Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pentecost 13B

One well-known hymn from my childhood that I wasn't sorry to see didn't make it into the new hymn book is 'Onward Christian Soldiers'.  Maybe I'm showing my age here, but one of my very earliest memories of church is being made to sing this in Sunday School – marching on the spot, our little chests puffed out with pride.  None of us were very clear what it was about, but soldiers we were and Satan had better watch out!

So, what's with the military language in this very last instalment from the letter to the Ephesians?  After a particularly bloody twentieth century, and an appalling start to the present one, it might be fair to say that most thoughtful Christians are a bit suspicious about language that seems to draw a parallel between following Jesus' way of forgiveness and love, and the institutionalised violence and blurred morality of modern warfare.  Sure, as individual Christians and as a Church in an increasingly secular and occasionally aggressively atheistic society we can sometimes feel a bit defensive and embattled – it can be a struggle to live an authentically Christian life in a me-first world – but it's an uneasy image, the kindly face and undeniable Christian witness of the Salvos notwithstanding. 

The military metaphor is not only uneasy, but it can also be dangerous when it inspires Christians to a paranoid belief that they are engaged in battle with shadowy enemies – it can become a way of dividing the world into friend and foe, discriminating on the basis of religion and ethnicity – and oh, before we know it lapsing into the very sort of behaviour that Ephesians has been arguing against for the last five chapters.  Sadly, this very passage can – and does – also lead many Christians to a paranoid belief that the world we live in is superimposed by an unseen world of hostile spiritual forces with which we are engaged in constant spiritual warfare.  Contradicting both our own experience and the Bible's affirmation that creation is good, and filled with the holy and life-giving spirit of God, this image leads many Christians to live in a way that is fearful and mistrustful.

So how can we read Ephesians' compelling but disturbing military metaphor?  For a start we need to notice that Ephesians isn't inventing the military language, Isaiah and the Wisdom of Solomon contain descriptions of God as an armour-wearing warrior, and Ephesians borrows some of its language and phrases from here. [1] But where Isaiah and Wisdom speak of the strength of God, Ephesians draws on the same picture to remind us that as people who now live 'in Christ' the task of living courageously, with perseverance and discrimination, belongs to us.

The second thing is that the military metaphor doesn't stand alone, it comes at the end of a letter that is all about reconciliation and wholeness.  Ephesians isn't interested in conquest, or in living in a state of paranoid fear, or dividing people into those to be loved and those to be hated.  After five chapters we've got that point!  But it does identify the need for discernment and resistance.  Ephesians has been telling us how living in relation to Christ empowers us as Christians and as a Christian community – and that's the key. What is the sort of power that Ephesians is on about?  Reading back through the letter the only possible answer is that it's the power of reconciliation and love, the overcoming of barriers, both religious and cultural, and empowering people to live together in peace.

Ephesians has an obvious agenda, a Christ-centred agenda for Christian living, and it's that agenda that controls how we read the image in the final chapter, not the other way around.  Telling us that we have a fight on our hands but that it isn't a fight against flesh and blood, Ephesians is telling us, certainly, that the task of Christian living needs to be undertaken with vigour and courage.  It's not a way of life for the faint-hearted!  But the message is utterly consistent with what's gone before – living as Jesus lived means letting go of competitiveness and selfishness, noticing the needs of others and reaching out to others not to oppose or push down, but to restore dignity and hope.  To fill the world with the love of God by living in a way that imitates the love of God.  When you think about it, to live like Jesus in praying for those who hate you, turning the other cheek, forgiving without limitation – is to live courageously.  It is a struggle to live like that, and yes, there is opposition.

And there's another key to understanding the armour of God, because Ephesians is doing what we so often see Jesus doing in the Gospels, and that is to use the language and symbols of Empire in a way that says – 'that's not where the real power lies'.  It's a subversive strategy.  Jesus does it, for example, when he uses the language of kingdom, when he rides into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey in a deliberate parody of the military procession happening on the other side of town at the same time, where the Roman governor is entering the city on his warhorse surrounded by troops. [2] That's not where the real power lies.  The real power isn't with kings and military equipment and repressive political apparatus and big money.  The real power – relational power – the power to transform human life – is with God.  The metaphor of the armour of God in Ephesians describes exactly the equipment of a Roman infantryman, the most effective force of political repression and naked power the world had ever seen, as a way of saying, 'the brute power of Rome doesn't get the last word. The power of oppressors is nothing compared to the power of love, which is God's power.' A modern equivalent is perhaps the enduring image of a young American woman sticking a flower into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman.  The young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.  Ephesians, like Jesus, names the oppressive forces that limit and diminish human life, and says, 'that's not where real power lies'.

