Scripture Readings: 2 Sam. 11:26-12:13a; Ps. 78:23-29; Eph. 4:1-16; John 6:24-35 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Ephesians 4:1-16
Living Into Our Calling
The indicatives of grace
The epistle of Ephesians was sent originally to Christians in Ephesus and surrounding towns. In the first half, Paul declares what theologians call the indicatives of grace—the gospel truths that by grace, in Jesus, we are the adopted children of God and by grace, through the Spirit, we are being transformed into the maturity of Christ. These realities do not become true if we do such and such, but are true, in Christ, by God’s grace.
The imperatives of grace
In the second half of Ephesians, Paul addresses what theologians call the imperatives of grace—our grateful response to the indicatives of grace. Today’s reading from the epistles is from that section of Paul’s letter, and we will consider it as we consider how we live into our calling in Christ.
The recipients of Ephesians already had begun to do so by believing the gospel and committing themselves, through baptism, to Jesus Christ. Now in Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul urges them to continue their journey of faith by responding to God in ways that are consistent with the grace of God that they have received:
As a prisoner for the Lord… I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (v. 1)
Paul, who wrote Ephesians from prison, used the fact of his incarceration to strengthen two points: 1) that his readers have been called, and 2) that they need to live into that calling. The life that is theirs already in Christ is a “calling” because they did not seek it; it was not the result of their choice—it was something God initiated. God, appealing to them through the Holy Spirit, called out to them, beckoning them to respond. In issuing that appeal and calling forth their response, God used human servants—including Paul in their case. And now Paul urges them to live in ways that are “worthy” of that calling. The Greek word translated “worthy” does not mean “deserving,” as though they could somehow earn their calling. Instead it carries the idea of living in a way that is consistent with (in line with) the indicatives of grace. How were they to do that? How are we to do that today? According to Paul, it begins with our attitude:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (v. 2)
Though we are the chosen of the King, we are not to act like aristocrats. Instead, we are to show forth the virtues Paul lists here (and v. 4). These virtues typify people who are down-to-earth rather than high-minded; helpful to others rather than hurtful; accepting of setbacks rather than demanding immediate gratification; putting up with faults in others rather than expecting perfection. A primary virtue according to Paul is living in a way that promotes unity among Christians:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (v. 3)
Note that it is not a unity we create, but one created by the Spirit, which we then maintain by how we treat each other. It’s a unity that reflects the tri-unity of God who is three in Persons yet one in being. In similar fashion, the church is diverse with many members, yet united by the Spirit in one body—the body of Christ:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (vv. 4-6)
Unity pervades every aspect of the body of Christ—a unity grounded in the one faith and baptism that are centered on the one Lord, Jesus Christ. In order that this unity be preserved, the Spirit gives the body of Christ a diversity of grace-gifts:
To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave [the church] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers… (vv. 4-7)
The gifts noted here are leadership offices. The men and women who fill these offices are called by God to serve the church in a way that maintains its essential unity as the one body of Christ.
The many members that make up the one church are like the myriad cells of a human body. Note this from the article “Cells” in the Merck Manual:
The body is composed of many different types of cells, each with its own structure and function… Some cells, such as blood cells move freely in the blood and are not attached to each other. Other cells, such as muscle cells, are firmly attached to one another. Some cells, such as skin cells, divide and reproduce quickly. Other cells, such as certain nerve cells, do not divide or reproduce except under unusual circumstances. Some cells, especially glandular cells, have as their primary function the production of complex substances, such as a hormone or an enzyme. For example, some cells in the breast produce milk, some in the pancreas produce insulin, some in the lining of the lungs produce mucus, and some in the mouth produce saliva. Other cells have primary functions that are not related to the production of substances. For example, muscle cells contract, allowing movement. Nerve cells generate and conduct electrical impulses, allowing communication between the central nervous system… and the rest of the body.
How truly marvelously we are made! Scientists have calculated that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each carrying out an assigned role. In the same way, the church consists of many members who, though diverse in their roles, function together under the superintending care of its leaders who work to preserve the health of the body of Christ. Indeed, the role of these leaders is…
…to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (vv. 12-13)
Each of us in the body of Christ has been gifted in a particular way to contribute to the unity of the church. As we utilize those gifts in works of service, the church grows in maturity—it becomes more like Jesus, the head of the body. Paul says that as that happens…
…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (vv. 14-16)
As the church grows into the maturity of Christ, weird spiritual notions, haunting guilt, legalistic practices, misapplication of grace, uninspired predictive prophecies and negative reactions against different people drop away. Instead, the church lives more and more in a unity where each member, in love, utilizes their God-given gifts to reach out in love to all people, while never compromising the truth that is in Jesus.
But how can this happen?
Is this beautiful picture of the church “pie-in-the-sky” idealism? Well, if it depends on mere human ability, the answer would be yes. But as our Scripture readings today show, with God it is possible. Indeed, it is the plan God is working out, despite human weakness. We saw that in our reading in 2 Samuel where David, through human weakness, failed to live up to his calling as Israel’s king. Yet, through Nathan, God led David to deep repentance, and David was restored and went on to serve Israel faithfully for many years. No matter how colossal our failures might be, God’s grace is greater. As we receive and respond to the grace of repentance, the Holy Spirit renews and restores us. That is true for us as individuals, and it’s true for congregations and even entire denominations, as our experience in GCI demonstrates. Praise be to God!
Our Gospel reading today in John 6 also gives us insight about living into our calling. There we find Jesus saying these words:
“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” …Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:27, 35)
The people Jesus was addressing were largely concerned about satisfying their physical hunger. Though Jesus was not unconcerned that their bellies were empty, he was even more concerned that their lives were spiritually empty. He has the same concern for people today. As the body of Christ, we are called to join Jesus in providing to people something that will nourish their souls—the “bread of life”—Jesus himself. We must feed on Christ ourselves (and we do so, in part, through the Lord’s Supper) and we then enter with Jesus into the work of evangelism—a work for which the body of Christ is gifted by the Spirit.
Dear friends, members of the body of Christ by grace, we have every reason and every resource we need to live into the calling we have in Christ. Christ in us, by the Spirit, enables us to be and do what otherwise would be impossible if we had to rely on our own resources. Like cells in the human body, each of us has been given particular gifts in line with a particular role and responsibility in seeing that the body of Christ is built up in love. To help us do so, God gifts the body with leaders called to oversee, to preach and to teach, so that together in unity we might live into the calling that we have been given. May we, by God’s grace, do so.