Unique and United, Part 1
Who in here has watched the show “The Deadliest Catch”? First, those guys are pretty brave…or crazy. Anyone ever enjoy the fruits of their labor? Ever offer a prayer of thanks that they do their job so you don’t have to? Think for just a minute about the crew on each boat. In order to make it through the storming waters of the Bering Sea, each member of the crew has to know his job and do his job with expert precision and skill. There are guys responsible for everything from keeping the decks clean to steering the boat along the correct route to its destination. Now, not every sailor is needed on deck and active at all times, but over the course of the journey every sailor is necessary in order to have a successful trip out and back. There are times, however, when for whatever reason every sailor is needed on deck. It could be that a large catch has come in and they need everyone to haul it aboard safely. It could be that a storm is coming and the captain wanted to make sure that the ship and crew were prepared for it. When these times come the call made is one that is so familiar as to have become a colloquialism in itself: “All hands on deck.” Thinking about all of this, let me ask you a question: which sailor is the most important? Now, some of us would quickly say that the captain is the most important. Someone has to be in charge and making sure everyone is doing their job. But not so fast. What about the guy who was responsible for tying the various lines down so they aren’t hanging loose? Without him a dangling line could catch a sailor unaware and knock him overboard. Or how about the guy who is responsible for hauling in the loads? Without him it doesn’t matter how safe the voyage is, in the end it will be counted a failure. Why, even the guy responsible for keeping the deck clear is necessary so that the other members of the crew walking around on the deck don’t slip or trip and hurt themselves. Though each sailor might be tempted to claim either himself or another sailor was clearly the most important member of the crew, the reality is that in order to have a safe voyage anywhere, it takes all hands on deck and active.
Let me ask another question this morning that at first is going to see unrelated to what we’ve been talking about: what does this ideal church look like? Now there’s a loaded question if ever I’ve heard one. At a certain level, each and every one of your are going to have a different answer to that question. And your answer is going to be wrapped in the garb of whatever your particular ministry passion is. Some folks really have a passion for missions and so naturally, the ideal church is heavily involved in a variety of mission projects. Other folks are much more concerned with the youth and children’s ministries and so for them the ideal church has a rocking young adult program. Still others are driven by more practical concerns and their ideal church has a building and grounds in tip-top shape such that when people see the church they are drawn in by the welcoming image it puts forth. Speaking a bit more broadly, there are folks who have only and ever known small country church life. For these people of course the ideal church doesn’t have more than a few dozen members and is located far from the outer boundaries of any city. Others, though, have a real passion for the inner-city. Their ideal church is steeped in city culture and is actively ministering to the least, last, and lost of the city. Still some other folks prefer a huge church that has a nearly endless number of opportunities to be involved and is establishing ministry trends that other churches merely follow. And if we thought much longer on this I suspect we could come up with a plethora of other ideals. So who’s right? Which church model really is “ideal”? Well, my model, of course. Oh wait, I meant, your model. No, make that your model. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t any “ideal” model for the church. Yeah, that’s it: there is no ideal church model. Every church should just do whatever seems right for its members and its community. But wait, what if its membership doesn’t truly reflect the make-up of its community? Hmm…
Okay, enough debating. Where am I going with this? Well consider the following: we have all heard or expressed ourselves that such and such or this and that is the way to do church. Churches have fractured and split into irredeemable pieces over issues related to how church should be done. It’s enough to make a person at least a bit cynical. And before we get too much further, let’s be really honest with each other this morning: short perhaps the megachurch and inner-city church folks, there are representatives in this church of each and every one of the schools of thought I mentioned just a bit ago. Furthermore, each one of us tends to think that his or her model is the only one that makes sense and everyone else needs to get on board or get out. So with all these competing ideals and passions and ministry desires, how can we possibly bring everyone on the same page and focused on achieving a single vision? Well, over the course of this week and next, I hope to lay out for you a framework for doing this very thing. This framework will be built on a foundation of two parts which are intimately connected: unity and diversity. This morning we are going to look closely at the foundation of unity and towards the end of our time start to get into the roots of the diversity. Then next week we will finish up by examining in detail the foundation of diversity and its implications for our church. And we are going to find all of this in one place: Ephesians 4. If you have your Bibles, grab them and open up to Ephesians 4:1. Just like the crew of a large sailing vessel, Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active.
Follow along with me as I read starting in v. 1: “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Now, to really understand what Paul is starting to get at here, we must understand something about the book of Ephesians. Like the book of Romans, Ephesians can be broken down roughly into two parts: theology and application. In Romans the application starts in chapter 12 with Paul’s famous, “Therefore, I beseech you brethren, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God. This is your reasonable service.” He then goes on to unpack the riches of chapters 1-11. Ephesians, though shorter, is no different. In the first three chapters Paul lays out the marvelous theological reasons why all people are one in Christ because we are all saved by grace through faith. When we come to chapter 4, then, Paul starts to unpack all of this. He begins, as I just read with a statement equal in renown to its counterpart in Romans: “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received.” He next goes on to explain how this is done, but after only a few words stops and reaffirms the source of the unity to which he is calling us. All told, these six verses set before us not only a call to the kind of unity that can keep the ship sailing in the right direction, but also offers some clear insights on how to do this.
