Rev. Mike Woods
CSB Vespers Service
August 5, 2012
The Book that we have come to know as “Paul’s letter to the Ephesians” has some interesting background information. First of all: we’re not entirely sure who it was written by. Maybe it was written by Paul, or more likely, one of his followers. There are some interesting discussions going on in the scholarly literature about the book’s authorship – but none of that is important to our discussion today … I think we can get too easily distracted by all of that. If we believe that the work is divinely inspired – and I think all of us here can agree on that – then our attention needs to focus on what the book is trying to say to us.
But another interesting feature – and one that is a little more pertinent to our discussion – is that this “letter” doesn’t seem to be a letter like any other letter we have in the New Testament. The oldest manuscripts that we have been able to find lack the opening phrase, “To the saints who are in Ephesus…” and read simply, “To the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” If it is a letter, then it seems to be more of a general missive, intended for a broad audience … one that could be delivered to town after town and not just to a particular group of people in a particular town in a particular congregation, as is the case with Romans or Thessalonians or some of the other of the New Testament epistles. The writer seems to intend his points to be taken – not only by the church in Ephesus, but by Christians everywhere throughout the known world at that time – and, we might add, across time … to our own … to those of us who have gathered here today.
And what the writer has to say to us can be divided into two parts. First of all, because of Jesus Christ – what he taught us in his lifetime, the miracles he performed, the hospitality he shared with Jews and Gentiles alike, as well as his death on a cross and his resurrection and ascension into heaven – because of these things … a new reality has come into being … there has been a paradigm shift … there has been a revolution! The old order no longer exists! And it’s a good thing too! The old order was quite oppressive … it kept people enslaved … it divided them one from another and made them suspicious and even hateful to one another. Because of Jesus Christ, we now live in a new reality where the cosmic and worldly powers that once oppressed and enslaved us have been overthrown – we live in an age of peace and brotherhood.
But Paul believes – and just to make things simple, I’m going to refer to the writer of Ephesians as “Paul” – Paul believes that although this new reality has come into being because of Jesus Christ, people just can’t seem to bring themselves around to believing it. They live their lives as if they were still slaves to these supernatural and worldly forces. Even more disconcerting for Paul is the fact that many people who call themselves Christians – followers of Christ – live their lives as if they, too, were subject to their old masters.
In Paul’s time one of the most important repercussions of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was elimination of the racial divide between Jews and Gentiles. In the second chapter he says, “But now in Christ Jesus, Jews and Gentiles have become one, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, both have been reconciled to God through the cross, and Christ has created in himself one new humanity in place of two” (vv 11-21). Elsewhere in Paul’s letters, he states that “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, master or slave … we are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Paul makes this observation more than once in his letters, I might add … it seems to be one of his favorite themes.) And his point seems to be that the racial, sexual, and economic barriers that once divided the human race … that once doomed us to eternal race wars, wars of the sexes, and class conflicts have been have been brought down. And furthermore, the cosmic and worldly powers that that once perpetuated these barriers have been defeated – soundly, completely, and eternally.
But it’s just too hard for us to believe it!
It was in 1954, that the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that the practice of “separate but equal” in terms of education was unconstitutional. In that one ruling, the Court created a new social and political reality. But people weren’t convinced of it immediately. It took decades to desegregate the school system … and in many respects our schools remain as segregated now as they ever were. And the reasons for that I know are complicated – but one of the chief reasons for the continuation of segregation in our nation, I believe, is that it’s hard for us to adapt to this new wonderful reality. We’re addicted to our old slave-masters. We’re a lot like the Israelites wandering through the desert of Sinai, longing for the fleshpots of Egypt … and our old chains.
Paul wants us to break our addiction … he encourages us to start living the new reality that has come to be in Christ Jesus. This new reality unites us all as one in Christ Jesus. Paul says, “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” (4:4-6).
What does it mean for us to live as united in Christ? The first point we have to realize is that unity is not uniformity. The two are not the same. In fact, they are opposites of one another. Unity doesn’t mean that we all have to think alike … or act alike … or even that we all have to believe exactly the same things. We can maintain our integrity as individuals … we can keep our differences. And this doesn’t hurt or destroy the church. That’s why all the different Christian denominations … with their many different traditions, their many different practices, and their different spins on theology … can rightfully confess in The Apostles’ Creed that they believe in “the holy catholic church” (church with a small “c”, meaning united). Our differences should not divide us. The fact that we are Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics and Disciples of Christ should not give us cause to want to condemn each other. The fact that one church focuses its ministry on evangelism and another on the ministry of social justice doesn’t mean that we should extol one and condemn the other. Both are carrying out a different part of the same gospel that Christ preached. As Paul says, “the gifts that Christ gave to us were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.”
My second point would be: If uniformity is the opposite of unity, then that means diversity is not. Unity and diversity go hand-in-hand with one another – they are two sides of the same coin … you can’t have one without the other. As Christians, we profess our belief in the Holy Trinity: One God composed of three divinely distinct persons … each are separate and individual – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer … yet they are all united as one God. The Book of Genesis tells us we are created in God’s image! The conclusions we have to draw from those facts are obvious: The diversity we see in God’s creation – the diversity that defines the human race – is not a curse … it is not something we are challenged to conquer and subdue into submissive uniformity. Diversity is to be celebrated for the blessing that God intended it to be.
And the last point I would make is that balancing these two – unity and diversity – is a challenge. It’s something we have to grow into. In closing out this section of verses, Paul concludes: “But speaking the truth in love, 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). Each and everyone of us – of different races, different social backgrounds, men and women … of different church traditions, practices and theologies – all working together, growing into the body of Christ.
And the key is love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost – one God forever and ever. Amen.