Archive for August, 2016

There is one body, one Spirit, one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 

 

 

Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:1-16 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

July 24, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills

 

Unity

Introduction

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

One God and Father of all.

Seven assertions of oneness in fewer than three verses. Do you think Paul was trying to make some sort of point?

In case you’re not certain, consider that these seven uses of the word “one” are bracketed two uses of the word “unity.” In v. 3 Paul says Christians should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In v. 13 he says we’re called to build up the body of Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

The Greek word translated “unity” is found only here in the New Testament. Since rare words generally reward close attention, the central portion of this sermon will focus on the unity of the Spirit and the unity of faith and knowledge.

To give some context for Paul’s emphasis on Christian unity, we’ll begin with a brief overview of his letter to the Ephesians. We’ll end with a look at one of the most vivid phrases in all of Paul’s writings, which comes in v. 14, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”

As we listen for what God would have us learn from his word today, may we be drawn more fully into the unity he created and desires for his people.

 

  1. The Letter to the Ephesians

Paul had founded the church in Ephesus on the second of his three missionary journeys. From Acts 19-20 we learn that he returned to Ephesus on his third mission trip, this time staying more than two years. On that third journey, he used Ephesus as a base for ministry in nearby cities. In fact, some suggest the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3 were planted by Paul.

That’s an noteworthy detail, because unlike most of Paul’s letters, Ephesians doesn’t deal with a specific problem that’s troubling a specific congregation. For this reason, among others, many think Ephesians was a circular letter; that is, it was written with the intent that it be read not only by the church in Ephesus but also by the other churches in the region.

Ephesians most likely was written around the year 60 while Paul was in prison in Rome waiting for his trial before the emperor. His letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon seem to have been written about the same time and, along with Ephesians, are collectively known as Paul’s prison letters.

Ephesians and Colossians both have as their main theme that Jesus Christ is the head of his body, the church. However, while Colossians emphasizes the headship of Christ and corrects false teachings about the person of Jesus, Ephesians emphasizes the unity of Christ’s body, the church, and, as I noted a moment ago, doesn’t deal with any specific problem of belief or practice. Rather, as one commentary describes it, Paul wrote Ephesians “to expand the horizons of his readers, so that they might understand better the dimensions of God’s eternal purpose and grace and come to appreciate the high goals God has for the church.”[1]

That’s a wonderful description. Paul wrote the letter that contains this morning’s New Testament reading to expand the horizons of his readers. Specifically, he wrote to broaden and deepen their understanding of the nature and function of the Church. Even more specifically, he wrote to help the Christians in and around Ephesus better understand both the source and the goal of the Church’s unity.

Following a format similar to that used in many of his other letters, Paul begins Ephesians with doctrine, describing what we’ve received from God and our position as members of Christ’s body. Our Scripture lesson, Chapter 4:1-16, begins the second main section of Paul’s letter. These chapters consist primarily of practical applications of the first three chapters, as Paul explores the implications of God’s grace for the church. This passage itself divides into two main parts: Verses 1-6 discuss the unity of the Spirit, while verses 7-16 explore unity of faith and knowledge. We’ll look at each section in turn.

[1] http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-ephesians/

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 612.

 

  1. The Unity of the Spirit

First, Paul writes, Christians are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I want to focus on two words from that phrase: maintain, and unity, taking them in reverse order.

As I noted earlier, the Greek word translated “unity” is used only twice in the New Testament: here and v. 13. Literally, this word connotes “a state of oneness … that which is united as one in contrast with being divided or consisting of separate parts.”[2]

 

That which is united as one. That’s a key observation. Paul knows that a local congregation has more than one member. He knows that different people from different backgrounds with different gifts together comprise a single church. He also knows that in every local church, and also in the Church universal, all these individuals are united as one person, as one body – with Jesus Christ as the head.

All Christians are united as one because all Christians have one Lord and savior: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Because we already are one, it’s not our job to create Christian unity. Jesus, the head of the church, has already done that for us. In response, our task, and here’s the second word I want to highlight, is to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

One reason the word maintain pops off the page at me when I read this passage is that a lot of mischief has been done in a lot of churches in the name of Christian unity. Much of that mischief has been managed by those who insist it’s the job of every Christian and every congregation to create Christian unity.

It is not. Like our salvation, our unity is God’s gift to us. We are one body. You and I don’t need remote ecclesiastical institutions thundering directives down from perches of privilege, ordering us little people to create a form of unity that they have made in their own image. Christians are one body. Our task is to maintain the unity we’ve been given.

To be sure, that’s not always easy. Unity is an area of church life where we’ve got some deferred maintenance that needs attention. And Peter O’Brien increases that challenge by reminding us that Paul, “is not speaking of a unity at any price in which the fundamental truths of the gospel are jettisoned.”

That’s a crucial word of warning. Many who insist that today’s Christians must create Christian unity insist with equal fervor that the only way to do so is by abandoning such “divisive” doctrines as Jesus’ Incarnation, Resurrection, and his Atonement for our sins. Of course, if we abandon the Incarnation, Resurrection, Atonement, and other core Christian teachings, whatever unity we create in the process won’t be Christian unity.

