The threat to fellowship

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I used to be a primary school teacher (for a very happy period) and it was apparent to me that there were certain “fault lines” dividing the class (social, intellectual, economic, racial). And consequently, if you pressed too hard in the wrong way (too much discipline, too little social interaction etc)  then you would expose those lines and create fracture. It was quite a finely tuned social organism that needed a gentle hand to hold it all together.

When I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I think there’s something of the same going on.

I’m assuming the validity of the view that the letter was written prior to the conference at Jerusalem described in Acts 15, and that Paul is writing to Christians in the Roman province of Galatia, the towns mentioned in Acts 13 and 14, (though those two points are still open to scholarly debate, it doesn’t affect the general discussion here).

So that would mean that the “fault lines” of Paul’s “class” are approximately as follows:

First there would be a number of converts from Judaism. There were large colonies of Jews all over the Graeco-Roman world (much like the Irish diaspora of today) and those in this area had received important privileges from the Seleucid kings. The fact that they hadn’t rebelled during the Maccabean uprising meant that they probably valued those privileges and were disposed towards political compromise. Some of the hostility that Paul encountered was no doubt due to the perception that he threatened those privileges and was, so to speak, “bad for business.”

In this group -perhaps a large majority of them- would be “Jewish Christians” who adhered closely to Jewish tradition and custom and who would be more inclined to follow the lead of James rather than that of Paul.

Back in Acts 6:9, amongst those quarrelling with Stephen were those “of Cilicia and of Asia.” Since Galatia is directly between the two provinces, we may infer that there were Galatians in the squabble too. And don’t forget that Paul himself was from Cilicia. It doesn’t require much straining of the evidence to think of Paul as having been bitterly resented as a turncoat. Only gradually did those Jews  who had become Christians become dissociated from the Jews who had not been converted.

But whilst the Jewish Christians would constitute a large percentage, it’s probable that the largest group would be “God-fearing” Gentiles, some of whom would be Roman citizens. Such folk -men and women – would frequent the synagogues and would be familiar enough with the Hebrew Scriptures to follow Paul’s exegesis and reasoning.

A third group (which is much more difficult to categorise) would consist of slaves of many nationalities, and -no doubt- Phrygian countryfolk, the primitive pagan peoples of the area.

A muti-racial group of varying socio-economic, cultural, religious and intellectual backgrounds. Just like my primary class, in fact.

Such was the human material with which Paul sought to build and it was the threat to its fellowship that gives the letter its note of urgency.

Here I’m reflecting on “fault-lines” in Christian community that endanger fellowship and unity.

The issue is charted carefully throughout the early chapters of the book of Acts. The first believers were all Jewish, of course, who asked the risen Lord when he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1). By Acts 6 we find a situation where  “the Hellenistic Jews … complained against the Hebraic Jews. ”  And Stephen’s speech, (which follows in Acts 7), can be read not only as an apologia to the Jews buut as the substance of his appeal to those Christians who seemed most set on maintaining their Jewish status. Israel had been tempted to identify its salvation with histoical and earthly securities and Stephen saw the same danger among the “Hebrew” contingent of the fellowship.

In the event, persecution ensues, accentuating the latent differences. Some remain in Jerusalem and develop a modus vivendi with teeh jewish authorities. Obviosly, their stance was going to be more conservative. Those who went further afield became involved in experiences which inevitably challenged such conservatism. Acts 8 contains the stories of the Ethiopian eunuch,and a revival at Samaria. Then comes Acts 9 and the conversion of Saul. Acts 10-12 gives a long accountof Peter’s experience in Joppa and the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. The fire is spreading, but it is not difficult to discern two parties emerging at Jerusalem: those who welcome the news about the Samaritan Christians and who accept Peter’s explanations and those who secretly deplore the situation! Acts 11:18 is a temporary truce, no more.

At the time when Paul set out on his first missionary journey it seems that most Christians would see Jerusalem as the nucleus and James as the head. They would also, for the most part, be  deeply concerned to maintain their Jewish heritage.

As they reached out in ever increasing concentric circles from Jerusalem, it could be that they were looking to their Jewish brethren scattered across the Roman cities to join them in their new understanding of a Jesus-centred Judaism. But their warmest response came from not from the Jews but from the fringe of  Gentile God-fearers.It is easy to see that a development which took the God-fearers away from the synagogues would be resented by the Jews, whilst Jewish Christians  would be increasingly anxious lest Christianity should diverge from Judasm too much.

And so the table was set for the debate that is charted in the letter to the Galatians: was Christianity to become a world-faith or remain a Jewish sect?