To live 'in Christ' is to live courageously, to name and to resist the forces that diminish human life.  This is big-picture stuff, which is more or less what Ephesians means when it talks about the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  There is a global, indeed a cosmic dimension to the life of faith, and the opposition is spiritual quite as much as it is political, because it hinges on a contested vision of what human life means, and what it is worth.  The life of faith is pitted against the demonic implication of worldly – military and economic - power that human life is a commodity – that the living systems of the planet have a dollar value that can be traded off.  The life of faith is not just about personal spirituality, quiet withdrawal from the political marketplace, but about fearless engagement.

And so the armour itself?  The armour of God, as Ephesians describes it, disassembles piece by piece the destructive dynamics that threaten not only human life, but the life of the whole planet in a way that Ephesians could never have anticipated.  The utility belt that holds the whole equipment of the infantryman together – is truth, which in the demonic schema is the first casualty.  Next comes righteousness and justice, protecting the heart, without which nothing else can function.  The feet of the warrior of God do not march to war but like the prophetic figure in Isaiah carry the good news of peace – 'how beautiful are the feet of those who bring the gospel of peace'. [3]  The shield of faith – whenever in any of the Pauline letters we read the word faith we need to think not so much about belief in a creed as about faithfulness – the way of life that grows from relationship with God in Christ – which basically means integrity, actions that match what we profess to believe. [4]  Salvation has a strong sense of security and hope, the basis of trust.  And the sword as the word of God contains the sense of cutting through the undergrowth of lies and self-interest, not an instrument of hate, but the active element of discernment.  The warriors of God are called not just to endure and resist, but also to engage in challenging the structures of injustice, the barriers that divide by the word of the good news, which is about love and hope.

Ephesians, then, is telling us not to be naïve about the world we live in, to recognise the powerful forces that divide and diminish human life, and to resist the temptations either of paranoia or withdrawal.  Instead we are challenged to trust in the relational power of God to transform not just our own lives but the unjust structures of our world, and to commit ourselves to working for change in our own corner of it.  And the whole thing, finally, is based in prayer – a prayer that takes seriously the life and leading of God's Holy Spirit, as well as the realities of a broken and vulnerable world.  It is only with a commitment to the life of prayer that as Christians we are actually able to recognise and align ourselves with the agenda of Christ, rather than the self-serving agenda we are daily bombarded with, an agenda that blinds us to the world's injustices and the needs of others. Pray, says Ephesians, pray for the hagios – you know, now, who they are supposed to be – and pray also for me, that I may continue to proclaim the word in whatever circumstances I find myself.

And the letter to the Ephesians ends: 'Peace be to you all, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ'. [5]


[1] Isa 59.15ff, Wis Sol 5.17-23

[2] See Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 2007).

[3] Isa 52.7

[4] The word, pistis, can be translated either as faith or faithfulness, and can refer in the Pauline texts either to our own faithfulness or the faithfulness of Christ.

[5] Eph 6.23-24.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Pentecost +11B

Whenever I think of the word, 'banquet', the image that springs to mind is not the meagre 14 course succession of dishes you can order in some restaurants when you have a group of four or more – but the picture of four tables pushed together and laden with food – just the first course, mind you, the kitchen bench behind covered with desserts and lollies and crackers and extra bottle of wine, the whole extended Pederick family having gathered for the annual Christmas lunch.  When Alison and I first married, I think she was slightly alarmed the first year when one of my sisters announced it was time to start planning Christmas lunch – in early August.  But actually, there isn't too much planning involved, the unspoken rule is just that each household does its speciality and brings twice as much as anyone could possibly eat – there is about a week of frantic shopping and cooking beforehand and on the day everybody talks and laughs and hugs each other and eats more than they would in any normal week.

You probably have banquets like that sometimes.  I hope so.

