Tenth Sunday Pentacost
When John was exiled to the island of Patmos, and when Paul was locked up in a Roman jail cell, those who engineered their imprisonments probably assumed that the trouble-makers had been effectively silenced. Hardly. It is on Patmos that John wrote the book of Revelation—which is, among other things, a politically subversive document—and it is in prison that Paul wrote a series of prison letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Not only were these two not silenced, their voices continue to be heard some two thousand years later.
To listen to the sermon press play:
Before I dig in to today’s passage from Ephesians, just a brief side-note to anyone who has taken a New Testament course in university, or who has read some of the critical scholarly literature on Paul. As you might remember, over the last hundred years there has been some serious scholarly debate as to which of these letters actually came from Paul’s hand. Specifically, some argue that Colossians and Ephesians may well have come from someone carrying on Paul’s work, writing in his name or on his behalf. However, following the lead of N.T. Wright I’m going to read this epistle as Pauline; as Paul’s big picture, long view take on the church written from his perspective in a prison cell.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord,” Paul writes, and then he begins to unfold his understanding of what the church could and should be. Calling his audience to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” his focus is on the intended “one-ness” of the Body of Christ:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the 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.
One, one, one… he’s so insistent on this because he knows that one-ness has not been the case in the life of the young church. We might imagine that in the light of the fire of Pentecost, with its powerful symbol of the new proclamation being heard and understood in that wide array of languages, that unity was the norm. Yet all through Paul’s epistles we see clear signs of division and controversy, whether over church practice, inclusion of Gentile believers, baptismal theology, or community ethics. Division wasn’t invented at the time of the Reformation…
Yet fully aware of the differences, Paul wants to make his claim that there is one body. “[S]peaking the truth in love,” he writes,
we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
“Speaking the truth in love,” which has become almost a cliché in some Christian circles, and at which Paul himself wasn’t always so successful. He can be fiery, passionate, and sometimes a bit dismissive. He gets scrappy with Peter over the issue of the sharing meals between Jewish and Gentile believers, and in one particularly notable case he even suggests that he wishes that “those who unsettle you” over the issue of the means of Gentile inclusion “would castrate themselves.” (Gal 5:12) Not exactly loving words…
Yet from his prison cell, he seems to have come to a fresh realization that there can be only one body of Christ, and that those to whom he writes need to take hold of that reality. He’s also pretty clear that this will take some serious humility, gentleness, and patience, and a willingness to bear one another in love; as I’ve just suggested, these are things that didn’t come all that naturally to him.
He’s not saying, by the way, that everyone just needs to play together nicely, as if there was nothing at stake beyond getting along. “We must no longer be children,” he writes, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” He’ll still take on those he believes are leading the church down the garden path; which is what he’s got in view when he writes of “trickery,” “craftiness,” and “every wind of doctrine.” Yet Paul’s emphasis on oneness is not meant to be exclusive, as in “there is one faith, and it is mine… there is one Lord, and I’ve got him figured out.” These texts have been used in this way, of course, with one church tradition claiming to hold the “one faith” to the exclusion of all others. There are probably people here tonight who have experienced just how hurtful and destructive that can be.
No, Paul is not setting out a system for exclusion, but rather a frame by which to understand true catholicity. The oneness is about incorporation, not exclusivity.
I read this whole passage from Ephesians as having a particular significance for saint benedict’s table. We are a rather mixed bunch here, after all. Some call this their church home, while others see it as home while they’re students in Winnipeg. For many we are a second church home, or maybe an occasional resting place. Yet when gathered and sharing in word and table, we’re one.
Some of us were baptized as infants, some as teens, some as adults. There are people deeply connected to this community who grew up in the Salvation Army—a tradition that does not practice baptism at all—yet the last thing I’d want to say is that these people—these Christians—aren’t fellow travelers in this one faith. Some here were fully immersed in a baptismal pool, some dunked in a lake, some had water poured over our heads. Yet there is one baptism, into which and through which we all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Some will self-identify as Anglican or Mennonite, catholic or evangelical, or perhaps simply as a Christian. And yet there is one Lord, one faith.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is embrace the diversity of expressions of this one faith. Rather than trying to imagine only one way of being church—which I’m afraid would be either a bland version in which everyone would need to give up their distinctives, or a chaotically incomprehensible version in which too many things would be pasted together into one incoherent mess— this side of the kingdom of heaven we’re probably going to need to live with the differences. Differences, though, are not necessarily the same thing as raw divisions.
I’d like to think that at the great wedding feast of the Lamb of which John writes in Revelation there will be great laughter. Picture a table with John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Menno Simons; Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, William and Catherine Booth. There’s Thomas Cranmer (the architect of the Book of Common Prayer), sitting with George Fox (founder of the Quakers). Thomas Aquinas has dropped his summa theologica by the door, right beside Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, because they both really want to hear the story Dorothy Day is about to tell. And they’re all laughing; laughing at themselves for how little they really knew; laughing with delight at the richness of the feast. And laughing with joy at the final oneness of it all.