Text: Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
A man named Mike is standing on a bridge when he sees another man about to jump off.
Thinking that he might use religion to talk the man out of it, Mike asks the jumper, “So are you a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew or what?”
The jumper replies, “A Christian.”
“Small world. Me, too!” says Mike. “Are you Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox?”
“Protestant,” the jumper answers.
Mike replies, “Me, too! What denomination?”
“Baptist,” says the jumper.
“So am I!” says Mike. “Southern Baptist or Northern Baptist?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Baptist.”
Astonished, Mike exclaims, “Me, too! Northern Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Baptist Eastern Region?”
“Northern Baptist Great Lakes Region,” the jumper replies.
More astounded, Mike says, “Wow. Me, too! Northern Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
Hearing that, Mike shoves the jumper off the bridge and screams, “Die, Heretic!”
So much for Christian unity.
The advice to the church at Ephesus that Kyle read for us is a treatise on the unity of the church. We have a tendency from this pulpit to use texts from the Hebrew scriptures or the gospels. But since our focus for our adult Sunday school this summer has been the topic of building community, it seems timely to examine what our forbears thought was essential to hold their community together. In fact, their efforts laid the groundwork for an institution that has lasted for two thousand years. It hasn’t always been pretty. Actually, at times it’s been very ugly. But the Christian church has lasted for two millennia in spite of the assassination of popes, interminable disagreement about doctrine, heresy trials, crusades to save the heathens, numerous witch hunts, continuous church splits, and all manner of awful stuff. We have to admit that the church’s history is truly a mixed bag. But the original idea still survives – the idea that groups of people who feel called to follow the teachings of a man named Jesus should gather to support each other as they try to live as he did.
For a long time, the apostle Paul was credited with writing this letter to the Ephesians. But more recent scholarship has convinced many experts, especially the more progressive ones, that Paul did not write this New Testament book himself. Rather it is more likely that one of his followers wrote it in Paul’s name. But regardless of its author, some of the content is consistent with what Paul was saying to other fledgling Christian communities at the time and reflects a very Jewish understanding of being chosen by God. The early followers of Jesus are urged here to lead “a life worthy of your calling.” The Jews understood being “called by God” to mean that God was in the business of forming a people who were devoted to God’s law. Although the churches no longer followed strict Jewish law, they carried with them the idea that being “called” means embarking on a new journey of faith. They were to be holy and exhibit the list of virtues outlined in our text: humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace. Interestingly, one scholar notes that “humility” didn’t make it onto the list of virtues in most societies in those days. The Greeks considered humility to be demeaning. It was only Jews and Christians who aspired to be humble followers of their God. But the important point is that all of these traits were intended to make it possible to “maintain the unity of the Spirit within the bond of peace.”
The later verses in our text mirror the idea of each person being a part of the body that Paul described in 1 Corinthians. “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Since Christ’s gift was a generous outpouring of love for all, they understood that every person is given grace – a gift to be used for the benefit of all. Some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…every gift is given to equip the saints for the work of ministry and build up the Body of Christ, the faith community. According to the writer of Ephesians, we are to use our gifts to nurture our members until all of us come to maturity, to “the full measure of the stature of Christ,” in the words of our text. We must no longer be children, blown about by the winds of changing doctrine, trickery, and deceit.
What I find intriguing in this passage that I want us to explore briefly today is the discussion of “maturity.” Scholar Pheme Perkins notes that for the epistle writer, maturity involves the community as a whole and not merely particular individuals. The original Christian communities included both Jews and Gentiles, so their survival amidst this diversity was dependent on a good measure of maturity. Today I believe ours is as well.
A dictionary definition of maturity describes it as behavior based on “slow, careful consideration.” It is a “condition of full development” or “an advanced stage of development characteristic of an adult.” In today’s vernacular, it’s what we refer to as “acting like a grown-up.” My personal definition of maturity (which I have shared periodically with the teenager in our home) is “the ability to do what needs to be done whether it’s what you want to do at the moment or not.” It’s doing what is best for all in the long-term. But as you know, there is a catch: it’s tough to behave in this manner consistently because what’s best for all in the long-term doesn’t always coincide with what feels best for me in the short-term.
The topic of our adult Sunday school series this summer has been “Being Together: Building Community at Pullen.” In the seven sessions we’ve already completed, we’ve looked at how to build community through a variety of lenses. Participants have named a number of things they like about Pullen and we’ve identified some places that are challenging for us. In each of these areas – how we engage, how we worship, how we deal with disagreement, how we support all ages of Pullenites – our task is to respond in mature ways that feed us spiritually as individuals while enriching the life of the community as a whole. It’s how we can maintain that “unity within the bond of peace.”
One of the things we’ve heard this summer is that our diversity is an extremely high value for Pullen people. We look around and don’t see much racial and ethnic diversity, which is a source of concern for many of us. But among our educated, mostly white, mostly middle class congregation, there is a surprising amount of diversity. If you hang around here long enough and engage beyond Sunday morning worship, you see it. People are drawn to Pullen because of our stands on justice issues and also because we try to be open to different perspectives.
