Sermon Preached at Palm UMC Dinuba, CA Aug 12, 2018 by Pastor Michelle Magee
There is a beautiful sentiment expressed here in vs 4-6
It’s Beautiful, lofty, an ideal to aspire to-
And so seldom lived out in the history of humanity.
Paul makes explicit earlier in the letter that he is writing to a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles, and that he believes that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection reconciled those two broad ethnic groups that had considered one another outsiders and often enemies, for centuries- Paul makes clear in chapter 2 that because of Christ these two opposing groups have been reconciled and made into one body-( 2: 14-16)
While we may hold these same lofty goals, we know that it’s much more common for different groups to see one another as enemies and push away, than to work through their differences and find unity. At the prayer group on Thursday we mentioned pieces of our own nation’s history: the Japanese internment during World War 2, the way Muslims have been treated since September 11, and current ongoing discrimination of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and central America. Whenever there is a tension or problem, it seems too easy for many to merely scapegoat an entire ethnic group and try to punish them even when they are honest hardworking, what we would call “good people” in other circumstances. You can recall other examples I’m sure, they are all too common in our world, discrimination, labeling, exclusion and scapegoating of all kinds. And those hurts can multiply and fester and result in real people being hurt.
Paul is pleading with the church at Ephesus for oneness, for unity, we know that part of their challenge was ethnic differences. Yet he is convinced that in Christ there has already been reconciliation and there can be unity. Unity does not mean uniformity. We don’t have to put away our true selves or pretend to be something we are not. Over and over in the Bible God makes clear that we are each made uniquely and that the diversity- the differences of all of us –is on purpose and wonderful.
But there is work that goes with that unity – Paul outlines at the beginning of this passage, being humble, patient, bearing with one another in love. Then at the end of this passage he brings up speaking the truth in love. This is another beautiful phrase that is much harder to carry out than to say. How do we lovingly say hard things to one another, like, I was hurt when you made that comment, I am feeling left out because of how decisions are made, and so on. I think this is a major challenge of many churches brothers and sisters- it is easy in the short term to just hold it in, not made a scene, want things to stay smooth- but when hurts accumulate, there is some kind of outlet for that- and often in church, it is just people walking away. I am not speaking to anything specific here at Palm UMC but trying to bring it up before I hear about anything specific- because I have seen this too many times in my 9 years of ministry.
In the other verses that follow he talks about different gifts that believers may possess- some apostles some prophets some evangelists some pastors, some teachers. I’ll just sidebar to say in our structure we don’t have roles for all of these different gifts so we mostly just have pastors, and deacons- but just because that is the official role with a salary- everyone has gifts. The whole ministry depends on everyone recognizing the gifts for ministry she or he has and putting them to good use.
That is how we grow up into being mature as the body of Christ.
Seeing our own gifts, helping one another see each other’s gifts, appreciating our diversity and seeking unity at the same time. Ok, easy peasy!
Unfortunately it is a great big challenge. There’s something in our human nature that always makes us compare ourselves to others, and often to see ourselves in competition. Then we also absorb messages about who we are and who others are, that aren’t always true. And that keeps us from appreciating our differences and seeing one another’s gifts as that, as gifts, that enrich us, not take away.
I promise I won’t tell you stories about Mexico every single Sunday. But as I think about how I have grown in my life in appreciating difference, and unlearning messages that aren’t true, that time in Mexico was huge.
Of course, It wasn’t like I had any experience encountering people who were different from me, but they had all been little steps of encountering other cultures in my life. But my first somewhat longterm, 4.5 months, immersion was that semester in Mexico.
Now for the first time I knew what it means to have this fish out of water , truly cross cultural experience. Until you leave your own fishtank, you don’t know what it is. Have always swam in water of living in US., now I had to learn to navigate everything all over again. How to shop for food in the grocery store with completely different labels and foods I didn’t recognize, or order in a restaurant, not use my mother tongue. I knew quite a bit of Spanish but knowing some Spanish and actually communicating with other people are different ballgames. My key card to my room stopped working, and I found some service workers for the university and kept using the Spanish word I knew for word “works”as in, it doesn’t work- but the wrong one. They kept correcting me gently until I nodded. Then they helped me get it fixed. How you greet people in Mexico includes touch and a kiss. Making eye contact in certain situations meant something different than what I was used to. To swim in that water required learning some basic things all over again.
And during my time there, during that semester in Mexico that I first, really understood this message. One body and one spirit- not because we all think and speak the same way
But because of the love of Christ, we can belong to one another without trying to be one another or beat one another. Because of what Christ has done, we don’t have to be someone we’re not, or be in competition with others.
Of course I was already saying it, that God loves everyone. I believed it on one level.
But having been brought up in America, and I do love my country- but there was-is often a subtext message in the culture that invaded churches too- we have it something they don’t- we know better than them- God bless America, right, almost as if America has God’s blessing a little more secure than any other nation.
But living in Mexico, meeting Mexicans who had strong faith, who were complicated people, all different kinds of personalities, but so, so hospitable and welcoming to me – I started to get on a different level of comprehending this, that God loved them just as they were, God loved them already, God didn’t need me to tell them or teach them- God had been loving people in another land, blessing people in another land, for long, long before I ever got there.
It came to me one evening, I was a little homesick, a little lonely and I watched a sunset. And it was beautiful. And God had been giving beautiful sunsets to not just my own area or my own country but here, too. God was there, God was real.
I don’t know if I can adequately explain it to you.
But from then on I started to wean off the false idea of a God who loves any country better than any other, or any group of people better than any other. God loves us all.
God doesn’t want us to try to make others more like us, or for us to become more like them- all of our cultures have something of the imprint of God in them. God made us all different on purpose, that is God’s creative gift to us.
As we read this passage from Ephesians, we see Paul telling the mostly Gentile audience – he has been telling them in the letter that they are kind of second, first the Jews were close to God and now they can be too- but here he is saying- you are equally gifted. The gifts aren’t just for one group or another- it is because of God’s grace- vs 7.
What we have to do is begin to see one another as a gift. Not as a threat, not as competition, but gift. This is a huge challenge, but we start right here in church, Here, with one another, we practice. And then the next step is to practice seeing the people living in this neighborhood, as a gift to us, that we can learn from them as well as share with them.
You are a gift. Turn to your neighbor and say, you are a gift.
You have gifts for ministry. Turn to your neighbor and say, you have gifts for ministry.
We need one another- turn to your neighbor and say, we need one another.
I see this as kind of the crux of this whole passage- because Paul is talking about becoming mature, growing up together to be the fullness of Christ’s body- which is what we want, right, we don’t want to stay in that infant state where we don’t know which way is up- but to put some work into knowing our gifts, knowing one another’s gifts, putting them into practice, working together, and all the while receiving the grace from God to see one another as gift, yes from our different walks of life, different sizes, different backgrounds and different ways of being gifted for ministry. And that is key to the witness we give the world.
So yes as Bono has sung, we’re one, but we’re not the same- or- let us be one, but never try to pretend we’re the same. We are all loved by an amazing God of love, so let’s let that reconciliation that Christ has made possible, be lived out here among us. For There is one body and one spirit just as you were called to one hope –one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Amen.