So there are banquets today in our readings.  In Proverbs we have the wonderful image of Lady Wisdom – that slightly subversive strand of tradition in the Hebrew Bible that portrays Wisdom as God's right-hand girl, the master worker in the act of creation and God's go-between who involves herself in human life and is the inspiring muse in commerce, law and religion, the love of Wisdom being the delight and aim of human existence – today Lady Wisdom invites us to a feast, she has slaughtered and prepared her animals, her tables are groaning beneath their burden of rich food and wine.  It is an image of exuberance, the things that we're invited to feast on are all the life-giving gifts of God's creation – the idea seems to be that we're meant to enjoy the goodness of God's creation but understand what our proper part in it is, what our proper relationship is to everything else.  You might have heard me preach on this before – the image in this strand of Hebrew thought is of a God who celebrates with us, who wants to fill us with goodness, with laughter and who lays down all sorts of surprises for us in the way Creation is put together.  The God who sets up shop and then calls us in for a good time.  The image is one of hospitality, of generosity and even extravagance.

It's this strand in the Hebrew tradition that inspires Jesus, I think, and that is in the background of his stories about feasting as well as his consistent practice of hospitality.  'The Son of Man', he complains, 'comes eating and drinking, and you call him a glutton!' But what he is doing is demonstrating the generosity of God, and in the end he goes further than lady Wisdom ever did – because for Jesus, the Word and Wisdom of God, the feast he provides is ultimately – himself.  This, of course, is the gist of our Gospel reading this morning, and we are right to connect these images with the Eucharist, but the deeper meaning is of delight in creation, the generosity and extravagance of God, and an image of human life that is expansive and relational.

But this morning we continue our reading through the Letter to the Ephesians.  We've made the connection in earlier chapters between being right with God and being right with one another, between living 'in Christ' and our own practise of justice and forgiveness and generosity, and now, Ephesians says, choose Wisdom, not Folly!' It is of course the same Wisdom tradition that is being connected with Ephesians' practical wisdom about Christian living – with a caution – because if our lectionary writers had allowed us to go just a bit further in Proverbs this morning we would also have heard from Lady Wisdom's imposter.  Like Wisdom, Folly also calls us to a feast, calling out to the simple and those without sense, come in here and eat and drink, 'stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant!' [1] Where Wisdom calls us to generosity and insight into the goodness of creation, Folly beckons us with our own self-centredness and greed.  But the sales pitch is deceptively similar, the line between them is blurred, and when we choose between Wisdom and Folly we need to have our wits about us.

So Ephesians is cautioning us to be discerning, to use our intelligence and to be observant.  The verses just before this allude – without being terribly specific – to some of the dangers that stalk the Christian community – warnings about false teachers and wrongdoing. The point is that Christians – and faith communities – do face dangers, and some of them come from our own human capacity to kid ourselves.  To lie to ourselves about our own agenda or motivations.  To mistake an essentially self-serving preoccupation with the past, for God's leading into the future.  Are we following God's leading?  Or are we responding to our own fears and following our own desires?  The reason we do theology – the reason, in other words, we need to think carefully about what God is like and what the Bible is telling us – is because we need some critical tools to be able to tell the difference between froth and bubble and what is authentically Christian.

And then Ephesians hits us with a big challenge.  It doesn't sound so big in our English translation, unfortunately.  'Make the most of the time', we read, 'because the days are evil'.  There are dangers to Christian living, both inside and outside the Church, our own age has quite as much evil as the age of Ephesians and we need our wits about us.  But to what end? 'Make the most of the time', our translation reads, but in the original language the word for time is not chronos, regular working-day time, but kairos, God's time, in a sense the eternity that lurks inside each present moment, the unrepeatable but eternal present instant in which all things are lost or fulfilled – and in the Greek we are called not just to make the most of it but to redeem it, to purchase it, to rescue it – exagorazo.  We are brought back with a snap to the cosmic vision Ephesians started with in chapter one – this vision of Christian living is not just for our benefit but for the redemption of creation itself.

