BUILD UP | ...In Love Worship Series, week 1
August 5, 2018
Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore, OSL (M.M., M.Div.), is an elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church currently serving as the senior pastor for St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, Texas. For the past two years, he has served as the Creative Director of A Ministry of Congregational Singing & Worship, an extension ministry in the North Texas Conference devoted to helping congregations strengthen their voice and deepen their worship life. He has previously served on the staff of churches large and small in Dallas, Texas, including Highland Park UMC, Lovers Lane UMC, and Walnut Hill UMC. Rev. Moore is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University and currently serves as the President of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and as a member of the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee.
by Rev. Geoffrey C. Moore
You know that moment in your sermon when you’re about to turn the corner? You’ve been proclaiming the goodness of God’s grace and now you’re approaching the question that is forcing its way forward in everyone’s mind: “so what?” Much like a sermon moving from the proclamation of God’s grace to the “so what” of discipleship, this week’s passage marks a pivotal turning point in Ephesians. The first three chapters have focused on the theological side of things, the mystery of God’s grace that has been revealed, and now, with a resounding “therefore,” the author prepares to turn to the practical side of things, which will occupy the last three chapters (and thus our texts for the rest of this series).
And in good sermonic fashion, the author gives us in these sixteen verses an overview —“here’s where we’ve been, here’s where we’re going”—of what the road looks like: God has called you to unity, which is a divine gift. Unity, however, does not mean uniformity, but rather diversity and dynamism in a body of people who have been variously gifted so that they may grow into maturity by developing their gifts and building up in love. Building up is a major theme of this “practical” portion of the epistle. But as much as the author tells us where we’re going, questions immediately rise in our mind:
Who does the building up?
What is being built up?
And how do we accomplish this building up?
First, the author has already indicated that the work of building up is not our work alone, but work that we accomplish cooperatively with God. Earlier in chapter 2, the author has already indicated that it is God who has done the building (2:20–21) and now we are being equipped with gifts for building up (4:11–12). The verb “equip” here literally means “to set,” like a bone, so as to orient correctly. And so it can be tempting to think here that our job in ministry is to take up the work of setting things right, of getting people properly oriented toward Christ. And to some extent, that is true.
But lest we think too quickly that God is handing off the task to us and it’s now our responsibility, the author turns back around at the end of this week’s passage to remind us that, ultimately, as members of Christ’s body, it is Christ who is building up. If, as the passage says, ministers are the ligaments, then it is our job to pull/hold things together, to strengthen unity. And ministers are themselves Christ’s gifts, working under the authority and control of Christ, not authorities in themselves.
So what is being built up?
This may seem self-evident, as the passage tells us that it is the body that is to be built up. But, again, it’s tempting to miss the forest for the trees. A body is a dynamic organism and, as such, is not rigid and stiff but requires flexibility. And it requires all of its parts to function properly. We are to go about the work of equipping and building up within the presumed unity already established by God (2:11–22), a unity that is expressed in the ekklesia.
It’s tempting to translate ekklesia as “church,” as we think of it (as a modern institution), but it’s helpful here to remember that ekklesia originally referred the ancient Greek political—and democratic—assembly of citizens, an image that stands in stark contrast to the imperial social structure of Roman times. No member in the ekklesia is the imperial head (or perhaps even the neck!). The call to unity here must be read critically—and radically—against the historical rhetoric of social cohesion within the empire. Nor is the ekklesia equivalent to a modern democracy. Rather, in the ekklesia, all are subject to Christ, who is the head (and the Spirit, who is perhaps the neck?). Social systems and hierarchies and relationships must be critically assessed and reconceived at every level.
The call here is to unity, not uniformity—nor even purity—as tempting as that might be. There is one God, who is the head of all things, and it is God who is at work in all things to unite all things under one head, who is Christ (cf. 1:10–11, 39). Indeed, the first three chapters have largely been dedicated to describing how all things have been reconnected in Christ, including the reconnection of divided, diverse, “hostile” people with very different moral codes. We have been called to work with God to maintain and build up this unity. In fact, the author emphasizes the depth and breadth of the divinely established unity by quoting from what may very likely have been an early baptismal liturgy: 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 (4:4–6). As we go about the work of equipping and building up, we must ask ourselves: “Does our work empower all the baptized? Or do we value our own preferences more than God’s unity?”
