Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:1-6 January 2, 2000
Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

Unless you bunkered down in your basement on Friday awaiting the Apocalypse, the transition from 1999 to the year 2000 was perhaps the greatest, most unifying media event of all time. Unless you spent your day gassing up the generator, arranging your freeze dried food and loading the shotgun, you missed an unparalleled milestone as people across the world united in celebration of a single event. As clocks ticked past the midnight hour from New Zealand to Hawaii, celebrations marked a new beginning. The purist in me ignores calling this a new millennium since that, of course, is 2001. This morning I will refrain from offering grandiose prose praising the promise of a new epoch. But while the Samoans beat drums, the Germans sang Beethoven’s Ninth at the Brandenburg Gate, the French ignited the Eiffel Tower and 2 million watched the ball drop in Time’s Square, I was amazed at the unifying nature of that brief moment in time. For only a second humanity universally and simultaneously acknowledged the birth of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. While for many the reason for the celebration was missing, the unity of humanity was refreshing.

Unity is something we long for; we cherish it. But unfortunately, unity is tremendously lacking in our world. What is worse, it is often lacking where it should exist most clearly, in our churches. The foolishness of our divisions over the Christian faith is well illustrated by the following story.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off; so I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!"

"Why shouldn't I?" he said.

I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

I said, "Well... are you religious or atheist?"

"Religious."

I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"

"Christian."

I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"

"Protestant."

I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"

"Baptist."

I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."

I said, "Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!"

I said, "DIE HERETIC SCUM!" and pushed him off.

Lack of unity in the Body of Christ can range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Divisions may come over critical points of theology affecting our understanding as to who God is and what He has done in Christ. Unfortunately, rather than unifying in the search for what God has said in His Word, discord rules the day. A few years ago I read of a church in which two men each claimed to be the rightful pastor the congregation. The church split, but rather than one faction going to a different location, each Sunday both men and their followers would arrive at the same church at the same time. Both fought for the pulpit, but when the pushing got to be too much, one camp erected a second pulpit so that both could preach simultaneously. When one shouted too loud, the other side brought in a larger sound system. As the cacophony rose, the fist fights broke out, flowing from the "sanctuary" onto the streets where the police were soon called in to mediate.

We may snicker at such foolishness, but divisions which tear apart a church should concern us. Paul’s concern for unity centered around Christ as his theme in his letter to the Ephesians. This past fall we’ve examined the theological unity we possess because of God’s grace in placing us together "in Christ." As we begin looking at the second half of this brief letter, Paul draws out the implications of that unity. A shift occurs in his letter from doctrine to duty; from creed to conduct; from the Christian's wealth to his walk; from exposition to exhortation; from the indicative to the imperative.

God will not allow us to divorce one from the other. Unity in what we believe and how we live is necessary. Doctrine without practice leads to bitter orthodoxy; it gives correctness of thought without the practical vitality of the life of Christ. Practice without doctrine leads to aberrations; it gives intensity of feeling, but it is feeling apt to go off in any (and often a wrong) direction. What we need is both, as Paul's letters and the whole of Scripture teaches us. (Boice, Ephesians, 122)

Let’s turn to Ephesians 4:1-6 to be reminded that we are to live in unity.

1. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

2. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

3. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

4. There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called--

5. one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

6. one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Our unity flows out of God’s grace - verse 1

Up to this point, Paul has highlighted God’s grace in our lives. As sovereign and triune God, He has chosen us, redeemed us and sealed us. By placing us together as the body of Christ, with the Lord Jesus as our head, we are united to one another. The old lines of division are done away. In Paul’s day, it was the Jew-Gentile distinction. But as the Church comprises people of varying backgrounds, those ethnic differences melt away. Our foundation is not our cultural past, but God’s Word, the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. So in chapter 3 Paul prays that they live in light of these truths.

To refer to oneself as a black Christian, white Christian, Mexican Christian, or Chinese Christian is technically incorrect. Our Christianity should never be modified by our culture. Our Christianity should modify our culture. We must see ourselves as Christian blacks, Christian whites, Christian Mexicans, or Christian Chinese. "The Bible teaches . . . that we are Christians who may happen to be black, white, brown, or yellow. If anything changes, it is to be our cultural orientation, not our Christianity. (Tony Evans in Good News, November/December 1996)

So Paul begins this new section, calling for a response to God’s grace which has made us one. In light of Paul’s present circumstances, in jail for preaching a Gospel uniting diverse people, we are to live accordingly. Paul begins with a general sentiment, a preface, on which all the rest is founded.

Up to this point Paul’s only command, the only imperative, was in 2:11 where we are told to remember the past from which God has saved us. Now he commands us to live out that truth. We are to "live a life worthy."

The Greek word translated "worthy" (axios), has the root idea of weight. This is the word from which we derive our English word axiom, which means, "to be of equal weight." In an equation the axiom indicates doing something to each side of the equation so it remains true. Paul is saying we should live lives equal to the great blessings described in the chapters up to this point.

Our lives are to reflect that which God has done. That reflection is certainly not a payment to obtain God’s grace, since a gift is not something for which you pay. Rather, worthy life is a response of thanksgiving to God. It is indeed a common Christian cliche, but its truth is taught here: "your walk should match your talk." There is to be an equivalency between the two.

Paul’s review of our salvation is not just an outline for a theological exam. It is more than a check list to be sure you’ve got your beliefs in the right order. It is not an outline to be memorized so you mesmerize your friends and defeat your enemies in biblical sparring.

These truths are not to be used as they were in Dadeville, Alabama a few years ago. Gabe Taylor and an companion were comparing Bible knowledge outside an apartment complex, each trying to show up the other with their command of Scripture. The other man, having lost the Bible battle, pulled out a gun and shot Gabe in the face, killing him. We certainly may not go to such extremes, but some of us do miss the point of this verse. Our lives are to reflect not our abilities, but God’s grace in making us His own children.

Our unity is reflected in how we live - verses 2-3

Humility

As Paul brings out the implications of how we are to live, we see why he begins as he does. Paul draws on his status as a prisoner for the basis of our lives. While Paul’s chains were literal, his subjugation was due to the Gospel; his confinement illustrates what the Christian life looks like. What could be more humbling than being in chains?

Humility is a virtue which, while few possess, is universally acknowledged as good. But that was not always the case. In the ancient world, this word, literally, lowliness of mind, was considered a defect, not a virtue. The word connoted groveling, was used of slaves or those whose weakness precluded them from having much self respect. What was admired was the mega-souled or "great-souled" man who was complete and self-sufficient.

It is natural to the human race to be self-assertive. We all instinctively try to get the best for ourselves. In every walk of life people try to reach what they see as the top and to attain what they see as prosperity. It is easy for this natural tendency to be nourished in such a way that people become selfish, concentrating on what will be to their own advantage.

This lowliness comes about as we consider our calling. Humility and not pride is the prerequisite for biblical faith. When we are conscious of our guilt, of our offense before God due to our breaking of God’s Law, humility is a necessary by-product. Seeing the extent to which God went to make us his own does not induce us to arrogance and self-exaltation, but standing in awe of God’s grace to us. Humility flows into faith and out from faith.

Martin Luther was correct in saying that the devastation of the soul was an essential condition for biblical faith. As long as we think we can contribute anything to God, we have not grasped what biblical faith is. But not only does humility precede faith, if continues after.

It is important to understand that humility is not passivity. It is not about drive, energy or ability. It’s focus is on value. It is an awareness that all we are and have comes from God. The humble one refuses to value oneself above others or to assign more importance to self than to others. The idolatry of self is what a critical factor in disunity, in fighting. It is the need to make sure everyone else knows you are right, it is the worship of ego which dictates that all must bow down at the altar we’ve created.

Gentleness

Coupled with humility is gentleness. This word, praovth, can be translated as softness, mildness, or gentleness. Jesus couples these two terms together when describing himself in Matthew 11 when he says of himself that he is gentle and humble in heart. Gentleness is not easily ruffled, not miffed at those common, daily irritations we call co-workers, parents, children. Gentleness is the powerful ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

This is quite different than how the word gentleness or meekness is used today. Generally speaking when someone says that someone is a meek person, they usually assume that he is timid, and has a deficiency of courage or spirit. The Biblical concept of meekness is power under control. The word was used of wild animals that were tamed, of wild horses broken. Such an animal retained every bit of their former strength and power, but it's will became under the control of its master.

Meekness is Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Tribune. He is awkward and unassuming, but beneath that gentle exterior is Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

How do I recognize it? At least 3 ways:

Gentleness is self-control (Prov 16:32) "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." Greatness doesn't have to flex its muscles and vent its anger.

Gentleness deals lovingly with other’s sin (Galatians 6:1) "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently."

Gentleness knows how to respond to the unbeliever (1 Peter 3:15) "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear"

Patience

We have the word 'short-tempered;" we do not usually speak of the opposite virtue as "long-tempered,' but this is the literal meaning of the word Paul uses here. It points to the virtue that resists provocation. When a wrong is done to us our natural tendency is to resist strongly, perhaps even to pay back the wrongdoer for the wrong that has been done. The Christian, however, is not self-assertive in that sense. The Christian is one who is considerate of others even under provocation, one who resists the temptation to strike back.