I use the word “debate” but it is a cool, bloodless term for what is at stake here, but imagine if Paul had lost. Humanly speaking, Christianity would have lost its edge and been reabsorbed into the community from which it had arisen. That’s why Burton concludes in his commentary that “The letter to the Galatians is a first-hand document from the heart of one of the most significant controversies in the history of religion.”

To put it simply : the threat to fellowship is real whenever any custom, tradition or cherished belief takes the place of Christ at the centre. If the centre holds, then all is possible (and all kinds of belief permissible) but Christ is the only centre of unity and the hub of fellowship.

 

And Jesus prayed into that level of unity (in John 17):

 I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –  I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Lord, as we examine the fault lines, we also acknowledge your headship and authority, that in all things you may be pre-eminent.

Amen

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Sea storms are up, God

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“Sea storms are up, God, Sea storms wild and roaring, Sea storms with thunderous breakers. Stronger than wild sea storms, Mightier than sea-storm breakers, Mighty God rules from High Heaven.”  (Psalm 93:3-4)

“I have both the violent turbulence of the storm and the quiet promises of God in the storm. And what I must work to remember is that something is not necessarily stronger simply because it’s louder.” (Craig Lounsbrough)

“Why? Because this storm isn’t something that has nothing to do with you, This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up the sky like pulverized bones…..

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”  (Murakami)

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How does God guide us?

 

“The Christopher Columbus Award: This award goes to those who, like good old Chris, when they set out to do something, don’t know where they are going; neither do they know how to get there. When they arrive, they don’t know where they are, and when they return, they don’t know where they’ve been.” (Jim Berg)

Sound familiar?

But I don’t believe that God wants us to live bewildered and confused, struggling through every decision. The book of Psalms suggests otherwise:

“Make me know Your ways, O LORD; Teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day.” (Psalm 24:4-5)

“Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD.” (Psalm27:14)

“Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. It seems that he is not in such a hurry as we are, and it’s not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.

So be confident in the plan of God for your life, even when He refuses to let you in on the details.

Guidance, like all God’s acts of blessing under the covenant of grace, is a sovereign act. Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us his way, that we may tread it; he wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we may make, we shall come safely home. Slippings and strayings there will be, no doubt, but the everlasting arms are beneath us; we shall be caught, rescued, restored.

This is God’s promise; this is how good he is.

But don’t ask for directions if you’re not going to start the car.

And does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person’s seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.

“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)

The good news is that God wants to give wisdom to you. He is eager to do so! Just like it pleased God when Solomon asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:7-14), it pleases God when we ask for wisdom. It’s God’s nature to give. He is a giving God.

And James 1:5 says three things about how God gives wisdom. He does so:

  • Continually. “Ask God who gives …” In Greek this is in the continuous tense. He keeps on giving. He doesn’t run out of energy. He never wears out.
  • Generously. God’s resources are unlimited. He has enough resources for everyone. He’s got plenty of wisdom to go around.
  • Cheerfully. James says God gives “without finding fault.” God loves to give. It’s in his nature to give! Don’t get embarrassed to ask.

Where do you need wisdom? Do you have a big decision coming with your career, your marriage, or your kids? If you want wisdom from God, you’ve got to ask! If you ask, he’ll give it.

And ponder this: How will believing this change the way you make future decisions?

I can’t determine the order of events. But I can trust God to guide my footsteps.

So no matter the circumstances, just go forward with faith and prayer, calling on the Lord. You may not receive any direct revelation. But you will discover, as the years pass, that there has been a subtle guiding of your footsteps in paths of progress and great purpose.

And looking back,  you’ll see the trail,clear and obvious and well-posted.

The bottom line is that when God becomes part of your life, there’s an opportunity for you to experience love, support and guidance in a compelling new way. The extent to which that love, support, and guidance manifests in your life is directly related to level of connectivity you foster with God throughout your time together.

And friendship has no restrictions, no rules and regulation; only the guidelines of an open heart.

 

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More than Conquerors! (I’m convinced)

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;

    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s difficult to think of Paul sitting down whilst he dictated these words (of Romans 8) to his secretary. There’s so much energy here,so much passion that it’s easier to think of him striding the room, eyes flashing, as he throws question and answer in rapid sequence.

“What can we say in response to these things?” Throughout this letter to the Roman Christians, Paul  had been outlining the gospel of grace in all its wonderful generosity and coherence. He began with the fact of inner sinfulness, that “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” We are all  in the same boat. We have all done things that are displeasing to God. There is no one who is innocent. (And Romans 3:10-18 gives a horribly detailed picture of what sin looks like in our lives).

