A NEW COUNTRY DISCOVERED
Ephesians 4: 1As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.” 9(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Its a jungle out there. Every day, its “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Predators lie in ambush by water holes or feeding grounds where their prey must pass, watching and waiting for signs of weakness and vulnerability. Then, without warning or mercy, they close in for the kill, while the scavengers wait in the distance for their chance at whatever pickings are left.
Oh. Did you think I was talking about something I saw on the Animal Planet channel, or a PBS documentary about the Serengeti? Or were you thinking of your junior high school experience? No, I was talking about society and the economy as some people might describe their life experience when I sat with them one afternoon this week at Peace House, over by Franklin and Portland Avenues. Its basically a neighborhood drop-in center run by some nuns and volunteers. Some of the people who drop in for talk, coffee, shelter and leftover bread and pastries from some local hotels and restaurants, are homeless. Others are renters of single bedrooms and studio apartments, barely scraping by on Social Security disability or a meager pension, who just need a place to go and socialize outside of their cramped quarters. Others are just lonely. And others are volunteers, who serve by just listening to people’s stories and being a peaceful presence if ever a ruckus should arise. Which rarely happens.
In effect, for a few hours every day, Peace House is a predator-free watering hole for life’s walking wounded. Because life for many of them, and for all of us at some point, has been like one of those Animal Planet documentaries about lions around a watering hole in the Serengeti. Or like a Reality TV Show where people keep getting voted off the island for being unpopular, unfit, unwilling to do dirty on their neighbor, until only one “Survivor” is left: often the person with the least conscience or compassion. Only nobody even showed up in a boat to help them off the island; they were simply thrown into the shark-infested waters and told to swim. Whether its Pakistan and India, or companies trying to position themselves for global competition by laying off more workers, or social cliques in high school vying for popularity, its a dog-eat-dog world.
Now there are times and places in which I find competition just as thrilling as the next person. Like at the store or at the Metrodome (Actually, we could use a little more competition at the Metrodome lately). But what makes for lower prices and better products and better sports teams does not always make for better people, better relationships and better communities. But that law of the jungle is so much a part of our world that we have trouble shutting it off when it hurts more than it helps.
Is there nowhere we can got to get away from all this cut-throat competition and the culling of the weak and needy?
I would like to announce this morning that a new country has been discovered, where the law of the survival of the fittest does not apply. I just heard about it this morning. This country has been overlooked because it has never declared war on any of its neighbors. That’s against its very constitution. There are not even any competing political parties because the politics are entirely cooperative, not competitive. There’s nothing to fight over because the economy is such that resources in this country flow toward need, not greed. Their currency is called “gifts.” Nor is there any racism or class or caste system there because, when it comes to honors, titles and status, the citizens compete to give honors to each other, rather than to take or claim honors for themselves. We’re even told that it is a growing country, whose borders are expanding, not by conquest, but by immigration and birth. Second births, that is.
Its a very stable country too, because its a constitutional monarchy, and all the citizens love the king. And the king loves them. But you won’t find the king far off and removed in any kind of high falutin’ palace or on any golden throne. He’s quite available and connected personally to all his subjects, even on a first name basis. He even chooses the lowest places to hang out and do his ruling. You’ll find him out picking up trash, attending to the sick, giving bed baths to the frail, the sick and the dying, and chatting with people at the bus stops and at the community drop in centers. He doesn’t even have a standing army. In the one revolutionary battle that started this country, he went forth to battle and died for the citizens, rather than sending them out to die for him. That’s what it means when Ephesians 4 says he ascended to his throne by first descending to “the lowest depths.” Meaning,humiliation, servitude and death. So there’s nothing anyone has suffered but that he knows it too. I’m talking about Jesus, of course.
What’s true for the king is also true for all the other recognized leaders, officials and officers in the government of this country, indeed for all the citizens of that country: that their powers and offices and leadership exist not to lord it over the other citizens of this kingdom, nor to make themselves more important than others and indispensable, but to serve and to cultivate and encourage the powers, offices and leadership of all the other citizens. I’m talking about pastors, evangelists, deacons and other leaders, of course. Leadership, giftedness and power in this country are not zero sum games in which one can only have so much, at the expense of another. In this newly discovered country, leadership, giftedness and power grow with the sharing. In fact, the king’s entire domestic policy is about making kings and queens of all the subjects, so that they share his crown and his throne. But through his kind of love and service.
And you thought the whole planet had been explored and every region mapped? So where is this new country? Does it sound too good to be true? All this time when we’ve even begun exploring outer space, it was right here, under our noses, within us and among us. The Bible calls this country “the kingdom of God.” The Hebrew prophets told us to watch for it, in the Psalms they prayed for it, and Jesus told us its now here, with him.
In today’s Bible passage, the Apostle Paul likened this strange new country to “a body.” As in the human body. Not to be confused with the kingdom of God, this body is a colony of that strange new land, God’s kingdom. There are colonies of this country in nearly every country of the world. This body, or these colonies, are the church, both as individual congregations, and as the church together, in all times, places and peoples. Or what the church is called to be.
And if you wonder if I am kidding when I say all this about the church, I confess that I’m just as aware as anyone else that the church often falls short of the high ideals that Jesus and Paul have put forth. And I am just as responsible for that sad fact as anyone else. But critics who take us to task for falling short of certain ideals would do well to ask themselves where those ideals came from, and where else they would find such high values of harmony, cooperation and interdependence put forth. In business, politics, or the media and entertainment business? I’d hope so; it sometimes happens; but don’t bet on it. Its one of the occupational hazards of the church’s description: to champion the very values and ideals that make us ripe targets for our critics.
