And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. This verse from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, verse 32, (KJV) is one of the first memory verses that I learned as a child. I will be reading from Ephesians 4 as I go along this morning, from the Common English version.
Today, the third Sunday in October, is set aside in the United Methodist Church to recognize and celebrate the work of all laity, not only within the walls of the church, but in everyday lives. As I considered the theme I began thinking about how I have come to know what it means to be part of a church community. As a child, I went to Sunday School and Worship every Sunday with my father and mother, sister and brother to the little Baptist church in Sunflower, Miss. My grandparents were there. My grandfather and father were deacons; my father and mother taught Sunday School. I learned the familiar Bible stories and memorized Bible verses. I knew most everyone there. I’m sure it was not much different for the children in Trinity in the 50’s and 60’s, or for many of you in your childhood. We first learn about what it means to be part of church, as a child in the context of our family and extended family and friends. I saw first hand the examples of lay leadership in my parents.
When I came to the Methodist Church as an adult, after Bill and I were married, I learned that the Wesleyan tradition includes a strong emphasis on leadership of the laity. John Wesley’s first spiritual experiences occurred outside the walls of the traditional church in his small “Holy Club” group. He set up small groups or classes for study and mutual support and that became the method that gave Methodism it’s name. When the church came to America, there were not enough Anglican priests to administer the sacraments to the rapidly growing number of converts. The fast-growing rural churches depended on the leadership of their lay members. The Wesleyans eventually broke away from the Anglicans because the American churches needed to be able to ordain their own ministers to serve the people. The tradition of Lay Leadership has remained strong in the Methodist church. The practice of itinerancy, or moving pastors around, was designed to emphasize the primary role of the local congregation. Or as Ryan put it last week, our pulpit is to the side.
So we, the people, are the church. Not the pastor, the district superintendent nor the Bishop. We the people, the laity, are the leaders of our church. It’s up to us whether we prosper or wither, whether we come together or fall apart.
We have leaned about being the church from our families and from our Methodist traditions. What does the Bible teach us about being a church? Surprisingly, Jesus had nothing the say about being part of a church. The only reference that Jesus made to the church in the gospels is found in Matthew 16:16-18 when Simon declares his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus renames him Peter and says “upon this rock I’ll build my church”, meaning on the rock of Peter’s faith. We know from the gospels that Jesus attended synagogue on the Sabbath, and participated in Jewish holy traditions. We also know of his anger at the corrupt Temple priests who were allied with the Romans. Jesus did not establish a church and his teaching were directed to the people and how they could be what God intended for them to be.
Jesus may not have had much to say about the church, but the Apostle Paul had quite a bit to say. The story of the church begins in Acts, before Paul even becomes a follower of Jesus. In the years after Jesus death, Paul, along with many others, establish Christian churches throughout Asia Minor, from Jerusalem to Rome. Many of Paul’s letters to the various churches in Asia Minor were about how to live and work together in Christian community. This morning I’d like to consider some more of what Paul had to say to the church at Ephesus.
Ephesians 4: (CEB)1 Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. 2 Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3 and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4 You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. 7 God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.
Let me repeat what Paul said: Live as people worthy of the call you received from God. As a church, we are the people who have been called by God. We worship one God, we share one faith. Humility, gentleness, patience, love - these are the characteristics of those called by God, who have accepted and are accepting God’s gifts of grace. The thing that ties us together is the unity of our faith in one God, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
We are to be of one spirit, but we each have different gifts of ministry. Let us go back to Paul's message to the Ephesians at verse 11-16: He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God's people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God's Son. God's goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren't supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let's grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does their part.
Paul is urging the people of the church at Ephesus and all the people of the churches who would read his words to become mature adults - mature in our faith, in our actions, and in our reactions. We are to use Jesus teachings as our standard, to speak the truth with love. We are to let the love of God, as shown to us in Jesus Christ, be our guide for building and strengthening our body, the body of the church.
I wonder what might have been going in on Ephesus to provoke Paul’s admonishment. Ephesus was the most important city at that time in Asia Minor, now Turkey. It lay at the crossroads of major trading routes and boasted a large river harbor that fed into the Aegean Sea. It was a significant commercial center with a very diverse population and many pagan temples. The new Christian community there was composed of those who had been Jews, Gentiles and pagans. According to Bible scholars, Ephesians is the only one of Paul’s circular letters intended for several churches and not specifically addressing one particular church or problem. That lets us know that the issue of preserving unity in a diverse group is a universal problem. The whole letter is meant to be proclaimed in the church as a sermon. The theme throughout the letter is of unity and harmony in Christ in all settings, especially church and family. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, used Ephesians frequently in their preaching and teaching.
You have heard that Jesus said that wherever two or three gathered in His name, He would be there. It is also true that wherever three or more gather, there will be disagreement. Paul is telling us to lift our sights to God’s love, as evidenced by the cross, so that we can put our disagreements aside and live out God's purpose for us: to know Him and Serve Him by serving others.
Let us read the rest of what Paul has to say, from verse 17:So I'm telling you this, and I insist on it in the Lord: you shouldn't live your life like the Gentiles anymore. They base their lives on pointless thinking, and they are in the dark in their reasoning. They are disconnected from God's life because of their ignorance and their closed hearts. They are people who lack all sense of right and wrong, and who have turned themselves over to doing whatever feels good and to practicing every sort of corruption along with greed. But you didn't learn that sort of thing from Christ. Since you really listened to him and you were taught how the truth is in Jesus, change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God's image in justice and true holiness. Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. Be angry without sinning. Don't let the sun set on your anger. Don't provide an opportunity for the devil. Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need. Don't let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Don't make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. - Paul's words to the churches.
When I looked up the text for that long ago memory verse, “Be Ye kind one to another”, I was drawn to read the whole chapter to get the context. I felt that it is a sermon, a message I needed to hear and share with you. Today, we as a church family are swimming through some troubled waters. It is up to us, the laity, the people of the church, to hold on to one another, to help one another, so that we can make it safely to the other side together. But we are not without help or hope. We treasure our life together to much to give it up. Indeed, we would like to grow and prosper as God’s people here on the corner of C Street and 2nd Avenue. To help us across these troubled waters, the SPPR team has invited the Conference Wellness Team to work with our church family. They are a group of dedicated Christian men and women who have been trained and have experience in helping Congregations such as ours restore a unity of Spirit in order that they may grow and prosper. The team will be meeting with the SPPR committee members soon to begin the process. I don’t know what it will involve, but that will be made clear soon. I hope that every one of us will participate.
Let us pray:
God, you imagine us as you intend us to be: kind, tenderhearted, compassionate, forgiving. Ready to do the work to bring about your kingdom, here and now. Help us, we pray, as we pass through these troubled waters, to lift our sights to your love and your purposes for us. Help us to love one another, even as you love us. Help us to even love our enemies, as Christ taught us. And open our hearts so that we are willing receive your Holy Spirit. Amen.