This morning, we’re going to jump straight into the middle of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. A little bit of background will help us understand what’s going on here: the first two chapters of Ephesians are dedicated to Paul’s explanation of Christ’s cosmic work—the big story of salvation for the whole world. The third chapter is Paul’s personal encounter with that work, and what it means for him as a person – what lengths he’s willing to go to in order to make this story known. Hint: he writes this from prison.
And the next three chapters are his answer to one question: “so, what now?” He’s writing to people who have learned this story already, and who believe it—but now want to know what that means for the rest of their lives. And so we pick up his exhortations with chapter 4. If you have a Bible with you, I’ll encourage you to follow along as we read – Paul is not known for being clear and concise in his writing.
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ (When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
This piece of Scripture is, really, a sermon in and of itself. It’s a little out of order from what we’re used to hearing, but even set apart from the rest of the letter, it makes sense as a whole unit. It begins and ends with the same exhortation: to allow Christ to bind us together as one, working together in the power of the Holy Spirit to grow in love, in knowledge, and in service.
There are four parts to Paul’s sermonette–each held together by that encouragement.
But before we get too far into this, I want to point out one of the key differences between the Greek that this was originally written in and the English we’re hearing it in. In formal English, there is no difference between the second person singular and second person plural pronouns – that just means the word ‘you’ can mean you, or all y’all.
This isn’t so much of a problem in the gospels, where it’s usually pretty obvious who Jesus is talking to. But in the letters, it’s important to know whether Paul is talking to us as individuals, or as a community. In our passage, Paul uses the plural—so he’s not putting the burden of unity on any one individual, but on the whole community.
This is an ‘all y’all’ moment.
Paul starts with the big picture: that part of the purpose of Christian community is to help us live in a chaotic world with humility, gentleness, and patience, to sustain one another in love when things get hard, to give us the space and opportunity to practice following Jesus together.
Then he starts quoting the Old Testament – Psalm 68 to be exact – a victory psalm, to remind us that God didn’t leave us to figure this out on our own. Every good thing, every good and perfect gift, comes to us from the hand of God – including the gifts of our own hearts and minds.
This brings it down to the work of individuals within the community. Apostles to lead, pastors to care, teachers to help us grow in knowledge, prophets to show us the heart of God, evangelists to go out and proclaim the good news to all of creation. The gifts God gives are not just a nice ego boost—they are meant to work for the good of the whole gathered people, to help us grow into the people and the community God made us to be, so that we can lead lives worthy of our callings.
The greatest gift a church has is not a huge building, or a perfect downtown location, or a million-dollar budget. It’s people. It’s always the people.
I know this because I’ve seen it.
I’ve worked in big, downtown churches in large cities. I’ve worked in small downtown churches and small-town churches. I’ve been in liberal churches and conservative churches and moderate churches. I’ve worked with huge budgets and stretched-thin budgets and everything in between.
But what makes a good church is not the numbers, or the politics, or even the denomination. What makes a good church is the people. It’s in how and why we choose to love one another. It’s in how we spend our energy and put our gifts to good use. It’s in how we decide to prioritize or time and our funds. It’s in our worship, and our words, and the way we treat the youngest and most vulnerable among us.
And by Paul’s metrics, I want you to know that the body of Christ gathered at Hanover Presbyterian Church is thriving.
71 kids at VBS this year. Four Sunday School classes, for everyone from preschoolers to grown-ups. Worship that brings together people of all ages, abilities, political viewpoints and church backgrounds in prayer, in praise, and in learning. Leadership meetings where we can be honest with one another about what’s going well, and where we have work to do, without sinking into despair. A church that’s growing in numbers and in care and love for one another. Just this morning, I met with our new Congregational Care Team, who will focus on care and cards and visits for our church family.
I don’t know if y’all know this, but that’s a big deal. I’m not kidding.
Because in the midst of the chaos that is VBS, what I see is a group of people using their gifts to teach, love, and encourage 71 kids.
When we gather for worship, what I see is a group of people who are not just hungry for praise or teaching, but fellowship and community.
When I walk in these doors on Sunday morning, I don’t see the to-do list on my desk or the stack of books waiting to be read or the list of calls I need to make. What I see are disciples, apostles, teachers, shepherds, prophets, and evangelists, equipping and encouraging one another to do the work of ministry—not just within these walls, but out there, in our communities.
Friends, the Holy Spirit is doing good things within us and through us and among us. We are already putting the good gifts we’ve been given to good use. So before we turn to the work ahead of us, just take a moment and let this sink in: we are Christ’s body in this time and this place, and we really are growing up into the image of Christ together.
We’ll always have some growing, some maturing, some organizing and figuring out to do. That’s part of being human together. But what I want us to take away from Paul’s sermon today is not how far we have to go – it’s how incredibly blessed we already are.
And just as Christ gathers together all the muscles and ligaments and bones to make up that body and make it work, so Christ gathers us here, around his table, to rejoice together in those gifts of community.
As we come to the table, let us come with joy – because God’s grace overflows in our midst, and here, when we share our gifts, we have all we need and more.