- sermon #1: “Blessed By God to Be a Blessing” (July 11)
- sermon #2: “The Wrecking Ball Jesus” (July 18)
- sermon #3: “Part of a Team” (July 25)
- sermon #5: “Speaking the Truth and Living Faith-Fully” (Aug 8)
- sermon #6: “Thank You, God!” (Thanksgiving in August) (Aug 15)
- sermon #7: The Armor of God” (Aug 22)
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-16
Are you familiar with the saying, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? It speaks to the truth about how much better things are together than as pieces. It reminds us that what one can do, many can do better. It’s about being more by being part of a group. One person can do a lot, but more people can devote themselves to different tasks and, therefore, accomplish more. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Here’s a true example of this saying in action. I remember hearing about the time a manager in some organization brought his team together to problem-solve an issue the organization was facing. After gathering together around a table, the manager gave each of them a yellow pad of paper and instruct them to quietly write down as many solutions that they could possibly come up with, no matter how crazy. For the next 15 minutes they all sat there, writing down their thoughts. When nobody could think of one more thing, they compiled their lists into a single list, excluding duplications. Between them all, individually, they came up with 50 possible solutions.
What the manager did next was either brilliant or mean. Regardless, it certainly forced that team onto a new level of thinking. The manager said that now they would think out-loud together as a team and come up with at least fifty more solutions to the problem. Identifying a minimum of 100 possible solutions was the task. They spent most of the day having at it and, as you can imagine, at some point along the way the idea well began to dry up. More time was spent in silence than in discussion. But the manager was committed to pushing through and forced them to keep going until they had another fifty solutions on the table, as impossible as it felt to the rest of the team. Eventually, after hours of painstaking brainstorming, the hundredth solution was finally put on the table.
Now that the brainstorming part of the session was complete, the next task was to whittle away the solutions in order to get to the very best one. There were many good solutions, any of which would have addressed the issue at-hand. However, they wanted to identify the very best solution. I’ll give you one guess as to which solution they all agreed was the best of all the good ones. If you guessed the last one, number 100, you’re correct. After all was said and done, everyone on the team had to admit that the best solution was the very last one they came up with.
There are a number of “morals to the story” in this illustration, but the one which underscores the theme of my message is this: every solution which was the product of individual problem-solving—the first fifty—ended up on the cutting room floor. All the solutions which they agreed were goodwere solutions they brainstormed together as a group.
What film comes to mind when I say, “Houston, we have a problem!”? Apollo 13. Apollo 13, which was launched into orbit in 1970, was meant to land on the Moon. The landing was aborted, however, after an oxygen tank in the service module failed two days into the mission. Eventually, the crew of three men was forced to transfer to the lunar module, the part of the ship which actually lands on the surface of the Moon. The problem was the lunar module was designed and equipped to support two people on the surface of the Moon for two days. So, the engineers in Houston had to figure out a way for it to support three people for four days!
But that wasn’t all. With four people breathing air designed for two, they knew carbon dioxide would soon be building up in the cabin to dangerous levels. A new air filter needed to be designed and built on the spot with materials they had in the module. Compounding the problem was the fact that some of the oxygen hoses onboard required square fixtures and some required round fixtures. The engineers on the ground literally had to figure out how to fit a square peg in a round hole in order to get them the fresh oxygen they desperately needed! Of course, we know the end of the story. They figured out a way to get them safely back to earth when everything was working against them. But how many people did it take to make that happen? Lots!!
I mentioned a few weeks ago that the book of Ephesians is basically two parts. Chapters 1-3 provide a theological foundation for the Christian faith, and chapters 4-6 focus on the ethical dimensions of the faith. In the first half of the letter Paul addresses what we believe and why. Then, in the second half he lays out a case for how we’re to live out our faith in the everyday world in which each of us lives.
By way of a very quick recap, in week one we read that before creating the universe, God decided to eventually include Gentiles in his holy family. This notion of including the ‘other’ in God’s family and expanding it beyond who’s in it today hasn’t changed. Today, God blesses us with his grace so that we can invite others in to experience it. We’re blessed in order to bless others.
In week two we looked the important role of the wrecking ball Jesus who through his death on the cross destroyed all the walls which divide and separate people. We acknowledged our human tendency to rebuild those walls, but also that it’s the church’s call to do whatever we can to work alongside Jesus to tear them down and create a community in which all are welcome.
