Instructions for the church on how to build up the Body of Christ
If you were to go to South Turkey, you might see a few ruins of a once great city. You’ll see a city that used to lie on the shores of the Mediterranean but is now several k.m. of silted in dry land away from water. Just like Moose Jaw, Ephesus had the advantage of being on an important trade rout so people from all over the world would stop there. It was huge and cosmopolitan. It hosted the Great Asian Games, Asia’s version of the Olympics, and it was an important centre for all the religions of the known world. It was also a very busy sea port so this was also a very diverse city with all the blessings and challenges of bringing together different traditions and religions.
It was into this busyness that Paul brought the message of Jesus. He spent a few years there and established a vibrant church with many followers of The Way before moving on and finding himself arrested by the Romans. It’s from prison that Paul writes this letter to the Ephesian Church.
Before the reading we heard today, Paul summarizes Jesus’ Gospel message and describes the gift of God’s grace which is given not only to one people but rather to all the whole world. He describes how God was in relationship with the family of Abraham but Jesus tells us that God wants more. God wants to adopt all people into this family. All the world’s people becoming one.
For these letters though, Paul often has two objectives. First, he’s teaching about Christ and God’s plan for the world. Then though, he gives instruction on how to be the church. When Jesus taught, he talked about building the realm of God, the time to come when all people live with justice, and all people walk together on the way – the way of healing and reconciliation, the way of selflessness, the way of loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. For Paul, it’s a bit different: rather than the building of God’s realm, it’s building the church – what he calls, the Body of Christ. These are the people, this is the organization that will teach, offer care and shelter to the poor and outcast, and gather in and train more disciples to work to bring to fullness the work Jesus started.
Of course, with any new movement, there are going to be challenges. One of the challenges you might expect is some level of persecution from those who don’t understand what they’re about. This may have been the case in some places, but not really in Ephesus. As I said, this is already an international city and so one more church was like introducing pirogies to the restaurant buffet. Not a bit deal.
The real challenge came from within the church itself. They had a problem that at first glance, maybe we’d love to have – there were simply too many people coming in their doors. They were bursting at the seams. And there was tremendous diversity in the people arriving. There were the Jews who wanted to keep the Jesus followers Jewish. Jesus was after all, one of them. But then there were the non Jews that Paul was ministering to. They were compelled by the Gospel message of God’s love but had no interest in dietary restrictions and don’t even mention circumcision. There were people from all over the known world with a rich diversity of traditions, backgrounds and religious ideas. There were rich and poor, there were slave owners and slaves.
How do you keep a group of people like this, not only together, but authentically loving each other and striving for a common goal? No easy task, to be sure! But here, Paul writes a letter from his prison cell reminding this church that in all their diversity, there is unity – there is one spirit, one son, and one God. There is one church where we share in the one baptism. There is one portion of God’s grace given to each and every one of us.
Now I’ve been a part of many churches and I’ve talked to ministers and church goers from accross the country, and read about many more. And while the stories of the Ephesian church might sound pretty unfamiliar, as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Very few churches are over full like the Ephesian church and if you ask for the top priorities of any congregation, you’ll find, “bring in new members” near the top of the list. And some churches really do want this, but a whole bunch might just be careful that they don’t get what they wish for.
Sure, new folks in the pews would be nice but what if they sit in my favourite pew? And then I’ll have new names to memorize. Sure having new helpers in all our groups and committees would be great but what if they want to sing different hymns from what they’re used to or want to do the work of the church in a different way? Yes, every church wants to have more children but most churches want children from 50 years ago when I myself was told to sit next to my mother and not make a sound, don’t ask questions, don’t run around, don’t don’t don’t. Yes, 50 years ago that was the expectation but how many 50 year olds do you see going to church?
I’m sure these are the same concerns Paul heard back then and if he was up to date on his church growth and membership retention literature, he probably would have heeded their words. You see, one of the most well proven ways to bring people in and keep them is to strongly define an us and a them. You don’t want to be like those muslims so you better be a part of our church. Did you know that there are people out there with different sexual orientations? You better come to our church so your children don’t catch a bad case of the gays. Many full churches teach a well defined list of who is and who is not welcome, who we are to be afraid of, who it is that is persecuting us. They teach that the world out there is evil and scary so for your own safety and for the sake of your eternal soul, you better be here with us.
The thing is, Paul knew that diversity, while at times challenging, is the key to a strong and vibrant community. He knew it wouldn’t be easy and he says right in this reading that they are to bear each other with love, humility and patience. Paul knew that the path of division isn’t the path of Jesus. The way of Jesus is to open the doors, welcome everyone, and work out the details later. Paul was calling his church to unity – not to uniformity.
This year in Moose Jaw, 3 of our churches are going to continue discussing the possibility of becoming a true united church. If this goes ahead, will it be easy? Absolutely not. While there is so very much to gain, including a greater ability to fulfil that call from God that Paul speaks of, there will also be loss. And if you think that keeping your building as the home of the amalgamated church will mean you don’t lose, think again. Sure, you might have a familiar building, but that’s it. You’d still have to make room for all the other loves and passions and ideas and theological understandings that come with a whole whack of new people. Maybe the place in the church that has always been yours will now have to be shared. Maybe your way of doing things that has always been supported by the majority will quickly become the minority view. Maybe the church that comes from these discussions could be called Ephesus United.
Challenge? Yes. Loss? Yes. Still in all our churches whether we come together or stay as separate congregation, I really believe we need to heed these words from Paul. We are all one people, all given our portion of God’s grace. And our churches are the Body of Christ, and is therefore far greater that any of our own fears, desires, or wishes for control. We are all called to this unity without uniformity, called to build up the body of Christ and called to help in the gathering and training of disciples who will go into the world, ready and excited to spread the good news- Christ is alive, God loves you, and is calling you to live lives full of the Holy Spirit, joining with each other on God’s work.