Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
"Grace-Full, Leaving the Easter Life", An Easter season sermon series from Ephesians
Week 4 of 6, Preached May 2, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Its still Easter! Easter is not a Sunday but a season that goes from the first Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost. On this year’s first Easter Sunday, Caitlan noted how Jesus came among us, showed us how to live, died, and rose again. Then, Caitlan asked, So what? How does the resurrection of Jesus change us?
This Easter season our sermon series is called, “Grace-Full, Living the Easter life.” Caitlan and I are preaching from all six chapters of Ephesians, hoping we find ourselves filled with God’s grace, and excited to go into the world living Easter lives.
Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Ephesians 4:1-16
4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you all 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, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
4 (See) there is (only) one body and one Spirit, just as yall 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.
7 But, each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a] into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 (all) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the (one) body of Christ, 13 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.
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. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 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.
For three weeks, and three chapters, the letter of Ephesians has been working on our theology, our understanding of a triune God, who God is, and what God has done and is doing. It’s sounded something like this…
Since the beginning of time, God has planned for the redemption of God’s world and God’s chosen people. God freely bestowed the gift of God’s grace through God the Son, Jesus Christ on all creation. Where at one time, the people were divided, Jew was captive under the inability to completely obey the law, and Gentile was captive under ignorance of the law, Christ came, and abolished all the ways the Law creates division, between God’s people and God or between God’s people and each other. At the cross, Christ recreated one humanity and began the rebuilding of one holy community.
This amazing gift of God in Christ through Spirit was unexpected by any who came before us, but was intended by God from the beginning. Those with faith to see and believe this good news, to trust God’s loving purposes in this mysterious plan, are even now freed from captivity to other things, other lords, and are willingly bound only to the one true Lord God.
That is the theology lesson from the first half of this letter. Chapter 4 turns the page. One commentary suggested Chapter 4 is like a doorway between who this gracious God is and what God has done in that first Easter morning, AND who we are, what it means for us to live Grace-full Easter lives in gratitude to God.
Apparently, a grace-full Easter life bends toward unity, the same kind of unity that we see in the one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. It is the temptation of the ancient church and church today, once we define who we believe God is and what we believe God wants, we are often unified only with those who agree. It is the temptation of church to look not at the unity God has created, but to look at church as the dividing line between those who think and believe like we do, and those who don’t.
People, broken sinful people, notice differences, the ways we are different from one another, the ways we disagree, and often choose to avoid different people. There is no unity in that choice. The holy choice is to humbly, gently, patiently, make every effort to embody the unity of Christ here on earth between all people. If we notice a difference, be curious about it, and engage those who are different, enjoy them even, and grow from them. This is our calling.
Ephesians tries to helps us by reframing differences as “measures of grace.” The differences are some will be apostles, others prophets, some evangelists, others pastors and teachers. The differences aren’t battle lines between individuals or denominations. The differences are gifts of God and callings of individuals so together we can embody the body of Christ.
Differences are unique gifts given by God to build up the body of Christ, the church, the great community of God on earth as it is in the heavens until all of us come to the full faith and knowledge of the Son of God, what Ephesians calls maturity.
I am a pretty opinionated person. I can hold my own on most issues, especially scientific or political, or theological debates. I am reminded here I am not yet at the full stature of Christ. I am called to maintain the unity of Christ in the ever-expanding community of God we call church, and to humbly submit to that community, its differences, and diversities, as a way to help me grow up, to mature. Where I see a significant difference between me and another brother or sister in Christ, between what I think or believe and what they think or believe, I have no right to work against Christ’s unity and to dismantle the unified body Christ is assembling. No one should ever run someone else off from church because they think, feel, believe, or are different. No one should ever withdraw themselves from the community of church because they think, feel, believe, or are different.
Somehow, all God’s people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, prophets and apostles, young and old, Baptists and Presbyterians, Evangelicals and Progressives… are all called to be one unified community under God, and in this one, holy, universal, church, we are all being called to GROW UP… in our humility, gentleness, patience, that maintains unity, and that helps our mature to look more and more like God’s kingdom.
In my 16 years or so of church leadership, I’ve seen people judge others, and heard church members or leaders say hurtful things after worship, after a class, after a Session meeting, in an email, on Facebook. I’ve also seen church members break their unity with a church community over music styles, pronouns for God, LGBTQ issues, God’s special love for the immigrant, or a Session decision they didn’t like.
I understand people will make these decisions. But I cannot find any justification in Christ for breaking the unity of church. The author of Ephesians tells us we should no longer be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, and calls anyone who responds to differences in God’s church by getting angry or giving up… children. But that’s an insult to children. Children can fight one minute and be back to playing and laughing together a few minutes later. It’s not children who have a problem. It's the adults who give up on unity and kick out or walk out. It’s the grown-ups who pick up playthings and stay home, or go look for new church friends whose beliefs already match theirs. Children know they need to mature. Adults, grown-ups begin assuming we don’t have to anymore, and we honor God’s unity only with people whose faith and knowledge and beliefs are the same as our own.
To expect matching faith and knowledge and beliefs from others in church is to deny the diversity of gifts God gives. To want a church where most people think and feel the same about most things is to assume this limitless God is more fully captured in one group's limited thoughts and beliefs and language.
Now, does this mean there is no truth? Does this mean there is no right and wrong? Does this mean, in church, everything is relative, and anything is okay? The author says, “Don’t be tossed around to and fro by these deceitful schemes.” There is a truth, but it's not our little versions. Jesus Christ is the truth. There is a way and a life. But our ways and our lives and not yet the way and life of Jesus Christ. Does anyone, anyone here know everything about that way, that truth, that life? But together, in unity with one another, each using the gifts God has given us to help this unified body grow and mature, we can all mature and more embody Christ himself in how we do church with one another.
Make every effort to maintain unity, in Christ, no matter the differences. Be humble. Never assume to have God or God’s will completely figured out. Listen and learn from the others around you. Look for the grace of God in them, and let them share it with you.
Be gentle. Bear with one another, in love. If brothers or sisters are off path, speak to them, directly, not about them to others. Speak the truth to them, honestly, but gently, in love. Expect to be changed as much as we expect to change others. Anything we say or do should build up our unity in Christ and our maturity toward Christ.
Be patient. Don’t expect shortcuts. In relationships, take time. Peace comes when we avoid forcing our will upon others, wrangling with each other, or talking about each other instead of to each other. Be kind, tender-hearted.
Those are the signs of a grace-full Easter life. That’s what it looks like to lead grace-full Easter lives, worthy of Christ’s calling.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown