A Sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church on November 12, 2017.
You need only open your Sunday newspaper to know that we live in a consumer economy. Drop it on the floor and sixteen flyers for various stores touting their sales, or packets of coupons and special offers, go flying out across the tiles. In fact, we’re so much a consumer economy that I would bet that a lot of you like to get the Sunday paper specifically for those inserts (and the comics, of course). I’ll admit that we used to do just that. Our consumer culture has trained us pretty well, and it generally has all of Sunday afternoon through the following Saturday night to train and re-train us to be consumers of goods and services. It keeps trying to get us to look at everything in terms of what we can get out of it, what it will do for us, such that we should give it our attention and our business.
We believe that we should be able to get just about anything we want, whenever we want it, at the lowest prices out there – and we generally can, which only reinforces these convictions. We expect to walk into a store or into a restaurant and to be given a high level of courteous, friendly service (whether or not the salesperson or the server has a sick child at home who’s been vomiting all night, is preoccupied with a parent with dementia, or sees the handwriting on the wall that his or her marriage is over). We expect the restaurant to look just the way it did when we were last there – because we liked it that way – and to be playing the music that we expect to hear there – because we like it that way. If the server forgot to have the chef hold the onions in the salad, we’re disappointed and might put less into the tip. And let’s not even get into the whole entertainment industry and its pandering to every taste and preference.
The single best representation for the mindset that our consumer economy and culture deliberately seeks to nurture in us is probably Burger King’s famous marketing slogan: “Have it your way.” This is the motto that has shaped our consumerist credo: “I believe that I should be able to have it, whatever ‘it’ is, and to have it my way, just the way I like it.”
And, you know, that creed is generally appropriate out there. I choose to frequent certain restaurants because I know that I’ll be able to carry on a conversation without having to shout and strain over the music. If those restaurants change the ambiance, I will eat somewhere else. If the breadsticks come out cold and a bit hard, I’m going to ask for fresh ones instead. The restaurant owner and I have a shared vision and set of values out there, one in which satisfying customer expectations within reason is a core value. The problem arises – and indeed, this problem has become epidemic – when we bring this mindset back with us into the Church of Christ.
We bump into this mindset whenever we evaluate our experience at church on the basis of our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction, whether our assessment is positive (“I get a lot out of that service”; “That class really meets my needs”) or negative (“I don’t get much out of his sermons”; “I don’t like it when they serve communion that way”; “I wish they’d do the hymns I like”). We bump into this mindset when we find ourselves expecting the paid staff to always give us “service with a smile,” when we’re impatient with changes to the décor (because it’s not the way I like it), or when we didn’t get the goods or services we felt entitled to receive (“I was in the hospital for a colonoscopy and the pastor didn’t come to see me”).
Brothers and sisters, the Church of Jesus Christ is not Burger King. If you come here to “have it your way,” you’re largely missing the point of coming here in the first place, which is to learn how to deny ourselves, shoulder up the cross that Jesus shouldered, and follow him who prayed in Gethsemane, “I don’t have to have it my way; let it be done your way.”
So what alternative vision does God hold out for his church? Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus, from beginning to end, provides a virtual manifesto of this alternative vision, and I commend the reading of the whole letter to all of you at some point yet today. (If you find my sermons unappealing, I invite you to start reading Ephesians from the beginning now. You’ll never get in trouble in church for reading the Bible.) The passage before us today in particular lays out this vision for our life and work together as a congregation.
Producers of unity
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
If you track down almost everyone who has grumbled in the church, everyone who has led a covert crusade against someone else in the church, everyone who has left a church, in the majority of cases it comes down to this: “I didn’t have it my way.” That consumerist mentality works well to keep stores competitive and service adequate, but it is corrosive to the Body of Christ. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about disagreement and discussion – the first is unavoidable and the second is necessary. I’m talking about the disgruntlement, the discord, and the dislike that all too often follow when the discussion of disagreement doesn’t go out way.
We have been called to a different mindset and a different goal: to commit ourselves to one another and to make it our highest priority to maintain that uniting bond by adopting a humble and gentle spirit toward one another, by showing patience toward one another, by putting up with one another because we are all a part of each other. We have, all of us, been immersed into one baptism that made all of us together the one Body that Christ has pervaded with the one Holy Spirit. We all stand together before one Lord, united by one hope – to become citizens forever (and, for the record, stuck with one another forever) in the kingdom of God. We are united by one faith into a single family by virtue of calling upon one God as the Father of us all. Is there not enough in all these “ones” to motivate us to hold onto one another in love? Are these “ones” of less value than the superficial details over which we feed dissatisfaction and eventually division? If we come with the consumer mentality, disunity and division will be inevitable, because the details will not all ever be to everyone’s preferences and tastes; we simply cannot here all have it our way. In sum, then, we are called by God to stop being consumers focused on getting what we want the way we want it, and to commit ourselves fully to being producers of unity within this portion of the Body of Christ. Only if we do that are we living in a manner “worthy” of Christians, “worthy” of our calling.
Producers of ministry
The second challenge of Paul’s vision for the church to us is for each one of us to move away from being simply a consumer of what ministries provide toward becoming a producer of ministry. It is not for the parishioner to ask the church, “What have you done for me lately?” It is for Christ to ask each one of us and all of us together, “What have you done for me lately?” And it is perfectly just for him to ask this of us, for he gave his body to be nailed up on the cross in order to bring us into this Body together; he supplies us with his Spirit to empower us in ministry and with his pastors and teachers to equip us for ministry.
“But grace was given to each of us according to Christ’s measuring out of his gift. 8 Therefore it says, “Ascending on high, he took captivity itself captive; he gave gifts to people”…. 11 He himself gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the oneness that comes from the faith and from knowing the Son of God – until we all attain to maturity, to measuring up to Christ’s stature in all his fullness.”
Paul indirectly, but not too subtly, calls himself God’s gift to the church. He is an apostle, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. But he also identifies that the primary purpose of Christ’s giving such figures is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry – to equip the saints for the building up of the Body of Christ.”
I know that some Christians have a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the preacher try to lay the burden of “the work of ministry” upon the congregation. I can see a few thought bubbles, in fact: “That’s what we’re paying you for! You want me to do your job for you?” And I do have to admit that our church structures are different from Paul’s. Among the thirty or so Christians that gathered in one of the more spacious houses of one of the wealthier Christians in Ephesus, there were not paid staff. If any work of ministry was going to happen, it was going to be because the Christians all took it upon themselves to do it. Paul’s churches’ situation was a far cry from what we have here – full time pastor (sort of), church administrator, and custodian; part-time youth and children’s ministry personnel, part-time communications and finance personnel, part-time music personnel; missionaries supported by our church financially. There is certainly a sense in which the majority of you are behind all the ministry that happens here insofar as you have committed to support a few particular Christians, enabling us to devote more of their our to advancing the mission of the Church.
This does not, however, fundamentally alter the Scriptural vision for the Church; it does not rob you of the privilege nor relieve you of the responsibility of God’s call to you to have a share in “the work of ministry, the building up of the Body of Christ.” Nor does it alter the primary Scriptural mandate for the apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers that God raises up – “to equip you, the saints, for the work of ministry.”
I imagine that you’re all accustomed to hearing the phrase “the building up of the Body of Christ” and to thinking about it in one of its two key aspects, namely the aspect of making one another’s faith stronger, encouraging one another in times of difficulty, sharpening one another’s understanding of discipleship, and the like. We might think of this as the “Planet Fitness” aspect of Body building – our work together making those of us who are already here in the Body stronger, more fit for living as disciples. This is indeed an important aspect, one that I would never wish to underplay.
But there is another key aspect of “building up the Body of Christ.” Paul is actually using a construction site metaphor, not an exercise metaphor. His audience in Ephesus would also hear “the building up of the Body of Christ” as “the ongoing construction of the Body of Christ.” It’s admittedly a mixed metaphor, for we do not typically construct a living organism out of constituent parts, but it calls attention to all the blocks of stone out there that are still being fitted into a building under construction. The Body of Christ itself is not yet complete; it is still “under construction” not merely in the sense that you and I have some distance to go until we are complete in our individual or corporate discipleship, but also in the sense that there are yet parts of Christ’s Body out there, not yet fitted in to the Body. Christ has not yet come to his fullness in this world, because he has not yet filled those people yet to be joined to his Body, the Church.
I would not choose between these key aspects, but would rather see us throw ourselves into the work of both. We must put ourselves at God’s disposal to use us to build one another up in the faith until we all reach maturity in Christ; we must put ourselves at God’s disposal to use us to continue to construct and complete the as-yet incomplete Body of Christ, some of whose members are still out there, not yet incorporated into Christ’s Body, until the Church has become “the complete Person” (which is another way to translate the Greek that the NRSV renders “to maturity” in 4:13), the “complete person” that is the Body of which Christ is the head. And, incidentally, I consider it to be my primary responsibility to call you to, and prepare you for, the work of both kinds.
Now, while Paul talks specifically about apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as Christ’s “gifts” to the Church for the sake of equipping her to fulfill her calling, he first spoke more generally of “each one of us” as people to whom “grace was given according to the measure Christ set for his giving.” He also speaks of each Christian as “gifted” in some way by God for the good of the whole Body of Christ. God longs for each one of us to cease coming here with the mindset of looking to get something, which inevitably leads to becoming disgruntled when we don’t get what we want or enough of what we want, and to come here consistently with the mindset of looking to be a gift to the other people here with us, to become consistently a medium through which God can touch the other person’s life for growth, healing, restoration, encouragement. You are the means that God has chosen by which the Spirit will produce good for the whole.
Producers of Maturity
The Spirit’s goal is that we would all arrive together at maturity in Christ, that we would all live and speak and want and relate from that mind of Christ that was so full of God and the doing of God’s good will that there will be no room left over for our being full of ourselves.
“… in order that we should no longer be children, tossed this way and that and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by the wiles of their deceitful scheming. 15 But, speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 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.”
Now, we are not much shaken and tossed about here by new winds of doctrine or by the wiles of deceivers, but many of us are shaken and tossed about – and thus the church experiences the turmoil of such tossing about – by frustrations and conflicts born of the consumerist mindset among churchgoers. As Seneca, a philosopher who was Paul’s contemporary, said, “there are many whose childishness persists long after their hair has turned gray,” and I would not have that be true for anyone here. We are called to be producers of maturity – in ourselves, by growing in our connection to the living Jesus and habituating ourselves to putting ourselves out for the other person, serving Christ’s agenda for our church rather than clamoring for what we want; we are called to be producers of maturity in others by speaking to them, lovingly, the truth that they need to hear and keeping their eyes fixed on the real reasons we’re all here together.
God’s vision for the Church is beautiful and amazing – a community of love so unlike the self-centered, self-gratifying, self-serving society around us that it shines like the brightest star in the blackest night. If we give ourselves fully over to this vision — and this admittedly requires an act of faith — not one of us will actually be disappointed with the outcome. So let it be; Amen.