A sermon based on Psalm 93 and Ephesians 4:1-16 preached on May 17th, 2015.
About this time, 52 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself on the wrong side of a set of jail bars in Birmingham, Alabama in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Being the tireless worker of justice that he was, he decided to write about a matter that he otherwise had very little time to reflect on. So on April 16, 1963, bound by the bars of a jail cell, Martin Luther King Jr took the time to write his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
King had been told by many church leaders that now was not the right time to fight for the civil liberties of black Americans. He wrote his letter to his fellow clergymen, urging them to reconsider their claim to wait for a better time, saying that there will never be a better time than right now to do the work of justice.
King urged his fellow clergypeople to take on the voice of Amos and Jesus himself and be “extremists for love,” and to work for unity both in and outside the Church, and to do so in the name of the one who wants us to love even our enemies.
Martin Luther King Jr. never stopped working for his dream of what he called “The Beloved Community”, even when he was bound behind the bars of a jail cell in Birmingham.
We come to the letter written to the church in Ephesus, and right away we find the early church to be in the middle of a critical circumstance. Paul is in prison—probably somewhere in Rome. This passage calls Paul a prisoner of the Lord. And he too is bound behind bars for an unjust reason. He too thrown in jail for acting out his God-given call to proclaim the Gospel.
We’re pretty sure that the author of this letter to the Ephesians was not Paul, but possibly someone who was commissioned and empowered by Paul to write for him—in his voice—to the Ephesians and to other churches he ministered to. And perhaps channeling Paul’s circumstance of being bound in prison by the Roman authorities, this passage urges these early Christians in Ephesus to be bound in peace to one another and to continue carrying out their calling to be held together in unity.
Have you ever imagined what Paul was like as a prisoner? What would you be like, how would you act, what would you say if you were arrested and thrown in jail for an unjust reason—for doing nothing but acting out your calling to serve others in name of Christ, like Paul or Martin Luther King, Jr? I can’t say I’d hold it together all too well. And I can definitely say that I would have a hard time finding a way to continue doing the work of ministry as he did.
Paul was certain that the Church was capable of carrying on without his presence. Paul had built up his churches and taught them all they would need to know to be people of the Way, even if he was not there to walk with them.
In the book of Acts, we have a passage where Paul is bound up behind the bars of a prison cell and he’s singing the early churches’ songs, teaching those songs to his fellow prisoners, until they knew every word of them and began singing along with him. Singing hymns in jail. Even while bound behind bars, Paul continued to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to others.
There is one body, and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Those words are almost hymn-like. There’s a sweetness to them, and there’s no doubt that they stand out as a simple and profound witness to the Oneness of God and how through Jesus the Son, we have been engrafted in—bound together in one faith and called to share in one Spirit. The Spirit of God that is everywhere above all, and everywhere through all, and everywhere in all.
The author of these words begs the young Christians in Ephesus to take the Oneness of God and to see in it a model of how to be in unity amongst themselves—to confess how we are bound together into one body.
We do not call ourselves Church because we have created unity or because we will ever create unity. We call ourselves Church because we have been called to come together to confess our unity. The author goes on to list a few roles that we undertake as the Body of Christ. Some of us are apostles. Some others prophets. Some teachers. Some pastors. Some evangelists. Each role given to each by the God who has also bound us together in oneness. Each role, therefore, is no more important than any other. Not one of these roles should be regarded as more special or higher than any other role. Our gifts are given to the church in equal measure and through the giving of these gifts, we are building up the Body of Christ as one.
I’m no good at dancing. Really. I know every guy says they’re no good at dancing, but I want to confess to you right off the bat that I really mean it when I say I’m no good at dancing. I’ve actually been asked to stop dancing before.
Dancing is not one of my spiritual gifts. The writer of Ephesians 4 mentions bodies and how they are knit together with ligaments and my body is not knit together for dancing. As bad as I know I am at dancing, I have to say that if someone promised to hold my hand while I danced with them, I’d step out onto the dance floor with them and slowly but surely start dancing along. I can’t promise I’d like it and I certainly can’t promise that I’d start dancing well, but I would dance nonetheless.
