Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve taken an image or a phrase from our reading and explored that, but on Sunday we took a bit more of a verse-by-verse approach to Ephesians 4, to try and get some answers to a couple of really important questions. What are we called to and what does a live worthy of that calling look like?
We started - perhaps unsurprisingly - with verse 1, which is where those questions come from. We are told to “live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received”, a fairly weighty instruction that needs some unpacking. The first thing we need to notice is that the calling is singular but the you is plural. We have no way of telling that in English, so it’s easy for us to read this verse and think it is spoken at us only as individuals, but there is a corporate sense here. That really becomes clear in the following verses which speak of unity, of one body and one faith. Of course we each have our own calling, but we also have a shared calling.
We see that balance even more explicitly a few verses on. In verse 7 we are told that “to each one of us grace has been given” and after a short digression we get a glimpse of what that looks like, as verses 11-13 tell us that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith”. We are gifted as individuals to work together as a community.
I’ve lost count of the number of lectures and training sessions I’ve had based on these verse, as if this list of roles holds the key to the whole of church life. I’m still not convinced that this is a sufficient blueprint for the church, or that it is the most helpful way of understanding our varied roles, but it is important that we see our variety and how it all fits together. We have all been given our own gifts, and there will be plenty of ways to use them away from the church, and we should be supporting one another in our work and witness outside of these doors, but these gifts are also given that we might build the body of Christ.
We need to understand what gifts we have and how they can serve others, but sometimes we need a little help, and so that also means recognising one another’s gifts and how they have blessed us. SBC has been so supportive of me as a new minister, and I want everyone to know that same encouragement. At my previous church we did a thing called sentness, where a member of the community would share some of their life, and we would pray for them and prophesy over them and encourage them, saying what we saw of Jesus in them. I would love for that to be a part of our life together, whether we find a pattern for doing it more formally, or whether we simply adopt the habit of encouragement, taking every opportunity to say ‘I see this in you and I appreciate this about you and I want to thank you’.
So what happens as we recognise and encourage our own gits and the gifts of others? Well verse 14 says “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching". I think there is something here about there being wisdom in shared discernment. As we work together, and we build stronger community, we grow in understanding and confidence in our faith. That’s why church meetings are so important to our shared life and witness, why they should be times when we can talk and pray together, to find that wisdom in shared discernment.
Verse 16 brings us back to the image of the body of Christ, and the idea that we become part of something bigger than ourselves. The body is a great metaphor for unity, because bodies rely on lots of different parts, but it also speaks of action, because bodies do things. The body metaphor can be tricky, because our experience of our own bodies is that sometimes that here are parts that don’t work or just aren’t there, and they don’t always do the things we want them to. That’s why we have to be honest about the difficulties and limitations of biblical language, and be prepared to find other expressions that feel more comfortable and authentic. But however we feel about the language, the point of this image is that we all have something to offer as we act together as a church.
I really hope this isn’t the first time you’ve been told that, but we can hear something many times without really taking it in, so I’ll write it again. We all have something to offer as we act together as a church. That has to be at the centre of how we understand our fellowship, because knowing we all have something to offer leads us to see the giftedness of ourselves and others, which is a beautiful and affirming thing, and because knowing that we must act together holds us accountable to our calling, which is what can give us the drive to keep us going. I know for some there is a frustration that you can’t do what you want to do or what you used to do, but God has called and continues to call each one of us. Welcome, friendship, prayer, imagination, encouragement...don’t underestimate the power of words or simple presence.
We started by recognising that we have a shared calling, and we’ve seen how the passage begins to develop that idea, but we won’t get any further without asking one more question. What is our shared calling here at SBC, in this time and in this place? In broad strokes, it is to build the kingdom, to make disciples, to reveal God in and to the world. But broad strokes are not enough. We need to fill in the details, which is what we are seeking to do as we explore new ministries, as we imagine the future with wisdom and creativity. As I think about our calling it seems to be that we are blessed with an amazing building and a heart for welcome, in a place lacking in community spaces and in a time when loneliness and dislocation are among the biggest problems facing society, and so I believe we are called to be a place of connection and I am so excited to see us live that calling out.
So that’s a little of what our calling may look like, but what does a life worthy of it look like? This isn’t just about how we work together but how we live together, indeed how we live in every moment of our lives. If our basic calling is to reveal God, then we need to live in ways that reflect and speak of God. Verse 23 says we must “be made new in the attitude of [our] minds”, and there’s an echo of Romans 12:2, which famously instructs us “do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. I think there’s an interesting dynamic between attitude and action. Do we renew our minds to change our behaviour, or does changing our behaviour renew our minds? I think the truth is that it’s a bit of both.
Sometimes we do push ourselves to do a thing because we are told it’s right, and over time we find that the habit has gone so deep that we know for ourselves it is right, and we don’t have to push ourselves but do it willingly. And sometimes we have a change of heart, and we have to learn how to live out that new heart, until we find we’ve stopped learning and started doing. Whichever way round we go, we have to end in the same place. We can’t sustain a way of life we don’t believe in, so there has to be a change in our attitudes. But it’s not always easy to believe in a way of life unless we start to live it, so there has to be a change in our actions.
Whatever that dynamic looks like for us, what new attitudes and actions should be working towards? I don’t always get on with The Message translation, but sometimes it is interesting and helpful to hear scripture given new expression, so I invite you to read The Message version of the final seven verses, which talk about what happens when we live out our new attitude:
What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself. Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life. Did you use to make ends meet by stealing? Well, no more! Get an honest job so that you can help others who can’t work. Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
Be honest. Be kind. Be forgiving. That all seems obvious enough, but I find verse 26 really interesting. “In your anger do not sin”. It sounds like it is not anger that is the problem, but what we do with it. It is right that we get angry because there is a lot to be angry about, but it must be a righteous anger, not a selfish frustration but a passion against injustice and oppression and deceit. And it must be a constructive anger, not a futile raging but a striving to change the things that anger us. True, verse 31 says we must get rid of all anger, but there anger appears next to bitterness and rage, so it is fruitless aggression that is the issue there, and I don't think that rules out the kind of righteous and constructive anger I have suggested. I think the righteous bit is easier than the constructive bit, because so often we feel powerless to do anything, but we can always pray and we can always live and speak prophetically, playing by God's rules and not the world's. And I’ve said before, I think we need to direct our anger at structures and situations not people, because anger directed at people so quickly turns to hate and throws up barriers which make change even harder.
I think verse 28 is intriguing too. “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.” There doesn’t seem to be any interest in punishment here, but instead the stress is on a fresh start. Of course our actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences must include some measure of discipline, especially when we persist in harmful actions, but the hope should always be for a fresh start. Where there is genuine repentance, people need to be allowed to move on from their mistakes, to make amends and to find new patterns of living. That is the justice tempered by mercy which is characteristic of God.
This seems rather an abrupt place to finish, but we’ve covered a lot of ground, and we’ll pick up on the theme of right living with Ephesians 5 next week, so let’s just stop and take a breather. Perhaps take a moment to let what you've read settle, and pray that you will come to a fuller understanding of your calling and your place in the body of Christ, that you may live a life worthy of it.