March 15, 2009

The Church: Worthy of Our Calling
Ephesians 4:1-6

It’s often relatively easy to tell what people really care about. You can hear it in their words, sense it in their countenance, and see it in the choices that they make. You don’t have to be particularly discerning to notice what turns on most grandparents, for example, do you? If nothing else, the thousands of baby pictures hanging in every room of the house, not to mention the office at work, is a fairly good clue. You don’t have to be unusually insightful either to notice when someone thoroughly enjoys their work or is passionate about a particular hobby or sport. People not only talk about what matters most to them, they live it—the objects of their affections show up in virtually every aspect of their lives.

I drove to Toronto just a few weeks ago with Warren Hoffman, Moderator of the Brethren in Christ Church. Warren, by way of analogy, is to us BICers kind of like what Pope Benedict XVI is to Catholics. Anyway, several times while we were driving up and back, Warren either called his wife, Connie, or received calls from her. He called her, among other times, just before we crossed the bridge into Canada—cell phone fees increase dramatically if you are “roaming” outside of the U.S.—and he called her again the next day the moment we crossed back into the states. And you should have heard them talk! I couldn’t hear Connie, of course, apart from an occasional joyful screech. But Warren, after so many years of marriage, was more excited than a kid with a new toy. He was bouncing around in the seat next to me. Everything about him said, “I love my wife.”

What do people who hear us talk and watch us live our lives day in and day out think is most important to us? Were our neighbors, friends, colleagues and classmates asked what matters most to us, what might they say? In our text for today, Paul offers a simple but forceful word of instruction: “Live your life in such a way that everyone knows you really love the Lord.”
And how will people know that we really love the Lord? What will they notice about us? Paul offers us some help here. People who really love the Lord, he begins, are motivated by love and gratitude. Our text opens with that monstrously important but easily overlooked word, “therefore.” It’s a word that’s stuffed with meaning. It connects the past with the present and future. It links causes with effects and provides explanations for various outcomes. Paul himself uses the term “therefore” some sixty times in his epistles as he attempts to nurture young congregations scattered throughout the Mediterranean world:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)
“I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1)
“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…” (Col. 3:5)
And so on. Again and again, Paul transitions at significant moments in his letters with the word, “Therefore.” None, however, is more important than this one here in Ephesians 4:1.

Having described in chapters 1-3 the marvelous plan of a loving and gracious God to transform the world through Jesus Christ and to create a unified and grace-filled church, Paul now begins to instruct us in this second half of his letter how we humans are to put this plan into action. He now moves, in other words, from theory to practice. “I therefore beg you…,” Paul writes. And why is this particular occurrence of the word “therefore” so important? Because it gets at the very heart of what motivates us—or should motivate us—as followers of Jesus.

Our primary motivation to serve the Lord, to do what Paul is about to ask us to do, should not be either fear or greed. We should not, in other words, strive to obey God out of fear that he might harm us or out of greed that he might reward us. It is true, of course, that both fear and greed can at times help us to do what we need to do. Likewise, even casual readers of the Bible know that both of these forms of motivation appear in any number of biblical passages. The Bible does speak, as you well know, about both punishments and rewards—there’s no doubt about it. The point, however, is this. Fear and greed may be enough to jump-start us—to get us moving in the right direction—but they are never enough to sustain us for the entire length of the journey. Fear and greed simply do not produce healthy, vibrant followers of Jesus. Fear yields insecure neurotics. Greed produces self-serving consumers.

What should motivate us, Paul makes clear with this “therefore,” is love and gratitude. “Therefore”—because of God’s great love and an all that he has done for us—we should long to love him and serve him in return. Gratitude moves healthy and maturing disciples. Love stirs them into action. And it is noticeable to those looking on. Fearful followers worry that they can never be good enough for God, so they try mightily to obey every letter of the law. Greedy followers see their righteous deeds as means to an end—self-gratification—so they obey in order to get back. People who are motivated by love and gratitude, however, tend not even to think in terms of obedience at all. Rather than seeking to obey God, such people move one step higher and long to please God. They try not only to do what he asks, but what he enjoys.

Why did Warren call his wife, Connie, on our trip to Toronto? Because of fear? I suppose some marriages work that way. But I never heard Warren say to me, “Please remind me just before we reach the bridge to call my wife. If I don’t, I’ll never hear the end of it. She’ll fuss and complain for days, and she’ll make my life miserable.” At the same time, I can’t remember Warren saying anything about rewards that he might receive for calling his wife. He never said anything like, “Be sure to remind me to call my wife before we cross into Canada and then again on the way home. Connie promised before I left that she would cook my favorite meal when I returned if I called her.” He never said anything like that. On the contrary, Warren expressed regret that his cell phone rates quadrupled in Canada, and he waited eagerly to cross the bridge back into the U.S., just so that he could call Connie and talk as long as he wanted. I didn’t have to remind him. I felt no need to calm his nerves. Warren called because he wanted to. He loves Connie and is thankful to her and for her. People who really love the Lord are like that. They are motivated by love and gratitude. Live your life like you really love the Lord.

