Sunday, August 2, 2009

Built in Love

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 2, 2009

Ephesians 4:1-16

Paul concludes this little passage by referring to the church as a fellowship in the process of, “building itself up in love.” He had completed a couple of paragraphs describing the gifts of believers as something like individual bricks, which may be used to help build the one church. His repeated calls for unity throughout the passage lead me to believe that in his time he was aware of churches in which the commitment to the fellowship was coming in second to individual commitments to a “do your own thing” religious faith.

When Paul described the ideal church as one which is “building itself up in love,” he used agapé, the New Testament word that stands for a dispassionate care which takes the needs of the other(s) into account before the needs of self. Other types of love — phileo: brotherly love, eros: erotic love — are more commonly understood in our culture, they are types of love which are heavily endowed with emotional content. The way we feel about someone has a lot to do with whether we will have brotherly, or, especially, erotic love for them.

Agapé is not like that. Agapé is a love which leaves emotion aside and makes a decision. It is a love that says no matter what happens — you can spit in my eye — I will still seek to do and be what is best for you as I see it. It is the quintessential committed love, while the others come and go with the ebb and flow of our emotions.

This is all fine and good, but how do we go about “building in love”? What are the building blocks of such a church? There are some great words describing the actions of God in regard to us in this passage: Calling, unifying, gifting, maturing, building. Let’s listen for their implications for our life together.

Calling. So many people believe that “calling” is a word applied to people who take up religious vocations, but that “regular” Christians just have jobs. That’s not the way Paul thinks of it here. Paul did not say he begged pastors to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called...” His words are addressed to all believers. Every Christian has a calling from God. Do we know what our callings are, each of us? If we don’t and would like to, it should be the subject of prayer with our families or prayer groups, so that we might get a better understanding of what God is trying to call us to do. Paul outlines the marks of one who has undertaken his or her calling. Such a life will be marked by humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, just the opposite characteristics from those which many of our workaday “jobs” require of us. Our calling takes the community into account first, while mere employment is so commonly marked by “what’s in it for me?”

It’s amazing to think about: the creator of the world, the one who flung the planets into their orbits and invented the platypus and the peregrine falcon, the ferns and the fir trees, who sent a comet crashing into Jupiter, this very one calls us. Surely we must answer.

I have a friend, a former Marine, who said that ever since his days in the service when he walked on board aircraft carriers, he thought of the church as similar to those great ships. An aircraft carrier is not a place where people come to sit and stay and ring the bell for service. It is a place to get refueled, to gather up ammunition, to get attention for wounds if need be, but ultimately a place from which to depart on a specific mission.

One building block of our loving fellowship must include a sense of the particular piece of this church’s ministry to which God is calling each of us.

Unifying. Paul felt so strongly about the need for unity in the church, he wrote of oneness over and over, like a mantra: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God...One, one, one.

This building block of our faith is so critical, especially in our world of increasing factionalism, where every denomination, political movement, and cult claims to have the corner on the message of Christ to the exclusion of all others. Celebrations of diversity — for all the good they represent — sometimes threaten in our time to become declarations of hopeless division. To take Paul’s meaning, we must believe that if we have not found the faith, baptism, Spirit, hope, Lord that unites us with other believers, we have not yet found the faith of Christ, not fully. That faith in its highest form should pull us together into the body with other believers, not drive us apart into endless wrangling over fine points of doctrine and detail. Those beliefs and movements which overemphasize human distinctions or tend to divide the community of faith are, in a deep way, antithetical to the essence of God’s will for the church.

To commit together to unity, even when we don’t feel like it, is part of the meaning of agapé love, one of the building blocks of a loving fellowship, which must seek unity.

Gifting. To develop unity in the body of the church, we are each given gifts: The equipment of the saints. That’s the way Paul described the gifts that are given to believers by the One in whom they have come to believe. Every sport needs its own equipment. Hardly any calling in our world comes without some special equipment. People who do word processing need computers; athletes need all manner of paraphernalia specific to their sport; carpenters need hammers and woodworking tools; auto mechanics need great cabinets with drawers full of tools to work on our cars; physicians and nurses need x-ray machines, lab equipment, stethoscopes; attorneys need access to vast libraries of law books; musicians need copies of the score and instruments; preachers need long black robes to keep their shapeless bodies from distracting from the message they proclaim.

The gifts of God are the tools needed to equip the saints. That’s you. Did you realize you were a saint? Sure you are, that’s what Paul says you are. And you need equipment to go about your saintly business on behalf of the one who calls you. And the equipment you lack, you may be sure is provided to someone close by, so that together, you may be a complete church which can witness, prophesy, teach, and care for each other and the world in which we find ourselves.
Another building block of our loving fellowship includes the equipment or gifts which God has given us to get our work done. Whatever we find ourselves capable of doing for the sake of the church, we must be sure to do.

Maturing (growing up). Paul says that gifts God gives to us are for one purpose: to bring unity and maturity into the fellowship called the church. How do we spot a fellowship which is immature? Paul gives an example: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Sometimes I think there isn’t a frail wind of speculative doctrine which the church has been able to resist. Theology and Hope; Christianity and the Current Crisis; Theology and Liberation; Reimagining God; The Death of God; Theology as Pastoral Counseling; Salvation through the purchase of Indulgences; one after another they come down the pipe and the church grabs on, hoping this will at last be the corner of the gospel which will save the rest, make it relevant or understandable enough to modern people. And yet time after time, the little corner of the gospel that these represent cannot stand in for the whole thing. For that we need all the gifts of God’s people, not just itty bitty particulars of this or that theological speculation.

Maturity, in Paul’s view, seems to require an ability to recognize that the whole gospel is bigger than any of us, and so requires the gifts of all of us. Another building block of a loving fellowship is establishing a maturity that recognizes and welcomes the gifts of others into the mix of the church.

Building (in love). Paul closes this little section of his letter saying that such a church will build itself up in agapé, in hard-headed love which sets aside personal advancement and individual claims in order to advance the building of the fellowship that has the high calling of “body of Christ.”

Paul said, in the beginning of chapter 4, that we are called to a lead lives worthy of our calling, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” How many of us can say we have made every effort toward building up the church fellowship in love, more effort than we spend rending it asunder by rigid adherence to our own cherished opinions?

I pray with Paul that our fellowship may grow toward that maturity which builds itself up in agapé, which moves toward a love characterized by commitment to common faith, common purpose. My friend and fellow pastor, Mike Brown, closes his newsletter messages to his congregation with the instruction to “Be the Church!” Now that Paul has helped us understand what that means, we may take on the command as well. Dear friends in Christ: Be the Church!