Lectionary Texts: Second Samuel 11:26- 12:13a; Psalm 78: 23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Since most of you already know that today’s epistle reading from Ephesians is among my favorite passages in Holy Scripture, you might think that I’ve taken a liberty with the revised common lectionary in order to use this as my sermon text. On the other hand those of you who have been following the lectionary over the past few weeks will recognize that it’s purely serendipitous for these verses to show up today, to our mutual nourishment.
Several themes emerge from these verses, including some very important things about our interpersonal relationships as members of the body of Christ. Paul starts out in vs. 2 by mentioning humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance, all governed by love. Later in vss. 11 & 12 he moves on to the diversity of gifts given to us for the carrying out of the ministry of the Church and the equipping of the saints. Finally in vss. 13-15, he writes about our need to be maturing in our faith, speaking the truth in love and building up the body in love.
Note the predominance of love as the governing principle. Love creates the only environment in which growth and positive relationships can flourish. It’s the only environment in which humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance have any real chance of flourishing. It’s what should characterize all our relationships with each other. Paul will start off the next chapter with words that you hear prefacing every celebration of the Eucharist, but you may not know their context: “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.” Those words provide a perfect transition between our exchanging the peace of Christ with each other and then presenting our gifts of bread and wine at His holy table to be consecrated, set aside, for His blessing and our spiritual nourishment. “Walk in love as Christ loved us.”
Tucked between these themes is the central one: the theme of unity within the Body of Christ, that elusive “oneness” we all desire yet know in our hearts to be the Church’s greatest failure. It’s a failure that grieves the heart of Jesus, Who fervently prayed for our unity in His last and longest recorded prayer, the High Priestly or Intercessory Prayer found in John 17. It seems unlikely that Paul had the privilege that’s ours of reading and knowing that great prayer, since John’s account of it was not written until about 30 years after Paul’s death. But there’s no question that Paul understood the concept and the importance of our being one in Christ. In these verses, in addition to his seven iterations of the word “one,” Paul challenges us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit” (vs. 3) and to “attain to the unity of the faith” (v. 13).
Unity requires some force, some glue, that holds everything together. In addition to his bookends of love, Paul’s dual emphasis on the Spirit and on faith should speak volumes to us about why the Church has failed. When it comes to being one in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and coming to a consensus on our faith, we have not done too well at “oneness.”
Tonight at Evensong we will be looking at a portion of Hebrews 11, that remarkable “Faith Chapter” of the Bible, with its impressively varied list of “heroes of the faith” from the triumvirate of patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through Joseph and Moses, to Rahab the prostitute. And in the rest of the chapter, the author tosses in Abel, Enoch, Noah, four of the judges, King David, the prophet Samuel, and a generic list of unnamed prophets, rehearsing both their exploits and the instruments of their suffering and martyrdom. There we have quite a range of individuals and practices. Truthfully, I have no idea how Noah and Rahab would have gotten along, or how it was even possible for both of them to end up in Hebrews 11. But the glue that holds together all these faith heroes and explains their place in this chapter is summarized in a single word: faith.
The other bit of glue that Paul proposes as critical to our oneness in the Body of Christ is the Spirit, the unity of the Spirit, the “one body and one Spirit” of verse 4, surprisingly coupled with the “one hope of our calling.” If there is one place where most of the Church falls down in its quest for unity, it’s right here where Paul begins, with his emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the mystery of the Holy Spirit frightens us away from seriously embracing the Spirit’s work in the Church. But we all know that while the gifts that Paul mentions here in Ephesians 4 are said to have been Christ’s gift of grace, everywhere else Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as the Source of our gifts, gifts that are given to every believer and are to be identified and exercised for the good of the whole, for the building up of the whole body. The exercising of those gifts is what initiates the hope of our calling. All of us are called. Each of us has a gift. Some of you have multiple gifts. The challenge is to be putting those gifts to work, verse 12, “for the equipping of the saints.” This is a really important piece of our quest for unity. And it puts into play the ultimate hope of our calling in God’s eternal Kingdom.
In I Corinthians 12 Paul tells us that the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each of us “for the common good” because the Body cannot function properly unless all of its parts are working together harmoniously. And it’s no coincidence that Paul uses his discussion of gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12 to preface his great chapter on love. We hear it at most weddings. But we should be hearing it regularly, even routinely, not only as the key to a great marriage but also as an indispensable key to the functioning of the Church. It’s all about love. That’s what Paul was really saying. That’s what he meant when he wrote, “Now abide these three: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13). It’s about how our relationships should be playing out in the Church. We are to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us.”
And so, returning to Ephesians 4, prominent in Paul’s list of seven “one’s” is the trio in vs. 5 of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” In terms of numbers, the largest entity under the umbrella of Christianity is of course the Roman Catholic Church, where Pope Francis himself is fond of quoting this verse about unity. The Orthodox Church comes next, followed by the Anglican Communion and then the Lutheran Church. And even though there’s a striking amount of commonality among those faith communities, there are also strongly held positions that keep them apart. I think we’re making some progress, but we still have a long way to go.
Why is that? Isn’t there some way that we could strip away the layers of division and contentiousness? Paul wanted our “one body” to be characterized by “humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance,” all governed by love. There’s our starting point.
But there also is our greatest challenge. If we could submit to the governance of the Holy Spirit in our lives and be persons who truly live by faith in the living God, and whose interpersonal relationships are entirely characterized by love, then we would have every chance in the world of healing our differences, of living as ONE.
How is this realistically possible? It’s possible because of the last of Paul’s seven “one’s.” Here it is (verse 6): “one God and Father of all Who is over all and through all and in all.” He is transcendent and sovereign, but He also is omnipresent and immanent. He is instrumental in all that happens in our world. That’s what is meant by “over all and through all and in all.”
This may remind you of what is said every time we prepare to receive the Holy Eucharist and these similar words about Jesus, God’s Son, are recited by the priest: “In Him and with Him and through Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory now and forever, Amen.” Those words, words that emphasize our incarnational and sacramental faith, occur at the climax of the consecration. Some believe that at the moment those very words are spoken, something happens at the table, something mysterious, something inexplicable, something wondrous, something exceeding human comprehension.
Here God is effecting whatever it is that God Himself effects, and it’s all to our benefit. Here, at this table, we receive what the God Who is “over all and through all and in all” is offering us “in, with and through” His Son: grace and nourishment, sustenance for the time ahead, the very Body and Blood of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.
Is this still hard for you to grasp? That’s actually a good thing, because it’s among those things that are meant to be beyond our comprehension, things that are in the realm of spiritual mystery, appropriated only by faith. And that mystery is to be celebrated. The full understanding of it all awaits us when, in the heavenly Kingdom, we feast with Jesus Christ Himself at His table in the marriage supper of the Lamb. Stay tuned next week and hear what our Lord Jesus Christ had to say about what happens at this table Sunday after Sunday and why it’s so important.
And understand that it’s here where we receive His abundant grace, are fed by His incomparable gift, and are enabled to love Him as He loved us and gave Himself for us and for our salvation. Only then are we truly prepared by faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit to go forth into the world in peace to love and serve the Lord, through our loving care for others whom God places on our paths.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.