Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

Ephesians 4

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As we continue our journey through Ephesians, this morning we come to chapter 4. The city of Ephesus was hugely influential in the ancient world. Although it all seems primitive to us, this was a trendsetter city, so what happened here spread to other places. Here are some more images from my trip there in 2007 …

The main street and surrounding countryside of western Turkey.
Floor mosaics were used in public buildings and upper-class homes.
Squares were 0.5 to 1.5 cm!

Ephesians is a letter of encouragement, designed to help Christians connect their theology and their everyday lives, to make sure that what they believe actually shapes how they live. The first three chapters are thick with theology, although the author is always clear about why this theology matters. And this week begin the second half, which is full of invitations for everyday living. I say “invitations” because these words are meant to inspire us to order our lives along the pattern of Christ. They are not simply a list of rules that we have to do in order to be good, or get into heaven. This is not moralistic finger-wagging. It is a blueprint for how to make the love of God manifest in your life. 

As we listen this week, let’s keep in mind those four themes that we heard first in chapter 1 and that show up again and again in this letter.

1. By grace, we belong to God. By God’s free gift, we are adopted into God’s family. All the energy in our faith comes from God and not from us. Everything we do is in response to what God has done.

2. God plans to unify all people (and everything else) under Christ. God intends through Christ to break down all the barriers that we use to keep us separate from people who are different.

3. Resurrection power is at work in us. The very same exact identical power that raised Christ from the dead is also at work in us as individuals and among us as a church. 

4. Christ is over all: the head of the church and more powerful than the “powers and principalities.” Christ holds us together, and Christ has authority over every other authority in existence.

This letter, like most of the other letters in the New Testament was sent to a whole congregation, not to an individual. It was read out loud, to the congregation, when they were gathered for worship. The way we are hearing this letter this morning is the way the original recipients would have heard it. This is not a letter to you individually. This is a letter to all y’all, to youns. As we heard last week, this letter reveals that God’s plan is that through the church, through us, the multi-colored wisdom of God will be made known. It is the calling of the church to make it clear that God’s plan to unify all people is much wiser than the principalities and powers that survive on our separateness and division. 

The verses we will hear this morning describe what it actually looks like when the church makes this clear. They paint a picture of how we participate in God’s multi-colored wisdom. Sometimes the Bible is very clear and there’s not much that needs to be said in explanation. This morning I want us to simply take our time reading this chapter together. As we go along, I will point out to you some things that I found meaningful and important as I studied it this week.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I beg you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,”

Ephesians 4:1

The phrase translated “live a life” is the verb that literally means “to walk.” I like that metaphor of walking, instead of the phrase “live a life” because some of us have been in churches that made us feel like our lives were not worth anything. That’s not what this verse is saying. We affirm that everyone’s life has value, and what’s at issue is how we are living our lives. How are we walking? Are we walking confidently? Are we limping because we’ve been hurt? Are we elbowing our way through the crowd, pushing others aside? Are we assuming that if we can walk, everyone else should walk the same way? Are we paying attention to what’s happening around us as we walk? The author urges us to walk in a way that is worthy of our calling. 

That word “worthy” is interesting. It has to do with weights and scales. So if we put our calling on one side of the scale and the way we are walking on the other side of the scale, are they going to balance? Are we walking in such a way that balances out with our calling, that we are blessed to be a blessing? That word worthy in Greek is axios, which is where we get our word axis. So we can also ask if the way we are walking is true to the axis of our calling? As the earth rotates on its axis, are our lives rotating around being blessed to be a blessing, or have we gotten wonky? We are encouraged to live a life that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I beg you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in lovemaking every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3

A life that rotates around the axis of being blessed to be a blessing is a life that manifests “humility” (having a balanced view of our ourselves, always keeping our minds the possibility that we are wrong), and “gentleness” (a commitment not to be harsh with people). “With patience.” If we used the phrase “long-tempered” in contrast to “short-tempered,” that would be the word we would use here. A way of walking that balances with our calling is long-tempered, giving the benefit of the doubt, allowing a lot of time before we get angry. “Bearing with one another in love.” Sticking it out when we don’t want to, in love, which is a phrase we will hear several times this morning. “Making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” There is a way in which church unity is a supernatural gift from God, because we are all so different. And also we are charged with guarding that unity, making every effort to maintain it. Not making one effort and then blaming someone else—making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

“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. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

Ephesians 4:4-7

One body, one Sprit, one hope, one Lord, one faith (which means trust) one baptism, one God and Father. One, one, one, one, one. The reason we are urged to maintain unity is because God is unity itself. A unified church reflects a unified God. But unity is not the same as unanimity. The Church is one body, but all Christians are not the same. We are not always going to agree. But we are called to disagree without damaging the unity of the body. Those who vote differently than you, those who think of salvation differently than you do, those who believe differently about the virus than you do, those people are still your siblings in Christ. We are still one and we demonstrate that by being humble, gentle, and long-tempered with one another. Especially the Christians with whom we most strongly disagree. Especially especially when they are not being humble, gentle, and long-tempered with us. We are one body, even though we have different gifts.