There’s something about being upheld and encouraged by others that makes it easier to step onto the floor and start dancing. Holding on and being held while dancing together would give me the strength to do what I normally would not do on my own.
Perhaps this is the best way to talk about our unity in Christ. Our Unity as the people of Christ’s church is best described as a holy dance where we each carry out our role but we do it together. No one of our roles is any more important than the other—that we dance together on the same level—and as we hold each other in prayer and in unity, we bind ourselves together as one body, the body of Christ, and we carry out this holy dance of discipleship together. And as we dance, it’s hard to find the one who’s leading because none of us are leading. We are all in service and unity to the other. We the church so often misunderstand the way Jesus leads. And in turn, we get leadership wrong.
Pastors and elders sign up to go to church conferences on leadership taught not by fellow pastors and elders, but by the most successful CEOs and business people in the country—many of whom have never attended church themselves. Pastors fervently take notes about what it is to be a leader and they learn how to be successful in a business sense. And they take all these ideas back to their congregations and they create business plans and models, confident that’s what their churches need to grow bigger and become better.
Even if we church leaders never attend these high-powered conference that want to entice us to think about running church as if it’s a business, we sometimes get the sense that churches should become more business-like in order to become more successful. And it is a mistake to think that. When we go back to scripture, it is clear what the Church needs and what Jesus has called us all to be in and for the world. Rather than leaders, what the church needs is faithful followers of Christ—people who are willing to hand over their lives to others—to live their lives of discipleship out loud and in front of others.
In Matthew 23, we hear Jesus speak to the crowds of people gathered around him, and he says,
But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in Heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.
See, Jesus changed the world in this way. He flattened all the hierarchical ideas that the world lives by and functions with. He forbade separators and titles and rank. There are no ladders to climb in the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us all to operate according to a different manual.
In his book, “Unleader”, Pastor Lance Ford says that leadership in the Church should be seen as a spiritual gift rather than as a position of power. And he urges us to re-imagine leadership in the Church. He wants us to see that being a disciple—a follower of Christ—is the most faithful way to lead.
It is when we carry out our roll as disciples of Jesus that we are leading the Church in the way that Jesus led his disciples. And we, the disciples of Christ are being faithful to Jesus when we are bound together in unity, letting God build us up together into one Body, where we collaborate in one dance together—let’s call it the dance of discipleship. Jesus is the only one leading this holy dance that we all are a part of. Jesus, the one who also led by serving.
The writer of this letter to the Ephesians no doubt writes to them about unity because they were struggling with being united. There were Jewish Christians and gentile Christians and neither knew exactly how to live together and understand and honor one another from the places they came before they started following in the way of Jesus. They were asking themselves questions that we no longer ask: Should gentiles eat non-kosher foods in the presence of their Jewish brothers and sisters? Should the gentile Christians be circumcised? These two factions of Christians were trying to be faithful to the call of living and worshipping together in one church, but they were bound to clash over some things.
Just like the church in Ephesus, we all have a ways to go, in the words of this passage, to grow in the full stature of Christ.
Sometimes we the Church come off as horrible dancers. We step on a lot of toes and we fall short of modeling the full stature of Christ to the rest of the world. We fall short of displaying the peace and unity of our God to others. We have yet to realize the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned one day coming into being. But we are bound together in the Way of Jesus. And in the beautiful words of this passage, when each part of the Body of Christ is working properly, it promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. And if we continue walking in the way of this Jesus, we too may begin to see in both friend and stranger, and maybe even enemy—the one face of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There is one body and one Spirit. One Lord, one faith, and one baptism that binds us together to be the Body of Christ. One Church knit together to be the hands and feet of Christ in and for the world. And with God’s call upon us, the power of Christ in us, and the Holy Spirit moving through us, we have the strength we need to build each other and this world up in Christ’s abounding love.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!