August 12, 2018 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Many of you know the little finger game about the church. I learned it as a child. I can’t say exactly when, it seems I have always known it. It goes like this (see image).
Here is the church,
Here is the steeple,
Open the doors, and see all the people.
I see many of you do know this little game. However, I am very sorry to have to tell you, according to New Testament theology, this game is wrong. I’m sorry. If any of our New Testament authors were to correct this little game, it would probably go something like this:
Here is a building,
it’s probably someone’s home, so there is no steeple.
But if you open the doors,
the church is the people.
Though different books of the New Testament nuance how they speak of the church, all see the church as the people. After all, they didn’t have buildings. The author of the letter to the Ephesians has a rich, vibrant, and deep understanding of church. In the letter the author refers to himself as Paul. For the first three chapters of this little letter, Paul lays out his theology of church. The word in Greek is ekklesia, which means ‘the gathered community’ or ‘the gathered assembly.’ This community is called together by the Holy Spirit, Paul says, in order to be the Body of Christ here on earth. The church is the Body of Christ here on earth. Jesus Christ is the head of the church, giving direction and instruction to all the different parts of his Body. All the parts must work together, each doing their part, to fulfill the world of Jesus in the world.
As the letter to the Ephesians opens, Paul is excited. He can envision this new community in Christ—the Body. Paul sees all this different parts brought together: Jew and Gentile, different genders, different social classes, different nationalities. Each brings their uniqueness and work together—the differences complimenting each other—to work in unity under the direction of Jesus. It is wondrous. It is miraculous! It is awesome! This unified Body, made up of diverse parts, works together and shines the light of God’s glory for all the world to see. Paul says at the close of chapter one: “God has put all things under Jesus’ feet and has made Jesus the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of Jesus who fills all in all.” The church is the fullness of Christ!
How did this happen? It happened here (points to baptismal font), in these waters of our baptism. Paul spends chapter two describing the old life, the pre-baptismal life, of the members who make up the Body. You were dead, Paul says. You were cut off from God. You were led astray by the demands, seductions, and temptations of this world. But then, you encountered Jesus and entered into these waters. You went down into the waters and died with Christ, died to your old self. You shed that old self, washed it away, and rose with Christ into new life…and into a new community—the Body of Christ. You became this vital, unique, precious part of the whole Body, working for the Kingdom of God.
Paul spins this vision, paints this picture. It is as if he stands before the congregation with his eyes closed, describing what he can envision in his mind through the gift of the Spirit. And then, at the top of chapter four, Paul opens his eyes and takes in the reality before him. Chapter four, verse 1: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord beg you…BEG you…to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” Begs. Pleads. Implores. All through chapters one through three Paul shares the vision of the Body of Christ working in unity, but in chapter four and following acknowledges that the church isn’t there yet…but we can get there!
In our reading today, Paul gives us a truly impressive list of the ‘dos’ and the don’ts’ of life within the ekklesia, the Body of Christ. There can’t be lies in the unified Body. No pretenses. Certainly we get angry—at injustice and wrongdoing—but our anger cannot lead to more harm. And we can’t let that anger fester within us. We can’t steal from each other, but not because we shouldn’t take each other’s property. We shouldn’t steal from each other for we should be working to help the poor. And how we speak to one another is important. Each word should be a gift! Can you imagine that? How would the world look if all followers of Jesus treated each word they spoke, wrote, tweeted, or texted as a gift to build up each other?
Paul goes on for a bit. The list is a bit daunting if you stop to really consider it. Of course we want the church to embody all of these things Paul’s lists. Right now, though, we ache for the church to embody even half of this list—not just how we live with one another here at St. Paul’s, but across the United Methodist Church, the Church nationally and globally—as an example to our nation and the world. But we tell ourselves that we are only human. How can we even come close to forgiving as quickly and thoroughly as God does in Christ Jesus, as Paul calls us to in his letter?
Paul’s daunting list should be a challenge to us, an ideal to strive for. It should be something we, as the church, hold before us. But the heart of the matter in this letter is in that last little bit in our reading today—after the scary call to see what God does and copy it. Paul implores, “Keep company with God and learn a life of love… Observe Christ… Love extravagantly, not cautiously.” Jesus loved not to get something from us, but to give himself completely to us. Love like that. Keep company with God? Observe Christ? How do we do that? Where do we see Christ in this world? In the Body of Christ, of course. We keep company with God by being deeply present within the Body of Christ.
That is one of the blessings of the ekklesia—as we come together, so many diverse parts working in unity, in harmony, guided by our head, Jesus Christ, we engage in the world of the Kingdom. Perhaps we should say, we engage in the work of the Kin-dom—building the family of God, the Beloved Community. Through our baptism, we become part of Christ’s Body at work in the world. We represent Jesus in whatever corner of the world our church is called to work. We embody Jesus—we do—the ekklesia, the gathered community.
And you have witnessed it. Picture a time you experienced the Kin-dom of God within the gathered community. Remember a moment when the Body of Christ came together as Paul envisions in the beginning of his letter. Perhaps it was when you experienced an unexpected, heartfelt, and much-needed welcome. Maybe it was a time when a need arose—for a person, a family, a community—and the church came together, the parts working together, to help this need. Maybe it was here in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning, as the community gathered and lifted their voices as one in songs of praise, and just for that moment, you could hear the great cloud of witnesses in the heavenly home singing along.
The more we gather as the community, the Body—in larger worship, in small groups, in study, in prayer, in acts of service side-by-side—in the church or out in the community—the more we keep company with God, the more we observe Christ. We gain an understanding of what it looks like to love like Jesus—to love like that. Certainly God, Jesus, and the Spirit meet us in our personal devotional life, in times of prayer and meditation. These are very important in our life with God. Yet Jesus gave us these waters for a reason. The Spirit calls us together for a reason. And that reason is nothing less than to be THE Body of Christ in and for the world. Through us the world keeps company with God and observes Christ, and we experience God in Christ through each other.
How have you been called to come together with your family in Christ? How are you called to be part of the Body of Christ, to offer your uniqueness, to share your gifts and talents and skills? Is it in worship—up front or behind the scenes? Is it in a small group community—on already formed and a new group you can envision? Is it in study or prayer…or service? What kin-dom living does the Spirit whisper to you, and probably to others so you can engage in the work together? How will you answer this call? How will you give you uniqueness into the work of God in the world through the Body of Christ?