Growing in Truth and Love – Ephesians 4.1-16

August 23, 2015 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

What are you going to be when you grow up? How often have you asked that of a child or young person? Or how many times has it been asked of you?

I had a text conversation this week with a mom whose child was practicing passing the peace at home, asking to hold each person’s hand and then saying, “Peace be with you.” Another person in the conversation said, “What do you think she’ll be when she grows up?” To which the mom answered, “No telling. I’m going to be happy with a productive citizen.”

“What will you be when you grow up?” is not just a question for children. It is also a question for the church. The writer of this letter that we call Paul (who is most likely a disciple of Paul and not Paul himself) says, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ who is the head” of the body—the church. The answer that this letter provides to the question what will you be when you grow up? “goes something like this: ‘When we grow up, we will be a community capable of living the truth. When we reach maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ, we will [embody and demonstrate] the unity of a new humanity.”[1]

There’s a bit of bad news / good news in this question of what we will be when we grow up. The bad news is we still have growing up to do. The good news is…we still have growing up we get to do. Which is another way to say God isn’t finished with us yet. Or the hallmark phrase of the Reformed tradition: “The church reformed and always being reformed.” We are continuing to be renewed in our life together. The Christian life—as individuals or as a community—is not a static thing and it is not something we finish or from which we graduate. The Christian life—as individuals and as a community—is something we continually practice, reflecting on our learning, discovering our shortcomings, recognizing our strengths, and practicing some more.

The writer of Ephesians instructs us to practice humility. John Calvin said “humility is the ‘first step’ to unity.”[2] We set aside arrogance and false pride. We don’t puff ourselves up or boast about ourselves. If humility is the first step to unity, it must mean that we acknowledge what we don’t know—about ourselves and about others.

We practice gentleness. Allen Verhey and Joseph Harvard in their commentary on Ephesians write, “If humility stands in contrast to arrogance by not boasting, gentleness stands in contrast to arrogance by not…demean[ing]or despising the other for being different.”[3]

We practice patience, which more literally means “long-tempered”—while we’re usually more familiar with being short-tempered. “To be patient is to be… broad-minded, big-hearted, to tolerate the quirks [of others] for the sake of community. It is to be ready to ‘endure’ [some] discomfort for the sake of community with others rather than to assert one’s own way and rights.”[4] That is not very easy in our culture of individualism. We have been steeped in the assumption that says I have a right to have everything the way I want it—without regard to the needs and desires and well-being of the whole community. That’s an American assumption but it’s not a Christian assumption.

In my Doctor of Ministry class this summer we talked about the Ubuntu theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African idea of Ubuntu says, “‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, [writes Archbishop Tutu,] ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.’ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”[5]

This notion of Ubuntu is a description of the new humanity in Christ that we are called to live into.

Practicing patience for the sake of community leads to bearing one another in love. The literal translation of verse 3 leaves out that little word “with.” Which Verhey and Harvard say suggests “that the other can be and sometimes is a burden.” We are not called just to bear one another’s burdens but to “bear the other, even if and when the other is a burden to us.”[6]

Can you think of someone—particularly another Christian—who is a burden to you? You don’t have to raise your hand and I’m not asking for names. We can probably all ponder how much more growing up we have to do to become the unity to which we have been called in Christ.

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ who is the head, 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.”

So, speaking the truth in love. Professor Jaime Clark-Soles says, “Mature Christians speak truth in love because it promotes growth.” It’s easy for truth and love to be separate entities. Some speak truth without love and it is caustic and drives people away. Some people speak a kind of false love “that produces only warm feelings and smiles and, therefore, can neither broach nor tolerate truth…Christians are neither to thrive on conflict nor to avoid it when it might reveal difficult truths.”[7] “We must learn to speak the truth in humility”[8] and to listen for it as well from others.

“To be a Christian community on its way to maturity does not mean that we will never disagree with one another…But to be a Christian community on its way to maturity does mean a readiness to engage in honest conversations with one another about those disagreements….Honest conversations are critical to the tasks of breaking down dividing walls of hostility in the church and society.”[9]

In 1994, after South Africans of all races were able to vote in national elections, and apartheid was officially over, there was still the question of how South Africans would “deal with the legacies of the apartheid era.” In his article about the Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu, Professor Michael Battle, who studied with Tutu, describes that “the African National Congress (ANC) tried to answer that question with what they called a ‘Truth Commission,’ but their adversary, the National Party (NP), advocated a ‘Reconciliation Commission.’ The ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, was concerned about the victims of the apartheid period, while the NP, F.W. de Klerk’s party, sought amnesty for the perpetrators.”[10] What was established in 1995 was the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which, in reading Ephesians, seems like a mission of speaking the truth in love. Archbishop Tutu was an instrumental person in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In talking about the work of the Commission, Tutu said, “the truth is sought, not for the purpose of prosecution; it is sought for the purpose of healing the land.”[11] That is, truth is sought for the purpose of reconciliation, for love, for the shalom and wholeness that God intends for all of creation.

“In the United States we have kept secrets about how we have treated one another, and dividing walls of hostility have been the result.”[12] Social media is busting some of those secrets as we see and read about the far too frequent deaths of young African American men and women. A few more people are beginning to recognize the reality that Michelle Alexander documents where the mass incarceration of African Americans in the US has become our New Jim Crow. Some people are speaking up about environmental racism as Dean Bucalos did in an article in the Courier-Journal this past week.[13] And some people are beginning to break the secret of white privilege that makes the democratic ideal of “equal opportunity” a sham.

“Without the truth we cannot repent, and without repentance the past is our fate. Without the truth we cannot be free. The reconciliation God desires for us requires a community of truth tellers who speak the truth in love.”[14]

What will we be when we grow up? “When we grow up, we will be a community capable of living the truth.” [15] When we reach maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ, we will be a demonstration, an embodiment, of the unity God has created in the new humanity in Christ.

“Telling and hearing the truth in love have the power to enable us to repent and forgive, and to grow up in Christ.”[16]

May it be so with us.

* * *
[1] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Ephesians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 169.
[2] Ibid., 138.
[3] Ibid., 139.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Quoted in Ibid., 140.
[6] Ibid., 140.
[7] Jaime Clark-Soles, “Ephesians 4.1-16: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 305-307.
[8] Verhey and Harvard, 170.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Michael Battle, “A Theology of Community: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu” Interpretation, April 2000, 174.
[11] Ibid., 177.
[12] Verhey and Harvard, 171.
[13] http://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/08/24/environmental-racism-opportunity-but-cost/32013563/ accessed 24 August 2015.
[14] Verhey and Harvard, 172.
[15] Ibid., 169.
[16] Ibid., 173.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine – Ephesians 3.14-21

August 16, 2015 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost

A year ago in July we began the New Beginnings process, asking the question together “What is it that God wants us to do and be in this time and place?” Last July we shared the gifts we experience in this community. In the fall we met in small groups to talk together about the demographics of our neighborhood as well as what we’re most passionate about, what we’re best at and what our resources are; and then to pray together about where all those gifts and opportunities might connect in what God desires for us to be and do in this time and place.

In the winter, the small group leaders met to share the conversations that took place in their group and to gather together all the lists of our passions, what we’re best at, what our resources are and the long list of ideas of what we could do next.

The rather amazing thing to me is that while the list of all of those passions, best at, resources and ideas was long and varied, all seven small groups which included a total of 81 people in our congregation came up with a very similar big idea for the shape of what God seems to be calling us to do and be in this time and place.

The overarching idea that emerged is twofold. One: that we would engage a few social justice concerns to get involved in as a congregation and, two: that we would focus, as a congregation, on spiritual and leadership development.

In the spring the nominating committee asked people to serve on the task force that would take the overarching idea and all the particular ideas gleaned from the small groups and bring back to you some possibilities for the specifics of how this might shape the next couple of years of our life together. How all this conversation and prayer, how the ideas and the possibilities, how the resources of our neighborhood and of our congregation might come together in the particulars of what we sense God calling us to do and be in this time and place.

The task force began its work together this summer and the goal is to bring those pieces together by the end of the year.

As we’ve embarked on this New Beginnings process and spent a year talking and praying about what it is that God desires for us to be and do in this time and place, I have often thought of this line from Ephesians 3: “Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” (3.20-21)

It’s a sentence of doxology—a hymn of praise to God. We typically think of The Doxology which we sing after the offering is received. “Doxology” comes from the Greek word that means “honor” or “glory.” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” we sing, giving honor and glory to the One from whom all blessings flow.

Ephesians started with blessing. “Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” the author writes, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” And now the theological foundation in chapters 1, 2, and 3 comes to a close with doxology. Praising God for all that God has done in Christ.

In verses 14 through 19 we hear the author’s prayer for the church. The author prays “that God will empower the church” to become what we are called to be: “a new humanity in Christ.”[i]

In the old version of the Book of Order, the second part of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) there was this great little line: “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.”[ii]

Professor Allen Verhey and Pastor Joseph Harvard in their commentary on Ephesians talk about this demonstration using the image of demonstration plots in agriculture. “Demonstration plots are places where new crops are cultivated and nurtured so that others may observe their growth and development for the benefit of the whole community. Sometimes those new crops provide essential produce for those in need of nourishment.

