Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message: Ephesians 4:1; Date: 26 Sept 2010

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Together In This

 

I read from the Bible – Ephesians 4:1: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have receivedFrom prison someone urges us to remember that our life is worth something and that we can live this life with honour because of who we are. From prison comes this encouragement: Live a life worthy of your calling.

This is new for many in our current culture. Two weeks ago I met a man (maybe in his early 50s) who had no honour and no purpose. He told me that he was an alcoholic and that he had broken up the marriage of his brother because he had slept with his wife. Even on the night when I met him, he was on his way to pay the former wife of his brother a visit to satisfy his desires. As we talked, there were smiles and smirks of carnal knowledge on his face, but I asked him: “It doesn’t make you happy. Does itHe said: “NoThen – later – he said words of mourning: “What am I doing here? Why am I wasting my life

This man – judging by his regrets – lived a sad life but who can blame him? Who was he in the eyes of the world? Who are you according to modern thinking? For the most part – in our nation – there is no God (in politics, schools and television) and – therefore – without God – without his plans and purpose – you are left to your own devices. It is now all about what you want – what pleases you – and there seems to be no meaning beyond that. Enjoy life while you can. Yet, the man from before was trying to do that and he ended up in bondage to alcohol and wrecked relationships. What was wrong for him? The same that is wrong for you without God. We are not good in bestowing meaning to our own lives.

I quote from one (Christian) research article which makes the same point. Ray Cotton: The Morality Of The West, (http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/morality.html) 1996.

 

If God is dead, as Nietzsche declared, and nature is all there is, then what is, is right. Human life was therefore stripped of any purpose or goal. The contemporary Harvard professor, E. O. Wilson has stated, ‘No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.’ Elsewhere he declares that our dilemma is that ‘we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature.’ This will ultimately result in a sense of hopelessness, pessimism, apathy, and absurdity. William Kilpatrick in his book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong’, says ‘Suicides among young people have risen by 300 percent over the last thirty years.’ Next to accidents it is now the second leading cause of death in teenagers. Many of the deaths due to accidents are the result of auto accidents in which alcohol has played a role which can also be traced back to a sense of hopelessness and despair …

Nietzsche’s ‘madman’ said, ‘God is dead!’ God was now out of the picture. Nietzsche simply took the next step. He tried to force men and women to, ‘feel the breath of empty space.’ If you have been following the train of thought here you are probably beginning to see the connection between Nietzsche’s ideas and the state of our youth today. Many young people feel that there is no grand purpose for their life. Life is empty and cheap. If you believe in some form of a grand purpose, it is really only a grand illusion. All that is left, therefore, is to live for the pleasure of the moment. Gain what pleasure you can in an absurd universe. This will ultimately lead to an attitude of despair. If God is dead, what’s the use of conforming to any rules. If I die as a result of my actions, so what, life is absurd anyway.

 

This article presents an uncomfortable analysis but if there is no God (and we owe our existence to some kind of happy accident between molecules), then we are the same and not more than animals which do anything to survive and satisfy their instincts. [In a world of animals we will become as fearful as animals which devour each other.] There is no honour in that. It is absurd and without hope. Our cat at home seems happy enough to sleep and eat – sleep and eat – [at least she is purring with contentment] – but for us humans this is not enough. All across the world – we hunger for more.

There is more. From prison we hear the words – recorded in the Bible: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have receivedNow here we have to understand something. Left to our own devices – without God – we are always prone to live our lives for ourselves – according to the Bible – Ephesians 4:3: “ … gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts … ” Without God – it is always about my career, my happiness, my recognition. It is always about “me”, “me”, “me” and “me” alone. [I may include my family and clan as an extension of myself.] And modern advertising confirms this mindset. “Spoil yourself. You deserve itTherefore, when we read our key Bible verse, we are most likely misreading it. “Live a life worthy of the calling you have receivedIs this verse about you as an individual? Is it about “me” living a worthy life? No – it is about us together. The “you” in this sentence is not the “you” of a single person but the “you” of the whole church – all the readers of the Bible verse together. In Queensland English you would say: “Live a life worthy of the calling youse have received

This is a common mistake. We hear “you” when the meaning is “youse”. For instance, I give you two more Bible verses. We may have misunderstood them as applying to us a single persons rather than to us as the entire group – 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you [the whole church at Corinth] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you together?” Ephesians 6:11: “Put on [all of you together] the whole armor of God so that you [as a church] can take your stand against the devil’s schemes

We are in this together. Together we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Together we arm ourselves against the devil’s schemes and together we live a life worthy of our calling. This is important. We need to understand this before we go any further. What this means is that none of us can succeed by himself. You cannot enjoy Jesus by yourself and expect that you will reach the calling on your life. We need each other and depend on each other.

What is our calling? I read from the beginning of the Bible book which contains our key verse – Ephesians 1:3-8: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding

Thus, our calling is to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ, to be holy and blameless in the sight of God, to be adopted as the sons and daughters of God the Father through Jesus Christ, to receive freely the glorious grace of God, to have redemption and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. If you are here this morning and you are not a Christian, please consider what God is also offering to you. Put your faith in him also to be blessed and forgiven.

