Ephesians 4:1-16

Last Sunday was a very difficult day for me.  Perhaps it was for you as well.  Not only did we say good-bye to Pastor Yang, who has served our congregation with such excellence these past six years, and whom many of us have known and loved for quite longer, but we also said good-bye to Pastor Luu, who we were just getting to know and appreciate, and who was also serving us very well.  These two pastors were gifts to us, given by God.  We will miss them greatly.

 Today’s epistle reading from Ephesians chapter four is all about gifts.  We have a gift-giving God.  The first part of the text is about the gift of unity, shown in the seven “ones” of God’s grace and rooted in the measure of Christ’s gift – given by his death and resurrection.  The second part of the text is about the gift of ministry; that is, God carrying out His work through the efforts of His people.  Such people are gifts from God, leading us to a life of unity with God and one another.  Our sermon today will comment on both parts of the text.

 As we know, unity among people can be very difficult.  Much of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was about the difficulties of unity between Christians of a Jewish background and Christians of a Gentile background.  There were differences in understanding and practice which needed to be overcome.

 Here at St. Paul’s, we sometimes have difficulties in overcoming our language and cultural differences.  We worship in both Chinese and English, and yet our senior pastor, and many of our people, can only speak one of these languages.  Sometimes our meetings and events and relationships can be a challenge because of this.  At the reception for our pastors last Sunday we ended up with two cakes—one brought by our Chinese-language community and one brought by our English-language community.  It was a challenge to eat that much cake!  Still, I’d say our church does remarkably well in overcoming these challenges.  Certainly God’s love transcends our differences in language and culture and brings us together.

 Christian congregations also have other challenges of unity.  We are people of different ages, with different interests, having different means and different views.  How can such a diverse group of people maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, as St. Paul implores? 

 Paul tells us that we do not tackle this challenge on our own.  We’ve been gifted by God.  Paul describes this gifting of the church with a series of seven “ones.”  “There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  Seven is a holy number, meaning completeness.  Unity brought about by God is holy.

 At the end of this list of seven Paul speaks of God’s grace.  The point is clear—each of the “ones” on this list is a way in which God shows us His grace.  The list shows how Christians are equipped by the grace of God for achieving a unity that overcomes our differences. 

 Some think these words were part of an early Christian hymn or creed.  The change in the style of the text seems to indicate this to be the case.  If that is so, then another very important point about unity is being made.  Our unity as Christians is to be a creedal or confessional unity.  The content of what we believe is important.  The way we worship is important too.  Our doctrine and worship should be moving us toward unity more than it should an expression of our differences.

 This unity among God’s people, seen in the seven “ones” of God’s grace, is rooted in the measure of Christ’s gift.  This gift of Christ was described earlier by Paul in chapter 1, verses 7-10.  There he said:

 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

 


When we know of our common forgiveness in Christ, and how we are united with our Lord and Creator through this forgiveness, we can seek unity with one another in the faith we have been given.


 

When we know of our common forgiveness in Christ, and how we are united with our Lord and Creator through this forgiveness, we can seek unity with one another in the faith we have been given.

 

Once Paul has mentioned the gift of grace, and then notes in a quotation from Psalm 68 that God is a gift-giving God, he next goes on to mention another gift.  Verse 11 says: “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.”  This refers to the gift of ministry, which is to be an essential component in God’s plan for unity.

Those who serve in these roles are gifts of God to the church.  Yes, all people of the church are important, and all are gifted – so as to be seen as gifts to the whole body.  Still, Paul goes out of his way to single out those who have been called to serve in the church in special ways.  He does this because of their efforts and abilities to equip the saints and build up the church.  I started the sermon by mentioning that Pastors Yang and Luu were gifts of God to us.  They were gifts not only because of their unique personality and talents, but especially because of their willingness to assume the office.

 Our text lists five kinds of gifted individuals that were leaders in the church of Paul’s day.  As Lutherans read this text, and others like it, we are led to believe that each of these roles is assumed under one office, which we call the Office of the Holy Ministry.  There is one office, but a diversity of callings within it.  Our teaching on the one office is to help us realize our unity.

 Twice earlier in this Epistle Paul makes reference to the “apostles and prophets,” listing them together, and without the others.  This indicates the prominence of their roles.  The apostles are the ones who were given the role of authority in the church.  The prophets are the ones who proclaimed the Gospel and applied it to their time, often being given a special revelation for the church.  The apostles all seemed to be prophets, but not all prophets were considered apostles.  It seems, too, that these were roles that belonged to only the first generations of the church; although certainly the church today also assigns some to roles of authority, and some seem particularly prescient in their speaking to current times.

 The “evangelists” listed here may be a reference to those who wrote the four Gospels.  However, it more likely refers to any of God’s called ministers who operate specifically as missionaries, taking the Gospel to new places.  The word here reminds us also that any who occupy the office of the Holy Ministry need to make the proclamation of the Gospel central in their work.

 “Pastors (given literally here as “shepherds”) and teachers” are linked together grammatically in the text, so as to seemingly describe one role.  As the name implies, pastors care for the people of the church in various ways, much as a shepherd cares for the sheep.  The chief way they do this is in teaching.  As Paul said later to Timothy, those desiring to serve in the office of the ministry must be apt to teach.

 Yes, those who offer themselves and are called to do the work of ministry in the church are to be seen as gifts.  When those gifts are not present in the church the church suffers.  A church can survive a vacancy in the pastoral office for a time, and perhaps even grow in certain ways as others step up to carry out various tasks.  Still, we are to pray earnestly, as Christ taught us in Matthew 9, that the Lord of the harvest would send out workers into his fields.  Specifically, we at St. Paul’s are praying that God would provide a Chinese-speaking worker for this field.

 Paul may be singling out the gift of ministers in this text, but he does so for the purposes of all of us.  He wants the saints – that’s all of us believers – to be equipped for the work of ministry.  God wants us all to contribute through the sharing of our gifts, so that we might attain the unity of the faith, to maturity, and to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

 On Tuesday of this past week I spent the day with two pastors from out of town, touring them around the city.  One was an old friend who I’ve known for many years.  The other was his assistant pastor, a young man I had never met before.  While I didn’t listen to either of them preach or teach, I could still tell things about their gifts which would be used in ministry.  My friend Kurt is witty and clever, but also very outgoing with a real heart for people.  The other pastor, Jeff, was very impressive for the amount of things he noticed along the tour and the depth of the questions he asked me.   I’m sure they will make an excellent team.

 Still, during our time together they mentioned that one of the reasons for them traveling together was to build up the bond between them.  Apparently years ago the church had two pastors who did not get along well and were not able to overcome their differences.  This severely damaged the church.   Kurt and Jeff are determined not to let that happen to them.

 Our God is a gift-giving God.  Some of these gifts are found in the personalities and talents of His people.  Others are gifts which He establishes among us—such as the Church, the Holy Ministry and His Holy Word and Sacraments.  Amidst all the diversity and abundance of gifts God urges us toward unity, even as He works among us to bring that unity about. 

 

As people gifted by God, may He now work in each of us an appreciation for the gifts He has given us, and for the gifts given to others.  And may He give us a heart for living together in peace and unity.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 

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