Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Trinity 17
                                                                                                            Eph 4:1-6
As an undergraduate at Concordia College, Ann Arbor, and then as a seminary student at Concordia, St. Louis, I learned about the various false teachings that have caused division in the Church during the two thousand years that she has been in existence.  These have all been occasions that have forced the Church to wrestle with the Scriptures and to confess the truth of God’s Word – often at great personal cost.
There has been docetism, the teaching that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human.  There has been Donatism, the teaching that the validity of the sacraments depends on the personal character of the pastor administering them.  There has been Pelagiansim, the teaching that Adam’s sin was only one of a bad example and that human beings don’t need God’s grace in order to be saved.  There has been Arianism, the teaching that Jesus Christ is not true God.  There has been Nestorianism which denied the reality of the personal union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ.  There has been monophysitism which said that Jesus Christ only has a divine nature and monothelatism which said that Jesus Christ only has a divine will and not a human one as well.
These have all been huge theological issues in the history of the Church. They have caused great division.  But I have to tell you, during my almost ten years in the parish, I have never seen divisions among members caused by Donatism.  I have never seen divisions in a congregation caused by Nestorianism.  I have never had a member come to me and say, “Pastor, I am really upset about what is going on here at church because I have decided that I am a monothelite.”
What I have seen cause tensions and division is the conflict of personalities.  I have seen people choose to be offended by an action or statement that was not really directed at him or her.  I have seen Christians choose to give the worst explanation to a person’s actions.  I have seen Christians bear a grudge and, in essence, refuse to forgive long after the action was past.  These are the kinds of things that really impact the life of congregations on a regular basis.  And while I think Good Shepherd is a wonderful congregation, we are a collection of sinners and so these things happen here too.
In our epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul tells us that this is not ok. This is not how things are to be in Christ’s Church and we cannot act as if these attitudes and actions are acceptable in the life of a congregation.  Instead, as we live in the love and forgiveness that Jesus Christ has given to us, we need to seek to maintain the unity that God has created through baptism in Christ.
            In our text this morning, Paul begins by saying, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The apostle exhorts us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. 
When Paul refers to our “calling,” he is speaking about the fact that God elected you in Christ – called you – from all eternity. That’s the very point with which he begins this letter as he writes, “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. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”
Now God is God, and we are not.  Reflection upon our eternal election in Christ can soon tie up your mind like a pretzel.  So instead of focusing on the many questions we can’t answer, let’s focus on why it matters for us – what it really tells us.  It says that your salvation is entirely, completely, one hundred percent a matter of God’s grace. 
Before you even existed; before you could do anything, God had already chosen you in Christ for salvation.  It’s all about God’s grace!  In chapter two of this letter Paul writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  It’s by grace you have been saved.  And then just a few verses later he says, “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 was God’s unmerited love that saved you.  It was Jesus Christ’s unmerited loved that prompted him to go to the cross for you.  And so Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Walking in a way worthy of our calling will mean walking in love.  And in our text Paul tells us what this looks like.  He 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, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Walking in a manner worthy of our calling – worthy of the unmerited grace and love we have received in Christ means living with humility, gentleness and patience.  It means putting others before ourselves and considering them more important than we are – because that is what Jesus Christ did for us.  It means acting in a gentle and caring manner with other people – because that is how Jesus Christ has acted towards you.  It means being patient with the weaknesses and failures and annoying behaviors of others – because Christ is patient with you.
It simply means that we bear with one another in love, because Christ has borne us up in love.  Is this hard sometimes?  Yes.  Do we fail sometimes? Yes.  But this is the reality of life in the Christian congregation to which we must return again and again. When we fail, we confess this sin.  We return in faith to our baptism. We receive holy absolution.  We go to the Sacrament of the Altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.  In these ways Christ forgives us.  He bears us up in love, so we can then go forth to bear with one another up in love.
Paul says in our text that we do this “being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The Holy Spirit has united us together as Christians through his saving work.  This unity is maintained and preserved as we share in the bond which is peace. This unity is a gift of the Spirit.  But it must be preserved and manifested by living in peace with one another.  And this means we need to choose to live in peace. How does one do this? Well, by living with humility and patience and gentleness. We do it by bearing with one another in love because of the love Jesus Christ has given to us.
In our text, Paul reminds us that this unity is grounded in God and his saving work for us.  He says, “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.” 
The unity worked by the Spirit has been established through Holy Baptism.  There we were made to be one body – the Body of Christ.  Paul told the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The simple fact is that because of the work of Christ’s Spirit, you share a bond with Christians that you do not with everyone else. In particular the people of this congregation – this fellowship – are united with you not only through baptism but also in every celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  The body and blood of Christ received together in Holy Communion unite us together as the body of Christ. The reception of the Sacrament identifies us as people who share one Lord and one faith.
And because this is true, we seek to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.  We do this by acting towards one another “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” We do this because we are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We do this here in our congregation. But do you know the first place we do this?  It is the place you were before you came to church this morning.  We do it first in our homes.  Because we have received the gracious forgiveness and love of God in Christ we seek to live “with all humility and gentleness and patience” as we live with our husband or wife.  Because Christ bore our sins on the cross and rose from the dead, we “bear with one another in love” as we live with our parents or children. Because we want to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” we do this as we live with our brothers and sisters.
Paul says that wherever we encounter members of this congregation we seek to treat one another in ways that reflect the unmerited and unfathomable love of God for us in Christ. We strive to be humble and gentle. We seek to be patient. We set our minds on bearing with one another in love. Indeed we live on the basis of the words with which Paul ends this chapter – words that summarize all that we have said: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

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