To return to a theme from my two sermons here at the end of June, this congregation is in a time of transition. It isn’t your first, it won’t be your last. In times of transition, some things change. What must remain constant is this congregation’s commitment to those foundational beliefs that are the mark of Christian unity.

What are those essential beliefs? Again quoting O’Brien, “As a strong motivation for his appeal for unity [Paul] presents a series of seven acclamations, each using the word ‘one,’ in which the readers are reminded of the fundamental unities on which the Christian faith and life are based.”[3]

Paul groups these seven acclamations in two sets of three, with a single “one” at the end.

 

Triptych I

In v. 4 Paul affirms, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.”

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

As I was sitting in Virginia working on this sermon, my thoughts drifted north to Elmer, not only to this church, but also to a shelf in Mom and Dad’s bedroom where, for more decades than I care to admit, a triptych of photos has sat.

A triptych, that’s t-r-i-p–t-y-c-h, is a technical term artists uses for three panels that are hinged together. Originally, triptychs were paintings, usually on similar themes. Today, the panels are more likely to contain photographs.

The triptych that came to my mind isn’t anything special in and of itself. It has three 5×7 metal frames connected by hinges. Most of you probably have something similar somewhere in your house. The one I’m thinking of, however, is held together by more than mere metal hinges. The first picture shows me in cap and gown receiving my diploma from and shaking hands with Houghton College president Dr. Daniel Chamberlain. The second shows Bill in cap and gown receiving his college diploma and shaking hands with President Chamberlain. And by now you’ve probably guessed that the third shows David getting his diploma and handshake from Dr. Chamberlain.

As I said, this triptych is bound by more than hinges. It’s bound by a shared theme. It’s bound by shared memories. It’s bound by family.

When Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope,” he creates a triptych similar to the one I just described; three related images united on many levels.

My picture comes first in the triptych I described because as the oldest, I was the first to get my degree. Paul probably mentions one body first because the church as the body of Christ has been the major theme of his letter. The one Spirit is the Holy Spirit, who gives life to the body, whose work helps make its unity visible to the Church and to the world.

To help us better understand one hope, I’ll again quote Peter O’Brien, who writes, “God’s calling finds its origin in the choice of his people in Christ before the world’s foundation (Eph. 1:4) and becomes effective in their lives through the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 8:30). When God calls believers into a relationship with himself he calls them to a particular hope (Eph. 1:18) which is sure and certain since it rests on his faithfulness …”[4] (emphasis added).

One body, one Spirit, one hope. Each intimately bound to the others. All indispensable components of Christian unity.

 

Triptych II

In v. 5, Paul puts a second triptych on display: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

To reverse Paul’s order, in baptism, believers (or for Presbyterians and some others, the children of believers) are symbolically united with Jesus by re-enacting his death and resurrection, whether through sprinkling or immersion. As we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you and I visibly illustrate our unity with Jesus and with each other.

In the early church, baptism was associated with the earliest Christian confession of faith, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul’s acclamation of one faith probably refers to that public confession.

One Lord is a reference to Jesus. The Greek word here translated Lord is kyrios. In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Paul would have used in his preaching and teaching, kyrios translated the divine name, Yahweh, God’s personal name, which he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14).  The earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews, intentionally applied this title to Jesus, showing their understanding of Jesus’ oneness with the God of Israel, and with the Holy Spirit, as a Triune God. [5]

To be sure, neither Paul nor any biblical writer presents a fully worked out doctrine of the Trinity. But to insist, as some do today, that the idea of Jesus as fully God first emerged several centuries after his death, or to assert that the concept of the Trinity isn’t found in the Bible, is to ignore the consistent teaching of the New Testament.

 

One God and Father of all

Paul’s seventh and final use of the word “one” in this passage comes in v. 6, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Not only does this verse further support the doctrine of the Trinity, it also further highlights Christian unity. As Andrew Lincoln writes, “The climactic acclamation of the one God in his universality is meant to provide the most profound ground for the Church’s unity. … it is the Church that is the expression of God’s unity. … When the Church fails to maintain and express unity, it radically undermines the credibility of its belief in the one God.”[6]

The Church is one body. Christian unity is God’s gift to his people. We can’t create it. But we surely can, and sadly, we often do, make it hard for those around us to see it. To make our oneness more visible, the 21st-century Christians in and around Elmer, like the first-century Christians in and around Ephesus, are called to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

 

 

 

III. The Unity of Faith and Knowledge

We’re also called to keep working “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” That’s the second time the word unity is used in this passage, and, once again, it deserves careful attention. However, since I’ve taken up most of my time considering the unity of the Spirit, I’d like to share just a couple thoughts on the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

As Paul has said repeatedly, the Church is one. We are one body. But we don’t always act like it. Even though we share one faith, we tend to put the emphasis in different places. James Torrance has a wonderful phrase for one of the ways we do that. He says most Christians are “functional unitarians.”

