Sunday, August 2, 2015

One For All

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:1-16.

An inmate who hadn't previously approached me came over to say he was about to be released and he wanted to know what church he should go to. A lot of inmates ask where my churches are and I tell them. But when they find out that they are 30 miles from Key West, you can see from their expressions that they are probably not and indeed often can't travel that far. So I tell them to find a church where the gospel of what God has done for us in Christ is preached and where the community shows them love and support in their Christian walk. To the specific inmate I told you about, I summarized the right church as a place where they speak the truth in love. This was Monday. And what should pop up when I first looked at this week's lectionary on Tuesday but the very passage I quoted. 

Like all of our readings in Ephesians this is chock-full of big truths. Paul starts off by begging the church at Ephesus to lead a life worthy of the high calling they have received. He is begging because he is in prison and cannot be there to model it for them. Nevertheless, the fact that he has been imprisoned for his faith speaks of his commitment to God's calling. And notice that he is begging rather than commanding, which they might have expected because Paul is an apostle. But the first thing he says about living a life that is worthy is to do it with humility. This is difficult. We all have had experiences and we learn lessons from those experiences and we think what we have learned is correct. And so we are tempted to tell others, “This is what I have seen/heard/ experienced and that means we must do this.” 

The problem is that you may have learned the wrong lesson. I had a violin teacher who in an accident was thrown from his car which then exploded into flames. This is a fluke on several levels. Most people who are thrown from a car are usually shredded by the glass and break several bones, if they're not killed outright. And unlike what you see on TV, cars rarely burst into flames upon collision. But this man took his highly atypical experience, overgeneralized it and refused to wear seatbelts ever. It would be as if someone who fell from a plane and survived (this has happened a few times) thereafter thought that parachutes were unnecessary.

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence which I have seen too many times as a nurse. A patient or their family member knows someone—a friend or cousin or the cousin of a friend—who went against prudent medical advice and lived. Like people deplaning without a parachute who miraculously survive, this can happen. But I often suspect there may be significant details about the case that the person doesn't know or divulge or has gotten wrong. But because it happened once to someone they know, they make it the template for a wide variety of medical circumstances. And they are not only sure but are arrogant about it.

Arrogance is the inability to admit you could be wrong or might need help. C.S. Lewis called it “the complete anti-God state of mind.” For instance, anti-theists, who insist that the existence of God is impossible and that there is no evidence whatsoever in his favor, nevertheless believe in a superior intelligence in the universe. The problem is it tends to be theirs. They will dismiss millennia of well-reasoned thinking by top-flight minds, including many of the great scientists, on the basis of their personal experience and reasoning. Needless to say, dismissal of such a large body of data is unscientific.

Sadly just as there are moral people who do not believe, there are arrogant people who count themselves as believers. And they have done a lot of damage to the church. They don't even have to be cult leaders who believe they are God or Christ. They can be people who believe that they are the infallible interpreters of God's Word or that they have some special hotline to God and know his mind perfectly and, behold, God always agrees with them! They set themselves up as experts on God. Some are pastors and some just make the lives of pastors miserable. In either case, they tend to disrupt the body of Christ, because they forget that there is one head of the body and it is not them. Rather than being disciples or students of Christ, they act as usurpers of his authority.

There are also Lone Ranger Christians who do not feel that they need to meet and worship with and study with and work with other Christians. They do not need the church. They tend not to consider the fact that Christianity is about love which is impossible to put into practice apart from other people. They act as if Christianity is primarily about self-improvement. They never consider that learning to love and get along with sinful, irritating people other than themselves is in fact self-improvement. I remember visiting a monastery clinging to the side of a ravine on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. It had been there more than 1000 years. At the time there were just a handful of wizened monks rattling around the place. We met them all—all but one. He had quarreled with his brothers and had exiled himself to living in one of the many hermit holes dotting the side of the rock wall into which the monastery had been built. We did see his tethered bucket, in which his brothers put his food everyday, for him to haul up to his niche. I doubt he realized that he could only maintain his self-imposed exile because of the loving actions of his brothers in Christ. As the poet John Donne wrote, “no man is an island”--least of all in the body of Christ.

So Paul urges humility, which is not thinking you are a worm, but rather knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and realizing that you need others to make up what you lack. It is not arrogant to say “I am a good speaker” or “a good singer” or “a good teacher” or “a good organizer,” if that is one of the gifts the Spirit has given you. If you say, however, that you are the best in your category, or in every major category, that you need not listen to or learn from others, that you cannot make a mistake, that is arrogance. We need more humble people, people who know what they do best and do it but who ask for help when they need it and who value the contributions of others.

Paul adds that Christians need gentleness and patience, two more aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. They need to bear with one another in love, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Once again Paul gets back to the need for unity among Christians. Unity, as I pointed out last week, is our superpower. It allows us to do God's work to an extent that exceeds what Jesus did during his earthly life. It is one way we can fulfill his words that we will do greater works than he did. It is the way that Jesus through us, the body of Christ on earth, can minister to the world.

Paul gets poetic here, as he often does when contemplating the cosmic scope of God's loving actions. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Seven times this passage of scripture uses the word “one.” I suspect Paul had in mind the fact that in the Bible 7 is the number of perfection.

Perfect oneness is our goal. Jesus prayed that his followers be one even as he and the Father are one. Which makes sense. God is love and we were created in the image of God. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love one another. Love makes people one. Oneness means peace. And peace in the Bible is not merely the absence of conflict but wholeness and well-being.