And, finally, our reading from Ephesians connects all this with our worship, with firstly, a cheeky contrast between wine and the Spirit.  Wine, of course, is on Lady Wisdom's table, and it is also on the table Jesus invites us to.  Wine is a metaphor for the fruits of creation, and for enjoyment and celebration.  A little too much wine leads to over-excitement and exuberance.  Well, if we are to have that, Ephesians says, let it be because we are drunk on the Spirit of God!  It's a challenge, isn't it? Is our spirituality exuberant? Is our worship joyful? Are we brim-full of God's Holy Spirit and on fire with love?  Is our worship filled with mutual encouragement and wonder?  That's what Ephesians suggests it should be about.  The Eucharist, of course, is a banquet.  I remember Archbishop Carnley commenting once – in his wonderful, dry way – that the Eucharist is a little foretaste of heaven.  Well, I thought, heaven must be pretty darn exciting.  Apparently – according to our NCLS return – a quarter of us get bored in church, at least some of the time – well, we're only human, but what would it take for us to worship with a sense that heaven, in fact, is indeed like this?  We get out of it what we put into it, of course.

Sing hymns, Ephesians suggests.  Play music, and sing.  I'm on Ephesians' side.  It's not even a metaphor; singing and music are an essential part of a worship that really can lift our hearts to God.  I remember once singing in a choir, struggling week after week to sing some difficult piece, and eventually the conductor said to us – put your music down.  You've had your heads buried in it for weeks, you must know the score off by heart by now.  And she had us stand in a circle and told us to look at the person opposite us, and listen to the people on either side.  You can't sing without being aware of the people you are singing with, staying together and supporting one another, without getting your head out of the book and lifting your heart and enjoying yourself.  You can't worship without watching and listening to and encouraging God's other people in their worship.  Did you know the best way to stay in tune is to smile?  To lift up your head and breathe and smile.  It's a new hymn?  Wonderful!  Listen and learn and breathe and sing.  Bellow out a few wrong notes, trust me, God can take a joke.  Have a go at playing the piano.  Sing praises to the God who sings the music of the galaxies.  I don't believe the Eucharist can be celebrated without the joy of music, and I feel sorry for congregations who don't – or who tell themselves they can't – sing.  There should be way more singing in church.

Choose Wisdom.  Be discerning, not a sourpuss.  Come to the banquet.  Eat and drink, be filled with God's Holy Spirit.  And sing.


[1] Prov. 9.17

Friday, August 10, 2012

Pentecost +11B

Like all the Monty Python movies, 'The Meaning of Life' more or less takes the mickey out of everything connected with trying to work out just what life's about.  Every religion, every philosophy, every way of life and every attempt to make sense of it all is systematically poked and prodded until it all seems just a bit silly.  Don't get me wrong – I actually find Monty Python's approach really fun, really life-affirming and – in a whacky sort of way – quite reverent.  Anyway, towards the end of the movie, after we've had a laugh at all our most serious attempts at working out what life's about, the scene cuts to a little man, a French waiter who beckons us over and says – 'so you want to know what it's all about?' – and by then, we really do – so we follow him – or rather, the camera does – all the while beckoning over his shoulder mysteriously - across the road and over the park and up the street – and he finally turns around and says 'well, this is my philosophy – you don't have to accept it, but here it is - tell the truth, be kind to everyone you meet, and be good to your mother'. 

And there's this moment of silence while he looks a bit embarrassed, and then gets angry at us:  'Well, alright – it's not much of a philosophy, I know, but it's mine …'  We wanted something deeper, something more … philosophical.  And so the movie ends without answering its own main question – what is the meaning of life?

The trouble is, whenever we try to really spell it out we seem to end up like that.  Making lists.  At first glance, that's what we seem to be getting today from Ephesians – a short-list of do's and don'ts – some essential rules for living.  Trouble is, in his letter to the Roman Church, St Paul makes such a big thing of arguing how it's not about rules any more, it's about a new quality of life that he calls being 'in Christ'.  So, how come the rules?  Aren't we back where we started – tell the truth, don't steal – be nice to your mum?

Except there's a bit more to it than that.  Remember when I spoke about chapter two, about the breaking down of the wall and the connection between being right with God and being right with other people, reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, or maybe in terms more relevant to us, between this Church faction and that one – or, ultimately, between people who think the same way I do, and … well, the rest of you.  That what Jesus accomplishes is the breaking down of walls.  Ephesians is about relationships – horizontal ones as well as vertical ones – and now we're getting down to the nitty gritty – there's a connection between having new life 'in Christ' and how we live from day to day.  And in particular – how we live in Christian community.  We're meant to notice how these two things go together – if there's no practical grounding, or no requirement to live out the consequences of our faith, then Christian spirituality becomes self-indulgent, a sort of withdrawal from reality – on the other hand, the sort of Christianity that just focuses on the rules without attending to spirituality turns into joyless moralising.  Ephesians is about noticing the connection, and above all, about noticing that our Christianity gets worked out in the context of our relationships.