And there are consequences to that condition – “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The punishment that we have earned for our sins is death. Not just physical death, but eternal death.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus Christ died for us! Jesus’ death paid for the price of our sins. Jesus’ resurrection proves that God accepted Jesus’ death as the payment for our sins.

So what must I do? “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, all we have to do is believe in Him, trusting His death as the payment for our sins – and we are counted free! And “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins and rescue us from eternal death. Salvation, the forgiveness of sins, is available to anyone who will trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Through Jesus Christ we can have a relationship of peace with God. And “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, we have moved out from under the black cloud of condemnation into the light of a new day.  And “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And in this passage before us, he looks boldly at where we are now, as believers, and challenges the doubts and fears that sometimes rise up to threaten our confidence in God. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” God has shown himself on your side.  I always think of facing my first days at school, unafraid of the big boys in the school yard because my older brother had my back. You mess with me, you mess with him! God is for us. He has proved it through the committment of Jesus to the cause of humanity. There is nothing he will not do to bring you home. So will he not give you all you need for the journey?

And “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns?”  Well, we condemn ourselves. There is so much about the gospel that sounds too marvellous to be real. We just know that we don’t deserve such favour, and so we allow the memory of old sins to haunt us, and the inadequacy of our daily living to rob us of the joy of what Christ has done. Thinking these self-deprecating thoughts sounds a bit noble, but it’s not. It’s a rejection of the grace that is in Christ! God is for you! No one condemns you! 

Steve Brown said: “There really is something neurotic about Christians who spend most of their time trying desperately to please a God who is already very pleased. They don’t have any freedom, and they sometimes take away the freedom of others.”

No. Let the grace and power and love of God enfold you, strengthen you. You need fear no bully (even if that bully is in your own head). Satan is the real  “accuser” and his day is done.

As for you, I will look on you with favour and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling-place among you, and I will not abhor you.I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” (Leviticus 26)

Head held high!

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Whatever may happen…

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“When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse everything I know of you, From Jordan depths to Hermon heights, including Mount Mizar. Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.” Psalm 42:8

Everything I know of you” is not very much, Lord, but I trust you that it’s enough. I’m a beginnner, a novice. I’m still astonished when things work out so well, and at just the right time. You seem to always work out of the corner of my eye.  I make my little plans and programmes and then you surge through them “to the tune of whitewater rapids” taking us on an unexpected journey. It’s marvellous and scary. And “Whatever may happen, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul…”

And it is. It is. It is well.

Lord, I trust you for today.I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going.

And when “the thundering breakers crash and crush me” I tell myself ““It isn’t as bad as you sometimes think it is. It all works out. Don’t worry.” (I say  to myself every morning)”It all works out in the end. Put your trust in God, and move forward with faith and confidence in the future. The Lord will not forsake us. He will not forsake us. If we will put our trust in Him, if we will pray to Him, if we will live worthy of His blessings, He will hear our prayers.It’s alright.”

And the breakers still come, far greater than my ability to cope, far bigger than my capacity to understand, and I realise that I am part of something much bigger than myself. “My life is God’s prayer.” 

It is strangely humbling and liberating to see that I am not centre stage, Lord, that I am a little part of what you may or may not be doing in someone else’s life too! It’s not even remotely all about me!

And here’s dear old C.S.Lewis talking to me again: “Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e., keep fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone.You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.”

OK  Lord.

I know you don’t call us to be comfortable. You summon us  to trust you so completely that we are not afraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if you don’t come through. 

And you will.You do. You always have done.

—a prayer for the God of my life.

Psalm 42:8

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A man of two worlds

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When Paul described himself as a “Slave of Christ,” or “bought with a price,” he was acknowledging an urgency, a passion and a sense of  divine constraint and obligation. “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel.” There’s a complete devotion here to the task of evangelism.

It wasn’t a committment to a project, however, but to a person. His was a theology of experience, and the exploration of a friendship. My goal is to know Him …Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead…”

This passage (from Philippians 3) goes a long way in helping us understand the driving forces of Paul’s life. He was a man of two worlds.

First, he was “A Hebrew of the Hebrews” and then again he was a Roman citizen by birth. He was the educated Pharisee, able to address the crowd in Aramaic, and argue points of the law, and yet the fluent Greek and Latin speaker of Tarsus (of “no mean city“).

So where was he truly at home?

I guess he would have claimed to have been free of each because his Lord was the lord of both.

