(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.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
As we have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture – I believed, and therefore I spoke – we too believe and therefore we too speak. (2 Corinthians 4:13)
The passage of 2Corinthians we read this morning opens with an explanation of why St Paul is compelled to speak about faith and about the Lord Jesus in the way he does; faith is so embedded in him and it is such a powerful force that he cannot but write, speak, preach, and labour in every possible way to explain it to others and to bring Jesus to everyone he meets. Paul quotes psalm 116 in its Greek text as his justification – I believed, and therefore I spoke – but he quickly starts to use the plural form to include on just himself, but also every Christian in Corinth, and in turn, to include every Christian soul throughout the ages. We believe, and therefore we speak should be our own justification too for talking about faith and the Lord Jesus to others.
It’s easy for someone in a dog-collar to say that we should talk about faith, especially when people expect you to do so, or half-imagine you to be a God-botherer. Sayings such as “Religion should be kept private” and “One shouldn’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table” are deeply engrained in our society and in the way we do things. So, I know who awkward that might seem for many people in the pews. But the truth of the matter doesn’t change, We believe, and therefore we should speak. And Paul gives a simple and practical pattern for the way everyone should learn to talk about faith. For example, when he speaks about hardships of the body, he is not doing so from a lofty height. He is talking from personal experience. Physically, Paul was not a very healthy person to start with, and even putting aside the persecutions he endured for the faith, the constant travelling, his daily work, and his ministry for the Church, must have frayed his body and tested his endurance to the limit. Yet, he says, that out of personal sufferings comes the knowledge that the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead, is at work within us. And it is out of this vulnerability and frailty we can speak all the more clearly and convincingly about faith. Later on, when Paul compares the human body to a tent fit for our earthly dwelling, he does so from the point of view of a serious traveller and – most of all – as a tent-maker…
we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The Apostle is able to draw links between what he does for a living (which in itself isn’t particularly Christian or newsworthy) and his faith; his daily life informs the way he believes and the way he can articulate his faith to others. Then we too could learn from Paul. How does our experience of testing or difficult times can shape the way we talk about faith? how can it encourage others in their trials? and how can our work or various activities ground the faith in our daily lives?
But I should say more about today’s readings. Some years ago a priest friend of mine wandered into his central London church only to find that the vestry had been broken into and a few items had been stolen from it. After the usual phone calls to the police and churchwardens he robed and went to the altar to celebrate a midweek Mass only to find, to his complete surprise, that the gospel reading appointed for that day was, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths …destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (Matthew 6:19-20)
As Alanis Morissette would say, ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ Even from personal experience I can testify that such coincidences or clashes between what goes on around us and the lectionary are very common indeed. We could say that they are just mere coincidences, or be grateful to God for pointing us towards his Word at the times when perhaps we most need guidance and consolation.
I believe that this is also what is happening today with our readings. Not even a fortnight since Jill’s funeral, the past week has brought fresh sorrows to our church family as Father Colin passed away, but as we come to church to celebrate Mass and to begin a new week together our readings remind us of our faith in the final victory of God over death. In the eyes of the world Jesus looked crushed, broken, and condemned to an undignified death, but through the testimony of the Scriptures and through the eyes of faith we know that his rising from the dead is what gives us hope for the future. Human experience has been radically altered by this. We are given a new, final end for our earthly journeying; that is, as our second reading says, to be “raised and put at the side of the Lord Jesus with the saints” (Cf. 2Cor 4:14).
Like St Paul, we may feel the strain of sorrow and the weight of sufferings that we (or our loved ones) have to endure, but we ought to place our faith in and be comforted by the One who ultimately will see that things are made right. So …we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).