Our Bible reading continues and now becomes more specific. What is our calling? Ephesians 1:10: “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head [the one authority Jesus Christ].”

Therefore, the mystery of God’s will – which informs our calling – is to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head. And the next verses make this even more concrete – Ephesians 1:11-14: “In him we [Jews] were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we [Jews], who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you [others – non-Jews] also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory

All things in heaven and on earth are together to come under the one authority Jesus Christ and in the day when the Bible book of Ephesians was written, this movement had begun by bringing both – Jews and non-Jews – into the church which was and is precisely the group of people that follow Jesus as their Lord. The mystery of God’s will – at that time coming to fulfillment – was to unite Jews and Gentiles in one church and then bring more and more people into this kind of unity – (bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head – Jesus Christ).

For us today this may sound easier than it was because Jewish-Gentile tensions were rather explosive in the church back then. In fact, the man – his name is Paul – who wrote in Ephesians 4:1: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” – he was in prison because of his stance on this very issue. He writes – Ephesians 3:1-6: “ … I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – Surely you have heard … the mystery made known to me by revelation … This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise Christ Jesus

For Paul the mystery of God’s will – the drive to unite all things in heaven and on earth under the one leadership of Jesus Christ – was crystal clear but not everyone agreed on the practical outcomes – especially when it was about Jews and Gentiles. How were the two to live together? Would Gentiles have to obey all the same Bible requirements as the Jews – such as abstain from unclean food, circumcise male babies on the eighth day, observe the Jewish festivals? These were not easy questions. [We argue about far less. Should we dunk or sprinkle babies in baptism? How is Jesus present in Holy Communion?]

For instance, circumcision belonged to God’s people from the beginning and confirmed God’s covenant with Abraham which is still in force today – even for us Gentiles. The promise was that through Abraham all the nations on earth would be blessed and – (everyone agrees) – the promise has come to pass because today we are blessed through Abraham’s descendant Jesus which prompts the Bible to say – Galatians 3:29: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promiseWhy then should we not also be circumcised? It seems similar to baptism. [At least since the time of Noah God had made the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Only two per unclean species made it on the ark while it was seven per species for the clean animals.]

All of these matters were rather controversial and Paul even suffered for them in prison. His views enraged the Jewish population. I read from the Bible how – among Christians – this required even an international intervention from the church leadership in Jerusalem – Acts 15:1-6: “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into share dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question … When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church … Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’ The apostles and elders met to consider this question … ” After much discussion the church leaders sent a letter to Antioch, saying – Acts 15:28-29: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols [not observed by Paul], from blood [not observed by Gentiles today], from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality … ”

Can we see now the dilemma – the challenge – which frame these words: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have receivedWith so much conflict how can we live according to our calling which is to unite everything under the headship of Jesus Christ? A life worthy of our calling as a church must be a life of unity under Christ but Paul himself was a prisoner because of these church tensions and much of the New Testament keeps addressing these same tensions (cf. Galatians). How can any church live a life of honour – worthy of our joint calling – when there are always differences of opinion?

Paul made his further instructions rather practical but before we look at them and wrestle with them, I want to read and enjoy with you a few more Bible verses on our calling. What we are given and what we can bring out in practice is breathtaking – Ephesians 1:18-23: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way

Our calling is so magnificent that we Christians need to have the eyes of our heart further enlightened – (because our calling in God is beyond what we can ask or imagine) – so that we know – fully grasp – all of the hope, all of the riches of his glorious inheritance and all of his incomparably great power for us who believe. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead – the same power that seated him in a position of authority over everything – is available to us in the church. Then, we have a key role in God’s plan of bringing all things in heaven and on earth under the one headship of Jesus Christ: “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way

Wow – and now to the practical side of this truth – Ephesians 4:1-3: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” [Cf. Philippians 1:27-2:18]

For the sake of reaching the full potential of our calling we treat each other with honour and maintain that honour even we grate against each other: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in loveThen, the good news is that our unity is a work of God. It is a “unity of the Spirit” which means that the more we surrender to the working of the Spirit among us, the more we will experience true harmony among us. Yet – at the same time – the Spirit does not work without us and, therefore, there is this charge to be most vigilant in holding on to the Spirit’s work among us: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit … ”

Make every effort. Make every effort. Honour each other. Be humble and gentle. Bear with one another in love and do not gossip.

Paul reminds his readers of the basis of their unity which allows no breaking away from each other – Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in allThe church is one. The Spirit is one. Our hope is one. The Lord Jesus Christ is one. Our faith is one. There is only one baptism and God the Father is one. Therefore, we also must be one. It is absolutely not worthy of our calling to disperse into argumentative church factions when the foundations of our faith are one and God’s declared plan is to unite everything under the headship of his Son – Jesus Christ.