But Galatians (and Romans) show that the real key to understanding Paul is the person and experience of Abraham. You might even say that Paul came to understand himself through reflection on Abraham.

First, because Abraham too was a man of two worlds. He was a man of Ur, which we now know to have been a large and sophisticated  civilisation, so one contrast in Abraham can be drawn between the life of a settled community and the life of a nomad.

And Abraham abandoned the gods of Ur to follow the call of an unknown god who summoned him to a journey,to a lifelong adventure of committment to a speaking voice. “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went….”

And along the journey he faithfully erected altars, marking the developing revelation of God’s call.

I can see how this resonated with Paul, with his sense of calling out into the unknown, and the planting of churches (like altars?) along the way.

But there’s much more. Paul had spent his whole early life in a meticulous study and practice of the Law. He was deeply patriotic and saw the Law as the rallying cry of all the prophets of old. Here, surely, was the place where a man could gain victory over himself.But it hadn’t worked out that way. It had only served to show how inadequate his self-righteousness and striving was.

In Abraham, however, he found a deeper principle at work. Here was a man, centuries before the law was written down as the foundation stone of the nation, who simply followed God and was called “the friend of God.”And he was accepted into relationship not by what he personally achieved, but by…by what?

An intimate relationship, a divine purpose, a promise of inheritance….none of this on the basis of any elaborate pursuit of goodness but simply because he was ready to trust God with his future and do what God said.

And the first thing was: Go, not knowing where you are going!

Of course, this was an act of obedience but it was somehow very different from “tithing mint and cumin” or ticking the boxes in a long list of rules and regulations.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t in order to gain favour but in response to favour already shown.

Imagine that: a way of life built around someone who could be trusted and therefore gladly obeyed. Someone who accompanied you in your obedience, who even talked over his plans with you.

For Paul, Abraham was a man who was free because he loved, and because he loved, he gave himself to a trusting obedience no matter what.

Paul wasn’t trying to duck out of duty and obligation. He was accepting the principle of unlimited obligation which is the inner meaning of love..

 

When Paul (or rather Saul, as he was) watched Stephen die, he also would have listened to Stephen’s long speech (in Acts 7). At first glance, it looks like a fairly stodgy history lesson, but there’s something significant there, something which may have stuck like an irritating barb in his brain. It was this: that Abraham and his faith-obedience to God’s command was treated as the real key to Israel’s whole history, in contrast to the natural man (Israelite or any other) to settle down and then “command” God for his own convenience.

It’s the vital clue, not just to the long up-and-down journey of Israel, but to how God lives with man.

And, of course, it’s the clue to how and why God summoned Paul. He too had been challenged by God and in response had committed himselfto an uncharted journey. The Christ who halted him  was vindicating God’s ways with man thoughout history. Al Paul’s arguments about saving faith flow by analogy from the saving faith of Abraham.

And this is the nub of Galatians. Abraham is THE symbol of faith-response and faith-obedience.

But do you see how significant that statement is for the argument that was raging at Galatia? Just as the first Israel was constituted by Abraham’s act of faith-obedience., so the new Israel of God (Gal 6:6) is constituted by the faith-obedience of Christ. Those who are “the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26) are “Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise“(Gal 3:29), irrespective of gender, rank or nationality, “one man in Christ“(Gal 3:28).

This is huge.

And ultimately,the experience of both Paul and Abraham only point to Christ, the  archetypal “Man of two worlds.” The incarnation is the total embodiment of this principle. The life and death and resurrection, the choosing of the twelve, the commissioning, the calling, the sending, “unto the ends of the earth” – Paul and Abraham are shadows of which this is the real substance.

How shocking to lose your grasp on the meaning of Christ and turn it into a “Do this, do that” religious game. That’s what was at stake here. If you go that way, said Paul then “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you are fallen away from grace.” (Gal 5:4)

But don’t read that as if Paul had any doubt of the outcome. For Paul, the cross is the  real and total victory of God for all time. But for us, the life of victory is meant to be lived now in the immediacy of faith. That’s how Christ’s victory on the cross is made actual in our lives. The believer, like Abraham, must in the now of the present moment make that decision which is all the difference between victory and defeat.

“This is the victory which overcomes the world. Even our faith.” But the battle -the decisive battle- has been won.

Jesus says: “My victory is yours.” And we say it too.

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Making the Mosaic

mosaicA Practical Instruction

Imagine, if you will, that Ephesians 4  is a practical instruction given to all the churches in one town as a way of understanding just how they might work together.