“The church is a demonstration plot for the new humanity brought about by God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ. To be the church is to be…people who respond to God’s work with joy and praise, who display something of what God intends for all of humanity in [our] common life…It is to be a community that resists efforts to [re-establish…the] walls of division and [hostility] that Christ has broken down.”[iii]

The author also prays that God will strengthen the church so that we will can grasp on to the truth of God’s love. That we will hold on to God’s love and allow God to hold on to us in love. That we will be rooted and grounded in love. Living in a culture of divisiveness and hostility, where reactivity and defensiveness is the norm, the author prays that we will be held and nourished by God’s love. A love that is not just for us as individuals or even just for us as the church but that we, the church, will be a demonstration in the world of God’s great love. And having received that love, we will live our lives rooted and grounded in love and then the fruit of our lives will be love.

In chapter 1 of this letter, the author writes of “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power” (1.19) and now we hear that again at the end of chapter 3. This time the author is not just praising the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. The author praises the power of God that is at work within us—at work in the church—a power that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

This letter feels so relevant to where we are in our life together.

As we seek out God’s desires for us as a congregation, it could be easy in a culture of scarcity and fear to wring our hands and play Eeyore, the gloomy and pressimistic donkey who was a friend of Winnie the Pooh, or Chicken Little, who was convinced the sky was falling and disaster as imminent. But instead, we pray to be a demonstration of the new humanity in Christ that God is creating and that rooted and grounded in God’s love, we can trust ourselves to the God who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. What God desires for us is good and is beyond what we can even begin to imagine.

James Finley, who was a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a clinical psychologist and who now teaches at the Center for Action and Contemplation says, “If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.”[iv] [read that quote again!]

In this liminal time when we have invited God to reveal to us what it is we are to do and be in this time and place, may we pray to be so rooted and grounded in the love of God that we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love. May we pray to be open to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

* * *
[i] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Ephesians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 126.
[ii] The Constitution of the Presbyerian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order (2009-2011) (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2009), G-2.0200.
[iii] Verhey and Harvard, 106.
[iv] Quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, July 30, 2015, cited as: James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013).

Blessed to be a Blessing – Ephesians 1.3-14

August 2, 2015 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

It was a Monday morning sometime after Easter. Phillip, Mark and I were sitting in the forum room for our weekly staff meeting and we started to talk about what we would preach this summer. For a number of summers now, we have departed from the lectionary in the summer choosing a theme or a particular book of the bible for the topic of our preaching.

In the summer we find ourselves in the season of Ordinary Time where the lectionary takes us through some of the big stories of the Old Testament and moves us through one of the gospels. It also typically takes us through one or two of the Epistles—the letters in the New Testament that follow the gospels and Acts.

This year, which is Year B in the lectionary, the gospel we read through is Mark—and we’ve been preaching from Mark in the early part of the summer. And this summer, the lectionary spends six weeks in the book of Ephesians. Neither Mark nor I preach much from the Epistles. In fact, neither one of us is particularly enamored with the Apostle Paul, who is considered the author of many of the Epistles. And precisely for those reasons we thought we would spend six weeks in Ephesians this summer. Our intention, you might say, is to wrestle a blessing out of this letter.

An advantage of the Epistles is they are generally short—Ephesians has a total of 155 verses—so it’s easy to read through the letter is one or two sittings. I encourage you to do that this summer. Pick up your bible, or download a copy on your electronic device, or print out the six small chapters and carry it with you to read on the bus or while you’re waiting for an appointment or whenever you have a few minutes. It makes the excerpts we get in the lectionary hold together so much better. You can see where the writer starts and where he’s headed. You’ll also pick up the language that gets repeated throughout the letter—adding to the writer’s emphasis. And you’ll probably notice, as I did, how many familiar religious phrases there are in this letter. Things like: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (2.8), “Christ is our peace” (2.14), “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2.19), “You are being rooted and grounded in love” (3.17) and one of my favorite blessings, “Now to the God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to this God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (3.20, 21).

Now, two disclaimers about this letter to the Ephesians from Paul. It probably wasn’t really to the Ephesians and it probably wasn’t really written by Paul. I’m sorry to let you down on both those counts. We’ll still call it the letter to the Ephesians but the earliest copies of this letter do not include the attribution “in Ephesus” in the first verse of chapter 1. Many scholars think this letter was meant to be circulated among a number of churches and not addressed to one particular congregation.

The second disclaimer about Ephesians is most scholars think the letter was not written by Paul but by an individual who followed Paul and kept his message about the Good News of Jesus Christ going after Paul’s death.

Because we don’t know precisely who the letter was written to and by whom, we’re not exactly sure what the context is for this letters—what the circumstance or the question or the disagreement was that this letter wanted to address.