One challenge of this openness to a diversity of views is appreciating the difference between “acceptance” and “agreement.” As a community, we need to be good listeners when people share what’s important to them, even if we don’t agree with it. As individuals within a community, we need to understand that those people who are listening intently to our stories may not agree with us at all. I’m called to listen carefully not only to the words, but also the heart of another. But I also need to accept the fact that people can truly hear my heart-felt views and not share them. And that’s a tall order in both directions. Unless we are shallow people, what we think and believe – our world view – is central to who we are. When we tell our stories, we share our values, often deeply-held personal ethics born of our life experiences. So when people disagree with us, it’s easy to feel their disagreement as personal rejection or to assume that they just don’t understand. Yet when someone hints that “if you just understood me, you would agree with me” it can feel like I’m being deprived of the right to think for myself.
Maturity requires a balance in finding ways to meet our deep personal needs while committing ourselves to the same for others. And the operative idea here is “commitment.” This takes time. As we’ve noted this summer in Sunday school, the Christian church is one of the very few places in our culture where you can come when you want, take advantage of what is offered, drop in and out at will, and never contribute a moment or an idea or a cent for any benefit you’ve received. In contrast, you have to commit either participation or money, or both, to be part of just about every other group of any significance, and even Jewish congregations require their members to pay a fee in order to participate in the life of the synagogue. Involvement in this church is free and that’s as it should be. But this also has implications for us.
On the one hand, we want to create an inviting environment for those who simply want to “check us out” and who, for a variety of good reasons, aren’t ready to make a commitment to being part of the Pullen family. On the other hand, we need people who take being part of this Pullen family very seriously. It’s been interesting to count our attendance in summer Sunday school this year and compare it to last year’s numbers. Our focus last summer was on other religious traditions so we brought in speakers who could tell us about Buddhism or Jainism or Native American spirituality. As a result, last summer we had the highest attendance in Sunday school in the 11 years I’ve been on staff. This summer, when we’ve focused on the Pullen community and how we are church together, the attendance has dropped off. We still average 35 or so, but that’s lower than the 50 or more who attended last year. Given that we’re comparing two summers when people are always in and out more than the rest of the year, it seems to me that this is an “apples to apples” comparison. So I’ve been asking myself if some Pullen people are more attracted to learning about interesting topics, especially other religions, than in exploring how we are or might be church together. I’ll let you ponder this question with me because I believe if this hypothesis is true, it has meaning for us today and in the future.
Does all this focus on strengthening Pullen matter beyond what it does for those of us within the Pullen community? You bet it does. In his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” author Robert Putnam examines what he calls “social capital” – which includes the idea that social networks have both private and public value. In his discussion of religious participation, he notes that in the United States, half of memberships in voluntary associations are church-related; half of philanthropy is religious; and half of volunteering occurs in a religious context. Research demonstrates that churches are an important incubator for civic skills and that the tie between religion and altruism is very strong. Unfortunately, when mainline church participation declines as it has in recent decades, less social capital is generated for the common good, which is harmful not just to the churches but to our nation as a whole. The bottom line is that in general, people who don’t go to church don’t give like church folks do. Putnam suggests that this decline has occurred for several reasons, including two I’ll name. One is the strong focus on “personal fulfillment” in our culture in recent decades that cuts against sacrificing my personal needs to be part of a group. The second is that most of the churches that are growing these days focus on building relationships among their members but not necessarily on extending into the community beyond their walls.
So strengthening our relationships in order to build the Pullen community matters not just to us, but to our world. I told some of you recently that there are days when I look at what I’m doing and it occurs to me that it could be described as propping up an institution. And for someone who went to seminary later in life because of a strong calling to social justice ministry, shoring up an institution isn’t exactly what I had in mind. But then I am immediately reminded that the object of my propping up, if indeed that’s sometimes what it is, is not just any church. It’s Pullen. It’s a church with a 128-year history of ministry with people who are on the margins of our society. It’s a church that has worked hard to stand for justice for all of God’s children. You are a faith community that does in fact make a difference in the world. So enhancing the organizational capacity of this institution feels very important both for those of us inside these walls and for those outside who will be touched by our work and our witness.
As Nancy said last Sunday, encouraging doctrinal purity isn’t a critical part of what we do here at Pullen and it certainly isn’t something for which we’d shove people off a bridge. What matters is our life together. What matters is sustaining a mature community where the Spirit can work in us when we are together and through us as we work in the world. What matters is being able to find ways to nurture our souls AND support the nurture of others even if what they need is something different.
In Sunday school, I told the story of the Alliance of Baptists pastor who described his goal for his church in worship. He said, “I want people to be able to leave worship saying, “I may not have liked everything we did in worship today, but I love the people who did like it.” Getting to this generous place isn’t easy in an era when personal fulfillment is a supreme value. But as our text explains, growing up in love is the way to get there – as individuals and as the community that is Pullen. Ephesians paints a picture of the church as a reflection of God’s “fullness.” At its core, that fullness is an accepting, nurturing, forgiving love. May our goal always be to keep growing up so we can offer that kind of love within and beyond these walls.