United and Equipped

We are going to zoom ahead in the letter to the Ephesians a little bit, bouncing past what our Bibles denote as Chapter 3. You’ll notice one of the first words in our passage today is “therefore…” which means that our writer is about to shift gears.

The first portion of the letter has focused on doctrine… a reminder of what Paul had taught the Gentiles and what they together have said they believe about God, what they believe about the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and what they believe about their own adoption by faith through grace.

He reminded them that Christ came and proclaimed peace to those who were already near to God (the Jews) as well as those who had been far off (the Gentiles. The Ephesians themselves.  Us).  

And that because we are all siblings in and through Christ, there should be no walls between us.  No false separation based on human requirements.
No enmity based on traditions or long-standing segregation.

The reconciling, saving work of Christ was and is to bring us near to one another, near enough to be the bricks from which Christ builds a temple in which the God who created all of us and adopted all of us is worshipped and glorified.

Paul tells a little of his story, being careful not to make it all about him… and then he prays one of the most beautiful prayers I can imagine praying over a congregation…  I’m going to share it with you now, because it is one of the prayers I return to as I pray for this congregation.

Ephesians 3:14-21

Paul wants them to know… really really know… how completely and truly God loves them.  How completely God loves you. And me. Even as he confesses that we humans are fundamentally incapable of imagining the full power of God and all that God has done and is able to accomplish.  

Even the resurrection power on display in Christ is but a fraction of what our God is capable of…   

Let that sink in for a moment.

That is the power of the force of love that is at work for us.
That is the power of the the force of love that is at work in us.

You can see why Paul offers a prayer for our growth as members of a community of faith that seeks to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Because as Christ-followers, you and I have access to God. You and I have been invited… no, called… into the work of God here and now.  

We have been called into the work of Kingdom-creating, of world-reconciling.
The work of transformation.

This understanding of what it means to be the church is so much bigger than getting together on Sundays to pray and sing. This call is about leading a life – together – that is worthy of the new life we’ve been given as children of God.    

Here’s how Paul turns the corner and begins to address the question: How then shall we live?  

Listen to the word of God in Ephesians 4:1-16

—-

Honest and truly, this is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture. There is some powerful poetry here, calling us to unity.  Powerful enough that it’s really hard to miss out on the main idea.  

The ONE main idea.

But Paul being Paul, there is also some word play that isn’t totally poetic. The first part of that first couple of sentences have some repetition that we bears digging into a little bit. That pairing of called and calling is intentional, and it is important in making the connection between what we believe and how we live.

Paul is asking us to keep in mind the relationship between our being called – being chosen – by God and our calling – our assignment in the world.

No longer aliens and strangers but called and claimed by God, we Gentiles are now inextricably linked to the chosen people of Israel those who were already in.  Not that we had anything to do with this… of course. It was all God’s decision, God’s plan from the beginning. We were on God’s mind at the moment of creation.

Now, as a result, we who understand that love, we who have become aware of the gift of grace that called us home to God, we who are among those faithful saints, we all have callings…

We are to lead lives marked by humility, love and patience.
We are to lead lives that reflect the peace of Christ and the glory of God.
We are to lead lives that connect us to neighbor and community.

You see, God, who is active in every corner of creation, uses us… the called… to make sure that in every corner of creation, people are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, protected….   

We are the way that love shows up.
We are God’s plan.
We are the means by which salvation arrives in the form of humble service to those in the greatest need…Whether that need is for healing, friendship, advocacy or a hot meal.

In the book our Tuesday night group is reading together, Eugene Peterson says that if we are going to unlock this critical passage of the letter, we need to understand another bit of word play in that first sentence.  It’s a metaphor that Paul creates with the the word translated into English as WORTHY.

In the greek, the word is axios, which is the name for a set of scales.This particular set of scales is formed with a crossbeam balanced on a post, with pans hanging from either end.

Here’s how you might use the axios. Let’s say you have a known value… like a pound of lead. You could place that lead in one pan and then measure out a pound of another item… like flour… by pouring it into the other pan.

When the known weight (the lead) and the other item being measured (the flour) reach an equilibrium, a balance, they are axios… of equal worth.

They are worthy.
They have the same value, which in this case is the same weight.  

Flour and lead are nothing alike, but once they can be axios.  Paul’s statement is showing us that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s calling can be balanced – axios – with our human lives.  When we walk in the way of Jesus, live as transformed, resurrection power people, we are in balance – axios – with God’s calling.  

This means our calling can’t simply be a job or an occupation… even one as churchy as minister of word and sacrament… Or filling any other functional role within the church.

Our calling is so more than that!

Just as Jesus was sent to walk and eat with followers, to heal and feed the crowds, to laugh with children and cry over lost friends and celebrate at weddings, and well… bring the very presence of God into human life, our calling as Jesus-followers extends into friendship, into family life, into citizenship, into every aspect of the human experience.

All of which will most definitely require all the love, humility and peace we can muster.  

Because… have you been around people lately?
No… really…

Thursday morning, I had finished riding my bike and walked to the pool to cool down and stretch a bit. As I was putting on my goggles and headed to the steps, I heard a lot of noise coming from the corner… clearly some kind of kerfuffle was starting up. It was loud enough I wandered to where I could see.

There was no actual crash… just horns honking, doors slamming and a cloud of blue smoke drifting skyward as they let loose with some of the foulest language I’ve heard in a long while.

It was quite impressive, I must admit, and I’ve heard some pretty skilled cussers in my time.

But I’ll be honest… after 2-3 minutes of the heated exchange, they got back into their cars, and I was more than a little thankful that it ended with tires screeching and rude gestures flying rather than a gun or two going off.

I’m pretty sure that we would NOT categorize that interaction as having been Spirit-filled.

There was not much in the way of bearing with one another, maintaining unity of the Spirit or speaking truth in love on display.

To be fair, I have no idea who they were or what they believe. Or don’t believe.

And I’m pretty sure neither of them checked for Fish Stickers or churchy slogans on the other’s bumpers to see if this was an opportunity to help a brother grow up into Christ.  

But it was not an unusual situation these days…
People are angry and on edge.
And it’s hot, which doesn’t help.

As I cooled off in the pool, I was thinking about the ways that we almost crash into each other here… within the confines of the work we do as a body.  And we can find ourselves letting loose – though perhaps with less colorful language – as we unload the anger and fear and anxiety and other wall-building bricks that we’ve been carrying around.

After all, we’re still human.
Adopted and forgiven, yes… but still fallible.

And… here’s the crazy thing.

Some of that frustration and anger and all those other difficult emotions we experience in our life together

Some of that is a direct byproduct of the very way we are being pulled together as a body.

You may very well have noticed that we are not all alike.
We have different gifts and skills.
We have different perspectives and experiences.
We even come to the table with a pretty wide range of beliefs, which is pretty typical under a Presbyterian umbrella.

All of which is good… we need arms, toes, noses, elbows and all the wondrous variety of parts required to create a whole body. But all those differences make the unity that we are called to as a body…

Well…  it’s hard.  Especially if we try to get there in our humanness

That’s why Paul reminds us in this passage that we are called to a unity that is created by and grows in love, God’s love.

It is not based in our unanimity or even in similarity.
It can’t be.

The mystery of God revealed in Christ resulted in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles – definitely distinct groups. And they remained distinct groups… Equally loved and valued by God. Axios.  

Much the same way the flour and lead balanced on a scale are still very different substances… and yet axios.

There is and always will be a rich variety in the wisdom of God. Thus there is and always will be a rich variety in the people of God. All those distinctions we love to point out and use to exclude… Not a problem in God’s axios.

And thus to be worthy of the calling to which we are called, our lives must display a unity that goes well beyond tolerance. It must be rooted in the connections created by the Spirit, which are given and shared at the font in baptism.
One baptism.

Paul never assumes that the distinctions between groups and individuals within the body will cease, but that the work of the Spirit will allow a diverse church to grow together as a body.  No matter the source or complexity of that diversity…

Life together in the Spirit will yield the fruits of the Spirit, even as the gifts needed by the body become manifest.  And in the same way our adoption into God’s family is a gift of grace (not our work), we do not and cannot attain or earn the gifts of the Spirit.  But we can count on God’s generosity… knowing they are given for the equipping of the saints…for the building up of the body, so that all who follow Jesus might grow from childlike faith into their mature calling and unique contributions to the life of the community.

And remember, Paul says that we mature in our faith, not by calcifying in our beliefs or by checking off the lists in our doctrine, but by becoming sure of our identity in Christ.  

No one can come in and tell you that you are not worthy or somehow less worthy than they are. There are no second-tier believers, any more than there are second-tier churches.  

There is one body (made up of Presby’s, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, and all manner of baptists, lutherans and I could go on and on).

And that one body is empowered by one Spirit.

There is but one Lord, one faith

And one baptism (which can look like sprinkling or dunking or splashing)

There is but one God, the one who called and claimed and sends us out.

Just one.  

We are one manifestation of that body within these walls, which is part of the larger body we confess in the Apostle’s Creed as the one, holy, universal and apostolic church.

In order to be about the business of equipping the saints, who are to be about the business of living their calling to love their neighbors, we need to believe that – as the psalmist describes – we are a body that is wonderfully and fearfully made. Every joint and tendon, every muscle and nerve, each one of us, equally beautiful and absolutely essential, connected and ready to do its work when called upon.

Earlier this week, I came across an article from Inc magazine by Michael Schneider.  As happens pretty regularly in my brain, I ended up reading it through the lenses of this week’s scripture.

About halfway in, I thought to myself… If Paul were in the corporate coaching world today, he might have used the team analogy in his letters, rather than all that body language.  It also struck me that he would recognize the Spirit at work in some of what these Google researchers found about teams that do their work well… Teams that function worthy of the work for which they were hired.  

See, a few years ago, Google wanted to figure out how to create really good teams.
Really efficient teams.

Being a data-driven firm, they started gathering data. Researchers interviewed over 200 people and studied 180 teams to analyze 250 different team attributes. Two years in, they still couldn’t come up with the algorithm that would create the perfect team.

That’s when they started considering some of the intangibles…  which is when things get interesting for folks like me who aren’t aiming for a profitable company, but want to see a healthy culture in a church context. The research revealed that group norms play a big part in the success and failure of teams.

Norms are things like traditions and expectations, the shared rules that govern how people relate to one another when they gather to work or to play. Sometimes these rules are openly acknowledged and taught, but not always.  Some norms are remain unwritten and are just understood or caught.

They identified 5 key characteristics – each connected to those norms – that made for successful teams, at least as defined by Google.  

The first couple make especially good sense in almost any setting.

  1. Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles within the group. This is not so far off from  our Presbyterian norm that expresses our desire to see things done decently and in order.

The next two are where I started thinking… Yeah… this sounds like people who are maturing together in their callings as Christ-followers

  1. Meaning. The work has personal significance to each member. Not that the work makes the person significant… but that the work is meaningful in that person’s life and in the way they view their place in the world.  We’ve might be in trouble if our experiences and work together for God has no significance or meaning.
  1. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good. The work goes beyond taking care of us and our own…It connects us to the needs of the world beyond the team, beyond the church…

Now- this last one gets to the our very human tendency to create barriers to strong relationships within the body. And to build up walls between us and the people not yet reconciled to God.

  1. Psychological Safety.

Chances are good over the years you’ve been in a meeting… whether a congregational meeting, or a committee, session or trustee meeting and – out of fear of rejection or not wanting to look foolish – you have held back your ideas or questions.

This can happen when we’ve heard stories of other people being shut down or when we have witnessed others taking heat in similar situations. Frankly, it’s unnerving to feel like you’re in an environment where everything you do or say is being judged.

But imagine a different way of being.
A community in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask questions without fear of judgment. A group culture where everyone can let down their guard and feel known and valued for their unique contribution.

That’s psychological safety.
That’s being a sanctuary from the world.
That’s being the church.  

Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful in their projects.

Paul believed that churches should be filled with people who interacted with humility and gentleness, and with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  

Which sounds an awful lot like a church with a psychologically safe environment,
A church whose members who were less likely to leave,
A body more likely to trust and believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things through the diversity of its members and their diverse gifts and passions.

And ultimately, this sounds like a church that would be creatively and wholeheartedly connecting with and serving the people in their corner of creation.

All because they are growing up in the knowledge of who they are, who they belong to and how to live more fully into what they believe.

I so want to be part of that church…. How about you?

 

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