(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope. (Eph. 4:4)
Over the last Sundays we have been reading the Letter to the Ephesians which speaks to us about God’s desire to restore and gather up all things in Christ. It is in the context of this divine plan that we are able to discover our true identity as adopted sons of the Father, who sees each believer in that ‘one new single New Man’ (Eph. 2:15) the Lord Jesus creates within himself. In other words, Ephesians tells us that we are one with Christ, and, because of this, we are worthy of the same incredible love the Father lavishes on his only-begotten Son.
Today St Paul continues on the theme of oneness by articulating how our sense of unity in the Lord Jesus should influence the way we relate to other Christians. Oneness with Christ and oneness with other believers are indissolubly linked due to the simple fact that we are all members of the same body. This is a recurring concept in Paul’s letters. To the Galatians he writes, ‘there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28); to the Corinthians he says, ‘we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free’ (1Cor. 12:13)… and, when talking about Holy Communion, he also adds, ‘The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? [Therefore] Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1Cor. 10:16-17).
Oneness in Jesus destroys all barriers among believers and unites us together into the ‘one single New Man’, the one body of Christ. In this sense, oneness means that, as Christians, we all belong to one another, regardless of our quarrels, schisms, and theological differences. If we understand this, then, a deep sense of wonder should pervade the way we look at each-other as Christians – and particularly so when we look across denominational divides. Yes, we are different. Yes, oftentimes we can agree on very little. Yet, in the words ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4:5) we are one. So it should not come to us as a surprise (or a historical fluke) that each Sunday we still say in the Creed, ‘We believe in one… Church’. We do not say, “We believe in a church that sometimes gets things horribly wrong”; we do not say, “We believe in the Church of England”; and we do not say, “We believe in a church founded by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I”. To say ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ is an act of faith in as much as we believe that the body of Christ transcends denominations; it is an act of hope as we look forward to a time when the full and visible unity of the Church will be restored; and it is an act of humility in as much as we affirm that, as Christians, we all of equal value as members of the same body.
‘There is one Body, one Spirit’, says Paul. Then, how are we to act in response to this belief that we are all one in the Lord Jesus? How are we to express oneness in the face of so many centuries of Christian divisions?
Paul’ advice to us may seem a little vague but it is rather practical. He says, ‘bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience’ (Eph. 4:2). This means that we should accept and welcome other Christians through love – but not just any type of love; “charitably”, meaning through perfect love. Easier said than done, I admit that, especially when we live in a society where people are often expected to assert individuality and independence over, against, and even at the expense of others. But my guess is that Paul is also aware of this difficulty al well. By saying ‘bear with one another’, keep the peace, and ‘preserve the unity of the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:3) the apostle starts from the bare minimum. Paul encourages us to at least be aware of the Christ’s presence in the other when we meet with other believers and to acknowledge this presence through actions and attitudes inspire by love.
The bottom line is quite simple. The Father loves us in seeing Jesus in us, so we too must love others by endeavouring to see Christ in them.
To create one single New Man…
in his own person he killed the hostility. (Eph. 2:15)
Last Sunday we begun to read Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians which, in its opening verses, affirmed that God’s plan for creation is to ‘gather up all things in Christ’ (Eph. 1:9) and to make all believers to be his adopted sons in the Lord Jesus (Cf. Eph. 1:5). Following on from that, today we read that by restoring all things, and by making us his siblings, Christ is creating ‘one new single New Man within himself’ (Eph. 2:15), a new creation in whom barriers and hostilities are overcome. But as we read these verses with our twenty-first century sensibilities, we could be justified in thinking that there still is a bit of hostility left even if only in the way this passage is translated. Sons, man, and even a ‘New Man’… daughters and women seem all but unaccounted for. With this type of gender-exclusive language Ephesians may sound a little odd to many people, if not even infuriating who would regard these as gender-hostile words. Indeed, more recent Bible translations (such as the NRSV) propose a different take on Ephesians replacing “sons” with “children” and “man” with humanity”. But before we rush off to buy a more inclusive Bible, we might want to consider that here perhaps Paul is simply trying to make a theological point.
When Paul writes about differences, and even hostilities, between people of different backgrounds and cultures he acknowledges a harsh human reality; that there are great barriers among the human family, often fuelled by ethnicity, culture, creed and many other reasons – including gender. But more specifically, Paul speaks of the barriers between his own Jewish people and the pagan world; between circumcised and the uncircumcised (Cf. Eph. 2:11); a marked separation between those who were accounted as God’s chosen nation and the rest of the world, the Gentiles – which included the people of Ephesus, and even us. However, after acknowledging the existence of these differences and hostilities, so strictly enforced by the Old Testament Law, Paul stresses the fact that every division (whatever it may be, or however unsurmountable it may appear) comes crashing down for Christians because in the Lord Jesus we are all gathered in the one body (his body!), regardless of our personal circumstances. Through the blood of his cross – spilled for both Jews and Gentiles – Christ reconciles believers to God and to one-another. In his crucified body our old selves (with our pride, squabbles, and vices) have also been crucified. In Christ self-offering to the Father we have become part of the New Man, a living sacrifice to God, which restores and brings peace to the whole creation.
At the centre of Paul’s proclamation of the “Good News” (and indeed this is good news!) is a simple yet astounding belief; God sees each faithful as an adopted son, because he sees us in his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Time and time again we encounter this concept throughout St Paul’s letters; later on in Ephesians the Apostle encourages all people to grow into the ‘perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:14); to the Romans and the Corinthians he writes that all the faithful form one body in Christ (Cf. Rom. 12:5 and 1Cor. 6:15); to the Colossians he advises to put to death the old man, or the old self – that is, those habits and dispositions which are incompatible with the gospel (Cf. Col. 3:5) – because they have been crucified with Christ… But perhaps Paul makes this argument nowhere more explicitly than when, using himself as an example, he says to the Galatians, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20).
