A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on August 5, 2012, by Christopher L. Webber.

I said two weeks ago that the Epistle to the Ephesians emphasizes unity – and I talked about it again last week but even that probably doesn’t prepare you for this week’s reading with its drum beat insistence on unity:

“I beg you,” St. Paul writes, “To maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, . . . one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

The Prayer Book, of course, has made that verse very familiar because we repeat it at the beginning  of every service of Holy Baptism.  You are baptized into one body, you belong to one God.  There was a time when some Christians didn’t recognize baptism in other churches. Those days, thank the Lord, are gone – except for the churches that reject infant baptism. Aside from that, if you are baptized, you are baptized: baptized into the one body of Christ that is one body however divided we are by human divisions.

I think Paul has two agendas here.  First, there is always the threat, the problem of disunity: true in his day just as much as in ours. And I think it’s inevitable.  You set out to bring together in the church people who have nothing in common – nothing except that one Lord, one faith – and you are running up against every basic human instinct.  From the time we get to school-age we divide ourselves. We associate with some and not others. We pick our friends, we join clubs and teams, we form cliques.  We get together with people we like, with whom we have things in common. And then you come to church and here are all these people with whom you have nothing in common, and right away someone is suggesting that you work with them, share your life with them, form a community.

Well, not every church. There are churches that don’t worry about community. It’s really a contradiction in terms – a church without a community.  I said something about that once to a couple who were planning to get married: “Come here on Sunday,” I said, “get to know people.”  They were really surprised.   “My parents go to church every Sunday,” one of them said, “and they never talk to anyone.”  I guess it’s easier that way. But it sure does miss the point.  At least it misses Paul’s point about the church as a body.

I think there are several ways of looking at the church.  One way thinks of the church in terms of law: God said “Go to church” and God keeps score and you need to earn points. And there are churches, too, where the emphasis is on feeling good – hymns and sermon designed to make you happy. But that’s not the church Paul is talking about; that church is a living body of which we are members and we come together to be who we are and to share the life that gives us life.  I sometimes think we could simplify everything if we adopted the other system, if we didn’t talk to each other, just came and got our credits or our emotional fix and went home.

I sometimes think that one of the reasons we have so much controversy in the church is that we do talk to each other and we find out what others believe – and we’re horrified.  Just ths last week, a congregation in southwestern Connecticut decided to leave the church because they disagree about issues.  But the church isn’t about issues, it’s about being a body in which different people have different views and that’s alright. Somewhere in this world there needs to be a place of unity – organic unity – deeper by far than questions of opinion – but a place where we can face and overcome divisions by the grace of God.  Yes, we have conventions and pass resolutions and try to work things out: try to achieve consensus when consensus just isn’t there.  It wasn’t there in the first century either or this epistle might never have been written.

Christians always seem to want the church to be a club, a gathering of like-minded people, and it irritates them enormously to realize that it isn’t like that.  It’s a church: one Lord, yes; one faith, yes – in spite of the differences about liturgy and sexuality and structure and so on – but still one church, one body. why else would we all be here? But always we have to stop and remember: it’s a church, not a club, and the unity is of God, not ourselves. That’s point one.

But when we look closely at this fourth chapter there’s another concern emerging, a more specific focus, and that’s about ministry.  There are different roles in the church. In the one body there are different functions. Christ’s gift to the church, we are told, is that some should be apostles, and some should be prophets, and some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. And that also is a source of division.  We have different gifts, different roles, different functions, different ministries.  And it’s notorious that these gifts are always a potential source of conflict. Apostles are sent out to build up the church; prophets are sent out to speak God’s word which is often a word of judgment on the comfortable way we are living and offends the same people the apostles are trying to unite.  Evangelists have a priority to reach people who haven’t heard the gospel; pastors are there to care for those who have heard it.

