A Sermon Based Upon Ephesians 4:11-24
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 26th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 13/15)
I think most of you would agree that last year was one of the ugliest years for American politics. But at the same time somewhere wallowing in the filthy political pig pens of American life, there were also other people, heroes we might call them; most of them unknown, unsung, and unnoticed, who rose to the occasion to do, not only the right thing, but often the most exceptional thing.
Right in the middle of all that political and personal ‘mud-slinging’, the editors of USA Today reminded their readers how everyone is not like that, and some of us, are still great examples for all the rest of us. They told of the fatal shooting of 49 in an Orlando nightclub, and how a bouncer there, 24 year old former US Marine, Imran Yousuf, “just reacted,” leaping up and putting himself at risk of being shot to open the door and get people out. In another moment last year, Kyle Carpenter, a 21-year-old Marine private in Afghanistan, jumped on a grenade and saved the life of a fellow Marine. Carpenter survived, though with terrible, life-altering injuries. He became the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. Finally, in another unforgettable moment, after a man waiting on a Subway in New York City collapsed and fell on to the tracks, David Tirado, a security guard on his way home from work, even hearing a train coming only two stations away, jump down toward the man, and with the help of some others, pulled the man back up on the platform, saving his life just before the train came. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/06/16/orlando-heroes-new-york-subway-editorials-debates/85988636/
In addition to these, there are those ‘unsung heroes’ we all remember from the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, or others we learn about almost daily, on the Evening News. And of course, closest to us, there are our own ‘home grown’ heroes who have freely sacrificed, and given themselves for us; like parents, aunts, uncles, friends, health care professionals, and of course, the very people you and I depend upon in this church.
We all know that a people, a country, a church, and our civilized world, would not be able to survive very long, if everyone decided only to live selfishly, self-focused, and self-centered lives. Our world desperately needs heroes. In a culture that ‘throbs with celebrities, glamorizing wealth, beauty, muscle, and sex’, who, as James Howell writes, ‘seduce us away from God, thin us into superficial people, feed our narcissism, our hedonism, and our hollow existence,’ we are always in need of heroes who will call us to become better, bolder, and greater than we thought we could be. We need heroes who will help us get rid of the excuse of: “I’m only human,” who push us into living our life more courageously, and even more Christlike, so that we reveal the righteousness and holiness of God.
Pointing directly ‘heroes’ who had died as witnesses (martyrs) by living and dying with daring, emboldened faith, the writer of Hebrews wrote: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2 NET). Here, we don’t have the word “hero”, but we do have the word ‘witness’. The witness is not the person who talks about their faith, but it’s the heroic person whose life and death becomes an example for the rest of us to live by. Another word we have in the Bible, which might even bring us a closer to what it means to be heroic in living ‘better,’ ‘greater’ and more boldly, is the word ‘saint’. If there is any underused word in the church today it is this word.
Today, as come to where the Apostle’s Creed says, “the communion of saints,” we don’t just point to those who are rare or exceptional among us, but we are pointing to the kinds of heroes, who are supposed to make up and keep building the church. Did you know that in the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is always ‘saints’; it is always found in the plural, perhaps because you can’t be a ‘saint’ all on your own.
It is this ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship of saints’ that makes the church or community of Jesus Christ ‘real’ and ‘realized in the world. You will the word ‘saints’ used often in the New Testament. Many of the Letters of Paul begin by addressing all the members of the church as either ‘saints’ at least, people who are ‘called to be saints’ (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2). In English, ‘Saints’ comes straight out of the Latin word for holy, sanctus, referring us back to the biblical ‘hagois’, which is Greek for ‘holy ones’ (cp NAS).
But the question we want to consider today follows most naturally: “What does it mean to become one of the saints?” We normally think of Saint Paul, or Saint Peter, and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, of course talks about others who have been saints in the past, but have you ever thought about a ‘fellowship of saints’ being people like you or me; people who actually make up and keep building the church where we are right now? What does it mean to say or we believe the church is a ‘communion of saints?’
The WHO: A MATURE PERSON…THE MEASURE OF CHRIST’S FULL STATURE (Eph. 4:13)
The Presbyterian writer, Frederick Buechner once wrote, “God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called ‘saints’. That’s a beautiful writing, but not exactly what the Bible means when it speaks of ‘saints’. Right here in our text for today, the apostle Paul uses the word ‘saints’ to signify WHO we should become too, as the ‘called out’ ones, the church, the body of Christ, who are all ‘called to be saints’.
This whole process of ‘becoming’ saints goes back to the ‘gifts’ that were released into the world when Jesus died, was raised, and ascended on high. “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore, it says, “When he ascended on high he made captivity a captive; he gave gifts to people” (Eph. 4: 7-8). These ‘gifts’ are expounded further to begin with “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” who were given as ‘gifts’ from Christ ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ” (4:12).’ What Paul means is that when the ‘saints’ are equipped to do ‘the work of the ministry’ the ‘body of Christ’ becomes what it is supposed to be so that it can do what it is supposed to do. And the goal of this ministry is not just to care for people, but it is to create a community of people who care about God. These ‘saints’ are ‘equipped for the work of the ministry’ so that the church is built up until all are ‘mature’ and reach ‘the measure of the full STATURE OF CHRIST’—that is, become Christlike.
