I find parts of Ephesians to be some of the most inspirational passages in all scripture, especially with regards to who we are in Christ, and who we are as the body of Christ, the church. Paul writes, “You, ( yes, you) being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength, together with all the saints to comprehend (to grasp) …. How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge”.
Who here wants to be part of this?
“That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”.
And yet, experience tells us that it is rare, as a church, that we grasp the love of Christ in quite this way, together. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the love of God in others, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the love of God, sometimes we do have a sense of unity. But equally there are many times when our worship and fellowship together can lose its joy and can even be a burden. Then when we look at Paul’s words in Ephesians we think; “this is how it should be! Why is it not so?”
I have lasting memory from the 1990’s when we lived in Oman. At the time I was the lay chair of the church council. On Fridays we would go to worship. The largest service had more than 400 people present. Looking around the hall it was as if I could see every tribe and language and people and nation. Singing together it felt like a taste of heaven. But then, a few days later we would meet as church council around a table and discuss our direction as a church, practical matters, how to do things, how to manage our finances etc. It was so difficult! We were so diverse in our cultural backgrounds, our preferences, our ways of doing things. The efforts on my part to keep unity were exhausting.
In the years that followed, this has played out again, to different degrees and in different ways. Church life should be uplifting, inspiring, upbuilding. Why is it often not so?
I choose at this point not to go into possible reasons why church life can be a struggle, for these are diverse and change with context.
Instead I will focus on some positive perspectives from the letter to the Ephesians. I am aware that in the coming weeks you will be looking, as part of your search for a new chaplain, to define who you are as a church and what you may look to be as a church. I hope this will be helpful.
I will focus first on purpose and calling and how that links into identity. Then I will have a brief reflection on particular context.
One of the frameworks to Ephesians, a recurring reference point, is the matter of purpose. Chapter 1 describes God’s purpose in Christ and who we are, what we become through that purpose. We are “adopted as sons and daughters”, we are redeemed through the blood of his sacrifice and made clean and holy. And we are given the gift of His Holy Spirit, a seal and guarantee of our inheritance, our hope in heaven.
God’s purpose then is also our calling. The calling is both universal, for all people, but is also personal, directed to individuals. Hence, though the circumstances of how we come to know Christ may differ, our experiences of Christ may differ, our calling is the same – to know Him.
Paul prays (1:18) “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened (or opened) that you may know the hope to which he has called you”.
In Paul’s day the great division was between Jew and Gentile. The mystery of God’s purpose, to which Paul gives attention in chapters 3 and 4, is that the gift of salvation is now offered to both Jew and Gentile. Jew and Gentile are made alive with Christ through the power of his resurrection. Jew and Gentile alike are reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Gentiles are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with all God’s people.
Paul’s personal calling as part of this purpose was to be the apostle to the Gentiles – to spread the gospel as far and wide as he was able. He describes this calling in chapter 3. At the start of Chapter 4 Paul urges the Ephesian believers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received”. And the remaining chapters are then practical advice as to how they might do that.
Paul is telling us that the priority in our calling is to know Christ – to know how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. That is our personal calling and our collective calling. The priority is to know Him; other things are of secondary importance.
In Ephesus there were clearly tensions within the church community. There were huge cultural differences between those of Jewish and Gentile background. Paul is teaching that those differences will not define them, or cause separation. Rather he focuses on what unites them.
I watched a documentary this past week on Northern Ireland – it is 100 years since Northern Ireland came into being. The documentary reflected on the conflict over the years between Catholic and Protestant communities and efforts made towards reconciliation and peace. They showed a small clip from a popular sitcom set in Northern Ireland, where young people were asked to list “similarities” on one blackboard and “differences” on the other blackboard between the two communities. After some comical interaction the blackboards were brought back into view. The similarities blackboard was empty. The differences blackboard was full.
This tells us something about human nature. We often try to define ourselves by what makes us different, distinctive. Our identity is about what sets us apart. And we tend to stick with those who are like us. As a group we defend and protect those things that define us. It is a sad fact, in a case like Northern Ireland, that such separation can lead to conflict and violence.
So Paul is telling us in Ephesians that our calling, our purpose and our identity is to know Christ and to be committed to all that builds up faith within the body of Christ.
In celebrating all that unites us, my belief is that our hearts will expand to celebrate all the differences that exist within the body of believers. And our doors will be open to welcome all who seek, all who desire to know Him.
This doesn’t just happen by itself. It is not easy to get alongside those who appear, at first glance, to be different. So Paul urges the believers in Ephesus to “be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love .. eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.
Let me finish with a reflection on particular circumstances and how that affects calling. Paul was writing from prison. The fact that he is locked up means he cannot visit the Ephesians in person. He chooses to see this as part of God’s purpose. And so he writes a letter. And the passion and clarity of the letter is inspired. What may have seemed a disadvantage is turned into something marvelous.
We may reflect on our period of lockdown and wonder, what have we learnt from it? What can we carry forward that will aid in the building of God’s kingdom? And what particular circumstances in Utrecht provide opportunity for the spreading of the gospel? Paul had a special calling to preach to the Gentiles. I wonder what your calling is?
Let us be hopeful, that God can do (3:20) “immeasurably more than we ask or imagine according to the power that is at work within us”. There is a measure of conditionality there. We do need to be open and willing to allow God to work within us and through us. May that be true here in this place.
“To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever, Amen.