A Set Apart Community for the World (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Ephesians 4:25—5:2


What I want to share with you this morning began to come together as I recalled a conversation with a Session member a few years ago. In a brief moment alone with him, I asked him how things were going with his work. I knew things had been rough there for some time. I hoped things had improved. He shared with me that they had not. Things were still very rocky. Tension high. The personal turmoil of the boss was wreaking havoc in terms of his focus and functioning. There seemed to be an undercurrent of anxiety and fearfulness that was permeating the workplace.

“I try my best to offer some peace amidst the storm,” I remember the session member saying wistfully, almost under his breath. “I go to work every day just trying to be a force of stability, just trying to offer an alternative to the craziness. But it is not easy.”

In that moment I found myself thinking, “They call you the minister, William. But here is someone doing ministry in a situation that takes every bit of the faith and guidance of the Spirit that he can muster.”

And in remembering this conversation I realized that this is what Paul is talking about in that part of the letter to the Ephesians that we just heard. He is talking about the kind of community of faith that it takes to form people like that session member, who go into a tough world seeking to be peace amidst the storm, hope amidst anxious fearfulness, self-giving love amidst people who are caught up in a vortex of the pain they are both experiencing and inflicting.

For Paul the church is the community in which the love that God wants for the world is both practiced and formed in the lives of people. The church is the community where people get Jesus and his way down by practicing that way, so that, when they go into businesses or schools or hospitals or offices or construction sights or homes or wherever they go, they live as reflections of that way. The church is the community where the kind of love is formed in the lives of people that makes them instruments of that love in a world where jobs are tough and people are broken and problems can seem overwhelming.

Some Christians have it all wrong these days. They think the problem is that we Christians have lost our power and we need to take it back. We need to reclaim the control we once had in society and start pushing our weight around again.

But Paul holds up a different road for us. He says that you don’t change the culture by mirroring the culture and its fondness for power-plays that have nothing to do with the self-giving love of Jesus. You change the culture by providing an alternative community where the self-giving love of Jesus is practiced and lived. You change the culture by being a community where people are gradually and over time formed into persons who reflect the presence of the One who is their God.

Of course the problem is that the church is a community full of human beings who are subject to all the problems and imperfections of everyone else. This is nothing new. This is the way it has always been.

Just look at Paul’s words in the 4th chapter of Ephesians. Of all the letters in the New Testament Ephesians is the most positive. There is very little of the scolding that we see at certain points in other letters. But even in Ephesians there are signs of problems. Paul’s words give strong hints that in this community of faith full of people who have been marked by the Spirit in baptism there is the presence of dishonesty, passive aggressive behavior, anger, bitterness, wrangling and slander; and evidently there is the presence of a person or persons who have chosen to be what Paul calls thieves rather than making an honest living by the work of their hands.

This is the raw material that God has to work with. And it is not very pretty. We Christians, intended to be God’s instruments of love in the world can be a pretty sorry lot at times. We Christians, intended to live in love in the way of Jesus, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” as was he, are a mess sometimes. We talk abouteach other instead of toeach other. We play nice with each other when we are stewing inside. Passive aggressively, we work behind the scenes to get what we want because we don’t have the courage to speak the truth in love. By our anger, we tear down persons rather than build them up. We can be a pretty mean lot.

Yet, and here is the amazing thing, this very imperfect church with its very imperfect people is the means that God has chosen to share the way of Jesus with the world. This very imperfect church with its very imperfect people is the means that God has chosen to form persons to reflect God’s peace amidst storms of fearfulness and anger. This very imperfect church with its very imperfect people is the vehicle God has chosen to be the body of Christ—to be his ears with those who need someone to listen to their pain, to be his eyes to see the hurt of the lonely and forgotten, to be his hands to feed the hungry, to be his feet to take his joy and love to the places where we live and work, to be his voice to share words that encourage and give hope in a world where there is so much cynicism. This very imperfect church with its very imperfect people is God’s strategy for reaching the world with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

But of course this begs the question: How? How can this collection of imperfect people who can be meaner than hardened atheists become the people they are called to be?

