Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 13)

Text: Ephesians 4:1-6
Live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you.
Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all.
Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, Scotland

Unity in Christ

Amid the busy throng of midday shoppers a young mother was pushing a stroller with two other children in tow. The oldest of the small children walking with their mum was a small boy probably about 6 or 7 years old. He pointed to the large church building across the road. "What's that, Mummy?" he enquired, asking what was probably his hundredth question for the day! His mother looked up at the building and replied wearily, "That's a church." The little boy thought for a moment and then asked, "Mummy, what's a church?"

Iím afraid that there are many people in our community who have no real idea what the church is. For some itís like a club, for others itís the place you go to when you need a handout, for others itís represents something outdated and irrelevant to our modern world.

What do you think of when you hear the word "church"? Maybe the word "church" sends you back to your childhood when you went along with your parents and brothers and sisters, sat on the hard wooden pews, tried hard to listen to the pastor but didnít really understand too much and then afterwards went off to Sunday School.

When you hear the word "church", you might recall some of the people in the church who have made an impression on you, maybe a pastor or Sunday School teacher. Or perhaps the word "church" invokes memories of special occasions like your confirmation, your wedding day or the baptism of your children and grandchildren.

When you hear the word "church" perhaps some of you have unpleasant flashbacks Ė to fiery church meetings, to times when you were offended by a church person, or to squabbles amongst the church members. On the other hand, the word "church" gives you a warm feeling because it was among the believers that you have found meaning and purpose, your life was turned around, or simply that you found your husband or wife at the church.

The history of the church over the centuries certainly makes interesting reading and one of the reasons why the church has such a colourful history is because the church includes people of diverse backgrounds and natures and where there is this kind of diversity there is bound to be tension and misunderstanding. Other organisations have members who are the same age, or same gender, or have common interests, but in the church we find them all mixed together. No wonder the history of most congregations contains some very colourful occasions.

In Stirling, Scotland, there is a magnificent church right near the castle. It is the Church of the Holy Rude (ĎRudeí here meaning ĎCrossí). It is in this church that the infant son of Mary Queen of Scots was crowned James VI of Scotland. The construction of this church was begun in the 1400s and over several centuries was completed. The coronation of King James VI is a highlight of this churchís history but there is also sadness in its history. There was a disagreement between the two ministers and their followers and so in 1656 a wall was built across the centre of the church. There were then 2 congregations in the same building - the East Congregation and the West Congregation. That dividing wall remained for almost 300 years and finally the two congregations were reconciled in 1936 and the wall torn down.

When you think back over the history of the church here in Australia there are some equally sad stories of congregations who have fought and split because of personality clashes and stubbornness.

So, what is it that holds the church together? In the disagreements, the differences of opinion and misunderstandings - what on earth is it that keeps the church together as one?

In the 4th chapter of Ephesians St Paul is talking about the church. But as he speaks about the church, he doesnít talk about his good or bad feelings about the church (and Paul had experienced both the good and bad in the church) but rather he focuses on what is the true nature of the church and what it means to be a part of the church. Paul is quite clear about the fact that the unity of the church lies outside of ourselves.

And it is at this point that Paul refers us to God's grace. God has unconditionally accepted one and all in Jesus Christ. Grace excludes no one. If you want to find a practical example of this, you just need to look at those Jesus chose to have fellowship with over the meal table.
Jesus sat with the worst sinners whom the bigots of the church regarded as unworthy.
Jesus demonstrated the extent of Godís love by sitting at table even with the churchís worst bigots, the Pharisees. So in spite of the differences, he sat with them anyway. This unconditional love accepts one and all. Everyone was welcome as far as Jesus was concerned.

That's what happened to us at our baptism. Jesus unconditionally placed us in a new relationship with him. He accepted us just as we are, "warts and all", he welcomed us into Godís family. All of us are placed in a new relationship with God. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

The oneness that we have in the church is not something that we have created. Rather it was God who joined us all together in baptism. The church is the creation of the Holy Spirit and it is the Holy Spirit who has called us into the "one holy Christian Church". Sometimes we say "the one holy catholic church". That word catholic gets across the idea that the church is bigger than our congregation, or denomination Ė it includes Christians all over the world. We may have our divisions but as far as God is concerned there is only one church.

And so, in spite of our differences in age, gender, interests, background and denomination we are all members of the same family. We share the same Lord who died for our sin and gave us the promise of eternal life, we have been given the same Spirit to guide us in our Christian walk. We share the same heavenly Father who has adopted us into his family. Paul says it like this (note how many times he uses the word "one" to get across his point), "There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Paul uses two pictures to help his readers understand what this oneness is all about.

Firstly, he talks about a building with Jesus as the most important stone. He goes on, "Christ is the one who holds the building together and makes it grow into a holy temple for the Lord. And you are a part of that building Christ has built as a place for Godís own Spirit to live" (Ephesians 2:21,22 CEV). Paul is reminding us that it is Christ who binds the members of the church together. Just as a stone mason chips and smoothes the stones until they fit snugly, so God is working on his church, chipping away and smoothing out the differences between us that cause tension and misunderstanding, and joins us together to build his church.

Later he talks about the church as a human body with Christ as the head of the body. "Under his control all the different parts of the body fit together, and the whole body is held together by every joint with which it is provided. So when each separate part works as it should, the whole body grows and builds itself up through love" (Ephesians 4:16). Paul is saying that even though each part of the body is different in size, function and importance they all fit together and work together. This is the way it is with the church, though all of us are different in so many ways, Jesus brings us all together and unites us together with his love and through baptism joins us together into one family.

We might be tempted to say at this point, "Thatís all very nice, Paul, but people will be people and there is bound to be trouble." The Apostle is well aware of the diversity that there is in a congregation and he has experienced first hand the tensions that these differences can cause. He knows very well that even though God creates the oneness in the church, our sinful nature does a good job in wrecking it. And so we find Paul telling the Ephesians and us because he knows how often our sinful nature threatens the oneness that God has created in his church, "Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together" (Ephesians 4:3,3).

Paul wants people to be able to say of us as they said about the Christians at Antioch: "See, how they love one another!" He is urging his readers and us to be what we are - God's people in everything we say and do and to give credibility to our witness to the Gospel. Who believes the salesman who says: "This is a wonderful car, it's economical, never breaks down, cheap to service, but I wouldn't buy one myself." Likewise, who would believe in the love of God if all they see in us are unkindness, impatience and lack of tolerance?

We are urged to help build up one another and to preserve unity amongst us. We are to help one another realise our oneness in the Lord. God has brought us together in the one body and one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" so that we can grow and mature in love and faith. He calls us to witness to the world what it really means to love and forgive as God has loved us.

When Martin Luther felt himself sinking into the depths of despair, he found it helpful to touch his forehead and make the sign of the cross and to say Baptismatus sum (I am baptised). As Luther remembered his baptism, he recalled the Godís forgiveness and the love of his heavenly Father.

In the light of our text today, perhaps we ought to take our cue from Luther and whenever we encounter differences and divisions in the church, we ought to say the words: "I am baptised". Because there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" we are joined together in the one family, the one faith, in the one Lord Jesus. The old painful distinctions between people have been washed away in the waters of our baptism. Painful divisions have no place as we share unity in Christ. We're all family. In Jesus, weíre all together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all....

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
6th August, 2006

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