Maintaining Unity in the Bond of Peace – Ephesians 4:1-16
Note: The Rev. Janet M. DeVries delivered the following report on November 15, 2013 at the stated meeting of Grace Presbytery.
Have you ever had a part of scripture grab you by the heart and hold you? I mean not just for a few days or a week, but for years of your life? This is such a passage for me, and the older I get, the more I see of the complexities of ministry and church life, the more I am drawn back to this text as one of the seminal passages of my faith journey.
The book of Ephesians has long been disputed as to whether or not the Apostle Paul was the author. Commentaries I’ve been reading variously attribute it to Paul or a devoted disciple in Paul’s circle. The importance, however, is what’s said. Increasingly, I am aware of how much of Paul’s time was spent holding fragile churches together, helping them focus on what mattered most, and helping the great diversity of experience and opinion in the body of Christ become a gift and not a liability. And I have discovered, as you have, that a church that is over 200 years old can be as fragile as one which is newly-formed.
The author begins with “therefore” which presumes that all that has been said before in the letter sets this passage as the logical outcome of all that has come before. Perhaps that is best summarized in Chapter 2, starting with verse 14: “For he is our peace who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new [person] in the place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built into it for a dwelling place of God in the spirit.”
What would the author have us do? GROW UP. Grow up into Christ from whom the whole body is joined and knit together. How does one GROW UP? Perhaps growing up requires “standing down” because according to this passage, to grow up is to focus not on ourselves but on the unity we received in Christ Jesus. UNITY. Unity in a denomination that sometimes feels fractured, and particularly now for some of us in these last several months.
What is this unity? The author tells us that we are to “maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Why would that have been necessary in the early church? Primarily because the people in the pews, so to speak, were as diverse as we are. Some were gentiles who had no real understanding of faith and were converts to Christianity. Some were Jews who were zealous for religious law, for circumcision rituals, for Pharisaic law, for entitlements that had been part of Jewish practice. Some were nominal Jews who discovered in Jesus a new way of understanding God. Together they became the church in Corinth, or the church in Rome, or the church in Ephesus. They were not too unlike parts of Texas I’m coming to know – people who were Methodist in the last place they lived, or Baptists who found freedom in the way Presbyterians understand grace, or life-long Presbyterians like me who have never known another denomination.
They were people who thought that there should be a Christian flag on one side of the sanctuary and an American flag on the other. Or people who thought that contemporary worship was not ordained by God or others who thought that God could not be found in traditional hymns by anyone under 35. Or people who thought that stewardship was between them and God, while others thought that for a congregation to have a budget and plan for ministry they needed to know what income to expect from parishioners. There were people who wanted to use the NRSV version of the Bible and others who wanted to use the King James or the NIV. There were people who wanted 5 hymns and others who thought 3 would be plenty. Some were baptized by immersion and others were sprinkled. Some came to faith immediately and some took a long time. Some came with their families and some came alone. Some came hesitantly and others came with conviction. There were people who thought the general presbyter should speak for 5 minutes and others who thought 20 might be ok. Some who thought presbytery meetings should always be in the metroplex and others who thought East Texas was heaven. Sound like any group you know?
And here was the Apostle Paul trying to figure out how to get to higher ground, how to enable a diverse group of people, all equally zealous in their faith, to stand in the unity they had in Jesus Christ instead of giving in to their differences which had the potential to split them apart. How on earth to stand in the Pentecost moment when people spoke in their own languages and understood one another for the sake of the Gospel. How to do that. And how far have we have come in living into the spirit of the unity we have been given in Christ to maintain for the sake of peace?
In Ephesians, unity is emphasized through “peace.” In Chapter 2, Christ is named as our peace, the one who brings reconciliation among people who are far off and those who are near – people who can hardly stand to talk to each other are suddenly brought face to face with each other because of Christ. Peace is not about a feeling of calm and serenity. It is much rather hard work, ongoing work, work that needs to be maintained by conversation, by dialogue, by humbling ourselves before God and one another, by not having all the answers and equally so by not sitting silently.