This letter was probably written a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. People expected Jesus to return, sooner rather than later, and as the decades stretched on and there was no return, people began to wonder how they were supposed to live—now that what they thought was going to happen, didn’t seem to be happening. That may the context into which the writer pens this letter.

The letter has two major sections—the first, a theological foundation, setting the stage for the second part. The first part rehearses and celebrates what God has done in Christ on our behalf. And then the second section is a discussion of “because of what God has done, how then are we called to live?”

So here we are this morning in chapter 1 at the beginning of the theological foundations that the author sets out for us.

Ephesians begins with blessing and praise of God: Blessed be God who has blessed us in Christ and destined us for adoption as God’s children; God redeemed us through Christ and has given us an inheritance as God’s own people. That’s the cut and dried version of verses 3 through 14. But listen again to the exuberant language we find here: God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and chosen us in love to be adopted as God’s own children. Why? Because it is God’s good pleasure to do so. God has freely bestowed grace—glorious grace—on us in Christ, who is the Beloved. We are redeemed according to the riches of God’s grace that God has lavished on us. God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure. In Christ, we have an inheritance as God’s own people, and so we live a life of praise, giving glory to God for all this goodness.

As I read this passage again and again, I was taken by all the love and the grace and the pleasure of God it contains. Some Christian traditions frame talk about redemption with shameful and scolding words. Here, our redemption in Christ comes because of the rich grace of God that is lavished on us. Some Christian traditions emphasize the depth of our sinfulness and the debt we owe God. Here, it is God’s good pleasure to make us God’s own through adoption, freely bestowing grace upon grace upon grace.

That is something for us to take in and savor; to soak up this great love and lavish grace. To let ourselves take in that we, too, as God’s adopted children are the beloved of God.

More than just a letter, we might hear this set of verses as a hymn of praise, blessing God for all that God has done, praising God for the grace and blessing that fills our lives and for the inheritance that is ours because we are God’s children.

This is a joyful hymn, an invitation to praise and thanksgiving. “Blessed be God” begins this letter, a reminder “that the first movements of prayer [are] thanksgiving and praise directed to God.”[1] And likewise worship in a Presbyterian Church begins with praising with God. In chapter 2 the writer of this letter says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2.8)

A theological hallmark of the Presbyterian tradition is the rhythm of grace and gratitude. God offers us grace and we respond with gratitude. Even in our prayer of confession each week we begin with a reminder of God’s grace, then we admit our failings, and then we are assured again of God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s a “grace sandwich” I heard a worship professor say one time.[2] And we say “thank you,” we bless God in return. Professor of New Testament, Pheme Perkins, writes “The moments of asking, lament, or reaching out in the emptiness of despair, equally necessary to the life of prayer, make no sense without this framework” of beginning with “thanksgiving and blessing directed to God.”[3]

This glorious inheritance we have been given as the adopted daughters and sons of God asks one thing of us in return—that we “live for the praise of God’s glory” (v12). The Westminster Cathechism says it this way: The chief end of human kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

But it’s not all “Jesus and me.” The language of this opening passage is collective. We hear “we and us.” And then a subtle shift in verse 13: “In you also.” Pastor Karen Chakoian notes “the constant plural pronouns remind us that this gift is not an individual blessing but always for the community of Christ.”[4] And as we will see more clearly as we read farther into Ephesians, it is not just one group of people who make up the community of Christ, God intends to gather up all things—all people, all of creation—in the fullness of time.

We can—and should—soak up the grace and the love—savor our belovedness when we hear this letter. And remember this grace and belovedness is for all people. It is for us and it is for Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose. It is for African American teenagers at a swim party and Freddie Gray. It is for Walter Scott and Antonio Zambrano-Montes. It is for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.[5] It is for Clementa Pinckley and his eight church members.

As we give thanks for God’s grace and love so freely bestowed, we know that God’s grace and love comes in the middle of suffering and injustice, in the middle of trouble and terror. Remember how God blessed Abraham, way back in Genesis? God said, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.2-3) And so I wonder today what it looks like for us to deeply take in our belovedness by God and then for our belovedness to be a source of blessing and healing and justice for others?

* * *
[1] Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 377.

[2] I think this was said by Fred Holper.

[3] Perkins.

[4] Karen Chakoian, “Ephesians 1.3-14 – Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 234.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003828834/the-videos-that-changed-policing.html?contentCollection=U.S.&contentPlacement=9&module=most-popular-videos&action=click&pgType=Multimedia&eventName=most-popular-videos-click, accessed 1 August 2015, graphic video footage of the arrest or murder of each of the named individuals.