This entry in the Days of 2023 Series (which I did not intend to be a series, but here we are) is a throwback. I wrote and preached this sermon in my preaching class over a year ago. Of all the classes I took while in seminary, that one may have been the most formational. I still hate public speaking, and I probably always will, but what a joy it is to learn from and about God with others. What a privilege to have a guiding role in the conversation.
May you be blessed today.
Most of you know that my favorite band is The Beatles. (And if you didn’t, now you do). I’ve listened to all of their albums repeatedly and know most of the lyrics by heart. I’ve watched all 6 hours of the Anthology documentary and all 8 hours of Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary and the Ron Howard movie 8 Days a Week…if a film about The Beatles exists, I’ve seen it. I’m impatiently waiting for Mark Lewisohn to release the next volume in his monumental biographical trilogy on the band. I own t-shirts. I have stickers. One of my goals is to try and work a line from one of their songs into every paper I write for my seminary classes. I will definitely one day visit Liverpool, the city from whence John, Paul, George, and Ringo came. And I will certainly take my own very touristy picture as I cross Abbey Road in London.
What is it about The Beatles?, you may wonder. Part of it is their connection to a fascinating time in our world, when so many places and peoples experienced great change and upheaval. Part of it is the fact that I am an unashamed Anglophile and can tell you more about England and its culture and history than you would ever want to know.
But mostly, it’s the music.
Even when the band is on the verge of breaking apart, the music is, overall, joyful. Even in their experimental pieces like Tomorrow Never Knows or Come Together, the listener has a sense that these four musicians love what they’re doing. There’s no place that Ringo would rather be than behind a drum kit. Nothing George would rather do than shred an epic solo on his guitar. John is never more delighted than when he sings a witty lyric. And Paul, still touring today at nearly 80, brings it all together with his melodies.
They love the music. And they love playing the music together, even when their relationships are strained. They can’t do this Beatles thing without each other, without each person doing their part.
Our text for today, Ephesians 4:1-16, invites us to further contemplate The Beatles, and music, and how a drum kit is not the same as a guitar which is not the same as a piano which is not the same as the only instrument that I can play, the cowbell. In this text the Spirit of the Living God invites us to consider what part it is that we are meant to play in the performance of God’s Gospel music. But not only that. More importantly, we will discover how we are to play our parts, whether it’s on a bass guitar or a kazoo.
Hear the word of the Lord.
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner 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.) He himself granted that some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, 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 knit 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. (NRSV)
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
There are at least six different sermons that I can reasonably draw from this passage. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to preach them all today). In the past when I’ve heard someone teach from these words, the focus has often been on how to discover the spiritual gifts God has given to each of the people listening. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is important for us to learn how to discern the ways in which God has wired us and how that wiring contributes to the function of the Church. But that’s not what I sense God drawing our attention to today.
But before we get into that, it’s important that we establish context for what we’ve just read and for the point I believe God wants us to grasp. Our habit of lifting passages out of the middle of a chapter or a book leads to us creating some…interesting music, the kind that issues forth from a piano when a toddler bangs on its keys. So let’s take a few moments, slow down, and get a feel for what’s really happening here.
First, this is a letter.
This letter is written to communities of believers living in and around Ephesus, a city located in modern-day Turkey. A trading port on the Aegean Sea, Ephesus is witness to a constant intersecting and mixing of money, and materials, and ideas. The people navigated this world from a class-based, honor and shame perspective. You stuck with people who were like you.
This city is also home to the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to Acts 19, a riot broke out in Ephesus when an artisan named Demetrius got angry that his business of making small silver statues of this Artemis was being threatened by some guy named Paul and his message about a man named Jesus.
This Paul guy – you might know him as the Apostle Paul – he spent about three years working and preaching in Ephesus. Although there is some debate about whether he is the actual author of this letter, Church tradition identifies him as such. That same tradition also places the composition of this letter toward the end of Paul’s life, around 60 C.E.
Ephesians is somewhat strange in that it lacks the personal touch common to many of Paul’s other letters. This indicates that it was probably intended to be circulated among many churches in the area. The instructions and admonitions we find here are broad enough to apply to a wide variety of situations and people. This is actually really helpful for us. Sometimes we have to do quite a bit of work to get down to what a text means for us today. Not so with Ephesians.
Especially not so with Ephesians 4:1-16. I’m going to give you one of the lenses through which to read this passage right now: unity doesn’t come naturally to them.
Paul is writing to people. People like you and me. People who are living in this city that’s constantly banging out on the timpani an unceasing rhythm of religions and ideas and clashing perspectives – and they have to find a way to perform a new song. They’re no longer meant to be participating in that loud, droning, obnoxious music, the music which is so familiar to them. They’ve got new, foreign pages in front of them, filled with different notes and themes.
And they have to play with people with whom they would never have imagined being in a band.
So how do they do it?
Let’s look again at verses 1 through 3.
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner 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… (NRSV)
That word humility practically leaps off of the page. This was not a mindset that was prized in their culture. No, see the goal was to be the best at whatever it was that you did, and to make sure that other people knew that you were the best. So to have a humble opinion of yourself, to publicly recognize not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, is a radical concept for Paul’s readers.