I read the remaining verses – Ephesians 4:7-16: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it … It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work

The most foundational truth and the most compelling reason for us to make every effort to keep the “unity of the Spirit” is that we are not all the same. God has given each one of us a measure of his grace – and he keeps handing us further measures of his grace – which position each one of us at various places in the one community that is the church: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it … the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its workWe need every part of the church body to function. [There is honour in the work we do. We are meant to work and value each other’s work. Jesus also honours our work. He promised that even the giving of a cup of cold water in his name would be rewarded in heaven (Mark 9:41).] We depend on each other to get what we want: a life worthy of our calling, the fullness of the Spirit among us.

The requirement to honour each other goes further. We have to come to grips with the fact that our calling does not include a democratic church government. [There may be alarm bells ringing right now because if we don’t have a vote, how can we make sure that anyone cares about what we want? Yet, it is not about what anyone wants. It is about what God wants. Then, we say that we want a democracy but experience shows that church members do not even submit to a majority. We are consumers and – unless our wants are met and our views are dominant – we simply show elsewhere.] Christ appoints leadership and intends to work through his leadership to work on divisive issues until true unity manifests itself in the church: “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it … It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people … until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming … ” [Here agreement on doctrine is not the basis for unity but the outcome of unity.]

This teaching may not be popular among people of Western democracies but another Bible passage – in fact the entire Bible – corroborates this truth – 1 Corinthians 12:28: “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues

There is a first – the apostles – there is a second – the prophets – there is a third – teachers – and then other leadership roles. [Note: A fresh graduate from a seminary is not yet a proven church leader with the earned respect of an apostle.] We are not all the same and we are not all the same in God’s design of church government which – at least in some respects – makes sense because we are not all on the same level of faith maturity. Leadership is about discerning the will of God and the church recognizes and – after an appropriate decision making process –submits to a team of leaders (foremost the apostles) who have as their foremost task that they spend time in the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4).

In practice this may work as it worked in the Bible when the issue of circumcision stirred up the whole church from Antioch to Jerusalem. Everyone was in on the dispute. Nothing happened behind closed doors (in the sense that anything was secret) and the whole church was involved in discerning the truth. However, then the apostles and elders – and especially the apostle James – gave their judgement which settled the matter – Acts 15:13-22: “When they finished, James spoke up: ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this … It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God … ”

Then, James gave advice which led to the drafting of the following letter, saying – and please listen to the interesting opening phrase – Acts 15:28-29: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols [not observed by Paul], from blood [not observed by Gentiles today], from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality … ”

The challenge of church leadership back then – and maybe there are cases today – was that the decision could not be made on clear-cut instructions from the Bible. There was no clear Bible case – no clear Bible verses – that would spare the Gentiles from circumcision. Therefore – and let me insert this here: without maintaining a culture of honour this is impossible – the church – and its leaders – had to hear from God in a fresh way – wrestling with the circumstances, weighing up the testimony of Peter, various Scripture passages and what they were sensing in God. Thus – when they came to a decision – born out of an honourable process that involved the entire church – they wrote: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us … ”

Maybe there were some Christians that in the end were still unsure whether it was wise to submit to James and the other apostles. However, God has appointed leadership in the church and if they get it wrong in the end, we may take up the case again with God and ask him to reintroduce the matter, but we cannot lose the culture of honour among us. We cannot tear each other down. I myself am committed to discern the will of God together and not charge ahead until there is a more widespread sense that we are on the right track. Yet – despite all possible checks and balances – at some stage we all have to learn submission (despite some disagreements) and (hopefully) this is easier when trust has been earned. (Otherwise, the only possible option would be to be in a church where the pastor always preaches what I agree with, money always gets spend on what I agree with and the church program always meets my personal approval. There seem to be people looking for such a church but it does not exist unless I become my own church by myself.)

Do we understand now the challenge before us? Paul wrote: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have receivedThis is not going to be easy. Yet – and this is what we have learned – there is no alternative. If we want to live a life that has honour and is worthy before God and people – if we want to enjoy every spiritual blessing in Christ – then we need each other and must maintain unity among us. We work together as one church body – one entity that together hosts the very presence of God. I cannot resist to give you on more Bible verse from the same book – Ephesians 2:20-22: “ … built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets … in Christ Jesus [original: him] you . are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit

What we want, we can only reach together. We need to be absolutely clear about this: There is no life worthy of our calling which includes hurting each other and breaking away from each other. Without unity there is no honour and no riches in God for any of us. The good news – as I said before – is that our unity is a work of God – a “unity of the Spirit”. However, we are not passive in cooperating with him: “ … I urge you to live a life worthy of your [original: the] calling … Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit ... ”

We make every effort. We honour each other and then rejoice together in a life worthy of our calling. It will happen – Ephesians 1:18-23 (paraphrased): “ … the eyes of our heart will be enlightened and we will know the full hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the Christians, and his incomparably great power for us who believeWe are together in this. Amen.