It is ironic that here in America we idolize the individual, who doesn't go along with the herd but follows his own dreams and pursues his own personal happiness. Our heroes are loners who meet out justice according to their own personal code. And yet we are horrified when someone actually does that in real life. Not all of the recent shooters were diagnosed as mentally ill but they were all loners, usually coming out of fragmented families, with few or no friends. They are rarely sociable. Dylan and Klebold of Columbine were an anomaly. And the trigger is often the loss of a relationship or a job, which takes them out of a group of people they interact with daily. One of the signs of drug addiction is withdrawal from family and friends. On the other hand one element of happiness and also a factor in longevity is involvement in a group. As God said, it is not good for man to be alone.

Now of course you could derive the benefits of group involvement through joining any group, including a hate group. Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist, says part of the problem of leaving a hate group is that they become a surrogate family. So he co-founded Life After Hate, a non-profit that helps right wing extremists transition out of that lifestyle. One of the things that binds hate groups, according to Jennifer Ray, who studies the social psychology of hate, is a moral code that views their target not merely with a strong dislike but with contempt, anger and disgust. What's interesting is that according to brain imaging, both hate and love affect the same structures in the brain. But love deactivates the regions associated with criticism and judgment. How much better it is to be part of those who follow Jesus who encourages us to love others!

The next problem is how do we become one with each other and not get swallowed up by the whole. Do we abandon our individuality? No. Paul says, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.” And then Paul lists some of the more prominent gifts: “...some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers....” In Romans 12:6-8, Paul mentions the gifts of service, of leadership and of showing mercy. In 1 Corinthians 12, he mentions, among others, the gifts of faith and healing. And there's no reason to think that this covers all of the gifts which the Spirit gives to individual Christians.

But they all have one purpose: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ....” They are not for self-aggrandizement or showing off. They are not for designating who is more important than whom. They are for equipping Christians to minister, that is, to serve Jesus by serving others. And ultimately they are for building up the body of Christ. We can do that in two ways—by maintaining, nurturing and repairing the people and relationships in the church and by bringing new people into the church.

Maintaining, nurturing and repairing the people and relationships in a church is vital. For instance, each person need a recognized role in the church, even if it doesn't come with a title. Some people become the unofficial mother or grandmother of the church. Some people can organize anything. Some just throw themselves into whatever task is needed. Some have the gift of encouraging others and just making everything more cheerful. All these people and more are needed to build up the body of Christ.

Another and equally vital way to build up the body is to bring new people into the church. Jesus' last command before ascending to the Father was for us to go and make disciples, baptize and teach them. We do a fair job of this if they come through the door but we fall down on the “go” part. Nor is this command directed exclusively at clergy. As 1 Peter 3:5 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is within you....” Actually the word translated “answer” would be better rendered “defense.” We should all be able to defend our faith, if only by telling people what God has done for you. And if you can't you that, you need to spend time thinking about how different your life is and how much better it is with Jesus in it. But we don't need to shove it down people's throats. Peter goes on to say, “But do it with gentleness and respect.” Paul talks of speaking the truth in love. So we needn't stand on corners and shout. Nor should we awkwardly introduce Jesus into every conversation.

But we need to share the gospel with others. Not just because Jesus commanded it, not just because it is how we grow, but because people need it. They need to hear the good news about who Jesus is, what he has done for us and is doing in us. They need to hear about love and forgiveness and healing and restoration and sacrifice and death and resurrection and new creation. They need it and it is selfish not to share it with them.

And we need to grow up. We need to stop squabbling about trivial things and splitting hairs and basing orthodoxy on the little things. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “ neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23) As Paul puts it, “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. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, in Christ...”

Jesus stayed on message. When people tried to get him involved in controversies, he moved the conversation back to what was essential: God's love, justice and mercy and what our response should be. When they brought up taxes, he brought it back to giving to God what was his. When they brought up ceremonial uncleanness, he brought it back to the evil in person's hearts that need cleansing by God. When they brought up the problem of who was responsible for a man's affliction, he brought it back to the man's need to be healed and then did so. Jesus didn't let himself get sidetracked. He had priorities.

Paul speaks of us coming to maturity and that entails learning to give things their proper weight. It means focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is important and especially from what is neither essential nor important. And yet you look at the issues Christians are most concerned with and they are not beliefs mentioned in the creeds or behaviors mentioned in the 10 commandments or things mentioned by Jesus. And are these issues building up the body of Christ or are they dividing it? Are they making us stronger or making us weaker? Are they communicating the good news of God's love and forgiveness or are they upstaging it and making our proclamation of the gospel sound hollow and false?

We need to shift to focusing on those things that build up the body of Christ. In terms of behavior, we need to focus on maintaining, nurturing and restoring the people who make up the body of Christ. We need to make sure everyone finds their gifts, is recognized for them, and is empowered to develop and exercise them. We also need to focus on bringing others into the body. It is what Jesus commanded; it is what others need; and it is what we need to keep growing. Belief-wise, we need to focus on those 7 ones: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Oneness is not just important but essential. The world is rife with divisions. The news, our politics and our communities are roiling with issues that divide us. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation. And we need to model it. The world needs us to model it. We need to show that people from different classes, cultures, races and political viewpoints can come together in love and make the world a better place. And to do that we must be one, as the Son and Father are one, as Jesus prayed for us to be, as only God can make us, if we just say “Yes.”

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