Repost: Called by the Gospel to Unity

A sermon on Ephesians 4.1-7

I may have told you all before about a friend of mine who was a ruling elder in a Presbyterian Church. They received as new members a mother and adult son who had recently come to affirm the Reformed Faith as the proper expression of the Gospel according to the Scriptures.

It turned out that the young man had actually had the opportunity to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. He was a student in a Bible college and he started to listen to a radio program on Reformed Theology. As he became convinced of what he was hearing, his brothers in Christ who taught and ran the college expelled him from school and refused to give him his transcripts. His years of studying and the money he paid to do so were all stolen from him, all in the name of Jesus.

So like Paul, this young man had suffered for the Gospel.

But all did not go well with this young man and his mother as time went by at their new Presbyterian Church. My friend noticed that they hadn’t been in Church for a while. After some visitation, the elders discovered that the young man had decided that this Church was too compromised for him to attend. What made him think so? Well, real Gospel preaching means that the pastor always presents sermons that first present the Law and its requirements. Then, after showing how the Law condemns and we can never be good enough, the preacher presents the Gospel of how Jesus died in our place.

Now, I know the pastor did in fact preach the Bible and did preach the Gospel. But because he did not follow that precise pattern in every sermon, this young man viewed the Church as unworthy of his attendance, and he simply stopped going on Sunday orany other day. Not only did he cease attending that particular church, but also in the name of faithfulness to the Gospel, he stopped worshiping at any church because one couldn’t be found that was faithful enough for him.

That’s one story. Here is another.

I’m at a conference for people from Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. I meet a man who lives in the same state that I do. He tells me he’d like to get me to visit his and a few other families to lead in some sort of worship. They have been praying for some help in planting a Reformed Church in their area.

Oh, I’m sorry that there’s not one there yet, I say. Where do you go to Church now?

Well, it turns out, they don’t go to Church at all. They are not members of any church in the area because there are no Reformed or Presbyterian Churches. That is this man’s application of the Gospel as he understands it–that he and his wife and children “worship” in their home without being members of a local congregation or gathering every Lord’s Day to worship at one.

So the practical result of these families allegiance to the Gospel in all its purity is a refusal to attend public worship in Church.

It was only a few months later that our congregation was visited by a family I had never met before. They introduced themselves as Christians and ones who embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. I discovered later that they had visited many times but also dropped out of sight for months or years at a time.

Where did they go to Church, I asked? Well, normally they don’t. They just worship in their living room with Daddy giving a message to his wife and children.

So again we have a man refusing to associate and lead his family in membership of another church. We have a man refusing to worship with the Church in the name of a correct understanding of the Gospel.

You and I were called by the Gospel. In Baptism, in our hearing of the Gospel preached by one another and by representatives, in our regular participation in public worship, in our regular partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we are being drawn by the good news, the Gospel, that Jesus is Lord.

And the Gospel does not entail the kind of behavior that is often perpertrated in the name of the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel is often opposed to the kind of behavior that is displayed in the name of the Gospel.

The Gospel is our calling with which we have been called. It is the voice of the Lord. And it calls us to one hope, as Paul says in verse 4. What is that hope? Paul stated it early on in his letter to the Ephesians, back in chapter 1 he wrote that God made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” That’s the purpose, that’s the plan, and that’s our hope. And the fact that God is accomplishing this plan in what Jesus has done–that’s the Gospel.

So when Paul talks about what Jesus has done in coming among us incarnate as a Human and suffering and dying and rising again and ascending into heaven, he continues to present us with the fact that God has brought us together in unity. Ephesians 2.13 and following:

now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

And so with that description of what Christ has done for us and in us by the Spirit inhabiting us as one dwelling place, Paul then speaks of the Gospel that he has been called to proclaim to the nations. Ephesians 3.6-10:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

That’s the Gospel that calls us. Paul says he’s been given the mystery and he says that he has been given the Gospel. Plainly the mystery is the Gospel. The Gospel calls us to reconciliation in Christ by the Spirit. Thus, to walk in a manner worthy of that call–to live the way the Gospel deserves–entails that we walk “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”

Last week I pointed out that to be delivered from sin is to be graciously placed on a new path, a new walk. Paul has begun here to list the specific route we must take. He told us earlier, back in chapter 2 about this walk in vague terms.

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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Well, good works can mean anything. And depending on our circumstances, we need to be open-minded about what those good works might entail. But Paul has some more specific ideas in mind, ideas based on the content of his Gospel.