Well, the first real insight Paul offers is that this unity must be rooted in “all humility.” Now, the virtue of humility is something we generally take for granted. As I’ve mentioned before, we often misunderstand exactly what humility is, but everyone knows humility is better than constantly tooting our own horn. In Paul’s day, however, humility was actually considered a vice. In fact the word in Greek was not even really invented until the New Testament era because no one cared about it. Of course you touted your own achievements. Who else was going to do it for you? Why would you do something so foolish as to teach children to be humble? How else are they going to get ahead in life? For Paul to announce humility as the first necessity for unity was radically counter-cultural. But is our day so different? Our view of humility has been Christianized such that we all know we should be humble, but how many of us are smugly proud of how humble we are? Oops. I’ve said it before, but here’s the deal with humility. Humility is simply an acknowledgement of reality. If you are good at something you can be humbly confident in your ability. The humility here comes both in recognizing that you have a great giftedness in some area and also that were it not for God’s abundant grace you would not have such a giftedness. Thus, the only appropriate use of your gift is in the service of Him who is the Gift-Giver. And, because God humiliates Himself to serve we who are infinitely below Him, there is no bottom level to which we will not stoop, if called, in order to serve those around us. No one is below us. No thing is beneath us. All others (and their agendas) are viewed as more important than our own. That’s humility.
Next, Paul mentions gentleness. How unlike the world for Paul to list humility and gentleness as two of the key driving forces behind unity. In any event, gentleness or meekness is not weakness. You may have heard a sermon or three on that. Biblically defined, gentleness is having the right emotions in the right amounts at the right times. The person who is gentle is actually much stronger than the person who is not because it takes a very strong person to have the self-control gentleness demands. For example, consider the famous gorilla Koko and its kitten. Koko is a gentle gorilla not because it is any less ferocious if threatened, but because it directs such ferocity towards real threats, not its innocent kitten. The last trait Paul commends here is patience or, more formally, long-suffering. I’ll be honest with you: we generally don’t understand patience like we should today and rendering it as long-suffering actually gives us a better picture. If we are going to walk worthy of our calling, we are going to have to be prepared to suffer a lot and for a long time. It matters not where the source of suffering is, we bear it with all humility and gentleness. God has done this with us and so we must do it with others. Fourth here, Paul mentions accepting one another in love. We’ve touched on this before so I’ll be brief. We accept one another with a desire to see each other become fully their God-created selves…not their us-imagined selves. Ultimately, if we are going to have any unity at all in this body, or any body of which we are a part, it will be borne on the backs of these four virtues. Consider the Deadliest Catch crews once again. If they over- or underestimate their worth or if they direct their frustration at each other or if they cannot bear the rigors of working in close quarters as they should then they won’t not survive long as a crew. And in the seas they sail, they won’t survive long period. In the same way, Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active.
The next thing Paul says is that we should be diligent in keeping the unity of the Spirit. Now, another translation of the Greek word behind “diligent” is “make every effort.” Maintaining or keeping the unity of the Spirit is worth every single effort we can give it. On occasion I will hear someone say, “I try to love _____, but it’s hard.” Do you know what? There are some people who are genuinely hard for us to love. Keep in mind, though, that we might be that person for someone else. In fact, we probably are that person for someone else. I don’t want to belittle any of the difficulties you might have with loving someone, but all of our grievances with one another are petty in comparison to the all-encompassing importance of the kingdom. Maintaining the unity reflective of the kingdom ethos is literally worth every effort we can make. Have you made every effort to be reconciled to the unlovable person in your life? Every effort? Are you making yourself as absolutely easy to love as you possibly can? At the same time, however, this is not a call to unity at any cost. It is a unity rooted in the “peace that binds us.” Let us never stop working toward this. But all the while, here’s the thing about this unity: we can’t do it on our own. Paul urges us to “keep” the unity very intentionally. This unity of the Spirit is not something that comes from us. On our own we will never be united. We will forever be divided by our petty squabbles and quarrels. When the Holy Spirit enters into our midst, however, He brings with Him this unity. This is one of the major attractions of the community led by the Spirit and reflecting the ethics of the kingdom. In this world when you put together a bunch of people who are totally different and make them share life together you get some of the trashy reality TV shows currently polluting the airwaves. But when the Spirit is present, all these people who have little or nothing in common and generally don’t like each other very much come together and love each other in ways that propel them to become fully their God-created selves. The world sees this and can’t understand it, but wants to be a part of it. When we are demonstrating the unity of the Spirit here, we won’t be able to keep people away. This is not, however, something any one member—or even a small group of members—can do alone. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active.
Finally on this point, Paul has now made clear the driving characteristics of our unity as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. These characteristics—humility, gentleness, long-suffering, and loving acceptance—when practiced diligently, will enable us to walk worthy of the calling we have received. Paul has also hinted that the source of our unity is not ourselves. So what is it? This unity is in fact a reflection of the unity of God. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are perfectly united with one another. Our unity as believers is merely a reflection of this. Each member of the Trinity—though equal to the others in every way—has a different role (remember: equality does not equal sameness) in the administration of this world. This is what Paul spells out in vv. 4-6 when he mentions each of the different members of the Trinity and some of the aspects of kingdom life that fall under their respective division of duty. Our unity must be grounded in this unity that characterizes God Himself. Nothing else in creation, no other aspect of the faith, provides a sufficient foundation for this. Only in our triune God will we find not only the ability but the reason to be united in pursuit of a single vision. When we so ground ourselves we will be a force for the kingdom with which to be reckoned; because God—the fully triune God—will be present and at work in our midst. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and actively believing in the One True God who is above all and through all and in all.
So then we have a clarion call to unity among the body. We are to be united in purpose and direction. Our purpose is defined by our mission statement: we exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally. Our direction is defined by our vision: to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. Yet how does this unity play itself out? Surely the accoutrements of our unity cannot be found in such debatable things like what size we are or the kind of music we play. Indeed this is the case. The way this unity plays itself out is rooted in something that is not debatable: Christ’s humiliation and glorification. Paul expresses this great truth in the next few verses of our passage. Find v. 7 and following with me: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. For it says: ‘When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people.’ But what does ‘He ascended’ mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth? The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.”
Paul’s shift in focus here is sudden and dramatic and totally necessary. We’ve been talking about unity, unity, unity. We’ve touched on the need for it, how to achieve it, how to maintain it, what its source is, and so on. Now Paul slams on the breaks with a small word that packs a big punch: but. We are called to unity, but we are not the same. We all have personal gifts from Jesus Himself in order to effect this unity giving rise to incredible diversity in the body. As I said last week, we are not all the same. In addition to that, there are a lot of different things that must go on in a church setting in order for the ministries to go forward as unhindered as possible. One person cannot do all this. A small group of people can’t do it. It takes each and every member of the body in order to see it through. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active. Jesus has poured out gifts on the body to allow these needs to be met, a different gift (or set of gifts) to each one of us. This means that our unity must be grounded in diversity. And so that we don’t fixate on the diversity and take it out-of-balance: Christ has given the gifts. He has given different gifts to different people. He has given different strengths of gifts to different people. Two people might have a similar gift set, but the relative strengths or prominence of each gift or passion might vary wildly. Jesus gave these gifts in His wisdom for the building up of the body…but more on that next week. He has given these gifts to every single one of His followers. This means there isn’t anyone who is a follower of Christ who doesn’t have a gift intended for the benefit of the body. This means further that all of us should be eagerly seeking to identify our gift set, receive training in putting it to use, and then actively putting it to use. The reason for this is simple: our unity demands it. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active.
Now what comes next is a confusing passage and interpreters have struggled with it for centuries. What is clear is that Paul is justifying his identification of Christ as the rightful giver of spiritual gifts. Really, from v. 8 through v. 10 can be viewed as a parenthetical explaining v. 7. Thankfully, these verses do not make or break the larger point of this passage and as such I’m not going to deal with them in this setting any more than that. The real meat of this first half of the passage is that we are all united in the fully triune God, but that we have different gifts to use in our pursuance of such unity. This all must necessarily precede the discussion of diversity coming next week. Without this foundation, namely the triune God, we have nothing to stand on in light of the great variety present among us and when our sinful nature rears its ugly head, which it will do, strife and disunity can only result. So as I wrap up our time this morning let me leave you with a very specific challenge. Just like any local arm of the body of Christ there are pockets of disunity and division in this church. There are places where the Spirit-fed reconciliation of Christ needs to be a present and active force. And so with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, look for ways that you can make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. If you have a fellow brother or sister in the Lord with whom you are not currently reconciled, seek an opportunity to fix that. Acknowledge in your heart and to them that they matter to God and to you and in this small way empower them to fully engage their world for Christ. Let us be a body in which every member is fully empowered with the gift of Christ so that together we can achieve the vision He has set before us. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active. With the power of our gloriously triune God propelling us, then, let us set sail together. Let us take all of the wonderful diversity in our midst and together harness it on a single vision. This is the call of the kingdom we represent. This is in fact the only way to walk worthy of the calling with which we have been called. Christian unity requires all hands to be on deck and active.