A sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16 preached at First Presbyterian Church; Greenville, MS, August 2018. 

This reading from Ephesians is a turning point of sorts. It starts with “therefore,” marking it as a response to the words that have come before it. Scholars have disputed that Paul himself wrote this epistle — this letter. But verified author or not, there’s no mistaking the power of God that chapters one through three are meant to convey. The letter begins with a description of the spiritual blessings that God has given us through Christ, and the way we have been welcomed as God’s children, inheriting redemption. We hear about hope, peace, grace, and more grace. The author reminds us that even Gentiles are welcome in God’s family, proclaiming that Christ is our peace and that we ourselves are a dwelling place for God. Essentially, it’s three chapters of reflection on God’s fullness and our heavenly identities.

“Therefore, I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” What follows — what we red this morning — is a recipe for nurturing godly community here on earth, and the main ingredient is unity. There’s no missing that part, given that in the span of three verses we hear the word “one” seven times. There is one body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God above all and through all and in all. Unity is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian community. Perhaps that’s why, during every Presbyterian ordination, the teaching elder, ruling elders, or deacons being ordained are asked the question: “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” Presumably they say yes.

Ordained or not, it’s important for all of us to remember that unity is not the same thing as uniformity. The Scripture itself tells us this, when it lists the varied gifts God has given to people: “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” These particular gifts are intended to, as the verse continues, “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Every one of us is called to ministry, regardless of what our days look like from nine to five. 

And as we do the ongoing work of ministry together, verse 16 elaborates on our connection to each other. Christ is the head, “from which the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Jesus is the head of the Church that we are called to nurture. A head, a body, ligaments — the church is alive. A living, breathing, growing body of Christ.

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not know all of the biology behind a body being knit together by ligaments. But I do know that when I first read verse 16, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of knitting that involves yarn. Now let me be clear, I’m not even sure I qualify as a beginner. But in various spurts over the years I have managed a few scarves and a dishcloth or two. One Christmas break I even made a hat, although my mom had to come to my rescue at the end of that one. Novice status aside, here are some things I know to be true about knitting. It usually requires at least a little guidance. It always requires patience. And, in the world of knitting, as my Mom informed me: “a real knitter never ties a knot.” I guess that doesn’t count the slip knot that is often used at the very beginning of a project. Either way, the point isn’t to tie the yarn so tightly together that there is no possible way it will ever move. Of course you hope your new scarf or hat or sock stays together. And it probably does! But the reason for that isn’t knots. When it comes down to it, knitting is really a series of fancy loops. Each time the needles are moved, the yarn makes one loop, slips through another, and becomes an anchor of sorts for the ones that will come next. Each part of the yarn gently and flexibly supports another in its place. Knots are even avoided when a new piece of yarn is brought into a project in progress. The new piece of yarn is held next to the old, makes its first loop and is woven into the previous and following loops. In the knitted-together body of Christ, these loops are where we come in. Jesus is the knitter in this hat or scarf or dishcloth of a church. He’s the slipknot beginning of our series of loops, and ultimately our anchor. Being knit together as the body of Christ means following the pattern we’ve been given, supporting each other but also leaving room for growth, ready to welcome whatever new things the Holy Spirit wind blows in. A tension has to be maintained in the yarn, to successfully complete a project. A knitter has to keep the yarn pulled tightly enough to guide it into place. But there’s balance, because also essential is that the yarn has some room to move. Ligaments help our bodies bend and stretch (or that’s what they’re supposed to do, at least), and the same flexibility is key in knitting and a faithful community.

