Ephesians 4: The Fullness of Christ

(This blog post is a sermon that was preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church on April 29th, 2018.  It is the first of a two-part sermon that belongs in a group of 6 sermons preached on a book study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, generally under the theme of a post-Easter challenge to Christians.  To date, this is the third of four messages I have preached on Ephesians in the last two years.  The Scripture verse for this sermon can be found here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+4&version=NRSV)

Today, I want to urge Fellowship Christian Reformed Church to become a community of peace.  To help illustrate this, I want to tell a story about my Mennonite mom. My mother in her younger years, and occasionally these days, displays one of the sharpest wits.  One time, while Air and I were living in South Korea, she showed it on her visit to us there.

We were eating at a Chinese restaurant with my vegetarian, and very talkative, Seventh Day Adventist co-worker.  He spent nearly 10 minutes extolling the virtues of vegetarianism to my mother, a woman who had raised eight kids on meat and potatoes. For my mother, no meal was complete without a substantial portion of meat and was not considered a success without an audible digestive moment.  As the minutes dragged on, I attempted to change the topic of conversation at least twice, but to no avail.  My mom, visibly annoyed by his ongoing chatter, deadpanned to the table a version of Jesus’ words in Matthew, “It isn’t what goes in your mouth that kills you; it’s what comes out.” Everyone, including my well-meaning and ideological friend, got the point. If we actually knew who we were talking to, many words would not need to be said, and we wouldn’t be distracted by hot topics of the day, Instead, would focus on the unity and maturity of the group and the members to which we belong. We would understand ourselves as belonging to a community of peace.

In this transition passage in Ephesians, typically understood as the beginning of the application part of the letter, Paul lays out the life of the Church in a way that describes a new reality in which we are to live.  It embodies two thematic intentions: the unity of the church and the maturity of its members.  Remarkably he carries forward a theme throughout the letter that we too often overlook, often for some of the more symptomatic issues that appear throughout the letter that act as hot topics to our current ears, including: wives submitting to husbands, the resolution of hostilities in the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the focus of Paul as prisoner of the Lord, what happened to Jesus upon his crucifixion and before his resurrection, the relationships between children and their parents, and Paul’s de facto support of slavery. These hot topics can serve as a distraction from the overarching themes of the letter, in which chapter 4 offers the crucial transition point between heavenly realms and earthly living, between idea and reality, between encounter with the Christ and personal response, and between prayer and practice.

I believe the overarching theme of the middle part of Ephesians can be described generally as “the fullness of Christ”, and specifically and most practically as the way of peace.  I am aware that certain members of this congregation will immediately be closed off to a direct message of peace, which is not the same as justice, recalling various tragic events of history that included mass slaughter, rape, and destruction of land and home. Yet, we might indeed be foolishly ignoring, due to hardness of heart, a particular reality of peace outlined for us here in Ephesians.

In verses 1 – 3, Paul calls the Christians of Asia Minor (of which Ephesus was the center) into a reality of peace and declaring it to be the life worthy of our calling not only (nor even primarily) as individual Christians, but as a church.  Through the bond of peace, we are to be completely humble and gentle, patient, and bearing with one another in love.  We are to keep the unity that is based in the reconciling death of Christ outlined in 2:14 -22.

Verses 11 – 13 of chapter 4 outline a unity in diversity where he appointed some to be apostles, some to be evangelists, some to be prophets, and some to be teachers and pastors.  Why?  This structure is the mechanism that helps us reach unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God, becoming mature, and attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. And Paul’s almost footnote comment in verse 9 and 10 increasingly emphasizes the point, that this is not merely for the church’s edification, but in order to fill the whole universe.  In other words, the way of peace has a cosmic significance of encompassing all of reality.

Little did we know our particular habits and attitudes had such importance.  It isn’t that one’s despising of a neighbor only means a fence doesn’t get repaired, but it tears at the fabric of reality itself.  I think this is why when Paul writes, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” There is a very spatial and tangible reality that we are engaging with when we enter into church community, and it is cosmically vital to the salvation not just of our souls, but of the reconciliation of the world, and it is as a church.  The resurrection of Jesus is not simply to make a new you, although it is that also.  Jesus death and resurrection is to make a new “us.”

It is in this light, namely to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, that Paul’s more exact list of do’s and don’ts in 4:17 – 6:9 makes sense.  When Paul says that we should no longer live as the Gentiles do in 4:17 – 19, Paul is insisting that we do not live as unfaithful people do.  Our hearts should not be hardened, seeking spiritual satisfaction through sensual indulgence for which there is a continual lust for more – a kind of unending cycle that identifies what we may now call addiction, and particularly the lust for riches, sex, consumer goods, and the “instrumentalization” of any and all holy and sacred spaces under the heading of “pleasure.”  Surely Paul’s reminder here is not merely a warning against being consumed by sexual desire, but a reminder that all forms of sensual desire separate us from the life of God.  Hard hearts, otherwise known as pride, separate us from the life of God in a kind of perpetual deception and corruption.

We will then notice that when we are reminded to put on our new self in v. 24, it is because this is in order to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  But impressively, it does not, like the spirit of individualism, direct us toward our personal and individual experience of God, emphasizing the soul of the individual.  Instead, Paul writes v. 25 – 28 directly to the heart of where the individual meets the community.  To instill in us a vision of unity and maturity, Paul writes that we put off falsehood and speak truthfully.  The passage encourages us not to permit anger to cause us to sin, which gives the devil a foothold.  It encourages us not to steal, but instead, to put our hands to useful work so that we can share with others.  In these verses Paul’s focus for the Ephesians (and likely to all churches in Asia Minor) is discipleship of the community of believers.

