transcripts

A United People – Florence, 23rd May 2021

A few miles from where we live stands this iconic structure. It’s called the Angel of the North. Reaching 20m high, with a 54m wingspan, it’s a very impressive sculpture. You can get right up to it and even pose for a photo – as James has done. Can you spot him? There he is in the circle at the foot of the Angel… But just as impressive are its foundations. They share the same dimensions as the sculpture’s height, going down 20m, where 600 tonnes of concrete and 32 tonnes of reinforcing steel anchor it to solid rock beneath. When I read about the depth of the Angel’s foundations, I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible’! But, when I realised its foundations were secured to solid rock, I was completely blown away and thought, yes, that’s such a great parallel with our lives as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we build our Christian lives on a biblical foundation – but that’s not all… this foundation is anchored to the solid rock which is Christ himself!!! You know, the visible structure of the Angel of the North was erected in just four days, while the invisible foundations took several weeks to lay on the immovable rock. There’s a crazy comparison here because our lives on earth last only a matter of years, but our faith is built on the biblical foundations of thousands of years, and it’s all undergirded by the eternal rock, which is Christ.

We’re currently in a preaching series working through the New Testament book of Ephesians which was written by the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This book has six chapters – the first three focus on solid foundational truths; the second three chapters build on this foundation by demonstrating in practical, visible ways how we, as Christ-followers, ought to live. So this book is half foundation, half visible evidence of what’s built on that foundation. A bit like our Angel of the North, I suppose. And this morning, we look at the first part of Ephesians chapter 4, where Paul begins to build on the foundation of the first three chapters. Today’s building block, then, is… A United People. And I’d like to look at verses 1-16 under five headings, all concerned with unity. I’ll be reading from the NIV throughout. First up, then, is…

Plea for Unity

At the time of writing, Paul is currently in prison in Rome because of his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, his focus is not primarily on himself, but on the Lord whom he serves and the church whom he loves. He opens up chapter 4 like this…

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Who is the “you” that he addresses? Originally, it’s the Christian church at Ephesus but it also includes all those, down through the ages to the present day and beyond, who profess to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. “I urge YOU”, he says, “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

But what is this calling that, as Christ-followers, we have received? The calling is to be united to Christ. But there’s more. We’re to live a life worthy of this calling. In other words, we’re to live in such a way that our attitudes, words and behaviour appropriately reflect our unity with Christ. And this should spill over into our relationships with our brothers and sisters in the church. Paul refers to this later on as keeping ‘the unity of the Spirit’. But how do we do this? Well, thankfully, Paul comes to our aid and lists several…

Characteristics for Unity

Listen to verse 2…

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  Humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance or tolerance, and love. These are the qualities we all need to cultivate if we’re to have any chance of maintaining unity with each other. But, hold on a minute… What’s the big deal concerning unity? Does this mean we lose our individuality and end up being cardboard cut-outs of each other? Ah, don’t confuse unity with uniformity. Uniformity refers to sameness, but unity refers to oneness. Listen to how Jesus prays to the Father in John 17… He’s praying for all those down through the ages who will believe in him – and that includes you if you are one of his followers. Jesus is praying to his Father and says…

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:22-23, NIV).

Unity means oneness. And it obviously matters to the Lord Jesus that those who follow him are of one heart, mind and will in their commitment to him and to one another. It must truly grieve the heart of God when his people divide into warring factions, often falling out over trivial issues, or bearing personal grudges. Unity means oneness – and this oneness shows itself when we “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (verse 3). You see, the oneness of Christian believers is already a spiritual reality. It’s been brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But we have an ongoing responsibility to maintain or preserve that unity. And we do this through what Paul calls ‘the bond of peace’. A bond can mean something that holds other things together, for example, glue bonds one item to another. And the bond here in the letter to the Ephesians is peace. Peace is the glue that bonds Christian believers – the church – together so they can live in unity with each other. Peace can do this because God the Father is the God of peace; Christ the Son is the Prince of Peace; one aspect of the Holy Spirit’s fruit is peace; and the good news is the gospel of peace. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

