I thought we’d start off this new year on a good foundation – the foundation of what it means to be the church. To be part of a covenant community. When we talk about church, invariably what happens is that everyone has opinions about church. Those opinions are usually based on what a church does or doesn’t do. I like this/I don’t like that. Or, can you believe what that preacher did! I want to suggest to you that those are not appropriate conversations about church. Those conversations start from “me” instead of from Jesus. So what we’re going to do is build a strong ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of the church. Who is the church and why does the church exist? We’re going to start deep this year. We’re not playing the shallow end. We’re jumping off the diving board into the deep end.
In Ephesians 1-3 the Apostle Paul has described what God has done in bringing believing Jews and Gentile into one body in Jesus Christ, he says in 2:14 – that Jesus has made two groups of people one; and that in chapters 4-6 he’s now going to tell us how we ought to live in that one body – that oneness; so that the first three chapters of Ephesians are about what God has done and who we in fact are in Jesus Christ and the second three chapters, chapters 4-6, are about what we ought to do because we are God’s people in Jesus Christ.
Now, in Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul gets radical and says that we are to preserve the unity that the Spirit has given us, so that the Apostle is calling on us in the life of the church to preserve and to cultivate a unity, a communion with one another, that the Spirit has already given us. And it’s an amazing statement. He says you have a unity that has been given you by the Spirit. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you have been given a spiritual unity with every other follower of Jesus, and that spiritual unity is especially expressed in the local body of believers, in the local church. Do you know what God’s favorite word is? God’s favorite word is: ONE. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear O, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is foundational to what we believe. There is one God and only one God. Almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, holy and ever present. There is none like Him. God is set apart.
Before Jesus ascended back into heaven he gave his disciples a statement commonly called the Great Commission: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God does not live in isolation. Because God exists as three in one. He lives in perfect unity. As something that is commonly called “The Trinity.”
Now Paul has all of this going on in his head when he writes 4:1. Live worthy of my calling.
Specifically, to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. We live unworthily when we disregard unity. God is one and the calling of God’s people is to be one – in purpose, in fellowship, in thought.
Alexander the Great, one of the greatest military generals who ever lived, conquered almost the entire known world with his vast army. One night during a campaign, he couldn’t sleep and left his tent to walk around the campgrounds.
As he was walking he came across a soldier asleep on guard duty – serious offense. The penalty for falling asleep on guard duty was, in some cases, instant death; the commanding officer sometimes poured kerosene on the sleeping soldier and lit it.
The soldier began to wake up as Alexander the Great approached him. Recognizing who was standing in front of him, the young man fear for his life. “Do you know what the penalty is for falling asleep on guard duty?” Alexander the Great asked the soldier.
“Yes, sir,” the soldier responded in a quivering voice.
“Soldier, what’s your name?” demanded the general.
Alexander the Great repeated the question: “What is your name?”
“My name is Alexander, sir” the soldier repeated.
A third time and more loudly Alexander the Great asked, “What is your name?”
A third time the soldier meekly said, “My name is Alexander, sir.”
Alexander the Great then looked the young soldier straight in the eye. “Soldier,” he said with intensity, “either change your name or change your conduct.”
The phrase “live a life worthy” has the idea of living a life in such a way that it measures up to something. Think about a set of scales. If I have ten pounds on one side of the scale, I need ten pounds to put on the other side so it will balance. If I put 10.5 on the other side, it would be out of balance. If I put 11, it would be out of balance. I need ten on one side and I need ten on the other.
The word “worthy” takes us even a second step. The word for “worthy” is the word axios. It refers to the intrinsic value of something. So there is value in oneness. Being one defines the church. We are called to be one because God is one. When we are aligned with God we are aligned with each other; and when we are aligned with each other, we are aligned with God.
Tradition claims that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over the cave where Christ was buried. Several years back in 2002, the church became the scene of ugly fighting between the monks who run it. It turns out that Ethiopian and Coptic monks have been arguing over the rooftop of the church for centuries. In 1752 the Ottoman Sultan issued an edict declaring which parts of the church belong to each of six different Christian groups.
