August 5, 2018

BUILDING UP THE BODY OF CHRIST

Ephesians 4:1-16

No matter whether you agree or disagree with this image about the body of Christ that the Apostle Paul presents to us today in his letter to the Ephesians, you have to admit that his vision about the unity of the body of Christ is worth considering.  Of course, we also have to admit that there is the theory and then there is the reality in which we live.  In this case, the theory about the unity of the body of Christ holds true only if we all are willing to be humble, gentle, and patient human beings as Paul suggests.  However, you throw sin into this mix, and we come out with this body of Christ that is all torn apart by our pride, our fear, and our aggression that leads to all kinds of divisiveness rather than the oneness that we receive by God’s grace as the result of our one baptism and the bread and cup that we share every time that we come to this table.

Putting aside this reality of all of our divisiveness for the moment, let’s concentrate on the ideal that Paul presents to us in this lesson for today.  As far as Paul is concerned, we all are called by virtue of our baptism to lead a life worthy of this calling by making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  If we are to honor God’s call to us in our baptism, then every word out of our mouths and every deed that we perform ought to strive for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  The key word here is the emphasis on maintaining.  To maintain something is to assume that something already exists.  In this case, the unity of the Spirit is a gift that we already have received from God by virtue of our one baptism into the body of Christ.  We are not the ones who create this unity, but we sure as hell are the ones who are called and given the responsibility to maintain this gift of unity in the bond of peace.

Just to be clear, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is not equivalent to being nice to everyone all the time.  Nice is not a word that you will find in the Bible.  Nice is a concept and a word that we have created to cover up a whole multitude of sins, especially the sin of not dealing with conflicts in our lives and of refusing to speak the truth in love with one another.  Of course, in order to be able to be this honest with one another, we have to trust that the other person is willing to listen to us and to respect what I have to say just as I am willing to listen to what others have to say.  However, given this option, sometimes it is so much easier just to be nice to the other person and pretend that these differences of beliefs and values don’t even exist. 

At the other extreme, as we have witnessed throughout our Christian history, too often we have ignored this kind of honest dialogue and have chosen to wage war against one another in words and deeds in order to demonstrate and prove that my beliefs are more right than yours, that my rights and values are more important than yours, that my life is more valuable than yours, and that the God that is on my side is more powerful than yours.  So much for making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace!

This dividing wall of animosity, enmity, and hostility that exists within the body of Christ today is nothing shy of a tragedy.  In this regard, we could rattle off a whole list of issues that divide the church today—issues like abortion and the right to choose, gay and lesbian rights, racial justice, the role of women, economic inequality, loyalty to our country, justifiable warfare, healthcare for all, immigrant rights, mass incarcerations, gun regulations, climate science, just to name a few.  Just as the Bible was used to support the positions of members of the body of Christ around the issue of slavery in both the North and the South at the time of our Civil War, so today, followers of Jesus Christ often will turn to the Bible to argue their position on many of these issues that divide us.

Lest we think that this division primarily exists between mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and fundamentalist Christian churches, we have to acknowledge that within every mainline denomination there is this continuum of beliefs and values from radical liberalism to radical conservatism that creates all kinds of tensions and conflicts and tempers our ability to address some of the more divisive issues within our society and culture with one united voice. 

For example, the recent battle over the Keystone pipeline at Standing Rock created a real conundrum for members of the ELCA because we had members of our church on many sides of this issue—those who wanted to respect indigenous rights, those who were concerned about their own job security, those who saw a need for more gas to operate their pleasure vehicles, those who had the care of creation in mind, those whose job it was to dispel the protesters, and those who remained silent and could have cared less about this matter of life and death.

I have said it before, and I will say it again, “For those of us who are members of the body of Christ, what often is at the heart of our divisiveness is not our differing positions on various issues, but rather is dependent upon how we view and use Scripture itself.”  For example, during the height of our anti-nuclear war protests years ago, a very devout Christian argued with me by quoting from the Book of Ecclesiastes and reminding me that according to the inerrant Word of God there always is a time for war.  Of course, we all know how 6 passages from Scripture have been taken out of context for decades and used to condemn any kind of homosexual behavior. Let’s face it!  We can prove almost anything from the Bible—all depending upon whether we read it literally or often times metaphorically. 

One of the discussions that we need to be having within the body of Christ as we speak the truth in love with one another is how we view and use Scripture differently, and more importantly, how we view the purpose of the testimony and witness of Jesus, our Christ, the One whom we claim that we are meant to follow.  In order to keep us focused on this discussion, some people in the Church have been gifted with being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the primary purpose of equipping the members of the body of Christ for ministry by building up the body of Christ—not tearing it down and ripping it apart—until all of us come to what Paul calls the unity of the faith. 

Here is where we often get bogged down, because we can have different understandings about what this unity of the faith actually means.  Growing up in a doctrinally-based Lutheran Church, I learned that the unity of faith meant that we all were supposed to believe that Mary actually was a virgin when Jesus was born.  Given the charismatic influence of my college friends, I was led to believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit would guarantee that more of my prayers would be answered according to the strength of my faith as the result of some charismatic experience that was meant to unite us as one.  Of course, prosperity theology today emphasizes that the amount of your earthly possessions is an actual sign of how much faith you have in God, and the unity of faith has to do with giving God credit for all of your accumulated wealth no matter how you have obtained it.

In order to experience this unity of the faith that Paul espouses, we are to be on our guard that we are not led astray by every wind of doctrine, by every popular theology, by every TV evangelist who asks for a donation to ensure God’s favorable response, by every attempt to align our religious practice with our national allegiance, or by every promise that my personal salvation directly correlates with how faithful I am in this life.  One of the primary responsibilities of those who are gifted to be leaders in the church is to equip the members of the church for ministry, not to make sure that everyone believes exactly the same way.  Besides, when we talk about faith in this context, we are talking about the relationship that we have with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and how much trust we will put in this God to guide us in the way that Jesus has called us to follow.

For this reason, Paul talks about Jesus Christ as being the head of this body—a body in which everyone is gifted with a certain and special role and responsibility to ensure that the whole body is functioning together properly and that each part is contributing to the growth of the entire body.  We accomplish this cooperation and growth by building up this body of Christ in love.  To be honest, this body of Christ is filled with all kinds of diversity, differences of opinions, a vast range of gifts and talents, and so many opportunities even to disagree with one another—all of which do not have to lead to any kind of divisiveness or division if only we would concentrate on building each other up in love.

Jesus Christ is considered to be the head of this body because he was the one who modeled for us what this beloved body or community would look like and how it would function so that everyone from the least to the greatest would be included in this beloved community and no one would lord themselves over anyone else.  We cannot maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I think that I am better than you, more powerful than you, greater than you, more important than you, or more righteous than you. 

If we have anything to learn from the way that Jesus chose to live and die, it is this—that with all humility, gentleness, patience, and love, we can use whatever gifts that we have been given by the grace of God to build up this body of Christ so that all the world will notice and will marvel at how we have love for one another and then perhaps also give glory to God.  We can only hope for this kind of global response as long as you and I are willing to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Amen.