But if we’re to be united with each other, we need to know what unites us, yes? Again, Paul comes to our aid and outlines the…

Basis of Unity

He does this by referencing seven spiritual necessities. Do you remember Disney’s Jungle Book, where Baloo sings about ‘the simple bare necessities of life’? Perhaps we can say the Apostle Paul draws our attention to ‘the seven bare necessities of faith’. And it’s these ‘bare necessities’ that need to be in place if there’s to be unity between all genuine followers of Jesus Christ. Verses 4-6 tell us what these are…

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Well, Paul certainly appreciates the importance of ‘oneness’ when it comes to unity! Let’s look at these seven ‘ones’ more closely…

One body: this is the one body of Christ, the world-wide church, to which all of his followers belong. So, we’re not only brothers and sisters of each other in the local church that we attend, but we also belong to what the children’s song calls ‘the big family of God’ – one body. Then there’s…

One Spirit: the same Holy Spirit lives in each follower of Christ. We’re not indwelt by different holy spirits – there is only one Spirit.

One hope: every Christ-follower has the common hope of a future eternity with him. And this is not a wishful thinking kind of hope. We saw a few weeks ago in chapter 1 that this one hope is guaranteed by the one Holy Spirit. And if all of us as Christ-followers have this hope, and we will all share this eternal future together, does it not make sense to live in unity now?

One Lord: our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one Lord whom every Christian believer is to worship, obey and serve wholeheartedly. Acknowledging Christ’s lordship goes a long way towards spiritual unity among his people.

One faith: this is the one settled body of truth that Christ gave to the church, referred to in the New Testament book of Jude as ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people’. Yes, there’s room for differences of opinion among Christians, but to depart from the basic tenets of this faith is to invite disunity in the church.

One baptism: what’s that referring to? Well, listen to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13. He says this… ‘For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body…’ I suggest the one baptism listed in Ephesians 4 is linked to this and is probably the baptism of the Spirit where he immerses us in Christ, unites us to Christ, at the moment we place our trust in him. And finally…

One God and Father: as believers belonging to one family, we love and serve the same God and Father. As such, we ought to live in unity with each other, and sometimes, like our biological family, this will involve a bit of ‘give and take.’

Well, so far, I’ve looked at Paul’s plea for unity; I’ve considered the characteristics for unity; and I’ve examined the basis of unity – the seven ‘ones’. And this oneness involves unison or what’s sometimes referred to as singing from the same hymn sheet, if you like. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we all sing the same notes. Now, when musicians sing or play together, they sometimes introduce harmony – different notes that are not discordant but produce a richness that can’t be achieved by singing or playing only in unison. Likewise, unity in the church is made up of both unison and harmony. So where does this harmony come from? We find it in the next few verses where we’ll consider…

Gifts for Unity

I wonder how many of you enjoy receiving gifts. There’s something exciting about unwrapping presents that friends or family have bought for us. I must tell you a story… Not long after we were married, James discovered I loved opening presents. So he thought he’d make it more fun for me by wrapping my presents in several packages which would give me more to open. Sounds good, until I found myself opening a very nice electrical appliance and then, in another package, was the cable to go with the appliance, and in yet another package was the plug to go with the cable… I’m not sure these multiple ‘gifts’ did very much for unity between us!