What he means is that while we genuinely believe the doctrine of the Trinity, we tend to focus on one of the three persons to the near exclusion of the other two. For example, in the mainline denominations, the emphasis tends to be on God the Father. Evangelicals focus on having a personal relationship with Jesus, God the Son. Pentecostals and charismatics highlight the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

There’s nothing wrong with lifting up one member of the Trinity on any particular occasion. But if, over time, we consistently ignore two of the three, we risk becoming Torrance’s functional unitarians.

A similar imbalance can occur between faith and works. Throughout the history of the church there have been groups so focused on right belief that they saw the behavior of their members as irrelevant. On the other side, some groups have denigrated right belief, insisting that right behavior was all that mattered. Both groups are wrong. Both have proved divisive. Both have made the unity of the Church less visible.

How can you and I show “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” In many ways. The way Paul describes here is by honoring the gifts God has given various members of his body, gifts that help maintain Christian unity.

 

Apostles, etc.

In vv. 11-12, Paul lists some of those gifts, along with the reason they were given to the church. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

God didn’t give these gifts so that a few could do the work for all the rest. He gave certain gifts to certain individuals so the whole body could be equipped for the work God intends the whole body to do, so that the one body could continually grow in “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

 

Winds of Doctrine

That observation leads to the last phrase I’d like us to explore. God gave these gifts “so that we [that is, the church, the body of Christ] may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”

I’m not a nautical person. The Navy was Dad’s gig, not mine. But when I read these verses I can see in my mind’s eye survivors of a ship that’s gone down in the Atlantic. Some are clinging to bits of debris. Some have made it into life boats. Others are bobbing around in bright orange life jackets. But all are being tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind. And as they’re tossed up and down and swept from side to side, they’re carried ever further from each other.

False doctrine, false preaching and teaching, can similarly separate Christians and congregations. One of the reasons God gave the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers is to protect his people from just this sort of separation. Pastors generally combine the roles of prophets, shepherds, and teachers. Prophets bring the word of God to the people of God. Shepherds make sure that their flock is well fed and kept safe. Teachers help others understand the truth and apply it to their lives. One reason we value pastors so highly is that they fill so many critical functions in the life of the church.

How many of you here this morning are ordained elders, not necessarily serving on session at the moment, but ordained elders?

In the absence of a pastor, many pastoral responsibilities fall to you. Your first responsibility as an elder isn’t seeing to it that the budget is balanced or that the steeple doesn’t fall into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Those things are important, but they’re not your primary duty. Your main responsibility is overseeing the spiritual well being of this congregation.

You do that in many different ways. But in keeping with the theme of this sermon, I’m only going to focus on one.

As most of you know, I spent five years as a pastor. I used to remind my elders that they were the congregation’s first line of defense should any false teaching come from the pulpit. Elders have the responsibility to know the Bible well enough to know if it’s being abused. I told my elders I’d prefer it if they didn’t interrupt the sermon, but rather spoke with me at the back door after church. But I told them I expected to hear from them if they ever thought I was going astray. That’s not an easy or a comfortable task, but it’s a vital one.

It’s vital because one of the great dangers facing Christians and congregations today is the church’s tacit acceptance of the cultural assumption that there’s no such thing as truth, that there are only interpretations. Think for just a moment about this statement: There’s absolutely no such thing as absolute truth. Is that an absolutely true statement? If it’s true, then it’s false. That’s the very definition of an incoherent notion. It doesn’t hold together. If you even look at the idea, it falls apart.

And yet, in far too many churches, especially when it comes to things like sermons and Bible study lessons, this incoherent view of truth takes a form that goes something like: We all believe the Bible is true, but there are many different interpretations of the Bible. Leaving aside for now those in our churches who don’t believe the Bible is true, again it only takes a moment’s reflection to see the problem: Does the fact that there are different interpretations of the Bible mean that all interpretations of the Bible are therefore necessarily true?

If I were to walk outside with you after the service and say that my interpretation of the weather was that it’s 32o and we’re being pelted in the face by freezing rain, would you think, well, that’s his interpretation of the weather and it’s just as good as my interpretation that it’s 92o and we’re sweltering under a blistering sun? No. You’d probably think that I was suffering from heat stroke and cart me off to the ER. At least I hope you’d be so kind.

Why, then, are so many Christians so naïvely willing to accept the incoherent notion that almost any possible interpretation of the Bible is “true,” and that there’s no way to judge between them? Certainly not all Christians think that way. But I know some who do. Some of them wear clerical collars and fill pulpits Sunday mornings.

What, then, about those who recognize the problem but who aren’t quite sure how to tell which interpretations of Scripture are true and which are false? For those of you who find yourself in that place, let me wrap up this sermon with a short checklist.

 

Conclusion

There is one body, one Spirit, one hope.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 

If you can keep in mind those two triptychs and that final acclamation, you’ll be able to tell whether or not a sermon or lesson is helping you maintain the unity of the Spirit and helping you attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

One God and Father of all.

[1] http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-ephesians/

[2] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 612.

[3] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 280.

[4] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 281.

[5] Adapted from Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition., The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 133–134.

[6] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990), p. 239.