Grace Presbyterian Church
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (that is, I’m pretty sure I have), but back in my youth I competed in what was at the time known as “Bible drill.” I think it used to be called “sword drill,” after words that crop up later in this book of Ephesians. (Remember, I grew up in another denomination.) Anyway, when I participated in it the competition involved being able to look up books of the Bible, and later specific verses, really really quickly. To cap it off there was also a portion of the event that involved being able to recite memorized verses. I was pretty good at it – enough so, in fact, that the summer after ninth grade I was in the statewide Bible drill championship. I finished second. By one stinkin’ point.
Preparing this sermon reminded me of Bible drill because a portion of today’s reading was one of those memorized passages I had to learn. Because I grew up in that other denomination, all the reading and searching and memorizing involved the King James Version. So my response, when called upon, came out like this (I will not attempt to duplicate my fifteen-year-old voice; it wasn’t pretty):
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
I had it memorized, all right, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you had asked fifteen-year-old me what exactly all of that meant, I’d have probably looked at you blankly and given you a clear “I have no idea” shrug.
After a theological discourse that takes up the first three chapters of Ephesians as we have it, the author turns now to what might be called “boots on the ground” instruction, of which those verses are a part. This isn’t atypical of the letters of Paul upon which our author bases and models this volume: lay out the theology, then talk about putting it into practice in your location. Since this letter (despite its modern name) was probably meant to be distributed across many churches, the specifics of instruction might be somewhat less specific. The nature of the instruction is general, applicable across frankly all of these churches strung out across the Roman Empire, particularly that region sometimes called Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
Paul certainly did some letter-writing from prison, and so our author (again, likely a student or associate of Paul’s working to consolidate his teaching and reputation) evokes Paul’s imprisonments in the instruction to his readers. The initial verses point to a call towards unity. Notice that is “towards” unity; even if not spoken, the author seems to glimpse that unity is not possible in all situations, and the instruction to come in the later verses of this reading will sometimes be exactly why it’s not possible to be in unity with everyone or everything. But here the challenge is to “make every effort” towards preserving the unity of the Spirit, and sometimes that means the ones with whom you can’t be at unity with any integrity at all are those who are outside the Spirit. Verses 7-10 seem to be an odd diversion that could be about the importance of the Ascension, the old theological claim (still reflected in the Apostles’ Creed) that Jesus descended into Hell, or who knows what else.
Still, though, these opening verses do introduce the important idea of grace given to us as a result of “Christ’s gift,” and the result of gifts being bestowed upon us, which in turn sets up a brief list of some of those gifts given among the people of God. Unlike other such lists in the epistles, this one speaks of specific roles played in the church by specific people, without necessarily implying that these are the only gifts the church needs to function. (The specificity of this list is one of those reasons scholars have for believing this letter to be written much later than Paul’s output, as these roles seem to be more formalized than in the mid-century span in which Paul worked.)
The reasons for which these gifts are given are where “the rubber hits the road” in this reading. Note that while unity of the faith makes an appearance again, a lot more ink is consumed on the other listed aim of these gifts and their exercise among the body of Christ: an aim that might be best summed up as spiritual maturity.
This is where the language gets rather twisted up in the KJV rendering that still lives in my head to some degree, and even the NRSV can be a bit difficult to untangle. Last week’s sermon made a quick reference to the modern-day, scholarly yet accessible-language Common English Bible (CEB), and it might be useful in wading through these verses as well; first verses 12-13:
His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of the faith and knowledge of God’s son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.
OK, that helps somewhat. All those offices help build up the body of Christ by building up those within it, and that is where the unity of the faith arrives. And the measure towards which that building-up points is nothing less than Christ in all completeness and wholeness and fullness. Nothing less is really enough.
Now hear verses 14-16:
As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head.
We could, of course, put an even more vernacular spin on this instruction.
Don’t be babies.
Don’t fall for everything you see on the internet. Or some “news” channel. Or from some televangelist’s megachurch.
Don’t be misled so easily.
And perhaps the harshest of all:
That’s not a phrase we use these days as a form of encouragement. Typically it’s spoken in a tone that makes clear the speaker’s exasperation (or worse) with the one to whom the statement is directed. To get the full force of this reading we need to divorce the phrase from the commonly sarcastic tone we often apply to it and hear it as not only a form of encouragement, but the principal charge or calling that is laid before us – even more so than all that pursuing-unity talk, because that true unity in the Spirit only happens when we are growing towards that spiritual unity, that living into the measure of Christ’s wholeness and completeness and fullness.
To top it off, verse 16 reminds us that all of this happens in Christ. Again, to borrow from the CEB:
The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.
The growing and maturing and moving towards unity all happens in Christ. This is one of those cases where the instruction given really is directed at the individuals reading or hearing the letter. Most of the time such instruction in the New Testament, gospels or letters, is corporate – directed at the whole of the church to do together. In this case, the responsibility of this instruction to seek unity and grow up is upon each individual, so that the whole church can grow and do and be what it is meant to be under Christ, the head of the church.
Clearly, we aren’t there. It’s not just the too-many so-called “Christians” who crowd into each day’s headlines clearly demonstrating that they have not grasped the instruction of verses 14-15 about not being easily led astray and tossed about and fooled by deceivers. It’s all of us. Seriously, do we look like we measure up to Christ in all his fullness and completeness and wholeness? No, we’re not there. The point is to be on the way. And no matter how old we are, no matter how much hard-won wisdom we have earned, how much we have seen or experienced, we’re still on the journey.
It is in the process of this journey that we learn to live lives worthy of our calling, to bear with one another in love, to build up the body of Christ, and yes, to grow up.
For growing up, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #—, Live Lives Worthy of Your Calling; #529, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether