An enduring memory of a happy childhood is the occasional trip up to Perth, generally to see Grandma or spend some time with our cousins. Our home in Collie wasn’t really all that far, now that I think about it, except we kids sure made it seem that way. Generally by about the time we got through Brunswick Junction the chorus would start: ‘are we there yet?’. It wasn’t till I had children of my own that I quite appreciated how patient my own parents were ….
An old Jewish proverb tells us that to journey with hope is more important than to arrive. Try telling that to four hot sticky children in the back seat of an EH Holden or to their harassed mother. It’s also, however, a moot point and not at all universally accepted in the Church, or anywhere else in our impatient want-it-now consumerist society, for that matter. How good are we at enjoying the ride, living in the moment in the growing-in-faith-but-not-quite-there-yet zone that we call this earthly life?
I remember some of my early efforts at encouraging God’s people to undertake a new project in community outreach, attend a meditation or Bible study group, or generally engage in one of the activities that make the difference between an alive and growing Church and the … well, other sort. ‘I’ve been a Christian for seventy years’, one lady told me. ‘I read my Bible. I say my prayers. I know I’m saved. Are you telling me that’s not good enough?’ ‘Umm,’ I said, ‘no … just that there’s always room to grow’. Deep down, of course, I suspected she had might have done more growing in those seventy years than I ever would.
It’s also a theological question, a question of what exactly we think Jesus has done for us and what we might need to do for ouselves. And many Christians would say that Jesus has died for us, so all we need to do is believe, and of course, yes, to love God and one another and that’s it, really. Salvation guaranteed. Others, including the writer of Ephesians, take a more real world view. Because actually it’s not quite as easy as it sounds, this loving others as Christ loved us business. It takes a lifetime to get the point and in the meantime we are like those four wriggling children in the back seat. No, we are not there yet. We are, as a theologian friend remarked to me a few years ago, perennially reliving Holy Saturday, caught in the betwixt and between of God’s appalling and wonderful act of reconciliation, and a world and a human nature that constantly lures us away from entering fully into the resurrection life that Good Friday makes possible.
So we’ve been reading through the letter to the Ephesians which up to now has been encouraging us to see beyond our differences, in fact to embrace our diversity as a new people called the body of Christ. No more Jew and Gentile but a new people with a new future and a new identity that allows us to recognise one another as brothers and sisters despite or even because of our cultural, linguistic and religious differences.
Except today, Ephesians assures us that we’re not there yet. As a new people, joined to one another across the boundaries of race and culture that continue to fragment human beings, we are set the challenge of living in a way that makes us worthy of our calling. And Ephesians is clear that the foundation of the community of faith is love: that strong, self-giving love that is the essence of God's relationship with us. And Ephesians tells us what that love in action looks like: gentleness, patience, humility, seeking unity. Love in other words isn’t just a mushy feeling we can switch on and off at will. Love doesn’t happen all at once, it can be hard work and is the fruit of commitment and relationship. A verb, not a noun, something we undertake intentionally and build up consciously - not something we fall into. And the unity – the being built together into the body of Christ – is what happens as we do it.
Ephesians hammers home this point about unity: one body, one Spirit - one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One people. But a people of many gifts, many perspectives and ways and abilities for the living out of faith. Modelling ourselves on Jesus whose exaltation by God is not the reversal but the essence and the outworking of his humble self-emptying love and service, we find ourselves called to different ways of services that reflect our unique human attributes and resources. But notice the very careful language! Some of us are called to be apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers – some of us! But for what purpose? To equip all of us – the saints – the word, hagios – which means holy or set apart for the service of God – is one of St Paul’s favourite words for all of us, God’s people. Actually, don’t settle for just being "parishioners" – a quaint English word if ever there was one which comes from the Greek paroikia which just means someone who lives next door to the oikos, to the house. The priest’s next door neighbour, in other words, somebody who lives close enough to hear the church bell and come when they’re called. Don’t just be parishioners to file in obediently when you are called. Be hagios, be the holy ones of God, here for a holy purpose. And Ephesians basically says the work of the specialists, the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to equip the holy ones of God for the real work, the work of all Christians – the Greek word for this is diakonía, which the version we read this morning translates as ministry but we might more helpfully translate as service in the world.
We are called to be one people, challenged to grow in unity through the exercise of love, and then fulfil the real focus of that love in service to others. Ephesians here is offering us an ever-expanding model of what it means to be Church.
It is a dynamic model, a growing model of what Christian life is all about because St Paul’s idea of the body of Christ is also something that is not static but growing. Our work of service has a purpose which is two-fold – for growing in maturity and for the building up of the body of Christ. The image in Ephesians of the body of Christ is not just a figure of speech, we are meant to understand something cosmic, the body of Christ as almost a physical reality that is expanding until it fills the entire universe – remember that earlier in the letter the writer talks about the whole created universe coming to its fulfilment in Christ. Certainly it is not meant in any scientific sense though some modern theologians have found in this image a useful way of talking about the whole of creation, not just human life, evolving and growing together into the wholeness that Isaiah imagines as peace and reconciliation between natural enemies. The body of Christ, then, as described by the letter to the Ephesians is an image not just of growth, but of growth towards the completion and the fullness of relationship between all created things that comes out of our shared origin and common destiny. And as we exercise our gifts in service to the world around us for the purpose of growing in love and unity and building up the body of Christ, Ephesians tells us, we ourselves also grow into the maturity of our God-given identity.
It’s about getting real – about the moral and spiritual seriousness of Christian life. ‘Grow up!’, Ephesians tells us. If what God has done for us in Jesus is this profound, if our own salvation and our own true identity is inseparable from our ministry of service to the world, then we need a vision that lifts us out of self-preoccupation into empathy and compassion, we need a vision of the world that is wide enough to sustain and strengthen us and help us grow in commitment and love. Don’t be like children, self-obsessed and attracted to the latest fad. Don’t be naïve, think carefully about your own motives and apply Jesus’ model of self-giving love to your own life. Are you really living into the expansive vision of the body of Christ – or are you living childishly and narrowly, addicted to the self-serving gospel of reassurance?
You might not like being spoken to like that. I don’t. I like to think that in six and a half decades I have worked out some priorities and learned to live with integrity – but Ephesians tells me I have some growing up to do yet. The acid test of our discipleship is in whether, in the final analysis, we are serving others or ourselves. The last verse of our reading brings it all together by taking us back to the image and metaphor of a body. We belong together because are all different – we have different gifts like different parts of the body and so we belong together. As a collection of competing individuals we don’t function at all, but with one another’s loving support and encouragement we can together grow in service into the image of the one who gave himself in service to us.
How well are we doing?