But Paul doesn’t talk as though he expects us to have arrived at perfection, nor does he berate us in this passage for falling short. He uses the language of growth, not perfection, of a journey, not of arrival. Far from having arrived, this body is growing and being built up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
That’s another thing that makes this body, or this country, cooperative and compassionate, rather than just competitive. Because all the members compare themselves with Christ, the King, rather than with each other. So there is neither contempt nor envy of others in this country. “The fullness of Christ” is our measure, not someone else who looks hot, or someone else who is the most wealthy, or whoever is the most popular or influential. When Christ is our personal measure of growth, that induces a high measure of humility, because we all know we’re falling short. It also encourages compassion over competition, because Christ is all about compassion.
And that’s what makes this body grow, in giftedness and in numbers: compassion, or love. Love is the diet on which this body grows and thrives. Three times in this passage Paul says that the good things in this country, or this body, happen “in love.” In his Greek that could also mean “through love,” or “by means of love.” And eating would be called “communication.” Yes, verbal communication like what is happening right now. But also other forms of communication, like a smile, a hug, a helping hand, mutual aid, a listening ear, and all the other ways we communicate our care for others.
But Paul touches on speech when he says that “by speaking the truth in love, we will through all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
Is “speaking the truth” scary? Like telling your co-worker that his habit of sending you emails that ridicule women or ethnic minorities is neither funny nor appreciated? That is scary, all right. But someone has to tell him the truth, not only for his sake, but for the sake of the business. Yet such criticism may be only half the truth. That co-worker might also be a super-organizer and a good motivator, who needs to hear that, too. How scary is that? In these very words we have heard, Paul is practicing what he preaches by telling us the truth of who we are: the body of Christ, joined intimately to Christ the Head. What higher compliment can anyone give? And he says that out of love.
The truth-telling that is helpful for business is the life blood of the Body of Christ, the church. It is even our very mission. We exist for this very purpose, “to speak the truth in love.” Whether it is the truth about God, to God, in worship and prayer, or if its the truth of the gospel to the world, or the truth of God’s Word to each other, that is our calling. And its our diet for growing in grace, giftedness and numbers.
To be loving, we must speak truth to each other, whether painful or pleasant. But to be truthful, we must speak out of love, in love and for love’s sake. Anything we say without love may have some basis in facts. Without love, however, our words are never totally truthful. But without truth, our words cannot be loving.
We all need that combination, of loving truthfulness and truthful love, in relationships where we can trust people to tell us the truth, and to do so out of love. That’s what church is for.
But as a sign of the times, some provocative titles of new, best-selling books include: “They Love Jesus But Not the Church” and “Love Jesus/Hate Church.” Social researchers agree that there’s a growing trend of people walking out of church to pursue their private personal spiritual agendas, often calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They have a hard time seeing what church has to do with Jesus, especially church as an institution, a corporation, a cluster of programs, competing with other churches like Target vs. Walmart in the religious marketplace for customers.
Its not like their beefs with the institutional church have no validity. And if these disaffected people can find better ways than we now have of being church and doing for each other what Paul describes, more power to them. For example, I commend our brothers and sisters at Missio Dei, the newest Mennonite church in the Twin Cities, for their bold experiment in building a network of small scale house churches which do neighborhood ministry, and which develop the ministry and leadership skills of all who live in these houses. Hopefully we’ll all learn from such experiments. Church should be experimental, not in its core beliefs, but in the ways it applies and embodies them.
On the other end of the spectrum is the wonderful example afforded by the most recent gathering of Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay. In the love, the worship, the celebrations, the work of discernment and of global networking experienced there, we get a stirring picture of the church to come, the church triumphant, which has overcome the world, the church of every tribe, tongue and nation, gathered around the throne of the lamb in heaven. But still, we’re only growing toward that ideal, Paul says. We’re not there yet.
But I’m concerned that, on their own, trying to do their own individualistic, community-free spirituality, people who walk out of church, or who try to relate to Jesus only on their own, are falling victim to the forces that drive us apart, isolate us and make us easy prey for social and spiritual predators, like a solitary gazelle at a watering hole. Because it really is a jungle out there. For example, the Peace House of which I spoke is being eyed very eagerly by developers who want that whole northwest corner of Franklin and Portland Avenue for a high rise condo development. But that one lone building stands in the way. They’ve been offered money for it, and they’d be willing to sell it, as long as they could turn around and purchase another building nearby to continue their ministry. But every time they look at another site, potential neighbors show up at city council or neighborhood association meetings to say, “Not in my backyard, they don’t.” It could all become a moot point if, as they fear, the city demands the building by eminent domain.
In such a world, I’m concerned that, without some support group that at least tries to be the body which Paul described, people will find themselves alone and abandoned in their hour of need and weakness. Without a way to support others, people may never find their gifted-ness and develop their strengths. And in their do-it-yourself, mix-and-match, spiritual shopping they will find only dangerous, counterfeit Christs, rather than the real one who has chosen to dwell on earth now in a human body, whose hands and feet and mouth are the imperfect, struggling people who count him their Head.
Yes, we fall short of our ideals and our calling, starting with myself. But if the values of community, harmony, interdependence, and compassion which Paul lays out before us today mean anything to us, we can first of all thank the church for holding them forth even when they make us look bad by comparison sometimes. And how much better it is to renew and reinforce our commitment to them than it is to just grab our parachutes and bail out of church altogether.
I think its still true what an early church leader said nineteen centuries ago: “Just as there is no church without Christ, so there is now no Christ without his church.” He wasn’t talking about buildings, hierarchies, institutions or programs, however. He was simply talking about people, interdependent people moved by Christ’s Spirit, endowed with his gifts. Needy, confused, imperfect people who are on a journey of growth, who have a long way to go, but who are often the only game in town if you want to live by something other than the law of “survival of the fittest,” in some place other than the jungle.