Working together as the church of God

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 15th February 2015

Reading – Ephesians 4:1-16; Mark 9:2-13

[audio https://stbarnacles.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/tim-eph-4-v1-16-15-feb-2015.mp3]

Over the past few weeks we have looked at various different pictures of the church. We have seen how Paul has described the church as the body of Christ, the household of God, a holy temple, a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit. And we have discovered that despite how we might sometimes think of ourselves, these images apply to us. So as we have gone through the book of Ephesians I hope you have been excited by God’s plans and purposes for us, His people, and that these pictures of the church will remain with us as we aim to move forward in mission here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas.

Today, however, I want to suggest a slightly different picture of the church. It’s not one that comes straight from the pages of the Bible, but I think it’s one that Paul might have approved of, if he were alive today. And that is the picture of the church as an engine.

Right away, I have to say I know very little about engines. If you were to ask me to look at your car, I could fill it with petrol and top up the screenwash, and that would be about it. But all my life I have been surrounded by engineers, and I have a pretty good idea of what they do. And if you were ask to an engineer to look at your car, I’m sure they would – given half the chance – completely strip it down, work out what every component did, try and put it all back together, and quite probably write the manual as well. Engineers are incredibly useful people in taking things apart, reassembling them and making sure everything is working well.

So supposing for a moment that the church is like an engine, what, I wonder, would be the signs that we are working well, just as God intended? Well, let’s listen again to what Paul says to the Ephesians, in chapter 4, verses 1-3:

Signs we are working well

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Here, in essence, are the marks of a healthy church. It is humble, it is gentle, it is patient, loving and united, and it seeks for peace. And I was originally going to say that it is a church that obeys Paul’s commands. But actually, if you think about it, it is very rare that someone is gentle, for example, just because they are commanded to be gentle. I used to live near a primary school which had written on a wall in the playground, “Be kind to one another” and I imagine there were probably quite a few fights directly underneath that sign. You’re not necessarily going to be kind or gentle or loving just because someone tells you to act like that, and it’s important to realise that a healthy church which reflects Paul’s teaching is first and foremost one that is living and moving in the power of the Spirit.

Back in chapter 3 Paul prayed for the church in Ephesians: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (vv.16-17). It’s a fine sounding prayer, and one that I always find very inspiring, but what is the practical outcome to this prayer? The answer lies right here in these words in Ephesians 4.

You see, there is a direct link between being empowered by the Holy Spirit and living the kind of lives that give glory to God. We have this tendency to skip over the more theological parts of Paul’s letters and move straight to the application, but actually how we live as a church reflects our understanding of who God is and how He moves among us. So if we want to be a healthy church, we need to seek constantly for more of Jesus working in our hearts, because it is only in this way that His love can shape and correct our attitudes towards each other and the people we serve.

And of course the most important evidence that Jesus is at work can be seen in the unity that He gives us. That’s why immediately after setting out these marks of a healthy church Paul reminds us in verses 4-6 that:

The Unity of a healthy church

There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Now you may well wonder why, after all that Paul has said in chapters 1-3, he repeats this stress on unity. We’ve already heard in chapter 2 about Jesus making Jew and Gentile one. We’ve learnt that there is only way to the Father, through Jesus by the one Spirit. And we’ve recognised that we all fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. So why Paul does go back to the theme of unity here?

I believe even just a short look at the church today provides us with the answer. There is one body and one Spirit. Really? Over the centuries Christians have found or sometimes invented all kinds of reasons why they cannot possibly be in the same church as those Christians over there. They have argued over who the Holy Spirit is and how you can receive Him. And that’s before you bring up the subject of baptism, or church government, or the role women should play.

Time and time again, it seems, we undermine the very unity we say we want by our behaviour towards our fellow believers, and then we wonder why the church isn’t growing. The reason why we are not working well together as a church is, as they say, not exactly rocket science. The unity God wants to bring is unity on God’s terms, not ours, and it will necessarily involve people we may not like or people we may sometimes disagree with.

But it is possible to make the opposite mistake and pursue unity at any cost. That was the problem with the so-called ecumenical movement a few years ago. Anyone who called themselves Christian, however vaguely, was welcomed in, but because there was such a wide range of views in the movement they actually achieved very little together, because they had so little in common.

Now one of the things about engineers is that they love to make modifications. You give them an engine or a design, and within a few minutes they will be tweaking that part here, or altering that specification there. They’re always looking to innovate, find out new ways of doing things, achieve better performance or increased results – even if often they find out by hard experience that the original design was best after all.

And it is possible to tweak your faith in such a way that you no longer fit into the life of the church. Our unity has to come from a common understanding of who God is and what He has done in Jesus Christ. It’s one reason why we are supposed to say the creeds Sunday by Sunday. They affirm the basic spec of our faith, and when someone deviates from that spec, they affect the performance of the whole church.

That’s why on a personal level I believe it is so important to affirm an evangelical, Bible-centred view of the Christian faith within the wider Church of England because it is at one with the historical creeds of our denomination. But at the same time I need to do this with exactly the same kind of humility, gentleness and love Paul sets out back in verse 2 – or else I am undermining the very faith I am seeking to promote.

