Sunday, September 18, 2016
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity - Eph 4:1-6
The American Civil War is an enduring source of interest to the public. No doubt there are many reasons for this. The role of slavery in the war continues to resonate today as people consider the subject of race relations. The war and its aftermath played a formative role for the culture in many parts of the American south.
One of the most compelling and fascinating aspects of the Civil War is how it pitted combatants against each other who had been trained together as officers. Not surprisingly many military leaders on both sides had been trained at the United States Military Academy at West Point and had been classmates. For the North this included people like Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker and Winfield Hancock. For the South this included men like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, George Picket, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. Having trained together, they now tried to defeat each other.
But the ties between combatants went even deeper than this. Many of the leaders who faced each other as opponents in the Civil War had fought side by side in the Mexican American War some fifteen years earlier. Grant, McClellan and Meade from the North were there and so were Lee, Longstreet, Picket, Beauregard, Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Deep bonds are formed between men who have fought together and experienced combat. Yet now those same men found themselves fighting against each other.
Keeping the United States united was costly and took great effort. In the epistle lesson this morning the apostle Paul addresses the fact that maintaining the unity of the Church is something that must be a priority and also requires real effort. However this goal is essential because Christians share in a common calling and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul begins our text this morning by writing, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to live and conduct themselves in a manner that is worthy of the calling that they have received. Now obviously, Paul thinks that Christians have received something very special. They have received a calling. And Paul says that this calling draws us to live in a way that is worthy of it – a way that is consistent with the tremendous gift we have received.
In our text this morning we see the Gospel, and what the Gospel means for how we live. Paul certainly talks in our text about what the Christian life looks like – about what we do. But his starting point is what God has done for us. He begins with God’s grace. In fact Paul began this letter by talking about God’s grace in a way that leaves absolutely no room for our works and merit.
The apostle started the letter in chapter one by writing, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Paul says that God chose us in Christ before the world was even made. He is talking about predestination, as he goes on to say, “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Before you even existed God chose you in Christ! There is no purer way to express the grace of the Gospel. And while sometimes it feels like thinking about predestination can twist our minds into knots, we always need to focus on two basic truths. First, whenever the Bible talks about predestination it always does so in order to provide comfort to Christians. And second, it always does so in order stress God’s grace in saving you. You didn’t do anything. You couldn’t do anything to be saved. Instead, God has done it purely as a gift.
In carrying out his will for you to be saved, God has called you to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit. Again, you could not do it by your own reason or strength. It was a gift. Through his Word and baptism he called you to faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead. And so Paul goes on to says about Christ, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
It is an astounding gift! And just to be sure we don’t miss this point, Paul goes on to say in chapter two, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is a gift. But that doesn’t mean it was free. Instead it is the costliest gift in history. It cost the holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death of God’s Son on the cross.
This is the calling you have received in Christ. And this calling matters – it makes a difference in how we live. That is why Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
The apostle then goes on to explain what this looks like. He says that we are to walk “with all humility and gentleness.” This isn’t how the first century world thought about things. Writers of that period considered humility to be a negative characteristic. Things haven’t really changed that much, because fallen humanity hasn’t changed. Humility means that you don’t put yourself first; you don’t seek to focus attention on yourself. And gentleness is also not prized. It may be great for helping others, but it’s not the kind of thing that gets you ahead – that gets you what you want for you.
Paul is sharing the same thing that our Lord Jesus teaches in the Gospel lesson this morning when he says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” The One who saved you humbled himself as he willingly submitted to the suffering and death of the cross. Yet the cross was not the end. On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. And even that was not all, for God the Father exalted the ascended Lord to his right hand. Because we have seen God do this in Christ, we now are called to humility – to the service others. Yet we do so knowing that this is also the way of Christ that leads to resurrection and eternal life.
In our text Paul goes on to say that walking in a manner worthy of the calling we have received means that we live “with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The thing about the church is that it is made up of a bunch of sinners. Certainly, the work of the Holy Spirit makes a difference in how we live. But we are also still sinners … and sometimes sinners are a real pain. It can be difficult to get along with them.
Paul says that to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received in Christ means that we need to be patient and steadfast in dealing with one another. We need to put up with and endure one another. We need to seek actively seek to maintain the unity that the Holy Spirit has created in the bond of peace. These are all words that describe effort and persistence. They describe the need to overlook the shortcomings of others and the irritation they provide. This means that we put the unity of the Church ahead of our own ruffled feelings.
We do this because of the calling we have received. We do this because of the unity the Holy Spirit has created in Christ. Paul describes the source of this unity as he says in our text, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
In 1 Corinthians Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Through the work of the Spirit we have been joined together as the Church – the Body of Christ. We have been called together in Christ and so we have one hope of our calling – the hope of resurrection on the Last Day. We share in one Lord – one common faith – as we have been joined together by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Because God has done this for you in Christ through the work of the Spirit, your goal is to live in ways that recognize this unity and seek to preserve it visibly in your life. This means choosing to overlook those things that you could use as a reason to be upset. It means acting in humility and service in order to attend to the needs of others. Ultimately, it means that because of the calling we have received in Christ and the unity he has created in his Body the Church, we seek to carry out Paul’s instruction when he writes at the end of this chapter: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”