“As a gift to the whole Church, Christ himself gave apostles, prophets,  evangelists, and pastor-teachers, to equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-13

Individuals have gifts and sometimes those gifts are to be used in servant-leadership to the whole church. This list of leadership roles is interesting because each of these roles is one that Jesus fulfilled. But no one since him has had the same perfect combination of skills and so now these roles are filled by different people. The people in these roles, whether paid or unpaid, are tasked with encouraging, resourcing, and assisting everyone so that all gifts are being used for God’s glory and all people are growing in their faith. The goal is maturity.

“We 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.  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.

Ephesians 4:14-16

One measure of our Christian maturity is how well we can speak the truth in love. Those two things must go hand in hand. These demonstrated, embodied actions of love must be accompanied with truthful speech. But is is useless to tell the truth if we don’t do it in a loving manner. Be truthful. But be loving, or don’t bother speaking at all. Unloving truth will not be received by the listener. So if we can’t speak the truth in love, we are wasting our words.

“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and estranged from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to wanton conduct, for the working of impurity, and they are full of greed.”

“That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to God, in the righteousness and holiness of truth.”

Ephesians 4:17-24

This is still about walking. We must not walk as the rest of the world walks. The thing that will separate us from the life of God is hardness of heart.

Hard hearts are not sensitive. Hard hearts are ignorant, literally they do not understand. They do not respond to the love of God or the needs of others. And so because they aren’t able to respond to healthy things, they deliberately pursue unhealthy things. 

But apparently the truth, or the reality, that is in Jesus can soften our hard hearts. When we are renewed in the Spirit of our minds, our minds are no longer futile. And instead of deliberately pursuing unhealthy things, we reflect the righteousness and holiness of truth, which is what God created us for.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. “Be angry, yet do not sin” (Psalm 4:4), and “Do not let the sun go down while you are feeling provoked” (common advice in those days), and make no place for the devil. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any rotten talk come out of your mouths, but only what is ripe for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Ephesians 4:25-30

Since we are members of one another, we must speak the truth (there it is again!). We must not provoke each other. And even when we feel provoked we must deal with it before the day is done, otherwise evil gets a foothold in our lives. When we let things fester, evil gets a foothold in us. Since we are members of one another, we must not steal from one another but instead contribute to the welfare of those in need. The words that come from our mouths are like fruit on a tree. We want ripe words that promote health, not rotten words. And don’t forget that by grace we belong to God. The Spirit has sealed us up, marked us as God’s possession, and is keeping us safe until the new creation comes.

Here’s the last bit:

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and revenge, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us …

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

I want you to know that in the ancient world, not all emotions were located in the heart. These people believed that the deepest compassion came from the guts. That if you really care for someone, you feel it deep in your belly, which I think actually jives with how our bodies feel. Therefore that word “tenderhearted” literally means good-gutted. And “kind” is not just mild vanilla niceness. We don’t have a word like this that means kind and good and gentle and pleasant and useful. But that’s what the author is saying: be deeply decent to one another in a way that you feel way down in your gut. Forgive each other. God is not holding things against us thus we must not hold things against each other. Indeed we must imitate God and walk in love, just as Christ loved us.

This is what it means to walk in love, to walk in a way that balances out with being blessed to be a blessing. When we interact with those who claim the name of Christ and yet seem to be totally opposite from us, we must remember that we are one with them and that we might be wrong. We must maturely speak the truth in love, speak ripe words and not rotten words, and allow the truth that is in Jesus to soften our hearts and renew the Spirit of our minds. We must live not from our heads, or even from our hearts, but from our guts, as deeply good as we can possibly be. How could we do otherwise when we reflect on how deeply good God has been to us? When we do this, when we live this way, when we walk this way, we will be a capital-C church that manifests the multi-colored wisdom of God’s plan to unify everything under Christ. Amen.  

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