A sermon on Ephesians 4: 1-16 & John 6: 24-35 by Nathan Nettleton, 2 August 2009
Today may prove to be a significant day in the history of our congregation. This afternoon we had the first meeting of our new “host group”, and its beginning represents a pretty bold experiment in congregational life and leadership. I think it is really important, but I don’t know which way it is going to go. We may look back on this as being one of the most positive and creative things we have done, as something that broke the shackles and set us free us to grow up into the kind of community of discipleship and mission that God has been calling us to become. Or, in a worst case scenario, this may uncover some serious problems and see our church collapse in the next six to twelve months. I’m pretty sure that the “host group” experiment will not, in itself, cause any significant problems that would threaten the church, but I think it will unmask a series of existing problems and as it does that, we will have to either find ways of transcending them or concede that they are beyond us and that our church is, in fact, not viable. I don’t think the “host group” experiment will create the problems, but it will probably open our eyes to them and demand that we face up to them.
A couple of our readings today have some valuable things to say to us as we embark on this journey. The reading from the letter to the Ephesians is particularly pertinent. Among other things, it says “we must grow up”. “We must grow up in every way into the one who is the head, into Christ.” Growing up is an image we have used numerous times in the discussions that have lead us to this experiment. We have noted that for too long we have been a congregation that is too dependant on one person to make everything happen, and that it is time we grew up and took a more shared interest and responsibility for our common life. “We must grow up”, says the Apostle.
In this vision of growing up, the letter to the Ephesians talks about unity, gifts, and everyone taking their place and playing their part. The metaphor of a body is used to speak of how we grow into “Christ, 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.” The passage also talks about how the Holy Spirit has given a range of different gifts to people in the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” It is clear that there are different gifts, that within the body there are different parts and each part must do its different job if the body is to continue to grow healthily. This is very important. We’ve used the image in our discussions of “pulling your weight” and we’ve tried to keep emphasising that not everyone has the same weight. If we were speaking of a literal physical test of strength, no one would expect Jenny to be pulling the same weight as Garry. But when we employ it as a metaphor, no one expects Garry to pull the same weight as Jenny in the development of our congregational singing. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people and we need all those different gifts to be given their full expression if we are to be a healthy community of discipleship.
There is a strong emphasis on unity in the vision of this passage. We are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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.” Effort is called for, but note that the effort is to “maintain the unity”, not to “create” the unity. The unity is a given. There is one body and one Spirit. It is not your job to create that. God has created all things in unity, and in Christ through the power of the Spirit God has accomplished the reconciliation of all things so that all might grow up into the fullness of Christ. Our job is not to create it, but to maintain our participation in it, to tend and nurture it as it is expressed in our congregational life and mission.
There is an important, but often misused, line in the passage that I think will be pretty important to this new stage of our journey. It is the phrase that precedes the call to grow up. It says “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ.” Speaking the truth in love. Most of you have probably heard this line being abused. When people feel the need to tell you that they are speaking the truth in love, it nearly always means that they aren’t. It nearly always means that they are speaking something, truth or otherwise, in anger, but that they feel the need to justify it by hiding it behind the veneer of this scripture verse.
But the fact that it has so often been abused does not mean that we should ignore it. If we don’t get reasonably good at speaking the truth in love, then I don’t think the “host group” experiment will have much chance of succeeding at all. Why? Because one of the crucial ingredients in this will be a new level of accountability to one another. People are putting their hands up to say that they can be relied upon to play particular kinds of roles in our common life, and every single one of us will sometimes let the team down. We are all growing into this, and none of us will consistently get it right. And an important part of our growing up into Christ will be the ability to both encourage and challenge one another to keep stepping back up to the plate and pulling our weight at what God has gifted us to do and called us to do.
Accountability without love and grace is a blunt weapon, and grace without accountability is cheap and deadening. All of us will fall short in one direction or the other plenty of times, and we need to push ourselves and one another to grow in this. Speak the truth in love. Some will fall short by being eager to speak the truth, but their eagerness will occasionally tip into belligerence and lack sufficient love and grace. Such truth-telling is rarely able to be heard and so not only fails to contribute to growth, but often undermines it. Others will fall short on the other side. They will be so “loving and gracious” that they will shy away from speaking any truth that might not be immediately welcomed with joy. Nine times out of ten though, they are speaking it to someone else though, which is “bitching”, not speaking the truth in love. A necessary condition that will allow us to learn to more faithfully speak the truth in love is an understanding, a covenant, with one another to accept the challenge, to honour the accountability. We need to be even more fully committed to receiving it than we are to delivering it, if we are to grow into the fullness of Christ that we are called to.
In closing, I want to link to our gospel reading where Jesus identifies himself as the bread of life, the gracious gift of God to sustain us as we make our way through the wilderness. The road ahead will not be easy, and there is no doubt that there will be times when we wonder why we can’t go back to the familiar bondage of the past. But the bread of life, the manna in the wilderness, will continue to be offered to sustain us on our journey. And if we are to make it, we need to recognise that we are all depending for our life on the one bread, which the one Father has given us in the one Spirit. The unity is a given. We are called to be one, and to engage together in the life and mission of the one God. All this is a gift. Let us feed on it with thanksgiving and with hope.