People who really love the Lord, Paul continues, are diligent in their walk (vv. 1-2). They “lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called.” Paul is quite serious here, by the way. The same man who speaks so eloquently about God’s grace speaks no less forcefully here about our works. You can tell from the way he packages these instructions. For one thing, he refers to his own imprisonment. It is as though he is saying, “I was willing to go to prison because of my love for and commitment to Christ. I refused to compromise. I hope you will do nothing less.” For another, he begs us—not encourages, but begs—to literally “walk worthily” of our calling. Several translations, including both the NIV and the NRSV, soften Paul’s wording here, it seems to me. They talk about “leading a life worthy of the calling,” a somewhat passive reading for Paul’s “walk worthily of the calling.” Throughout the Bible, the verb “walk” is used to describe the way that people like us live their lives. There are only two options, two paths. We can walk in the ways of the Lord, or we can walk in the ways of the world. “Walk worthily,” Paul emphatically states.

And by what standard is our walk measured? Our calling. As followers of Jesus, we have been adopted into God’s family, made alive with Christ and promised an eternal inheritance. Paul’s has made that quite clear in chapters 1-3. Now, he begs us to walk in a way that is consistent with our new identity as children of God. Walk like Jesus. Talk like Jesus. Live like a child of God if that is what you are. Humbly. Gently. Patiently. Lovingly.

Few things I am aware of are more frustrating—more heart-breaking—to a parent than watching a son or daughter fritter away gifts and opportunities that the parents provide. I know. I broke my own father’s heart years ago by wasting one such opportunity after another. Dad had worked long and hard hours to empower my sister, brother and me, and I stubbornly refused to cooperate. “Don’t disappoint the Father,” Paul in effect writes. God wants, if I can be so blunt, to see results. Although we are not saved “by” works, we are certainly saved “for” good works (2:10). God wants us—expects us—to respond to his love and grace with a life of commitment and faithfulness. People who really love the Lord are diligent in their walk. You can see it in their commitment. You can sense it in their values. Live your life like you really love the Lord.

Finally, people who really love the Lord are protective of their unity. “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As Paul has stated in the earlier chapters of this letter, God has gone to great lengths to break down barriers and to create a unified community. A community in which vastly different people can gather together and worship in peace. Such unity, however, has to be nurtured and maintained. It is neither self-sustaining nor indestructible.

To underline the importance of maintaining unity within the church, Paul refers to the “oneness” of seven distinct entities. The number seven, by the way, denotes “wholeness” or “completeness” in the Bible, so Paul is writing here again with deep conviction. Unity is itself characteristic of God and everything pertaining to him, Paul seems to say. There is, in reality, only one body, one church, as diverse as it may be. There is only one Spirit, though there may be many principalities and powers. There is but one hope, though there are endless counterfeits. There is only one Lord, though there be various prophets. There is but one faith, one baptism and one Father, who rules and reigns over all. Given this essential unity with the Godhead itself, then it only stands to reason that that same unity must be reflected in the very life of the church.

A good friend of mine, Denis Maddon, is a skilled mediator who has served in many of the war-torn regions of the world. When I first met him, for example, Denis was moderating rather heated talks between Israelis and Palestinians. When I asked him not too long ago what the most difficult situation was that he ever mediated, he answered, to my great surprise, “Negotiations between the various Christian groups who worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem when the time came to refurbish the dome there!”

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, by way of background, is in the minds of many the holiest church in all of Christianity. It is the church built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Today, several Christian traditions claim rites to the church—Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, Copts and others. They all worship in the same building. Several years ago, the dome of the building stood in need of repair, and these various groups simply could not agree on the nature and extent of the repairs. And it got nasty. So Denis was called in to mediate. Leading these church groups to an acceptable solution was, in Denis’ own estimation, more difficult than negotiating peace between warring nations.

Unity in the church reflects the oneness of God. Division in the church shatters that oneness and makes it appear as though God is himself divided. God does not want that. We’ll have disagreements, of course. Feisty conversations and even heated discussions are appropriate at times. After all, we are involved in work that really matters. We need not hide our differences nor shovel dissenting points of view under the carpet as though they do not exist. Unity and uniformity are not synonymous. So what is the key?

Perhaps the answer lies once again in the brief list of attitudes or virtues that Paul provides in v. 2. We disagree with humility, not insisting that our own way is necessarily the right way. We disagree with gentleness, not overpowering those who hold a different point of view. We disagree with patience, not quickly passing by the concerns of others without ever stopping to listen honestly. And we bear with one another in love, not sacrificing the welfare of the body in favor of our own self-interests. In short, we learn to disagree well. We learn to work through our differences gracefully. We come to realize that the welfare of the community matters more to God than the satisfaction of our own, individual rights. He doesn’t want his masterpiece—a diverse but unified church—to be torn apart. People who really love the Lord understand that. They protect the unity of the body. Live your life like you really love the Lord.

What do people who hear us talk and watch us live our lives day in and day our think is most important to us? Were our neighbors, colleagues, classmates, friends asked, “What matters most to us?” what would they say? What would they say about you individually? About us collectively? With Paul, let’s commit ourselves to living lives that reflect the love and glory of God. Let’s live our lives like we really love the Lord.