Now, becoming saints who are measured by their maturity in Christ sounds rather daunting doesn’t it? Who would want to ‘measure’ themselves by standing up beside of Jesus? Aren’t we saved by grace, through faith? Why should we in the church be concerned about being mature in our faith, or being measured by our Christlikeness? Well, Paul goes on to tell us what happens when a person settles for less than ‘Christ’ in their lives. They are ‘tossed to and fro…blown by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery…by craftiness in deceitful scheming’ (Eph. 4:14). That’s certainly a ‘mouthful’, but if you think about it, one thing harder than being saints, is to be part of a culture where everyone is pulling in all kinds of different directions, where the major concerns are about keeping everybody happy, and where people are always arguing only for their own ideas or opinions, with little regard for that which must be bigger than us all.
Nothing seems worse, than to be stuck in a culture or even a church culture, where the focus is more on ‘what people want’ than ‘who’ people are supposed to be’? That kind of culture gets very ugly and becomes difficult very, very fast. But a people whose overarching goal is to live for ‘who’ we should be, not ‘what’ we think or what we ‘want’—that is, to be ‘Christlike’, well, this is what we call church. And these people, whose heart’s desire is to live like Christ, even though they are not yet perfect at it, well these are the very people we should call ‘saints’. They are those who are constantly hungry for ‘communion’ and ‘fellowship’ with God, and with each other, because they are ‘saints’ who want to be ‘equipped’ ‘work of the ministry’ to bring ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and abundant ‘life’ into this dark and deadly world.
When I served as pastor of a small German Baptist congregation in eastern Germany, right next door to our city, was a small village called “Neuzelle”. It was once a small monastery for men and women who dedicated themselves to God. Once, while leading a tour of Americans in the beautiful baroque chapel, I met a young German teacher and we got into a conversation about German culture, and particularly culture in the Prussian state of Brandenburg, where Berlin is located. You see, Brandenburg was the only state, of all German states, where there is no religious education in the school system, but there is only ethics education. That approach is to try to teach youth to live a moral understanding of life, without the mention of the Christian faith, which is still the ‘state’ religion of Germany. How does that work in Brandenburg, I asked the young teacher. It doesn’t work, he answered abruptly. You just can teach young people to lead moral, humane, ethical lives, without giving them the greatest human example of ‘who’ they should become.
The HOW: CLOTHE YOURSELF WITH THE NEW SELF (Eph. 4: 24).
But ‘how’ do we become the ‘who’ God ‘called’ us to be? Within this wonderful text from Ephesians, and many other New Testament texts, we can see two definite angles on ‘how’ the ‘gifts’ given by Christ to the church, this ‘work of ministry’ by saints in the church, show us how to become a ‘community’ or ‘communion of saints’.
First of all, Paul clearly says in here, that to ‘grow up’, to ‘mature’, ‘into him who is Christ’, we must first ‘put away the former way of life, the old self, corrupted and deluded by its deceitful desires (NET).’ In the very say way that Jesus called his disciples to ‘deny themselves’ and ‘to take up his cross’, the writer of Ephesians, tells us that the church is always called upon to take a different path. Instead of living a life only to fulfill one’s own desires, which can so easily become corrupted by selfishness and sin, those who are ‘called to be saints’ are encouraged to ‘put off’ or ‘put away’ this ‘person they once were’ (CEB).
This is the first ‘effort’ of becoming Christian, and staying Christian; to determine and decide what is unnecessary for life, and to discover what may even be damaging or destructive in our lives. In most of Paul’s letters, including here in Ephesians, we are not left to wonder about what is damaging or destructive to life, especially to the life of a person ‘called to be holy, as God is holy’. The major destructive behavior’s Paul mentions here are, “falsehood”, “anger”, “stealing”, or “evil talk” that which Paul says, ‘grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ who has ‘marked us for redemption’ rather than destruction.
Other New Testament passages, especially Colossians (3:1ff) add to this list of ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’ behaviors that Christians must decide to ‘put away’ or ‘put off’ in order to be the kind of people God has called us to be;. But perhaps the most important point for us today, is what kinds of behaviors do we ‘put on’ or ‘clothe ourselves’ with when answer the ‘call’ of God to be his holy people, set apart as the church, called to be Christ’s body and ‘saints’ in this world? What I think is most revealing about Ephesians 4, is that it speaks with two very powerful images we must ‘grow up’ and ‘into’ to become Christlike ‘saints.’
The first new behavior or skill that a church must learn together, in order to create a community of saints, is a community that learns to ‘speak the truth in love’. This is certainly a difficult, demanding, but life-changing skill for the church to learn. Especially in this day of ‘political correctness’, we are most ready to ‘speak a lie’ in order to be nice. While the church is called to be ‘kind’ and ‘loving’, it is still called to ‘speak the truth’, but to speak it in love. This is exactly what Paul is doing in his letters; speaking truth in love. Recently, when they opened the Smithsonian Institute’s African American History Museum, John Lewis, the named godfather of the exhibited, said that when he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, he was not afraid, because he was called to ‘speak the truth to power’. He was did this with ‘truth’, truth spoken in protest, but also truth spoken in love. This is a ‘skill’ that the nation always needs, but the church must also have, if it is going to ‘build up the body with love’. We must ‘speak …in love’ and we must ‘build…with love’ to be a communion of saints.