Toleration

Given God’s great patience with us, in light of His enduring our sinfulness, next we are to put up with others. The old word used here is "forbearance." This is different from patience. Forbearance assumes that the other person is a jerk and you are going to be willing to put up with such an idiot until God changes them ... or you.

Patience and forbearance protect us from having unrealistic expectations of one another in the Body, from a superficial idealism that says, "How can they act like that?" Patience and forbearance will help us live with the imperfections we see in the Christian community. The trouble is, we more often follow the advice of Gore Vidal, who once said, "There is no human problem that could not be solved if people would just take my advice."

In saying this, Paul admits that hard truth we like to gloss over. Paul is realistic.

Christians are not always easy to get on with, and fellow Christians sometimes have irritating faults, so the temptation comes to be short with one another. But this, Paul says, is not the Christian way. Just as we’ve been forgiven, we must tolerate others, put up with their foibles and at times even their sins. Our struggles with others is best reflected in that familiar ditty:

To dwell above with saints we love, / O that will be glory
But to dwell below with saints we know, / Well, that's another story.

Preservation

The final command here summarizes what has been said so far: "make every effort..."

This should be your aim; this should your goal. The focus of your life should be here. The Greek word which Paul uses to describe our effort in this process is spoudazo, which means to be diligent. It is derived from a word which suggest speed or haste. In other words, we are to hasten in our efforts to keep the unity of the Spirit.

Next he says "...to keep the unity of the Spirit..."

Notice what we are told to do; we are not commanded to produce unity, not instructed to create order out of chaos. We are just to not mess up what God has done. The unity of the Spirit already exists. Our job is to preserve what God has done. Don’t get in the way.

The words, "to keep", literally mean to guard, to hold fast, or to preserve. The point is that even though we do not create unity, we are to stand on guard to make every effort to ensure that this unity is not disrupted. Frankly, at times, you may have to work diligently to keep the unity of the Church; it isn't always easy. The verb "to keep" indicates that it is fragile and needs to be guarded, kept carefully.

The fact that we are told to bear with one another, to be patient, gentle and humble is an admission that we will not always see eye-to-eye; we will at times be in error; we will annoy and exacerbate those around us. We do it in our homes all the time. We do it in the church, too.

You will come across those who profess the same faith as you but will have a different take on what the end of the world will be like. There will be others whose subjective Christian experience may differ. Some will have specific views on baptism, on predestination, on a variety of topics. Are those issues important? Certainly.

The passage here calls us to unity and it is important that we come to an agreement. But what this passage should remind you and me is that agreement won’t come at the top of our lungs. Our unity is already established by Christ. I don’t have to make someone agree with me. What I do have to do is live in a manner worthy of my calling. I must be humble, gentle, patient and put up with a lot of nonsense.

If your entire Christian world is Cornerstone, I pity you. But if you get out at all, you know that there are others who do not bleed Calvin; they do not breathe the Westminster Confession; they do not secretly wish they lived in the sixteenth century. How should you respond to them? You had better be humble. If you grasp what it means to be saved by grace alone, you well know that God saved you as ignorant as you are. Don’t become aggravated at their views. Rather, you must recognize there is a bond of peace which transcends your specific theological views.

All this is done, through the bond of peace.

We are united in peace just as Paul found himself united to the Roman guard. Paul’s use of terms here is not incidental. In the first verse he calls himself a prisoner of the Lord. The word he uses focuses on the chains which bound him to the guard. In verse 3 he uses this same word to talk about the peace you and I have to one another which demands unity.

Is the only way to preserve the unity of the Spirit to be vague, uncertain in your grasp of truth? G.K. Chesterton put his finger on our problem 50 years ago in his book Orthodoxy:

"What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason." (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p.55)

Continue to press for truth. The unity we have is not just to be structural, as though the best thing we can do is eradicate all denominational distinctives, thus creating a homogenized pablum of theological mush. Rather, in the midst of great diversity, both theological and cultural, God has already created unity through the indwelling Holy Spirit. There is a bond of peace we are to maintain. We do that as we remember our calling, as we consider what the Father did through His Son to secure our salvation.

It is then we can gather with diverse people from across the globe and across town and join in the simple meal of bread and wine which we have before us. It is here we are called to believe, knowing that we are a part of Christ’s body.

Sermon Notes