But towards what?  What reality is it that Paul is asking believers to inhabit?  Well, all of the behaviors being taught are embodied in the whole idea of peace.  Put off falsehood / speak truthfully… put off unwholesome talk / build others up… get rid of bitterness, rage and anger, and every form of malice / instead be kind and compassionate and FORGIVING.

Are these moral axioms motivated by justice commonly understood? I would venture to say that indeed, they aren’t. The emphasis here is not so much on justice, as if the truth were the only thing that mattered. The focus is on unity and maturity, in other words, peace.  Peace is the life of Christ.  Forgiveness is the life of Christ.  Peaceful community is indeed the fruit of the forgiveness God gave us in Christ. The Prince of Justice may indeed be a considered character for a comic book universe; the Prince of Peace is the one that is sovereign.

What is necessary to be a community of peace?  It seems that peace is not the name of absence of conflict, but rather peacemaking is that quality of life and practices of a group of people that knows themselves as a forgiven people.  Such a community cannot afford to overlook one another’s sins because they have learned that sins are a threat to being a community of peace.  The essential presupposition of peacemaking as an activity among Christians is a common belief that we have been made part of a community in which people no longer regard their lives as their own. We are not permitted to harbor our grievances as “ours.”  A community established as peaceful cannot afford to relish our sense of being wronged without exposing the wrong in the hopes of reconciliation. Wrongs are personal in so far as the personal is crucial to the common good.  In fact, Paul clearly indicates this when he says that by our unwholesome talk we grieve the Holy Spirit.  The personal is the very fabric of reality, and the cosmic significance of the bond of peace.  It is the very opposite of the hardness of heart that is exemplified by the very familiar axiom of contemporary individualism which says, “there are two types of problems: mine and someone else’s.”

From the perspective of peacemaking that sheds light on wrongs, confronts them, and forces us to be reconciled, we may in fact be required to lose the subject of our hatred.  It is a truthful peace.  By making such a peace, we are, in fact, practicing the presence of Christ, rather than his absence.  We are actually becoming the body of Christ as we practice truthful peace.  It makes us again, reconsider the sacredness of our practices, such as communion.

Stanley Hauerwas, in an essay entitled, “The Interpretation of Scripture: Why Discipleship is Required,” outlines this quite clearly.  Indeed, one suspects that part of the felt need among “the search for the historical Jesus” has some connection with the fact that these Christians originate in traditions where communion is celebrated as absence, rather than presence.  The search for the historical Jesus is a substitute for the willingness to share the life of Christ.  Searching for the historical Jesus presumes that if we just get the facts right we could really commit to whether our life could be fully shaped by God’s Kingdom determined by the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet, such a search cannot be substituted for the reality of Christ that is found through the sharing of this meal, and of the fellowship we have with each other.

In receiving communion from Jesus after Easter, we receive the gift of his life, God’s life. Through sharing God’s very life as Trinity, we are made part of a community that can live by forgiveness rather than hate, envy, and malice.  It is a community that is the creation of a new time and a new age.  In the meal of communion, we learn of God’s unfailing hospitality, of God’s unrelenting character to be reconciled to us, thus making it possible for us to be a community of peace in a violent world.

Peacemaking then has a particular historical character and is as tangible as Paul’s spatial way of describing God’s love.  Peacemaking as outlined here reminds us of Ephesians 2: 13 – 18 which specifies that Jesus is our peace, and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, so making peace.

Peacemaking among Christians is not simply one activity among others.  It is not built on forgetting, hoping that time heals all wounds.  It is not built on the avoidance of conflict either.  The bond of peace, is a unity that profoundly acknowledges our differences because we have learned that our differences are not accidental to our being a truthful people.

It reveals to us that the task of the church is to confront and challenge the false peace of the world that is too often built more on power than on truth.  To challenge the world’s sense of peace may well be dangerous.  When sham peace is exposed, it threatens to become violent.  But we shouldn’t be less truthful with the world than we are with each other.  By being less truthful we have no peace to offer the world.

We are also, as a church, prohibited from despairing that peace is possible.  Rather, as Hauerwas again points out, we must help the world find habits of peace so that violence is not the only alternative.  The great problem in the world is that our imagination has been stilled, that instead of confronting wrongs, we have tried to eradicate them.  In truth, we must say that the church has too often failed the world by its failure to witness in our own life the kind of conflict necessary to be a community of peace.  Without examples of peacemaking community, the world will settle disputes via violence. That North and South Korea talked this week, face-to-face is one sign, but another is that indeed the Toronto misogynist, who could have certainly been justly shot by the attending police officer, was peacefully detained.

As Christians, we cannot but rejoice in the calling to be peacemakers.  There is no more joyful task than to be a part of God’s peace.

(As a comment to what was preached above, I’d like to add one personal annotation that may not be retrievable from the text on its own.  I, a pacifist, of Mennonite Brethren upbringing, continue to believe in the Anabaptist message of peace, even though I feel at home in a community that generally espouses justice….. rather than peace.  By preaching this sermon, I felt that I was indeed challenging a group of people who lived in the Netherlands during the invasion by the Nazis, and who had fought against them.  They had experienced the loss of family and home, and still experience their life in Canada as a kind of exile, even though they have lived in Canada for more than 65 years at least.  The scars of this era still are felt now, and so to is the resentment towards pacifist responses to the Nazis in World War 2.)

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