The whole calling to be church can be reduced to how we talk to each other and how we walk with each other.
I will never forget how a young girl in our neighbor German Baptist congregation was sitting beside the pastor, when we had luncheon with that congregation on a special Sunday service. When I recognized that the pastor’s wife was sitting on the other side, I asked someone: “Who Is that Lady.” Oh, a member informed me, that lady is going through a terrible divorce. She sits at the head table alongside of the pastor, because she needs the church’s special care, prayers and attention.” Wow, I thought. Most people would be so ashamed when something like that happens, they wouldn’t dare be exposed publicly at church. But here is a church that exposes the truth, so that the church can give her special care and most of all love. What a different, redeeming, if not saving way to deal with the heartbreak and despair of divorce; not blame or shame, but grace, mercy, and compassion. Doesn’t it remind you of what it means to be a ‘communion of saints’?
In another church, a Sunday School teacher was teaching on the sacredness of life, encouraging adoption rather than abortion. All the class went along in agreement, shaking their heads, commenting how terrible and horrible a decision to abort would be. They just could did not understand how anyone could do that to their unborn child. Not long after that, one girl starts to weep, announcing that years ago, when she was young, she had made that bad decision. You could feel the shock come over the group; but immediately, rather than being judgmental, they became sympathetic, putting their arms around her, encouraging her, forgiving her, and announcing the gospel truth in love; that God forgives, so we must also forgive each other, and most of all, forgive ourselves. Isn’t that again, what it means to become a ‘communion of saints’ , not to be perfect in life, but to be perfect in speaking the truth, but also speaking it in love?
The WHY: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles live… (Eph. 4:17 NRS)
Of course, the big question is can we really live like this? Can we become saints who delicately, but also decisively, live the truth and ‘speak the truth in love’ to ‘build up the body with love’? Paul speaks once more, directly to this very human, flawed, and imperfect, but perfectly forgiven church, based not on who the church is, but based upon the ‘power’ of the Christ who came to redeem and give his life for and to the church. Jesus came to call us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to become a ‘communion of saints’ who, as Paul says, ‘no longer live as the Gentile live…’ (Eph. 4:17). Now, these saints, shown in Christ ‘who’ saints are to be, and now explained by Paul ‘how’ we to be saints, are finally instructed ‘why’ we must become saints.
Answering ‘why’ we are to become saints, Christ’s holy people, consider many the qualities Paul writes about in the rest of his letter. These qualities make us a community of holy people—saints’ who differ from the world around them/us (Gentiles=unbelievers):
WE MUST no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine….. (Eph. 4:14 NRS).
WE MUST not be darkened in (our) understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart…
WE MUST not lose ‘all sensitivity, abandoning ourselves …to practice every kind of impurity. (Eph. 4:18-19 NRS).
WE MUST ‘put away our old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts (EPH. 4:22 NRS)…We must put away falsehood, speaking the truth to our neighbors….
WE MUST “not sin in our anger sin;...not make room for the devil.
WE MUST labor and work honestly our own hands…to have something to share with the needy.
WE MUST not: …”Let evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, and ….not grieving the Holy Spirit of God.
WE MUST… Put away all bitterness and wrath, wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
WE MUST…. Live as children of light--for the light is found in all that is good and right and true (15).
WE MUST: Be careful then how we live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil….
And finally, WE MUST: not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is, and not get drunk with wine,….but be filled with the Spirit, (Eph. 4:25-5:18 NRS).
While these many ‘musts’ sound daunting, we need to remember again that the communion of saints are people who live, not by their own strength, but by the power of the Spirit, because the Spirit of Christ has brought God’s rule and into our lives. We are able to put off the old person , and put on the new person because Christ is in us, the Spirit is leading us, and, as Hebrews says, ‘….we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,”. This is why we are able to ‘ lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race..set before us, as we also look to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,… (Heb. 12:1-2).
Why do we surround ourselves with so witnesses (or a communion) to hold us accountable to each other so we as ordinary people feel called to live such holy lives? There is only one reason why: We are salt and light for the world. In other words; the church, you and me—those who are part of the redeemed, are here for this purpose---to be lights pointing to this world’s only hope for redemption—Jesus Christ.
Recently, when the comedic writer and actor Gene Wilder died of complications from Alzheimer's disease, people wondered why they had not know of his condition. Wilder was well known, especially for his role as Willy Wonka, in the much beloved children’s movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It was because of his popularity with children that he did not reveal his condition. Gene Wilder said; “I don’t want to see a child lose a smile”.
It is said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child” In the same way it takes a community of saints to save a child. Who wants to see the children lose their future hope because we did not live holy lives before them? Isn't that good enough reason to believe and to become a communion of saints? Amen.