Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 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. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
For the past several weeks we have been on a long journey through what The Bible teaches about the doctrines expressed in The Apostles’ Creed. Today we come to the end of that journey, by looking at the doctrines expressed in the lines “I believe… in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints”. Before we dive into the meat of the discussion, it is important to address then elephant in the room, namely that Protestant churches recite a creed that confesses belief in the holy catholic church. As you are probably aware, the word catholic means universal. When the creed is recited in a Protestant church, that is where the connotations of the word stop. It is a confession of belief in the universality of the body of Christ.
The universal nature of The Church is first glimpsed at Pentacost, when The Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles
When The Holy Spirit empowers the apostles, the first miracle the Spirit performs is enable the apostles to speak and everyone crowd to hear the apostles in their own native languages. Notice that The Holy Spirit does not enable everyone to understand Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Greek but brings the message to them in their own native languages. Pentecost, is at some level, a reversal of the tower of babble, but in a way that does not get rid of their diversity. The church is not a melting pot where everything blends together, but more like a mosaic, where each individual piece comes together to form a grander picture, or a symphony where all the instruments – all the various woodwinds, and strings, and brass instruments, with all their distinctiveness – come together to create something bigger, something beautiful. With this in mind, let’s turn to Ephesians.
Ephesians takes its name from there fact that it was a letter written to the chuches in Ephesus, who were largely gentile converts. Paul begins the letter by encouraging the Ephesians and explaining that they are no longer outsiders, but in Christ, they are members of the household of God. Read 2:19-22 Chapter 4, verses 1-6 is in many ways the heart of the letter.
They are to bear one another in love and live in humility. Paul will later go on to command the Ephesians to live a life of mutual submission and explain what that looks like across various legal hierarchies. That discussion begins with Ephesians 5:21, where Paul says “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”. Paul then goes on explain what that means across, what were at the time, different legal hierarchies. This is important to keep in mind, because a great deal of the rest of Ephesians, from 5:22 onward, if often misinterpreted because folks forget that what follows is an elaboration on the command to be subject to one another. But, anyway, that is a sermon for another day. For now, it is important to keep in mind that Paul does not deny the individuality or distinctiveness of the Ephesians, even when pushing back against various legal hierarchies.
They are still distinct, distinct people, even distinct theologies. Some early Christians practiced all the Jewish feasts, others did not, some ate food offered to idols, others did not, in addition to all of the nuances of thought which came from being from different places and different backgrounds. Yet they are united by belief in the gospel and a commitment to the person of Christ. I am reminded of John Wesley’s sermon The Catholic Spirit in which he says
If it be, give me thy hand. I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only ‘give me thine hand’…. [Wesley then gives examples of major controversies of his day, before saying…] Let them never come to sight ‘If thine heart is as my heart,’ if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: give me thy hand.” – John Wesley “The Catholic Spirit”
There is one fairly obvious way in which this applies to our present moment. We are distinct people, within different social locations, with different experiences, different perspectives and opinions but one in Christ Jesus. We think differently, we vote differently. Yet, we are one in Christ. Not only us, as members of Windover Hills, but all Christians of all churches of all denominations, we are one body. There is one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
It is her that the second, even more challenging. Consequence of this biblical truth comes into view. We talk a lot about church growth. Yet very often – not always, but at times – growth happens from because people leave one church to join another. And while we should rejoice that our sisters and brothers have found a faith community that feels like home, we also must remember that we are not in competition. We rejoice not because our little corner has grown in numbers, but because our sisters have found a home where they can grow in faith and love for God and neighbor and we should rejoice if they found home elsewhere.
Church growth is a means, not an end. The end is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Growth can be an indicator that you are doing something right, but at times it can also happen because you are doing something very wrong. There are the obvious examples of this. A church in Germany in 1930 which preached a twisted, even heretical, Nazi-friendly message, would probably have grown enormously. We see less extreme examples today, with so many mega-churches preaching a health and wealth gospel, a message of greed and earthy treasures.
There is something I need to get off my chest. Please allow me to be raw with you for a moment. If attending worship in person Saturday evening or Sunday morning best enables you to grow you to faith in God and love for God and neighbor then please come. If attending worship online best enables you to grow in faith in God and love for God and neighbor, then please attend online. If attending a different church best enables you to grow in faith in God and love for God and neighbor, then please go there instead. You are not a number on a list that I can show to the District Superintendent and say “look how much the church is growing”. You are not a giving unit. You are human being, made in the image of God, with infinite value and dignity. As your pastor, church growth will never be my first priority, especially not now, but not ever. My first priority is and always will be faithfulness; faithfully proclaiming the gospel, faithfully searching the scriptures, and remaining faithful to my covenant as a United Methodist pastor and our covenant as a United Methodist Church,. Your growth is more important than the growth of the church.
The song we will end the modern worship service with is “Thrive” by Casting Crowns. The chorus of the song speaks a powerful message.
“Just to know you and be known, we lift your name on high. Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide. We were made for some much more than ordinary lives. We were made to thrive.” - Casting Crowns Thrive
Church, we are called to so much more, to such a great work. We are called to know and be known by the incarnate LORD of all creation, and to share his love and message with the world. We were made to thrive, and we can only do that when we make the main thing the main thing, when we open our eyes to the way God is at work all around us, among those from different places, with different perspectives, from different traditions, and make our first priority the first priority. We are called to know and be known by the infinite, mysterious, incomprehensible, LORD of All Creation. We are called to proclaim the love and message of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate LORD, to the world. Let us not be so focused on the means, that we forget the end. Let us live into that call, now and always.