“Unity” is also used as a metaphor of the church as a body, as we see in the Pauline letters of Romans, I Corinthians, and Colossians. And in Ephesians the concept of the unity of the body is underscored by the use of the word “one.” “There is ONE body and ONE Spirit, just as you were called to the ONE hope that belongs to your call, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of us all………..” To be “in Christ” is not to compete with one another but to recognize our gifts and use them for the building up of the Body.
Friends, we Presbyterians live in a time of ongoing discernment about what it means to be together in the Body of Christ we call Presbyterian. There is not a congregation in Grace Presbytery where every person thinks exactly the same thing about constitutional changes in our Book of Order in the last two years – or those which may come to next summer’s General Assembly. In the last year, we have dismissed Bethany Korean Church to another Reformed body. We have seen First Presbyterian Church Longview lose a large percentage of its congregation to another denomination yet still remain PC(USA). And within the last two months, Highland Park Presbyterian Church has initiated a lawsuit against Grace Presbytery to leave with its property, led by most of its pastors (save one), session and trustees. In this situation, there has been no opportunity for Grace Presbytery to have dialogue on issues of contention with the session or others in the congregation due to a restraining order and injunction. No opportunity to talk together about the faith in Jesus Christ which binds us together. It is a tragedy in the making for many reasons, but most certainly because the characterizations of the PC(USA) have described a denomination I do not recognize – a denomination in which we are seen as rejecting the Lordship of Jesus Christ, of failure to abide by the authority of scripture, and the assumption of actions which Grace Presbytery might take in its responsibility for a congregation and its property.
Across Grace Presbytery, I know and listen to pastors who are struggling with their own convictions of conscience while they have agreed to be pastor to people of widely diverse experiences and perspectives. There are some sessions struggling with what their options are as if to not declare something is to fail to hold the church together.
What I want to say to you this afternoon is that what holds us together is Jesus Christ who has given us the gift of unity to maintain in the bond of peace. It is not ours to create – it is a gift to us. The question for us is what we will do with the gift — to let it unite us in Jesus Christ, to share the gifts we have been given not with the people who agree with us, but with the whole community of faith – with the people we’d rather not sit with at presbytery or on Sunday morning, with the people we’ll never go out to dinner with, with the people who drove here from East Texas or those who crossed the metroplex, with the people who we wish wouldn’t say one more thing in the Sunday School class or on the floor of presbytery, with the people who came to faith in an entirely different way than we did and still joined the church confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, which includes every one of us, and that the task of ministry is to grow up – to grow up into the faith to which we were called – one body, one Spirit, one hope that belongs to our call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of us all who is not only above all of us but in all of us so that together we can grow up not tossed about by false doctrine or the loudest voice among us, but grow up into Christ. And to do that we need to speak the truth in love, not just to speak the truth as a weapon of convenience, but to speak the truth to each other – the truth that comes from our hearts, our spiritual lives, our prayers, our convictions. And why? Not to exclude people but to build community.
Have I lost sleep over Highland Park or any other church in Grace Presbytery? Yes, of course. I’m your pastor, so to speak. And I pray for all of you more than you have any idea. And specifically, I pray for more conversations to occur, for the opportunities to hear one another in ways that can build us up, not split us apart. Because I’ve met some of you, I know something about the Body of Christ in Grace Presbytery because you’ve shown me, you’ve welcomed me – a Gentile in Texas land, a Chicago-an in Grace-land, and you’ve prayed for me, taught me, cajoled me, read my late night emails, broken bread with me, listened to me preach.
You bear witness to me and to your communities that “God’s revelation is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the Word of God written.” (Confession of 1967)
The Confession of 1967 reminds us (9.38) that “each member is the church in the world, endowed by the Spirit with some gift of ministry and is responsible for the integrity of his or her witness in each particular situation. Each person is entitled to the guidance and support of the Christian community [– including our life with one another in Grace Presbytery – ] and is subject to its advice and correction. Each of us in turn in our own competence, helps to guide the church.”
Friends, we are no longer strangers and visitors, we are members, fellow citizens, brothers and sisters in the household of God. We are striving to lead a life worth of our calling – with lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. May we all – Grace Presbytery, our churches, and we ourselves — pursue and maintain that unity and be found in the community we call Grace, because it is through God’s grace that we have been saved and called, called to maintain the unity given to us in Jesus Christ and to carry its witness to one another and to the world.
Thanks be to God!