The rooftop had been controlled by the Ethiopians, but they lost control to the Coptic monks when they were hit by a disease epidemic in the 1800’s. Then in the 1970’s the Ethiopians regained control when the Coptic monks were absent for a short period. The Ethiopians have been squatting there ever since with at least one monk always remaining on the roof to assert their rights. But in response to this, a Coptic monk has also been living on the roof to maintain the Coptic claim to the church’s roof.
In July 2002, when the Coptic monk on the roof moved his chair into the shade where the Ethiopian monk was sitting, harsh words led to pushing and shoving and then to an all-out brawl. Eleven monks were injured, including one who was taken to the hospital unconscious. Amazingly, all this took place in a church that is supposedly built on the same location of Jesus’ tomb.
When the church is divided it produces some very tragic results. On the other hand, when the church is one it unleashes a power that can hardly be stopped. ONE – being in the same mind, purpose, desire.
For my church to be one, I will make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit. (Read 4:2-3). In verse 2 he communicates the character traits that will preserve the unity: humility, gentleness, patience, and love. If you are humble you will be gentle, if you are patient you will be enduring, if you’re gentle and patient you will be a peacemaker.
There is strength in humility that says, “I am not the center, Jesus is the center and I will submit to him and go where he leads. I am not the king, God is the king. Our unity is based on the objective unity outside of ourselves. There is one body and one Spirit.
Notice Paul’s words: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” By our peace with one another, expressed in our relationships in this local congregation, we are preserving a unity that has been given to us by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit brought us together, different as we are, into one family, into one body. But the unity that we experience doesn’t just happen. It takes work, just like a good marriage takes work. A good marriage doesn’t just happen. There are things that have to be done for a good marriage to flourish, and those have to be cultivated for that marriage to be what God intends it to be.
God has given us a unity in the body of Christ, but we must make every effort to preserve that unity which God has given us and to see it expressed in peace.
Let’s go a little further – let’s make this practical. Read 4:4-6.
Now what does all of this have to do with our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? The reason we are one is so that together we can move in one, same direction. For my church to be one, I will be a team player.
Since there is only one God, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism and only one body – there is one purpose. Since there is only one God – this one God has created a way for the whole earth to be reconciled to him (Acts 4:12)
The issue in the church at Ephesus was whether the Gentiles could belong to the body of Christ in the same way the Jews did. The answer was that Jesus reconciled both in one body to God in the cross. Both have access to the Father. Those who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ and made one. So the issue of unity/oneness for Paul is created by the mission of the church to those who were far off – the gentiles, the nations.
In other words, Jesus is the foundation for our mission. If there were many gods and many saviors and many valid faiths and many baptismal entrances – there would be no need for our mission to make disciples of Jesus. But there is only one God and one Lord and one faith and one baptism. And so this truth must be revealed. (Romans 10)
So the truth that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism is the foundation for our existence. This requires a diligence to maintain a oneness of purpose under the lordship of Jesus. We are one in mission, all headed in the same direction together. This is expressed in our vision – that dream of the future.
Football, around here is a pretty big deal. One of the greatest football coaches in history was Bear Bryant – Alabama. Bear Bryant used to say this about his football team: “I’m just a plow hand from Arkansas, but I have learned how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm others down, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat, together, a team.” One heartbeat! That’s what Paul is communicating here. A team – a single unit composed of individual components for the purpose of accomplishing a common goal. One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one baptism. We are many, yet we are one. Our team is defined by our relationship to Jesus. We are perfect together! We are healthy together! When we play as a team, we fulfill the God-given vision for his church.
One is critical to being the church. That doesn’t mean that we become mindless robots (or worse, zombies) without identity, personal creativity or beautiful uniqueness. Being one means that we take all of our diversity and giftedness and personality and education and funnel it all in the same direction to glorify God and to invite people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus to begin following him.