So, how do we go about the work of building up the body?
First, we are called to live a life worthy of our calling. The language of “calling” evokes the language of the opening of the epistle (cf. 1:4–18) in which the author told us that we are called by God to a new hope—not a new law—of peace and reconciliation.
Second, we are not called to create the peace or unity—that has been established by God in Christ (cf. 2:11–22)—but rather, we are called to perform it. And how are we to “perform” such peace and unity? By living, literally “walking,” a life in love worthy of our calling. And walking in love is characterized by humility, gentleness, and patience—characteristics that are all geared toward maintaining and strengthening unity. Humility is marked by living for the other in selflessness and renouncing the will to rule (cf. Acts 20:19). Patience can also be translated as “forbearance” and is marked by tolerance and enduring one another.
Third, the goal of building up is transformation—or sanctification in Wesleyan terms! We are called to reach maturity (v. 13), and even here, the call toward unity is present. We are called to maturity, not each of us individually, but rather all of us together as one corporate mature person (cf. 2:15–16). To emphasize this, this singular mature person (vv.12–13) is contrasted with plural children (v. 14): individualism is a sign of childishness; unity is a sign of maturity. The maturity of the full stature of Christ requires us to stay together. Our transformation is realized only in relation to one another; it is social rather than individual.
Ultimately, we are called to love. Our conduct is to be measured by who God is and what God has done. God is calling us to rewrite the grammar and meaning of love into the “economy” of Christ, and the economy that God has given us, and that the first three chapters have laid out, is one of unity and love. So, whereas the measure—the economy—of the Levitical covenant was holiness and purity (cf. Lev 19:2), the measure—the economy—of Christ’s covenant is love, and we must rewrite the grammar of what it means to live “in love” within this economy. But lest the idea of “rewriting a grammar” seem like a foreign concept, it shouldn’t be to us as Wesleyans. It’s exactly what we do when we talk about “perfection.” We speak of being perfected “in love.” We rewrite the grammar of what it means to be perfect from something that is flawless to something that exists “perfectly” within an economy of love.
We human beings tend to be binary thinkers, and so the “therefore” at the beginning of this week’s passage can lead us to think in a linear and binary way: first the theology (kerygma), then, as a consequence (“therefore”), the ethic (didache). But God doesn’t think in such a linear/binary way. The ethic isn’t something that comes after the theology. When it does—when it is cut off from the theology—it is disfigured from grace into a (new) law. “In” is a subordinating/locating preposition. It locates something within a larger context: do you mean the mess in the kitchen or the mess in the living room? We are called to walk “in” love, to conduct ourselves (ethic) in an economy of love (theology).
We might think of it like this: rather than receiving instructions on how to build and grow a garden and then going off and constructing one on our own, we must plant—and grow—“in” the soil that God has turned and prepared for us. And that soil is love. And just as God calls us to rewrite the grammar and meaning of love into the economy of Christ, so we must rewrite the grammar and meaning of what it means to build up the body of Christ, including what it means to speak the truth “in” love.
As we will see throughout this series, so much of the message of Ephesians is geared toward what it means to be a community of good communicators. The gifts mentioned in this week’s passage largely deal with communication (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), and those so gifted are called to guard against deceit and speak the truth, but all this is to be done in an economy of love, the grammar for which is determined by Christ’s own work.
In an effort to help us see what it means to walk in love, building up and maintaining the unity God has established, the author of Ephesians has used the image of the body, an image Paul uses several times throughout his epistles. In an age in which medical science (and biomechanics) have advanced so far that we can, in our efforts to achieve the best health and healing possible given the circumstances, remove and/or replace body parts, this may not be the best metaphor anymore.
It may be more fruitful to draw on another image from Paul—and Jesus—that of the family. Families are “bodies” or organisms into which we are born without choice or input. And once a member of a family, we cannot truly remove ourselves, no matter how hard we may try to distance ourselves, emotionally, legally, or otherwise. Our connection to our family is quite literally written into our DNA. We cannot totally separate ourselves from it. In the long run, we are better off learning how to live in peace and love with our siblings, for we are bound together in an economy, a unity, that was established before us and that we are called to maintain.
Another fruitful image might be the Nguni Bantu concept of ubuntu, which was popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu and others during the work of transitioning South Africa from apartheid to democracy. Bishop Tutu describes ubuntu this way:
Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
—Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 31.