Get angry, but don't sin!  I really think that Christians get confused about anger.  On the one hand we have Jesus telling us in Matthew chapter 5 that anger is like committing murder – in other places we read about Jesus getting angry himself.  Anger itself, of course, is just an emotion.  We're hard-wired for it as a built-in emotional response for example to pain or frustration.  It's morally neutral.  Generally we feel anger not even as a first response but as a second response, a split second later when we've had a chance to react – and it's a natural, an unavoidable part of living in families and communities – even in churches – it's natural to feel anger and acknowledging and accepting your anger is a good sign that you're emotionally healthy.  What isn't healthy is when we suppress it, when we pretend we're not angry, or when we hold onto it after its 'use by date'.  When we bottle it up, force it underground and maybe even forget what we were originally angry about, then either it eventually builds up so much that it comes out in an inappropriate way, or else it gets turned inwards against ourselves and it becomes a recipe for depression.  Or we can hold on to anger so long that it becomes poisonous, we become poisonous to ourselves and to other people.  I think a real problem with Christian communities is when people mistake Jesus' instruction to love other people with the idea that we should never be angry, that we should never have any conflicts, or that we should always be 'nice'.  Not letting the sun go down on your anger might actually be more about being honest, about taking responsibility for our own feelings and dealing with conflict in a way that's respectful both of ourselves and of other people. 

And then, says Ephesians? Be kind to one another, and forgive one another.  You might think, well, we're Christians, we know about forgiveness – except it's a lot easier to talk about it than to do it, isn't it? I've thought about this a fair bit, because – well, I'm pretty sure I might have made somebody angry once. Or twice.  Conflict happens wherever there are people, and perhaps especially wherever there are people who care passionately about what they are doing, and yes, to some extent if your parish priest doesn't make you angry every now and then that might mean she or he isn't doing their job.  More often maybe it is because he or she has overlooked something, or given offence in the way that busy and distracted people all too often do.  A lot of the time it is simply because, heck, the parish priest is the one person who is here most of the time, and that's bound to be annoying. So as a rule, priests count on this one, that God's people are prepared to forgive.  But the best way to practise forgiveness is to be assertive, which means to come to the person who has offended you in private and tell them.  With gentleness and respect.  Right now, I'm angry at you.  Why did you do this? Why did you say that?  Why didn't you notice?  Why weren't you there? This is what Jesus tells us to do, in Matthew chapter 18.  This is also about doing a reality check.  Maybe the fault was with the other person.  Maybe it was with me.  Maybe we both need to forgive each other.  But certainly, when the practise of forgiveness is generous and active, relationships are strengthened.

Then Ephesians says, 'don't steal'.  You might think this one's a bit easier.  Not too many house-breakers or pickpockets come to St Michaels.  Except, see how the verse goes on to connect the idea of not stealing with the requirement to be generous towards people in need?  There's no middle ground, no sit-on-the-fence position where you can just look after your own business and let the rest of the world look after itself.  It's one or the other, Ephesians is saying there's either compassion or there's theft.  If you're not living generously, then you're living selfishly.  There's nothing private about Christian spirituality, it's not a mountain-top religion – what St Paul calls living 'in Christ' doesn't just mean warm fuzzy feelings, it means participating in some way with Jesus' uncompromising program of love and compassion – it means modelling our own lives on what we see God doing for us in and through Jesus – allowing God to draw us out of our own self-preoccupation so that we notice the needs of the have-nots and the disadvantaged and the ungrateful.  What Ephesians is telling us here is that when we cop out of that deal, when we stop noticing the need of others, then we are stealing something that belongs to God.  When we keep God's gifts locked up inside ourselves rather than using them to enrich the lives of those around us, then we're stealing something that belongs to God.  I don't know about you, but I find it uncomfortable to hear that. 