And then consider that that might be pretty close to how Paul saw things. It might even be the real context of at least some of his letters. We know they had multiple housegroups in the one town, with a variety of leadership styles. We know that on occasion Paul had to address a lack of harmony between different groups. He had to urge people to agree, after all. Ephesians 4 can easily be understood in that vein:

“I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting  one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope  at your calling— one Lord,one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

So here’s the methodology of how “churches” (in our modern way of viewing them) might operate together. Perhaps we should take it in reverse order.

  1. There is “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  First, we stand together to lay claim to the sovereignty of God, to His authority (“above all”), His empowerment for service and mission (“through all and in all”). 
  2. This is not a set of doctrines to which we subscribe, but a relationship which we enjoy. Think of it as a bicycle wheel with Christ as the hub. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope  at your calling—one Lord,one faith, one baptism.” The repeated word “one” indicates the important point.
  3. So how does that work out? Paul was fully aware that division is possible even at this early point. But if the centre holds, then all will be well.  And this is the fruit of that connectivity, that we are enabled to “walk worthy of the calling [we] have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting  one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.”

A Committed Family

But this is only the beginning point. Paul has described a relatedness which works horizontally between the fellowships and vertically towards their Lord. And, let me say, that given these parameters it is bound to succeed. It’s a family, after all, and no matter how annoying a particular member is, they remain a family member. And if we “accept one another in love” and operate with patience, humility and gentleness, then there is simply no question of our falling out.

But you do have to recognise the concept of family, right? You do have to acknowledge there is only one faith, and only one Lord.

And this is the central reality towards which Paul is directing us: a place where we “grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.” This is the whole point of the recognition of the family….God has something bigger in mind than individual people or churches or denominations proudly insisting on their “distinctives.”

Something much much bigger than all of that.

And yet those individual pieces of the jigsaw are beautiful, wonderful, essential and vital. They are each carefully crafted to produce one massive result. Paul begins his explanation by sketching the dimensions:

Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. But what does “He ascended” mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.

Who are the captives here?  It’s a quote from Psalm 68 which makes it clear that they were the enemies of Israel who were defeated when Jerusalem was captured.  So inthis new context we may interpret the captives as either:  (1) the enemies of Christ, namely, Satan, sin, and death; or (2) the people who have been the captives of Satan, sin and death, and who are now taken captive by Christ in redemption.  Probably both explanations can combine: Christ had victory over Satan, sin and death and gives gifts of the Spirit to those who have been identified with him.

11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. 14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.

Maintaining and Attaining

There’s an interesting difference between verse 3 and verse 13 in Ephesians 4: in verse 3 we are told to maintain unity but in verse 13 we are told to attain unity. In verse 3 it is a reality to be maintained. In verse 13 it is a goal to be attained. The reason for this is not that there are two kinds of Christian unity but that Christian unity has in one sense already been accomplished and in another sense hasn’t.

This text shows that, in a decisive act of atonement and reconciliation, Christ has already made us one. But what he has accomplished at Calvary we should maintain by the Spirit. And yet, in another sense, the unity Christ purchased and guaranteed with his blood must now be lived out and brought to full expression in the life of the church. In this sense it is a goal to be attained.

So there’s a continual journey to be made from what is done in Christ towards what must be developed in the body of Christ.

And how is it developed? The passage is quite clear: it’s through the service (or ministry) of people that God gives to the body of Christ. The point of the passage is the “we” who are working to “attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the son of God” but the people who help us on the journey are described as  “some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.”

It’s not helpful to make these people the focus of church life. They are –quite simply- helpers who are working away until the body of Christ becomes what it is intended to be.

In this regard, it’s always worth remembering the words of Jesus:

Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.”  (Matthew 20:25-26)

So what do these servants do? An old sermon I heard on this always sticks in my mind as a thumbnail sketch of what Paul is talking about. The preacher said: 1. Apostles Govern; 2. Prophets Guide; 3. Evangelists Gather; 4. Pastors Guard;  5. Teachers Ground.

It’s not bad as a start, I think.

Perhaps the problem of self-importance only arises when we attach capital letters to these statements of function.

But the point of the passage is the WE.

Lord, I pray this, that the WE, -all our fellowships as a committed family working together- make a mosaic, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.”

Lord, I suspect -in fact I’m sure of it- that the individual excellencies of separate fellowships are actually a gift to the whole body of Christ. So far from those diverse strands being troublesome, without them the whole picture cannot be presented.

We really do need each other.

Empower us, fill us with your love, that we may be completely one,
so the world may know You.

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