And that’s why unity doesn’t come naturally to them. They are not used to giving space to others. They are not used to ceding power to someone else. And they are especially not used to this if they are wealthy people. People in positions of privilege. Who are now suddenly interacting, sitting at the table, with slaves. Who are now…equals with these slaves because of their shared faith in Jesus Christ.
So their music is dissonant. It sounds bad, like a teenage garage band that’s practiced exactly once but is convinced they’ll be stars. They cannot play the music of redemption in their own power because when they try to, they do so with the habits and patterns that only work with the old music. They’re trying to bring the cymbal clash of superiority into a melody that is gentle. Humble.
They have to be reminded of and rely on the Holy Spirit who empowers them to come together as a whole. The Spirit of the God who came to this earth, setting aside all power and glory, to live and to die because of great, compelling, agonizingly compassionate love.
The Spirit of the God who rose again, introducing the music of redemption into the world.
See, that’s the point here. They need to start, and continue on in, and end with this melody of humility – because they know they did nothing to deserve this amazing embrace of God.
And if they don’t, all the spiritual gifts tests in the world won’t matter one bit. Who cares if they have the best preachers and the most amazing singers the world has ever heard if they are behaving just like everyone else?
As we sit with that question, let’s take a moment and consider what unity is. This corporate state of being that’s meant to flow from individuals’ humble self-concept.
It’s obvious from this passage that unity is not uniformity. If it was, Paul would tell them and us that we all have the same spiritual gifts, the same jobs within the Church. We wouldn’t have to be patient with each other. Paul obviously doesn’t write any of that. And lived experience, theirs and ours, makes it pretty clear that uniformity cannot possibly be the goal, because nobody’s ever truly achieved it. There are plenty of horror stories out there, told by survivors of cults and legalistic groups, that teach us that no matter how similar everyone seems on the outside, complete uniformity is simply not possible.
Because that’s not how God designed us. And that’s not what God calls us to.
Unity is not uniformity.
Unity is agreement on what truly matters.
Let’s read verses 4 and 5 again.
…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. (NRSV)
And now 15 and 16.
…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 knit 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. (NRSV)
Unity is diversity in harmony.
Each musician plays their individual part to create one song.
I don’t think it’s difficult for us to get what we’re supposed to get here. But let’s read verse 14.
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… (NRSV)
We, like them, often behave childishly. We want to prove that we’re the best, and make sure that everyone knows it. Influencers and politicians prey on our desire to be noticed, to have the spotlight, to take up all the room. We don’t have the Artemision up the road, but we do have Instagram. We don’t have wandering sages through their eloquent speeches seeking to sell us on the latest philosophical notion that will guarantee our happiness, but we do have cable news. We don’t necessarily perceive our society through the concepts of honor and shame, but we are very willing to push away those who are different from us.
Who vote differently.
Who have different life experiences.
Who look different.
Who have different talents…sometimes talents we wish we had.
We, like them, are all too prone to picking up the musical theme of the world around us. We, like them, are in just as much need of the corrective conducting that flows from the baton of the Creative Composer.
Because unity doesn’t come naturally to us.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit empowers us to come together as a whole.
It’s so fitting for this passage to come to us in the days just before Pentecost, a time when are invited to think about what it must have been like for the first believers to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus followed through on His promise to them, to not leave them orphans (John 14:18). The sense of connection to the Divine that they had had while Jesus walked the earth with them was now theirs all the time. Emmanuel, God with us, taken to a whole different level. These people – fishermen, merchants, religious scholars, tax collectors, former prostitutes, soldiers – all experiencing God. In the same way. At the same time. Together.
It’s not that they were perfect. They weren’t. Most of the New Testament tells the story of just how imperfect they were, how much they needed to work through. But again and again, in letter after letter and story after story, we read that they were called back to the reality of their trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which resulted in the Spirit within and all around them. Whatever differences or conflicts that might arise were to always be contextualized and dealt with from the understanding that they were one people, one Body, united forever (whether they liked or not).
They didn’t get to reject someone who claimed the Lordship of Christ over their lives just because they were a little different in their approach to life.
Neither do we.
We don’t get to reject someone based on who they voted for.
We don’t get to reject someone based on where they work or what kind of car they drive.
And we don’t need to give in to that urge to take up all the space for fear that allowing someone else a solo in the song makes yours less relevant.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo wouldn’t have been John, Paul, George, and Ringo if one of them had been missing. Or if one of them had tried to play every instrument all the time, always. And they wouldn’t have been The Beatles if they had just done the kind of music that had been the norm before them. No, they impacted the world in the way they did because they were different. Because they shared new music.
The music our Creative Conductor invites us to play is humble, gentle, patient, loving, and all-embracing, just as our Lord is. When we fail to play that music, the world has no opportunity to hear it. And then they are right to wonder why they ought to bother with this Jesus we talk about when we are banging on timpani and smashing cymbals in an effort to get attention and attain power, just as everyone else is.
Following Christ’s example, let us play the music of humble love. All the world needs is that love. Your part and my part coming together in interconnected diversity that testifies to the uniting presence of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s play the Gospel music.
GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,
Image Courtesy of Elizeu Dias