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Ephesians 4:1-16 (NRSV)
Paul was a pastor. Now I say that not to insult him or anything, rather to say this – pastors aren’t theologians, they aren’t academics or strategic planners. In fact, if they want to be effective, they have to be much more specific than that because they are not dealing with ideals as much as with people, with the same inconsistencies, complications, and dichotomies that the pastors themselves have. That’swhy I emphasize that Paul was a pastor – in his letters, he addresses specific situations with specific people in specific places. It is we who have turned this all around and taken his letters as if they were written to everyone, in every time and place.
Paul is writing to a particular group of people. A group he knows. So when he leads off with, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…”, you can be sure that the bond of peace and the unity of the Spirit are nowhere to be found in the church at Ephesus.
Maybe it’s because there are legitimate differences of opinion about how to proceed on a major issue…maybe it’s because of general division and strife in society that is leaking into the church life…maybe it’s because they cannot agree on the color of tile to put down in the foyer, but sometimes the reality is that church is church and since churches are made up of people they come with contention and conflict. So when Paul pleads with them in this letter, a letter written to them from his jail cell in Rome by the way, he begs, the text says, for something that does not exist. And I guess I ought to mention something here – while I keep saying “Paul”, this is probably NOT Paul’s letter. It’s likely someone writing in Paul’s name, which was a common thing in the ancient world as a sign of admiration. I think the writer came from the “school of Paul” and must have imagined what Paul felt like, there in a prison cell – AGAIN – facing the most serious charges he had faced and guessing that his time on this earth was not long. And this writer imagines that his call to the church in Ephesus, the church he had spent the most time with, was a call for unity. “There is one body and one Spirit,” the writer states, “…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” It’s not the case. Not in Ephesus, a culturally and religiously diverse city, teeming with the smells of exotic spices, the sound of foreign tongues and the statues dedicated to god after god after god. There is not one of anything.
But then again, I don’t think this is a directive as much as it is a dream. It’s a dream dreamed forPaul, in the spirit of Paul, oriented towards Paul and what Paul has taught his churches about the Way of Jesus. Paul is used to the language of dreaming, he uses it all the time, asking his churches to imagine a life in Christ and to seek love and compassion and generosity. But Paul’s message is more than just the power of positive thinking. Paul genuinely believes that the world has changed. He more than believesit – he trusts in it, he depends on it. His imagination for this new world is so strong that he makes bold claims about it – in Christ, Paul writes, “…there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…in Christ, we are all part of the Body, raised with Christ into a new life, given gifts unique to each of us – some teachers, some prophets, some evangelists, some the makers of the coffee and some the singers of the songs.” None of that is, of course, the complete reality of his students or his church members. It’s not completely true for us, either.
We do not live in a world where people love even their neighbors, much less their enemies. We don’t live in a world where we care very well for the sick or the poor. We don’t live where there is comfort for the brokenhearted, nor good news for the imprisoned. And Paul didn’t think that we did. He thought that this is the age, the era, theaeonin which we live, but something else is coming. Perhaps we believe that it’s still coming. This is what I mean when I talk about the kin-dom, something here and not here, something real and not real. It’s something we can point to, like the response we see after any natural disaster, where the bubbles fade and people care for one another, or the compassionate and grassroots reaction to a cruel immigration policies, where strangers are taken into someone’s home, and language barriers struggled with and food shared and love assembled. That occurs right alongside the ugly and hard news of our cruelty to one another, the searing images of torches carried through a town square in Virginia, the number of ways that we cloister ourselves together, loving only those who are just like us and fearing differences. It is always a tension, the kin-dom, a chance to engage and fortify our spiritual imagination, dreaming about what we trust will be someday.
Such work bolsters our soul’s resilience, a word that is in heavy use in our city’s strategic planning right now. Next Sunday we’ll are fortunate to be joined by DeVon Douglass, the Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Tulsa. She will talk to us about how the city imagines it’s future, and how resilience plays a major role, not only in helping us prepare for recovery from a tornado, for instance, but also in how we shape economic, social and environmental policies to help us be more resilient collectively. That starts, of course, with us being more resilient individually. Part of our awareness of what it takes to live well in challenging times like these is that we have to be more resilient, more able to resist the drag of a culture that seeks to alienate and divide.
Paul, and some of his students afterwards, are, I think, up to this kind of work. We wrap it in the language of Christianity, but the essence is the same. Work hard, be nice, develop, maintain and foster Hope in the world. Be careful how you speak to yourself and others. Practice humility and grace and love, gentleness and patience. This is no “pollyanna” wish from this author, full of self-help and feel-good advice, but rather a counter to the clear narrative in which they live. The author we call “Paul” states very clearly that, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” as if this is a widely held experience of the world. And we are to shield ourselves from it by practicing something else.
The dream for the people in Ephesus who will read this letter is to counter the polarizing cultural pull of the Roman Empire with unity in the Body of Christ. But the imagination of unity set forth here is not uniformity. It isn’t “one size fits all.” It is something into which we grow, following the Way of Jesus, seeking truth with love and striving for this kin-dom which we can mostly only imagine right now. Unity must look like something bigger than we can see, understanding that we can work with people from different denominations, different backgrounds, different expressions, different faiths to build a better world. In fact, it’s the only way we’ll get there, by following the same Jesus who reached across the boundaries of his day and age to imagine a new era, as we must do, sometimes like a disciplined mantra, developing our spiritual imagination to see what is not yet visible, to hear what is not being said, to speak the words that are not yet spoken. Against our cultural backdrop of hyper-individualism, surrounded by a shallow ethos of the “self-made man”, waist deep in the assertion that everyone just needs to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”, we imagine a different world. A world of unity through the sharing of story and of compassion born from inclusion, seeing this table as one open to all who would come.
This is why two Sundays from now, on the 19th, we won’t be here in this sanctuary. We’ll join our siblings in Christ, College Hill Presbyterian and East Side Christian, in the chapel at Phillips Theological Seminary to be together as a statement for our spiritual imaginations. We don’t know what the future looks like. All indications seem to point to our denominational identities breaking down in favor of an identity of what it means to walk in the Way of Jesus, beyond our denominational ideas about sacrament or doctrine. Three churches in Tulsa (at least) are making the claim that this means we seek to visit the imprisoned, to care for the hurting, to feed the hungry and shelter the vulnerable and such practices not only come before doctrine, they ARE doctrine. Three churches, using our different gifts the Spirit gives to us, hold the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ must be open & affirming, and that the table at which we share this meal of solidarity, where we commune with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, must be open to anyone who would partake of this tiny feast for our souls.
Two Sundays – one to imagine resilience, one to imagine unity. By coming together for worship we will expand our hearts and minds, picking up the work of building newness, taking the cornerstone the builders of our era refuse, the cornerstone of inclusion and justice, and using it as the solid rock on which we will stand.
That will be our unity, joined and knit together by the Way of Jesus, practicing his faithful walk, trusting in the God of Hope, in whom he trusted. We will walk together in God’s kind of unity, woven together, our diversity our strength, fed by this tiny meal with huge imagination.
May it be so. Amen.