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has this to say:

He says we have to reclaim who we are. We are not some club of like-minded people. We are not a collection of individuals who come together to get our personal needs met. We are not a gathering of egos looking to get our way or else. We are a community of people who have been sealed by the Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. As Paul tells the Ephesians, “You were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” In other words, what he is saying to the Ephesians and to us is that we have been tattooed in baptism. To be sure, it is an invisible tattoo. But it is there nonetheless. And it can’t be removed. Not even surgically. We are marked as Christ’s people in baptism. We are marked as instruments of his self-giving love in the world.

This is who we are, Paul says. Quit playing around with lesser things. Quit demeaning who you are by modeling the values of the world around you. You are not a store. You are not a religious business. You are not the guardian of your culture’s values—even it’s best values. You are God’s beloved children called to love as Christ loved “and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

And once we know this about ourselves we can get to work hammering out how a people with such an identity live it out. We can get busy hammering out what it takes for us to be who we are. That’s what Paul is doing with the Ephesian Christians. He is saying, “OK, we are the body of Christ. We are those sealed by the Spirit in baptism to be reflections of Jesus’ self-giving love in the world. So let’s take a look at what’s getting in the way of our being who we are. Lying? Nope. That’s not going to work. We are going to have to start being honest with one another. Stewing in our anger? Nursing it so that eventually it boils over in ugly behavior? Nope. We have got to face and work on our anger issues. Cutting and demeaning remarks that make people feel like they’re two inches tall? Nope. We have got to stop that. Some of us mooching and stealing rather than working and making money that will enable us to help the church with its ministry to the poor? Nope, that’s no way for the body of Christ to operate. Arguing and wrangling and trying to steam roller your opponents with your words so that you can get your way? Nope, that’s not what people marked as Christ’s own do.

Being a community that enables someone to go into a troubled world as peace in the midst of a storm takes work. It doesn’t just happen. You not only have to know who you are and you not only have to claim your calling in baptism, you have to hammer out what that means in concrete ways for your community of faith, just as Paul did for the Christians in Ephesus.

It’s always a joy when people new to our community of faith compliment us for the love and hospitality that they experience among us. To the extent that we are such a community, it didn’t just happen. Love, whether in a church or in a home, requires structure. It requires a willingness to hammer out how we will live into our calling and what behaviors inhibit that calling. It requires hard work to forge and reforge and reforge again certain understandings about who we are and how we will operate together to live in response to our identity.

So to fulfill our calling to be a people that form people as Christ’s instruments of love in the world we have developed certain agreements around here. As spiritual leaders of our church, our church session has agreed that we will talk with each other rather than about each other when we have disagreements. We have agreed that we will honor one another and love each other even when we disagree. We have agreed that we will not honor or share anonymous complaints. Passive aggressive behavior will not be encouraged in our church.

As a congregation we have agreed that we want to be a community where people can be free to share their struggles and imperfections and know that the love we have to offer here is unconditional. We have agreed that we are not going to try to force each other into doctrinal or political boxes here, that we will be a community where it is ok to ask questions, have doubts, and be open to new possibilities. We have agreed that we are going to be a community where people are challenged to grow and serve in faith in response to our understanding that we cannot live out our baptismal identity if we are locked into the way things are in our lives and in our church.

Our agreements are not set in stone. They are not the Ten Commandments. We are a work in progress, and we are certainly an imperfect people who are still on a journey of faith. In fact, as many of you know, we are in the process right now of revising our mission statement and goals for the future. A group worked on that much of yesterday here at the church.

But the one thing that is set in stone is that we have been sealed by the Spirit. We have been tattooed. We belong to God and have been set aside to be the instruments of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.

So, like Paul with the Ephesians, we’ll keep on working at it. We’ll keep on hammering out ways that we can more fully live into our calling. We’ll keep on hammering out ways that this group of imperfect people, who sometimes get angry and say and do things we regret, can more fully be a community that forms folks like that one among us who went back to work trying to be the presence of peace amidst a storm.

And through it all we will keep on worshipping and keep on praying and keep on being open to the presence of the One who has claimed us, and given to people such as ourselves such an amazing calling.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, June 17, 2018

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