. People with power, money, eloquence, education, etc., on their side may need to be reminded that their gifts are welcome and should be freely exercised so long as they do not destroy the unity of the body of Christ.”[ii]
That is to say: God made us one body. Christ is the head of that body, which is a model of unity. Christ died for each and every one of us; he gave his life for all. Our call, that thing that Paul is telling the Ephesians, and us, that we are called to is to respond to Christ’s actions by living out our lives with the gift of that singular action of love. We are called to live out gifted lives in a way that should be as natural as muscles responding to an impulse from the head. It is not a labour of chores that we live the lives of Christians: what Paul is talking about is not done by human effort. If we are the body, and Christ is the head, our muscular responses and actions are directed by the brain – Christ.
“Paul looked at the human person (body, mind, spirit, and will) as a marvellous unity created by God. As such it is a fit metaphor for the church and Christ, its head. If we impose our own subdivisions (mental, psychological, physical) and retain only the physical level of the image, we make a one-dimensional human into a symbol of Christ and the church. On the other hand, if we recall all the aspects of a human being such as birth, growth, maturity, coordination, emotions, will, work, speech, and thought, we see how much can be conveyed by one symbol.”[iii]
This life is God’s work. This is the power of God inside each and everyone of us. The God who is in, through, under, and around everything in Creation – us included. I think it is very important that we remember this, and remember that what Paul is calling us to be aware of in that first verse is that we are not called to somehow bear the accountability of all Christian and churchly responsibilities as individual labours. We are being asked to remember that it is God who acts – we participate through our varied gifts and talents. Paul lists a number of vocations that demonstrate how those gifts are used, but the list is hardly a complete list.
Everything that we are and have experienced comes together to create the person we are now. There have been many times throughout my life where I have wished that life had gone differently or wished that something negative that had happened hadn’t. But it is generally in conversations with close friends and family that I am reminded that were that wish to come true, I would not be the person I am in this time and place, because every experience we have and every decision we have made helps to shape us into who we are. This shaping process can provide positive and negative affect to who we are, and those effects can also change over time. Being so organically human is to be an incredible, and gifted creation of God.
This diverse and complex way of being is also true of the Church body and being. It is shaped by the incredible experiences and decisions made through time and history. It is shaped by the positive and the negative. And those influences and effects have changed over time also. The Church has its own aspects of life through its own existence and through the existence of the members of the church. All that diversity and energy and difference brought together and unified as the Church of Christ.
“The unity of the body is given by the Creator. Yet exhortation to use it, exercise it, and feed it properly is in order. A congregation, like an individual, may be strong, healthy, joyful, friendly, and cooperative; or it may be weak, ill, morose, unfriendly, and uncooperative. It depends upon how well the members relate to each other and to the head.”[iv]
And all this relationship-based conversation comes because we darling Christians have such a hard time remembering. A problem that has continued throughout time and history: our tether to sinful behaviour. Sin, which seeks to destroy relationship.
We have many examples of humanity’s tendency toward sinfulness: selfish behaviour and actions for the one that inevitably affect the many in various terrible ways. We don’t have to look far beyond our own faces. We certainly don’t even have to look beyond our texts from today.
Today’s first reading is a continuation of the David and Bathsheba story. Last week, David and Bathsheba made a number of decisions that impacted Bathsheba’s husband. And then David made a number of decisions that impacted Uriah’s life. In today’s reading, God is displeased with what David has done, and sends the prophet Nathan to speak with David. Nathan enters to shake David out of what looks like a power-drunken stupor, but Nathan’s method is sophisticated. He does not march in and confront David directly. Instead, he tells the parable about the rich man who takes the poor man’s beloved lamb. David is so self-righteous and self-assured that his anger kindles against this man. Sounding like a man accustomed to pronouncing judgments, David says that the man deserves to die “because he had no pity.” At this point, when David arrogantly slips into his role as judge, Nathan delivers the judgment: “You are the man.”
In this tale, God delivers a judgment for the sins which David has committed. And justice is dealt out in such a way that a lot of people get hurt. And though there may be a tendency for us to claim that this whole story is not fair on so many levels, I would suggest that this tale is truly about the playing out of human sin. We tend to look at our sins, most of our decisions and actions for our selves, as isolated to one or two particular people, rather than looking at how it spills over to the whole community. The body of community and relationships are very much broken into shattered fragments because of sin. There are people who are mourning the loss of their murdered sons, brothers, husbands, uncles… There is a woman who will lose her child.
Now the amazing thing about David is that he seems to recognize what he has done, and he grows up, as Paul encourages the Ephesians to do. David does not try to explain. He does not protest the judgment. Nathan speaks the truth in love and David says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And all of that takes great amounts of strength and courage. It’s something we attempt to do every time we come before God in our confession. It takes a great amount of courage to stand before God and admit our sin. But the good news is this: God is always there, bringing us to this place of peace and wholeness, encouraging us to take responsibility for the sins that we commit, and lovingly placing us in the midst of a community of saints and sinners, uniting us through word and sacrament. That community is this diverse and wholly creative body and being of Christ, the Church as a gifted whole.
So, I would ask you: Are you a gifted person? When asked a question like this, we have often been taught to mumble some modest denial. It would be rude to go around describing ourselves as “gifted” because, in conversation we often use the word gifted to mean the same thing as “talented”. Since we generally understand talented to mean being better at something than most other people, we are wise to be cautious about identifying ourselves in such a way. But being gifted, in the Biblical sense, is not the same thing as being talented. Not all of us are talented, but by God’s design, all of us are gifted.
We have to live our own lives. I do not know why you have the gifts you have and I have the ones I have. I only know that we have them for the same reason: to build up the Body of Christ, to benefit others, to serve the communities of which we are a part. That is the central issue in the business of living. These gifts are the raw material and the tools that God gives us for certain purposes. And our author of Ephesians is quite clear about what that purpose is: we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (4:15-16) In other words, our individual gifts from God are not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the other.
So are you a gifted person? Yes, absolutely. Where you come from is a gift. Who you are is a gift. What you long to be are all gifts given you by God. The opportunities you have that come from where you are now, and what is going on now and the relationships you have now are also gifts from God. Use them to the Glory of God ~ to the building up of the Body of Christ. Use them to make the world God loves a better place. Do that and you will be doing the creative business of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] Wendell W. Frerichs. “Reconciled in Christ: Ministry in Light of Ephesians,” Word & World
8/3 (1988), pgs. 293-231. Page 294.
[iii] Wendell W. Frerichs, page 298.
[iv] Wendell W. Frerichs, page 299.
This week’s image is borrowed and altered from http://irmgardebrown.com/2013/04/09/body-talk/