And then Ephesians tells us to watch our language.  The way we communicate has to mirror God's grace and God's compassion towards us.  It's a tall order, isn't it?  God's Spirit is what is animating you, it's what gives you life in the first place, and it's what gives you the new kind of life that Paul calls living 'in Christ'.  But it's not 'set and forget'.  You need to live cooperatively with the Spirit, you need to be flowing in the same direction as the Spirit – when we fail to notice which direction the Spirit is moving in us and we start swimming against the tide, then we block the flow.  I think the whole idea of the Holy Spirit is that God intends us for flourishing and for wholeness – but we have to work with that intention, giving of ourselves, not holding onto our hurts or our limitations, meeting other people more than halfway because God meets us more than halfway.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus is still talking about bread.  About himself being the bread come down from heaven to be the life of the world.  Jesus sees himself as that which is broken and shared out, as food for a hungry world.  The One who is sent into the world by God, and the One who sends us into the world.  There's something in this image that tells us about the nature of God's own life – never static, always on the move outwards from the centre like ripples when you throw a stone into a puddle.  The nature of God, that we see in Jesus Christ, is to be poured out so as to fill up our emptiness.

It's a restless image, isn't it?  Love that's so all-consuming that it keeps looking for new horizons of self-giving.  And then Ephesians wraps up the list of do's and don't's by telling us we've got to imitate that.  That's what all this has been heading towards.  You can't love Jesus without imitating Jesus, without imitating the character of God which is to be poured out in love.  It means the focus keeps widening.  Not just focused on ourselves, not just focused on the inward spiritual Jesus, but working out the meaning of who we are in the challenge of living with others and for others.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

10th Sunday after Pentecost

An enduring memory of a happy childhood is the occasional trip up to Perth, generally to see Grandma or spend some time with our cousins.  Our home in Collie wasn't really all that far, now that I think about it, except we kids sure made it seem that way.  Generally by about the time we got through Brunswick Junction the chorus would start: 'are we there yet?'.  It wasn't till I had children of my own that I quite appreciated how patient my own parents were ….

An old Jewish proverb tells us that to journey with hope is more important than to arrive.  Try telling that to four hot sticky children in the back seat of an Austin 1800 or to their harassed mother.  It's also, however, a live question and not at all universally accepted in the Church, or anywhere else in our impatient want-it-now consumerist society, for that matter.  How good are we at enjoying the ride, soaking up the experience of the moment in the growing in faith but not there yet zone that we call this earthly life?

I remember some of my early efforts at encouraging God's people to undertake a new project in community outreach, attend a meditation or Bible study group, or generally engage in one of the activities that make the difference between an alive and growing Church and the … well, alternative.  'I've been a Christian for fifty years', one lady told me.  'I read my Bible.  I say my prayers.  I know I'm saved.  Are you telling me that's not good enough?'  'Umm,' I said, 'no … just that there's always room to grow'.  Deep down, of course, I suspected she had might have done more growing in those fifty years than I ever would.

It's actually a theological question, a question of what exactly we think Jesus has done for us.  And some Christians would say that Jesus has died for us, so all we need to do is believe, and of course, yes, to love God and one another and that's it, really.  Salvation guaranteed.  Others including the writer of Ephesians, take a more real world view.  It's not quite as easy as it sounds, this loving others as Christ loved us business.  It takes a lifetime to get the point and in the meantime we are like those four wriggling children in the back seat.  No, we are not there yet.  We are, as a theologian friend remarked to me the other day, perennially reliving Holy Saturday, caught in the betwixt and between of Christ's appalling and wonderful act of reconciliation, and a world and a human nature that lures us away from entering fully into the resurrection life that Good Friday makes possible.

So Ephesians up to now has been encouraging us to see beyond our differences, in fact to embrace our diversity as a new people called the body of Christ.  No more Jew and Gentile but a new people with a new future and a new identity that allows us to recognise one another as brothers and sisters despite or even because of our cultural, linguistic and religious differences.  Not a bad lesson for a congregation as diverse as St Michael's Cannington.  We could adopt Ephesians as a mission statement.