The Gospel entails reconciliation between God and man and between man in man and the end to the divisions that were put in place in the Law of Moses. Before Christ came, only the Israelites could take part in Passover, only the Levites could approach the furnishing of the Tabernacle, only the priests could bring offerings to the alter and enter the Holy Place, and only the high priest could go beyond the holy place to enter the Holy of Holies. There were barriers between God and man that were simultaneously also divisions between different groups of people.

But now the dividing wall has been broken down. When Christ died on the cross the veil in the Temple was ripped in two from top to bottom. Reconciliation was declared. And that reconciliation, that bond of Peace, which is Jesus through the Spirit, demands specific sorts of good works.

Jesus Christ has made us one so we must adopt a manner of living that allows us to live as one. Look at verse 2. Living as one with sinners means we’re going to have to be humble. Living as one with sinners means we need to learn to be gentle. Living as one with sinners entails a need for patience. Living as one with sinners demands that we be willing to bear other’s weaknesses out of love.

The Call of the Gospel demands that we eagerly pursue these things—that we are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

Why should we pursue these things? Notice that the idea is not that we’re trying to attain to a unity and bond of peace but that we already have them and we want to grow in them rather than try to weaken in them. Because we are one we need to live as one. That’s called going from the indicative to the imperative—from statements about who you are and what you have to statements about what you now must do and how you now must live.

We have this bond of unity we have because we are all under one Lord—as Paul states in verse 5—which makes us one kingdom united by his rule and under his protection. Paul has stressed the Lordship of Christ already. For example, in chapter 1, verse 20 and following, he states that God not only raised him from the dead but also enthroned him at his right hand in heaven and put all things under his feet. In chapter 2, he states that all of us who believe—irrespective of where we’re from, or what color we are, or anything else—are enthroned with Christ. Our exaltation is through faith and nothing else.

Now, if we remember that Christ is a title designating Jesus as God’s promised King in the line of David, it makes sense that the rule of Jesus entails the unity of his people no matter what nation or culture they are from. Thus, Paul writes the Romans in Chapter 10, verse 12: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call upon Him.”

The one faith we share is trust and allegiance to one king. We have more in common with Iraqi Christians than we have with our own nonchristian family members. That’s what Paul is saying here. If Jesus is God’s king, then all other dominions and rulers and other sources of identity must take, at most, second place.

That’s one reason why Paul speaks of baptism as something that breaks you off from your old identity in your nation and family and culture of your birth and puts you in a new family—the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. First Corinthians 12.12-13:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks—slaves or free.

And Galatians 3.27-29:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Now that sounds real mysterious but it can at least partially be understood in a commonsense way: Baptism is a ritual that officially entrusts us to the governance and royal protection of King Jesus. It enrolls us in his entourage. It therefore at least relativizes all our other relationships. Our primary loyalty must be to our King Jesus and our identity must be found in our relationship to him.

We belong to Jesus. Let nothing else obscure that most basic fact. We are a congregation that belongs to God through Christ Jesus. We are his. He is ours. God loves us. God saved us. God sent his son to die and live for us. God’s son now reigns in the heavens and we are his royal court.

We belong to King Jesus. That is the Gospel. That’s a dangerous thing to teach and proclaim. Paul has again reminded the Ephesians that he is a prisoner of the Lord. Both Caesar and the synagogue rulers have a problem with Paul’s declaration that Jesus is Lord and Christ and that nothing else can matter. They want Caesar-worship or circumcision to matter more.

And we face that trial in ways that are just as important, even if the consequences we suffer are rather trivial in comparison to what Paul faced in his day.

I think of our school children. If you compare the time they spend gathered corporately with the body of Christ in worship or discipleship to the time they spend through out the week as members of classes and teams I think it must be very easy to forget that their identity comes first from Christ and not from their peers and teachers. It is very easy to make Christianity simply a support for another group identity, whether that of the member of the class of some year, or a band member, or a member of the football team, or anything else. Paul reminds us to zealously pursue a corporate identity as a church—a unity that requires love and suffering on behalf of one another.

We face that trial in other ways. It is very easy to forget about the members of one’s congregation and allow one’s relatives to be the only people you spend time with. You’re not doing anything spiteful by doing so. It comes naturally to all of us. But you know there may be people in town or in this church who are new and have little family around and Paul is telling you that you need to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. If you’re not proactive in hospitality and in befriending new people, that unity will be weakened rather than maintained.

Zeal for the Gospel should not result in schism and infighting and holier-than-thou attitudes, nor should it result in apathy for others in the congregation while you get most of your affirmation from other relationships. We need to pray for strength to eagerly work toward maintaining the unity of the Spirit in Christ.

We all serve one Master. For his sake let us love one another.

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