There is one hymn which also illustrates this point quite well and which I have quoted to you before, And now, O Father, mindful of that Love. In its second verse, praying to God the Father, it says,
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him.
So, we are the ‘one single New Man’ in Jesus Christ. In this belief there is no judgment about where we come from, no belittling of our personal identities, no bias against equality, and no agenda to favour certain people over others. Surely, we each have unique personal qualities and particular quirks, our good habits which we should cultivate, and also our propensity to sinning which we should fight, yet the truth of the matter is that the Father chooses to love us not according to what each of us may deserve, but with the same unmeasurable love with which he loves Jesus, because we are one and the same in him. He even promises us heaven because that where Christ is.
We are the ‘one single New Man’ in Jesus Christ. Then out of this flows a twofold vocation: first we ought to grow to full maturity in this new man; meaning that amongst ourselves there cannot be room for divisions or hostilities fuelled by pride, or by status in society, by wealth, gender, or anything else. God wills to restore all things in Christ, and Jesus reconciles us in his body, therefore we must be a people of peace; a people of welcome; a people of who foster reconciliation; and a people who bring hope. Secondly, we must reach out to those (and there are so many in our society) who think too little of themselves, who are trapped into thinking that for them there cannot be forgiveness or redemption; to those pressed down by social anxiety, or guilt, or worries about being able to fit in. We must reach out to them and bring them this good news; God loves us regardless of our failures or mistakes, he loves us because he sees us in his Son.
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him.
… between our sins and their reward
we set the Passion of thy Son our Lord. Amen.
Amos 7:12-15 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:7-13
He has let us know the mystery of his purpose…
that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head,
everything in the heavens and everything on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10)
This morning, both our first reading and the gospel give us a brief insight about of a possible cost for cooperating with God. First, we read how the prophet Amos is requested to leave a royal shrine (or even being banned from it) because his words of prophecy were too upsetting for the people hear; and then, Mark describes how the Twelve are told that, in certain instances, people will not welcome them. In both readings this personal cost is identified as rejection. Many people do not want to hear God’s words; they spurn his healing and the fullness of life he offers if this means giving up cherished habits; they do not want to change their way of life, and so they dismiss God. In so doing, they also reject those who cooperate with him.
But although the cost of being a Christian is a clear theme in the Lectionary, I don’t really want to focus on it; rather, I would like to look at the positive aspects of cooperating with God; at those tasks we ought to do. Reading between the lines we see that in today’s readings Amos, Saint Paul, and the Twelve do something entrusted to them by God. Their examples give us a flavour of the jobs at hand… Amos proclaims the demise of a people who have forgotten the justice God had commanded them to practice, those who ‘trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land’ (Amos 8:4); Paul writes words of praise about the blessings and the freedom which God bestows on those who accept the Lord Jesus (Cf. Eph. 1:14); and the Twelve set out to cure the sick and encourage people to change their way of life (Cf. Mark 6:13). To proclaim justice, to praise, to cure, and to encourage; these are just a few of the tasks God entrusts to those who endeavour to do their bit in bringing about his plan for creation.
Yes, God has a plan. God has a plan, a purpose, (you could say “a goal”) for creation and he invites everyone to cooperate with him so that a new creation may come to fruition. In the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul affirms that God has revealed his plan in the Lord Jesus. This is an all-encompassing design that will include both heaven and earth; both the spiritual and material realms, so often seen at odds with each other. And his purpose is to ‘bring everything together under Christ, as head’ (Eph. 1:10). But what does it mean? Depending on the Bible translation you have at home, this verse may say something a little different. It could be translated as “to sum up”, “to unite”, “to gather again”, and even as “to restore” things to perfection. Out of all these possible meanings we see that God’s plan is that everything that exists might find unity in the Lord Jesus; a unity which was in him from the beginning of creation (because ‘all things came into being through him’ John 1:3), a unity that was lost, but that, once restored, it is going to be the hallmarked by justice, by peace, and by the joy of the new creation…
And as God sets forth his plan he also calls people to work with him to establish it. So how can we see the restoration of all things in Christ for ourselves? How can we chip-in, as it were, and to do our bit in furthering God’s plan? I am sure we can all think of ways in which we can minister to one-another, serve God within his Church, and feel like we are doing enough. Yet, gathering all things in Christ goes beyond this. It means working to unite and to restore everything to the sovereignty, centrality, and primacy of Jesus. It means intentionally transforming our communities by asking ourselves (first) and (then to) those around us to let go of individualistic attitudes and self-centredness, so as to direct our every attention, and every effort towards Jesus.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, at a time of some political turmoil, a saintly Pope, Pius X, wrote that all Christians, have a vocation to restore all things in Christ, and therefore they must
‘seek to restore Jesus Christ to the family, the school and society... They take to heart the interests of the people, …endeavouring to dry their tears, to alleviate their sufferings, and to improve their economic condition by wise measures. They strive, in a word, to make public laws conformable to justice and amend or suppress those which are not so.’ (Il Fermo Proposito, (The firm purpose), Pius X, 1905)
A tall order for the average Christians; that may be. But time and again the Scriptures show us that cooperating with God is not a task entrusted to the elites and to those evidently qualified for it. To proclaim justice, to praise, to cure, and to encourage; we see these tasks worked out in Amos, Paul, and the Twelve. To help those in need, to welcome, to teach the faith, to pray for others; we see such things and more in the lives of the saints. It is these people, that is to say, people like you and me, which God calls to cooperate with him.