God-given unity matters. But although we are together all one body, or unit, this doesn’t mean of course, that all of us have the same function within the church. As Paul writes in verse 7:

The diversity of a healthy church

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

You see, when Jesus moves in power among us by His Holy Spirit He gives different spiritual giftings to different people. After all, if the church is going to function as He intends, you can’t have everyone up front leading the worship, or everyone out the back doing the coffee. Like a well-designed engine you need different components each carrying out their own particular function.

Again, if you asked me to look under the bonnet, I might be able to identify certain major items, like the engine block or the air intake or the radiator. But I’d have little idea about the tiny little individual components which make the whole thing work and what job they actually do.

In the church Jesus Christ has given certain gifts that are obvious. Paul lists them here in verse 11:

The public and visible gifts

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.

These are, if you like, the public and visible gifts which those on the outside tend to see first when they look at the church – apostles, that is those who set up the church; prophets, people who clearly proclaim the word of God into a given situation; evangelists, people who go out and proclaim the word of God to those who do not yet believe; pastors and teachers, people who apply the word of God to the daily lives of church members.

And what is important to realise is that within any church there should be a number of people who exercise these gifts. One of the big problems I find with the Anglican church is that too often one person is expected to do it all, especially when he or she is viewed as the priest who’s somehow closer to God than anyone else. It’s rather like expecting one component in your engine to provide all the energy. You might possibly make it work, but you will hardly be working at peak efficiency, at least not once that component – as it will – will begin to wear out or break down.

It’s also important to realise that although these gifts are the public and visible ones, they are not the only gifts that Jesus Christ gives to the church. Listen to how Paul goes on from verse 11:

… are not the only gifts

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers …

Why? Please take careful note of what he says next:

… to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

In other words, the role of leaders in the church is to ensure that every person in the church knows how to serve the Lord and how to exercise their spiritual gifting. Because although the roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are the ones that get noticed on the outside, actually we all have a role within the body of Christ, and even the smallest gift is a vital and important part of our life and mission together.

So if for any reason you feel that you are not using your gift or that it is not being valued, then I am not properly fulfilling my calling to be your pastor and teacher. But equally if you feel that somehow you don’t use your gift, because perhaps you think somebody else might do it, you are actually failing to build up the body of Christ. That, by the way, is one reason why it is so important as far as it is humanly possible to attend worship on as regular and consistent basis as possible. Because if you choose not to be there, not only are you depriving yourself of spiritual blessing, but you are depriving the body of Christ of your ministry which only you can give.

God’s plan for the church is one where everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit and makes a contribution to the body of Christ. Now I realise when people hear mention of spiritual gifts, they are often tempted to say, “Who, me?” But as we have seen already, God doesn’t choose the obvious candidates to build His church. He uses those who recognise they are poor, have little to offer, may be uncertain if they have any skills at all.

Let’s read on to verse 13, because this is a breathtaking vision of what the Lord wants the church to become, as each exercise their gifts:

What the Lord wants us to become

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be 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.

There’s that word unity again. But it’s not the unity of the cosy club, or the social circle. It’s the unity that comes from everyone learning to exercise the gifts God has given them. Because as you step out in faith and begin to serve the Lord in maybe only a small way, you find little by little you learn more about following Jesus. You make the next step of faith. You start to understand what the Lord wants of you. You begin to recognise where the Holy Spirit is at work. Eventually you may well discover you are able to do far more than you thought was ever possible, because you have grown so much, as Paul puts it, in the knowledge of the Son of God.

So, for example, I think of one lady who began to reach out to the young Mums in the area by holding a weekly service. There was only a brief input aimed at the children. But gradually the Mums began to ask questions. In the end some were invited to an Alpha course and many of those made a profession of faith. The lady herself later went forward for ordination, and the existing work is being carried on by some of those who were converted. Or I think of churches in other parts of the world that have begun because someone had the vision to set up an activity that met a local need, a craft club, maybe, or a credit union.

When every member of the church takes their first steps to use their God-given gifts, the results can be astonishing. It’s not that there’s one person over there in the corner doing one thing, and another person in that corner doing something else. For actually everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and there is real network of prayer and teaching supporting and undergirding whatever’s happening. That’s what Paul’s vision of the church means in practical terms, and I hope it’s one we can hold on to as we think about developing our Mission Action Plan.

Because when every person is playing their part, when there is real unity in the faith, and when we are all working well together, then Paul tells us it is full steam ahead! Or as he puts it in verses 14-16:

Full steam ahead!

Then 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. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From 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.

And although all I have said so far sounds so focused on the church and what we do in our life together, actually when a church is growing like that, it gets noticed. Because faith naturally spills out of our services and small groups into our workplaces and our homes; people readily respond to invitations because they want to know what’s going on, and also – and this is something I have seen recently here – the Lord keeps sending along people who by some mysterious process want to find out more about the church.

So back to the handout I gave you last week. As you reflect on all that Paul says here, let me leave you with the three questions I printed on the back:

Questions to consider

What part is God calling you to play in His mission here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas?

How are you already fulfilling your role?

What help do you need to develop your ministry?

Take some time to consider those questions, and do talk to Rev Tim if you want to explore them further.

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