Except today, Ephesians tells us we're not there yet.  As a new people, joined to one another across the boundaries of race and culture that sadly fragment human beings, we are set the challenge of living in a way that makes us worthy of our calling.  And Ephesians is clear that the foundation of the community of faith is love: that strong, self-giving love that is the essence of God's relationship with us. And Paul tells us what that love in action looks like: gentleness, patience, humility, seeking unity.  Love in other words isn't just a mushy feeling we can switch on and off at will.  Love doesn't happen all at once, it can be hard work and is the fruit of commitment and relationship.  A verb, not a noun, something we do not something we fall into.  And the unity – the being built together into the body of Christ – is what happens as we do it.

Ephesians hammers home this point about unity: one body, one Spirit - one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  One people.  But a people of many gifts, many ways and talents for the living out of faith. Modelling ourselves on Jesus whose exaltation by God is not the reversal but the essence and the outworking of his self-sacrificial love and self-emptying service, we find ourselves called to serve on the basis of our unique human attributes and resources.  But notice the language! Some of us are called to be apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers – some of us! But for what purpose? To equip all of us – the saints – the word, hagios – which means holy or set apart for the service of God – is one of St Paul's favourite words for all of us, God's people.  Don't be parishioners – a quaint English word if ever there was one which comes from the Greek paroikia meaning nothing more nor less than someone who lives next door to the oikos, the house. The priest's next door neighbour, in other words, somebody who lives close enough to hear the church bell and come when they're called.  Don't be parishioners to file in obediently, be hagios, the holy ones of God, here for a holy purpose.  And Ephesians basically says the work of the specialists, the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to equip the holy ones of God for the real work, the work of all Christians – the Greek word is diakonía, which the version we read this morning translates as ministry but we might more helpfully translate as service in the world.

We are called to be one people, challenged to grow in unity through the exercise of love, and the focus of the love is to go out and serve.  See, it is an ever-expanding model of what it means to be Church.

It is a dynamic model, a growing model of what Christian life is about because St Paul's idea of the body of Christ is also something that is not static but growing.  Our work of service has a purpose which is two-fold – for growing in maturity and for the building up of the body of Christ.  The image in Ephesians of the body of Christ is not just a figure of speech, we are meant to understand something cosmic, the body of Christ as almost a physical reality that is expanding until it fills the entire universe – remember that earlier in the letter the writer talks about the whole created universe coming to its fulfilment in Christ.  Certainly it is not meant in any scientific sense though some modern theologians have found in this image a useful way of talking about the whole of creation, not just human life, evolving and growing together into the wholeness that Isaiah imagines as peace and reconciliation between natural enemies.  The body of Christ, then, as imagined by Paul and the letter to the Ephesians is an image not just of growth, but of growth towards the completion and the fullness of relationship between all created things that comes out of our shared origin and common destiny.  And as we exercise our gifts in service to the world around us for the purpose of growing in love and unity and building up the body of Christ, Ephesians tells us, we ourselves also grow into the maturity of our God-given identity.

It's about getting real – about the moral and spiritual seriousness of Christian life.  'Grow up!', Ephesians tells us.  If what God has done for us in Jesus is this profound, if our own salvation and our own true identity is inseparable from our ministry of service to the world, then we need a vision that lifts us out of self-preoccupation into empathy and compassion, we need a vision of the world that is wide enough to sustain and strengthen us and help us grow in commitment and love.  Don't be like children, self-obsessed and attracted to the latest fad.  Don't be naïve, think carefully about your own motives and apply Jesus' model of self-giving love to your own life.  Are you really living into the expansive vision of the body of Christ – or are you living childishly and narrowly, addicted to the self-serving gospel of reassurance, manipulation and pretence?

You might not like being spoken to like that.  I don't.  I like to think that in five and a half decades I have worked out some priorities and learned to live with integrity – but Ephesians tells me I have some growing up to do yet.  The acid test of our discipleship is in whether, in the final analysis, we are serving others or ourselves.  How well are we doing with that, as a parish?  The 2011 National Church Life Survey, based on the self-report of this congregation, reveals that we put service to others in the very last place as a priority of our life together as a parish.  The very last place in what we value about our congregational life, the very last place in what we hope to change about our congregational life.  The sharing of our faith we put in second last place.  What's that about?  Ephesians tell us we need to grow up.

The last verse of our reading brings us back to the image and metaphor of a body.  We are all different – we have different gifts like different parts of the body but we belong together, without one another we don't function at all, with one another's help and encouragement we can grow in service into the image of the one who gave himself in service to us.

Which is the whole point.