Knitting requires care and attention. However repetitive the moves can be, the careful nature of this crafting means that every inch of that yarn, however briefly, has been touched by the knitter. I’ve crossed paths, over the years, with several different congregations who have prayer shawl ministries. There’s a national website for the project, which describes it like this: “Compassion and the love of knitting [or] crocheting have been combined into a prayerful ministry and spiritual practice which reaches out to those in need of comfort and solace, as well as in celebration and joy. Many blessings are prayed into every stitch. Whether they are called Prayer Shawls, Comfort Shawls, Peace Shawls, or Mantles, etc., the shawl maker begins with prayers and blessings for the recipient. The intentions are continued throughout the creation of the shawl. Upon completion, a final blessing is offered before the shawl is sent on its way.”

The page continues to say that sometimes recipients will go on to make shawls for others, as God’s comfort spreads throughout the community. One gift lays the groundwork for gifts to come.

So whether we are held together with ligaments or as pieces of yarn, being the body of Christ means embracing the traditions from which we’ve come, while bringing to new life the Church of the future. It means supporting each other, while making sure there’s plenty of room for new neighbors.

Ephesians’ author makes it clear that unity won’t come easily. Verse 14 brings with it a warning: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” The Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum, totally separate and safe from society. The Church exists as part of the world, and the world is full of messages that contradict the way Jesus would have us live our lives. Although the actual authorship of Ephesians is disputed, it’s true that congregations founded under Paul’s mission might have felt threatened by competing traditions, whether Greco-Roman paganism or Jewish Christianity. It’s easy today, too, to feel threatened by things that are different — by people who don’t look or love or pray or vote the way that we do. “But speaking the truth in love,” verse 15 continues, “we must grow up in every way…”

If you ask me, speaking the truth comes in two parts. Yes, there are times when we must speak hard truths to others. But first and perhaps more difficult, is to speak truth to and about ourselves.

The Old Testament reading we heard this morning began: “Have mercy on me, O God.” In verse three it says “for I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” And verse six: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” This psalm is one of 73 that name David as their author. That’s nearly half of all the psalms in the book, but this one has a more specific introduction. “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.” We know David from his boyhood battle with Goliath. Now he’s a king, and will go on to be included in the genealogy of Jesus, but the way he ends up married to Bathsheba is leeeess than ideal. The details are in 2 Samuel, but the Cliff Notes version is that he watched her bathe on a roof, they had an affair, and when David learned she was pregnant, he had her husband killed.

“Have mercy on me, O God, for I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It would seem as though David is speaking truth about himself, acknowledging where he has gone wrong. Not unlike the prayers of confession we pray together every Sunday. Later the psalm reads: “O Lord open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Our own personal examples of shortcoming might not be quite as extreme, but before we can speak truth to others it’s important to know ourselves. No one is perfect all the time. Imperfection is part of being a person. But when we are aware of, and acknowledging, our own growing edges, we can more authentically engage the things society might do better too.   

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” There’s a lot out there to distract us. A culture of individualism tells us we have to be okay without anyone’s help. Fear for ourselves or our loved ones leads us to hold tight to resources that could be shared. Hope can seem absurd and unity might feel impossible. But Doug Bratt reminds us that “In a world that increasingly seems to embrace arrogance, violence and short-temperedness, God. . .calls Christians to embrace humility, gentleness and patience.”1 It is not without risk, but the truth we are called to speak to the world is love.

“Therefore, I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Worthy is a tricky word. As Richard Ward puts it, “In a culture where self-esteem is a highly prized commodity and resource for making it in a competitive world, who needs a word like ‘worthy,’ tinged as it is with judgment?”2

The thing is, we have already been given God’s grace. No matter what, imperfections and all, you are so deeply loved by God. It’s not about having the most put-together house, saying exactly the right words, or having faith without doubt. It’s about the fabric of faith we’re already woven into, and the holy love that holds it together, empowering us to act. We have work to do, but thanks be to God we won’t be doing it alone. Verse one in Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads like this: “Get out there and walk — better yet, run! — on the road God has called you to travel.”3  May it be so.


Notes

  1. This Sermon Starters commentary from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.
  2. Richard Ward in Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 305.
  3. The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (Colorado Springs:NavPress, 2003).

Photo by Alex Palmer on Unsplash.