Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pentecost +9

Many years ago, I started a new job. Naturally, when I'd been interviewed for the job, I had exaggerated ever so slightly about my experience and abilities. My enthusiasm for the role hadn't been overstated, I genuinely did want the extra money that went with it-but I might have gilded the lily a little bit about my prior experience. Within a week or two, I found myself seriously floundering and wondering whether I had what it took. When I confided in a friend, he gave me some timeless advice that has stayed with me ever since-"Evan", he told me, "fake it till you make it".

Strangely enough, being a fake is looked down on in some circles.  My dictionary defines hypocrisy as the sin of proclaiming one thing while doing something different. Giving lipservice, in other words, to an ideal that you don't live up to. Pretending to be better than you are. There is a school of thought, as I'm sure you know, that churches are full of hypocrites-and I'm sure you also know the standard response to use whenever somebody suggests that to you: "well, I'm sure we can always use one more". Being a hypocrite is basically the same thing as being a fake, and what I'd like to suggest today is that we need a bit more of it.

The other week, when I preached on Ephesians,  I spent some time talking about the cosmic perspective the letter takes. The whole universe, Ephesians suggests, is literally centred on the risen Christ and God’s universe-long project is to gradually draw it all together into union with Christ as its final fulfilment. Ephesians has an equally cosmic perspective on the church as the down-payment, the catalyst for, and also - thank you very much - the means by which all this is going to happen.  No pressure or anything.

And, in today’s reading, we move from generalities to specifics.  Prick up your ears, because Ephesians over the next couple of weeks is going to tell us how to go about all this.  Except of course, that the whole thing is clearly impossible.

Because the very first thing this passage says, in the very first verse, Ephesians says to us, “be worthy of the calling” – be worthy of the vocation, in other words, “to which you have been called”.  The main concern of this part of the letter is unity, and Ephesians is telling us that each one of us has an essential vocation, a calling which is uniquely ours to make sure that the whole church is functioning as it should.  In verse one Ephesians tells us that each of us has a vocation and in verse seven we hear that each one of us has a grace, or a gift of service that’s meant not just for our own edification, or our own benefit, but specifically so that the church can be built up into what Christ intends it to be from the very beginning.

This word, “vocation”, which of course comes from the Latin root which means “to be called”, doesn’t just refer to a job, to the things we do.  None of us has a vocation to drive a bus or sing a solo or write a book.  What vocation points us to is the commitments and the vision that shapes what our lives are about.  Vocation is what gives coherence and purpose to our lives, what gives us integrity and courage and zest.  To discover your vocation means that your life resonates with God’s purposes, vocation is the fullest response you can make to the call to live in partnership with God.

Vocation is more than what you do, but it includes everything you do – the uses to which you put your leisure time for renewal and restoration – the life you live in public, your care for the common good and your priority for justice and compassion – your life within the community of worship, your participation in the prayer and study of the church. 

The paradox of vocation is that the way we come to discover the deepest and truest patterns of our own lives as individuals is by paying less attention to ourselves, and more attention to the life of the community in which we have our context.  Here’s the impossible bit.  “Do that”, Ephesians tells us, “live into your vocation in humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love”.  You see – maybe it’s just me, but I rather suspect not – these are the very things that we find next to impossible.  The reality is that we get cranky, we get impatient, we get anxious and jealous and all the other things we’d rather not admit to.  As Mahatma Ghandi once commented rather acidly, Christianity was always a good idea that’s never actually been put into practice.

So we’ll have to fake it till we make it. Let’s pretend to be gentle with one another. Pretend to be patient. Pretend to love each other, pretend that the unity Ephesians promises as the gift of the holy spirit is already here and now. If you're not perfect, and I sure as heck know I'm not perfect, the only choice we’ve got is to take Ephesians at its word that God's Holy Spirit working on us can be trusted to transform the pretence into the reality. Let's be hypocrites, proclaiming as reality something we know full well that we fall short of, because what is impossible for us really is possible for God.

Luckily for us, the credibility gap that we’re all too aware of in our own lives, is exactly what the writer of Ephesians has in mind. The unity that the church is called to embody is a reflection of God's gift of reconciliation in Jesus. Which means that the initiative is not ours, but God's. And the writer emphasises that by repeating, over and over again the same word, "one". One body, one spirit, one hope - one faith, one baptism, one God.  We’re being formed into one body, and the disconnect for us between our experience of disunity and the promise that we are to become the sacrament of unity for the whole of God's creation-that credibility gap is where the Holy Spirit is working like crazy on us. The idea of unity in Ephesians isn't something defensive and inward-looking, like circling the wagons in a B grade Western, but it's the sort of unity that is open and expansive, oriented towards the future and towards the whole of creation that is to be brought to fulfillment.

So we have a model of the sort of unity the church should reflect. However Ephesians makes it clear that the perfection of the church is incomplete, a painful realisation of falling short of what were called to be. Becoming Christian is not a once and for all event, it's not "set and forget" but a gradual growth towards maturity in which we get to see our own disunity, our failure to understand or take one another's point of view, even our selfishness, through the perspective of the fullness of Christ. It is a three steps forward and two steps backwards process. But Ephesians says that as individuals and as the church we have been given the gifts we need in order to grow. That's reassuring, were not just left to recognise how short we fall of the ideal, but we have everything we need. The literal meaning of the word is Ephesians uses is that the church is gradually growing into its own body, like growing into a shirt that is too big for you. The Greek word that Ephesians uses for the "full stature" of Christ is the same word that our Bible translates as maturity. As the church, we’re meant to see ourselves as a growing body which exists for the sole purpose of filling the entire universe with God's love. So we’re meant to be in motion, not passive recipients of God's love but the moving vehicle through which God's love is meant to be driven through the whole of creation. We are not just embraced by God's love, but empowered and equipped by it.

Ephesians, of course is not the only place in the New Testament where we see a list of gifts of the Holy Spirit. Lots of people prefer the list we get in the first letter to the Corinthian church, wisdom and knowledge, healing the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits or ecstatic speech. The sort of evidence of the working of God's holy spirit that breaks out spontaneously, and I guess the point there is that the whole church shares in the gifts of God's holy spirit, and that together we need to recognise them and respond to them when they erupt amongst us. Here in Ephesians the emphasis seems to be more on how the church gets run, the sorts of gifts we need in the leadership of the church. It sounds less exciting. It's the business end of the church, we need Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

But the main thing to notice is that these professional-sounding roles exist for the sole purpose of building up all the saints-in the good old-fashioned sense of the word which means every one of us here, not just super Christians-of building up all the saints for the work of ministry which is not just for professionals, certainly not just for parish priests - building up every single one of us to live our God-given vocation.

“Grow up!”, Ephesians is challenging us.  How much are you really sharing your lives with one another?  How much are you participating in the life and the work of the church?  How inclusive are you?  How much do you value and welcome the energy and the contributions of newcomers, of those who are different?  Are you a collection of individuals looking to be fed, or are you a church?

Let’s fake it till we make it.