In another letter of Paul’s, First Corinthians, there’s a different list of gifts for ministry: apostles. prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, the gift of healing – and then two very practical gifts: those able to help others, and then administration.   So imagine the conflict between the prophets on the one hand and the administrators on the other: those trying to stir up trouble and those trying to avoid it. It’s a classic conflict when people come to choose a new pastor for a church: do you want a pastor, or an administrator, or a preacher?  You probably won’t get all three. And typically, what parishes – and dioceses do – is choose a pastor one time, a preacher the next time, and an administrator after that.  Why doesn’t God package all these gifts in one person?  I don’t know. But that is how it is.  And as St. Paul well knew, it can be a source of division – unless we recognize that gifts are different and learn to rejoice in the gifts we have and compensate somehow for those we don’t.  But don’t blame the pastor for not being an administrator or the preacher for not being a pastor.  They need to be who they are and use the gifts God has given them and it only makes it more difficult when we expect them to have gifts God didn’t give them.  This congregation knows about that because for years you had a pastor without the time to be a pastor and so members of the congregation came forward to do what needed doing. That’s how it ought to be done.

But the most important point this passage makes is still to come: why does God give these gifts? We tend to think of these as the gifts of ordained ministry because we have for so long identified ministry and ordination.  There are churches that refer to their clergy person as “The Minister” with a capital T and capital M.  But pay attention to what Paul says: he says that all the gifts we look to the clergy for – prophecy, evangelism, pastoral skills, etc. are given in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” And the “saints” are the members of the church, all the members, not just the ordained.  In other words, all these co-called ministerial gifts are, in fact, not the primary ministry of the church at all but background and preparation and training for the real work of ministry.  These gifts are given “to equip the saints,” God’s holy people, you, all the members of the church to do the real work of ministry with their gifts, your gifts, often for those outside the church, those in need of pastoral care, those who have never heard the gospel, people you know because you see them every day, people I will never meet unless you bring them here and people who may never come here but still need your ministry.

And those gifts, too, will probably be divisive, because no two of you will have the same gift.  And why should you?  Who needs a congregation with a hundred church school teachers and no children or fifty covered dish bakers and no one who knows how to set a table?  Sometimes that kind of thing happens all the same.  The parish I served longest had lawyers and bankers by the dozen and no one who knew how to change a light bulb.  Here, we have to get along without lawyers but we have skills that are actually more useful.  But these gifts are given for ministry, for building up the body of Christ – to do the work that needs doing, to quote the baptismal service again: “To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself.” And you can’t delegate that to me because I don’t know your neighbor and you do.

The former bishop of New York liked to point out that in the early days of the church when someone came and asked to be baptized, they admitted them as a catechumen and then spent three years essentially training them for ministry, and then in a long and elaborate service on Easter Even, they baptized them, made them lay members trained for ministry.  In those days, as the bishop tells it, when they needed a new priest or bishop, they would choose someone who seemed right and go ahead with the ordination with no further training at all because they had been trained before they were baptized and they would probably just tuck the ordination in to the regular service on Sunday morning.  Nowadays, on the other hand, we spend an hour or so with parents and godparents before a baptism and do it in a few minutes on Sunday morning, but we send would-be clergy off to seminary for three years and ordain them in long and elaborate ceremonies.  In other words, we’ve reversed the priorities; upgraded the status of the ordained few and down-graded the skills of the baptized many so it’s no wonder the church has problems.

Somewhere along the way, I suppose, the lay people got tired and passed more and more of their role onto the clergy and told them to do the ministry.  But that’s backwards. No wonder there’s so much disunity.  If we were all out doing our ministry we’d be so busy with the task at hand there’d be no time to argue or criticize how someone else was doing it.  So maybe what it comes down to is trying to be clear about the things that unite and the things that separate. In the world, we’re separated by age and sex and language  and education and income and politics  and job description and title  and dozens of other factors that ought to – not divide us in the church but enrich our lives.   Here there’s a unity that – ideally at least – accepts these differences and brings them together and enjoys them and benefits from them.  Because there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, these potentially divisive differences can be seen as gifts.  And the separate gifts God gives us for living: talents for administration, skills in music, in organizing a chicken barbecue, in visiting others and building relationships – all these gifts of ministry that you have and use though very different, enrich our lives in this community because the unity is in God – one Lord, one faith, one baptism – in God, not in us.

One last point: these gifts for ministry are to be cherished and valued – as this morning’s reading reminds us – “with humility and gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love.” And that’s a gift also – a great gift.  Pray that God gives it generously to all the church of Christ so that we will be that one Body that serves Christ in the world.

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