Last week we considered the implication of Paul’s constant use of the plural form of “you” in chapter 3. This chapter contains a kind of prayer in which Paul expresses the desire for God to grant certain blessings, and I suggested that the intended recipient of these blessings is the church. Specifically, congregations. I suggested that these blessings empower a congregation to fulfill its mission, and in order for that to happen, each individual person within the congregation has to do their part, whatever that may be. Our congregation is a team. Each of us has a particular position on this team, and we’re called to work our position so that the team as a whole can move downfield toward the goal of fulfilling our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Running throughout all three weeks is the overarching theme of community. Jesus is the head of the church. We’re the Body of Christ and he’s the head. The church is a community of faith. The work of the church is accomplished when we work together. Developing followers of Jesus Christ is what we do as a church. God has promised to bless the church with his power and Holy Spirit to live into our mission and expand the family of God beyond those of us who are already a part of it.
This theme of community continues to be woven into today’s reading from Ephesians chapter 4. But now Paul comes at it with a different purpose in mind. In the first three chapters, he argued that a community of faith is what God created us to be. Now, in chapter 4, he’s telling us what it looks like and how to be the church in today’s world.
Notice how he transitions into this chapter. “Therefore, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you’ve received from God.” Live as people worthy of the call you’ve received from God. Just to be clear, the ‘call’ we’ve received from God is to live as God’s people. Jesus makes the same point when he says we’re the “light of the world” (Matthew 5.14). We’re called to live in a way that clearly reflects God’s grace and love so that people are drawn to him. If you think about it, to declare that there’s a life worthy of the gospel is to claim that there’s a life that isn’t worthy of that call. As one commentator puts it, “There are choices to be made in how we live out our faith. And some of those choices reveal whether we are indeed “rooted and grounded in love” or not (see Eph. 3:17).
From today’s reading of the first sixteen verses of chapter 4, I’d like to suggest that a primary sign of the gospel-worthy life is unity. Now, unity in this case isn’t characterized by never having disagreements and everybody wants the exact same thing and believes the exact same thing. A church is not made up of cookie cutouts. We’re not a community of identical twins. And as your pastor, I’m certainly not advocating that everyone here has to agree with me or what I’m doing. No, the kind of unity Paul’s talking about in this passage has more to do with coming together around a common purpose. And when the members of the community are committed to living out a common purpose, then they’re living in unity AND they’ve living a live worthy of the call of the gospel.
But—and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you now—it’s not really the individual who Paul’s is calling to live a gospel-worthy life, it’s the church, the community of faith, who he’s begging to live as such. When he says in verse 2, “Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience….[and] accept each other with love,” he’s not giving us so much an individual check-list of do’s and don’ts, but rather, a plumbline by which we’re to measure the health of the congregation. Many of you may not know this, but congregational health is a big thing these days. Through the years, our annual conference has created different staff positions to address this very concern in local church. Some of you might recall that Terry Gladstone was on conference staff, and her job title was “Director of Congregational Resilience.” A huge part of her job was walking alongside congregations who were unhealthy and helping them to become healthy again. Being healthy as a congregation is a vital factor in being able to fulfill the mission.
Now, when we get to verse 7, Paul seems to make a turn by talking about how God gives individual persons certain abilities. He writes, “God has given his grace to each one of us,” and then in v. 11 he specifically identifies five special abilities God gives to certain persons. “He gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” Without going into the details about the function of each of these roles, suffice it to say that they all do different things. An apostle functions differently than a prophet, who functions differently than an evangelist, who functions differently than a pastor, and so on. But put them all together and voila! you’ve got a high functioning congregation who’s touching lives with God’s love and transforming the community. Each person can do their part, but none of them alone can do it all. But put them together and the mission of the whole is accomplished.
Verse 12 is absolutely key to understanding why God gifts each of us as he does. “His purpose is to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ.” We are each gifted with certain abilities and skills for the sole purpose of building up and strengthening the Body of Christ. Why? So that we can ultimately accomplish what we as a church are called to do. And the only way to achieve that is by being a spiritually and emotionally healthy community of faith united around our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. To use Paul’s own words, “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does their part” (vv. 13-16). He’s describing what a healthy congregation looks like and how it gets there.
And here’s the thing; it’s not about what I can do to build up this body of believers. And it’s not about what each of you can do. It’s not about what I think is best, or what you think is best. It’s not about my vision alone or your vision alone. It’s about our call, our shared vision for ministry, and what we can accomplish by working together, each of us doing our part. We are a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of our part.
Friends, a church who’s characterized by humility, gentleness, patience, and grace with one another is a church who’s well on their way to being God’s tool for transforming lives. And when that church is unified around a purpose, and its programming is intentionally designed to achieve that purpose, and each person is using the gifts God’s given them for ministry to achieve that purpose, then they’re very likely to find themselves as God’s chosen instrument to change the world. May it be that this is the kind of church we’re committed to being, especially as we begin to face the challenges that lie ahead for us.
To that end, let’s pray…