Where Truth and Love Co-exist
4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” 9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
If your bible is one that includes subheadings, chances are the story we heard from Exodus this morning is titled something like, “The Complaining Israelites”, “The Grumbling Israelites”. Suggesting that somehow the Israelites’ reaction to their situation: potential starvation, dehydration, immanent death, was somehow petty? I can’t help but feel like it casts them in an unfair light.
And while I imagine all of us gathered here today understand that we could have it much worse: our hearts breaking as we hear of death and violence in Afghanistan, hospital systems on the verge of failing, wildfires raging, a hurricane approaching … it is also the case that in our own lives there are burdens that might seem like mere “complaints” to others, but to us are very real and have a profound impact on our faith in God and our ability to love our neighbors. Especially when we fundamentally disagree with said neighbors.
Our passage from Ephesians this morning was written during a time when the community of Ephesus was filled with hostility and bitterness. There was war. There was violence. Ephesus, an incredibly diverse community of different racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds was divided against itself. And, much like the Israelites in the wilderness, the trauma they walked through as a people was not drawing them closer to God and closer to one another. It was tearing them apart.
So Paul, or someone writing as Paul, decides to offer them a sermon on unity.
“We’re all in this together.” he says to them.
There is one body and one Spirit,
one hope, one Lord, one faith,
one baptism, one God…
Which is beautiful. And true. And also I happen to know that if you have a group of people at odds with one another and you simply say to them, “Can’t you all just get along?” it doesn’t do much to relieve the tension.
But what does? How do we figure out how to walk through the wilderness with our siblings in Christ in the spirit of this one-ness in the midst of so much hostility and anxiety?
I can tell you right now, this sermon isn’t going to offer any quick fixes. But we will explore the question. Because if it was important enough for Paul to beg the church in Ephesus thousands of years ago: “I therefore… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… bearing with one another in love…”
Then it is important enough for us to take some time to reflect today.
In April of this year author Adam Grant published an article in the New York Times on the subject of “languishing”, a term he describes as “the neglected middle child of mental health”. He writes:
“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Unlike severe afflictions like depression and anxiety, for which we might be more quick to seek help, languishing is just tolerable enough that we can continue to function — trudge through the wilderness, go about our lives at work/home/school. But, what we may not realize, is how in this state of languishing a dangerous enemy to our faith and well-being slips in. And that is indifference.
We don’t have the energy to fight anymore, so we simply avoid the friends and family members we disagree with.
We can’t take the depressing headlines anymore, so we don’t read them.
We don’t have the patience to listen to our neighbor with the political sign that makes us cringe or who will or won’t get the vaccine or wear or not wear the mask.
So we turn away. We find people “like us” - who agree with us and share our values. Because when we are languishing in the middle of the desert, bracing for the next disaster - it’s much easier to stick with the people who reinforce our own way of thinking.
And, at first this works. For many of us, the pandemic has been a time where we have grown closer to a smaller number of people in our lives - helped one another through uncharted territory and realized our deeper love for our neighbors… our immediate neighbors, that is.
But after awhile this comfort-seeking has another effect upon the body. While the apostles have been off in one corner having their socially distanced outdoor gatherings, off in someone else’s yard the prophets have been complaining about the pastors’ refusal to approach things the way they would, while the evangelists are out and about in public (critical of the apostles and prophets who aren’t ready to attend large gatherings yet) and meanwhile God bless the teachers. And the healthcare workers. And the first responders. The ones who show up. Day after day. With little to no choice as to how all of this affects their daily reality.
The body becomes divided when we become indifferent to the pursuit of unity. When it’s not a priority to understand one another, there is little hope we can ever achieve that “one-ness” toward which Paul is begging the church to strive.
Again, this is not a sermon of quick fixes. But it is a chance to wonder together how God might be calling us to unity in a time when we are fragmented and weary, wandering through a broken world together with very different ideas as to what will make it better.
Less than a month after Grant’s article on “languishing” appeared, journalist Dani Blum published a followup article called, “The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There.” Because isn’t that what we all want for our communal life - to flourish? Isn’t that what Paul was talking about when he spoke to the Ephesians of a body where “each part is working properly” promoting “the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” A body that is flourishing is not just unified but is growing and maturing - through love.
In her article, Blum offers many suggestions as to how one languishing might take steps toward flourishing. But there’s one in particular I think Paul could get on board with. Because I think it’s closest to what Jesus himself practiced as he - the head of the body - navigated divisions among God’s people. Blum talks about how in order to truly flourish we all need to reach out and feel reached out to. She writes:
“Moments of being seen by other people, and being met with respect or even enthusiasm, can energize and invigorate us and help create bonds within our neighborhood or community.”
Especially (and this is my own addition) especially when we are met with respect from people we know don’t agree with our worldview. Think of all the times Jesus spoke, as Paul puts it, “truth in love”. In his gentle wisdom he found ways to question actions he felt were counter to the gospel — yet there was never any doubt that he recognized the person standing before him: the tax-collector, the Pharisee, the sinner, the outcast, was a child of God, created in the image of God, and worthy of the deepest love and respect.
None of us is Jesus. And we will never be able to love as perfectly as he loves us, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try - even, and especially, with people we find extremely difficult to love.
There is a word in this passage today that I think might help us at least begin this hard work of seeking the full flourishing of the body of Christ. It’s used not once, but twice, which is a little signal to us — a blinking arrow saying “pay attention”. It’s the word “equip”.
Paul says that Jesus gave us all different gifts, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” and then in the final verse, “we must grow up in every way… into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped… and promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
In our culture that word “equip” calls to mind “professional development” or “training”. We are going to “equip” you with the skills you need to do the job. But in its purest sense this is a term that comes from a Greek family of words which describe something more like the process of setting bones during surgery. It’s a word that calls to mind healing, rehabilitation of a broken body, to make it stronger.
So when Paul says that in Christ the body has been equipped, and that we have all been given gifts that equip us for the work of ministry - one way to understand this is that our primary call in this world as followers of Jesus is that painstaking, sometimes exhausting work of healing and reconciling that which has been broken.
It’s a process that can’t be rushed. Putting a bandaid on a broken arm is not helpful. Trying to rush rehabilitation generally only causes more setbacks. But taking small intentional steps - having the difficult and often imperfect, awkward conversations where we seek out the neighbor we’d rather avoid, that is how we move forward toward the oneness we seek — finding small ways to speak truth, in a spirit of love.
A final thought — God didn’t wait until the Israelites were out of the wilderness to call them out on their complaining. Paul didn’t wait until the political climate in Ephesus was a bit more civil to call them out on their divisiveness. And Jesus didn’t call upon his followers to pray for their enemies because they all seemed to be getting along so well.
Many of us may find ourselves languishing in the brokenness of this world right now. Complaining is understandable. Bitterness and resentment — you have a right to feel all the feelings these days. But Scripture doesn’t just ask us, it begs us “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. And through the grace and humility of Christ, each of us is equipped to go out into a broken and divided world and in whatever small way we can help healing to begin so that all humankind may flourish together.
May it be so. Amen.