Well, in verses 7-12, we discover some things Christ has given to the church. Verse 7…

7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. Every one of his followers has received some degree of favour from him as a gift. What else has he given to the church? Verse 8…

8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” In this context, ‘captives’ refers to people who were once held captive by the enemy of their souls, the devil, but have now been captivated by the awesomeness and loveliness of Christ. And to such people, you and me, he gives gifts – spiritual gifts – in order to build up the church. Verse 11…

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…  We can view these gifted people as forming the leadership, or foundation, of the church. And it seems from what Paul writes here that part of their responsibility is, verse 12…

12 to equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up… I remember my mother and one of her friends discussing a young man who was about to enter bible college. “He’s been called to the ministry”, said one of them. But, you know, as Christ-followers, we are ALL called to the ministry! Not necessarily the ministry of preaching or pastoring but, nevertheless, if we know Jesus Christ as our Saviour and our Lord, we have all been gifted by the Holy Spirit for some kind of ministry. You see, you are not some irrelevant cog in the church wheel – God has gifted you, he’s gifted me – in different ways, yes… But he’s gifted us, listen carefully, he’s gifted us to play a very necessary part in building up the body of Christ, the church – whether it’s upfront or behind the scenes. And, according to verses 11 and 12, one of the tasks of the leaders of the church is to equip God’s people for ministry, for works of service. Now, in the original language, the word used here for ‘equip’ found its way into medical jargon where it referred to realigning a dislocated limb so that it would fit properly with all the other parts of the body. So, when Paul speaks here about leaders in the church equipping God’s people for works of service, he may well be saying they are to identify where in the body of Christ – the church – realignment needs to take place. And then have the vision to bring each part of this body into a right relationship with every other part. Why? Verse 12 again. “…so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Okay, I’ve looked at the Apostle Paul’s plea for unity; characteristics for unity; basis of unity; and gifts for unity. And now I’m going to wrap it all up by spending a few minutes on…

Growth of Unity

Paul has been writing about the body of Christ, the church, being built up – and then concludes this amazing section in verses 13-16. There’s a lot in these verses so I’m just going to highlight four words or phrases that, hopefully, will help us get the drift of what Paul is saying here. I suggest he’s giving us evidence of what unity actually looks like as it grows and develops. Here then are some of the marks of the growth of unity in the church. Verse 13…

“… 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.”

The mark of growth in this verse is Christ-likeness. People sometimes ask what God’s purpose for them might be. Perhaps you’ve even wondered this about your own life. Well, whatever other purpose he might have for us, the bottom line is that his purpose is that we become like Christ (Romans 8:29; 1 John 2:6). And we can’t do this on our own – we need the Holy Spirit’s help, but also the help of each other. As members of Christ’s body, the church, to what extent do we help each other to become more like him? Verse 14…

“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 people in their deceitful scheming.”

The mark of unity here is stability. Unity in the church grows when we’re firmly established in the principles and practice of the faith, standing together on Christ, the solid rock. Another mark of growing unity is seen in verse 15…

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

This verse highlights the importance of speaking the truth in love. If we want to see growth of unity in this fellowship, it’s vital that both truth and love exist, and continue to exist, together. One without the other just doesn’t cut it. And finally…

“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.”

We see in this verse the significance of co-operation. EVERY follower of Jesus has an important part to play in the growth of unity in the church. EVERY follower. And again, this growth is to take place in an atmosphere of love. No wiggle room allowed.

When the builders of the Angel of the North laid its foundations, they didn’t intend their work would stop there. Their intention all along was to build a structure that would be visible from various vantage points. Actually, the Angel is viewed by 90,000 people every day as they visit it and also drive past on the AI. In the same way, when the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians, he didn’t intend to stop once he had laid the theological foundations of chapters 1-3. No, his goal was to use these foundations as biblical support for how the people of God, the church, ought to live. And like the Angel of the North, the church (that is, you and me), the church is visible to many, many people. I wonder what they see when they look at the people who make up this particular church… Do they see a group of individuals who are passionate about unity, who display the necessary characteristics for unity, who are immovable when it comes to adhering to the basis of unity, who are using their spiritual gifts in such a way as to promote unity, and who are growing more and more into a people marked by unity who increasingly display Christ-likeness, are firmly established in the principles and practice of the faith, are speaking the truth in love, and are willing to play their part in the life of the church by cooperating with each other? Let’s commit to being a united people – called and equipped by God himself.