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.