08/05/2018 Sermon

Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
August 5, 2018

The Bond of Peace
Ephesians 4:  1-16

The first 3 chapters of Ephesians, some of whom you have heard sermons on very recently, are dedicated to making clear what God is doing in the church, and making clear how it is God is present and active here!  And the last 3 chapters of Ephesians, into which we venture this morning, are dedicated to showing us what human beings are to do to rightly participate in the work of the living and active God who is present in Christ’s church.  And our participation in God’s church requires that we are deliberate about walking the path of spiritual growing up into the head, who is Christ.  That’s what the church is for, to provide the conditions that are vital for our becoming more like the Savior so that we can participate in God’s life in such a way that we “become what we eat.”  That is a communion metaphor, but it also describes the destination to which the path we are on in this church is designed to lead.

This morning’s scripture begins with Paul, from prison, begging those for whom he has been entrusted to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called.”  Such a life, according to Paul, would involve grounding all their interactions with others in “all humility and gentleness, with patience”, as we “bear with one another in love”, while “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Those are the marks, Paul says, of the spiritually mature; people who are no longer children, blown about by people’s trickery, craftiness and deceitful scheming” because they have learned to “speak the truth in love” and so have grown up to the point that they work properly in the roles for which they have been gifted in the church.  Roles like apostle, evangelist, pastor, teacher, elder, deacon, greeter, youth leader, youth team participant, Sunday school teacher, ELL volunteer…….we could go on, but you get the point.  What Paul is clear on is that, when people like this are working together properly, they do nothing but promote spiritual growth in the body by, with wisdom, doing what is needed to support everyone in the body in building themselves, and thus their community up in love.

In other words, God has called us all into Christ’s church for one reason and one reason only; in order that we may support one another in getting better at loving God, others and ourselves.  And this purpose the Church fulfills has become more important as our culture has become more base and crass.  As Eugene Peterson says it in his commentary on Ephesians, Practicing Resurrection, “the prevailing culture of America in the 21st century does not offer auspicious conditions for growing up.  Maturity is not the hallmark our culture.  Instead, our culture is conspicuous for its obsession with “getting and spending.”  Instead of an emphasis on becoming more, we either get more or do more.  So it is not surprising that many people are offering to sell us maps for living better than we are without having to grow up:  maps to financial security, sexual gratification, music appreciation, athletic prowess, a better car, job, education or vacation.

As it turns out,” Peterson continues, “these maps never get us where we wanted to go:  the more we get and do, the less we are.  We regress to the condition of children, blown about by every wind of doctrine, and by people’s craftiness and deceitful scheming.  (Ephesians 4:14)  It is hard to know,” Peterson finishes, whether things have gotten worse since Paul wrote, but with the multi-billion dollars spent every year every year in America to fund “trickery” and “craftiness in deceitful scheming in business, entertainment and government, and, most distressingly, the church, it is certainly not getting any better.  Paul has something quite different in mind for us.”

“The reality is,” however, “that there are no maps to the mature life, and certainly not to the mature life in Christ.  Growing up involves an assimilation of nothing less than everything, the ‘all’ to the ‘one.’ The ‘all’ of parents, biology, schooling, neighborhood, worship, Scripture, friends, prayers, disappointments, accidents, injuries, songs depression, politics, money, sin, forgiveness, occupations, play, novels, children poems, marriage, suicides – and the ‘one’ of God, also referred to four times in Ephesians as ‘the fullness’ (pleroma): Creator, Son and Spirit.”[1]

That’s the reason to bother with church and all its messy humanity; because in the midst of that messy humanity that is as present in the church as it is in the world, God is working in and through all of us, and among us, for God’s good pleasure.  And that good pleasure is that we would live into the image of God, that is, Christ, in which we have been created.  But in order to do that, we must train.  And training for anything, as I have said in the past is not easy.  But it is the path to excellence; excellence in being human, in this case.  And excellence in being human, for Christians, is defined in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Who dwells in the church and the world, but has promised to dwell in a special way in the church.

Much of what Peterson learned about growing up in Christ was provided by “the deeply lived and extensively pondered experience” of a Christian layperson, Baron Friedrich von Hugel.  He wrote multiple books, not on baptism or conversion or “being saved” or joining a church, but on what happens after that, which he thought much more important; more important in the way that a wedding is not as important as the deepening that happens, or not, over the course of a lived out marriage.  In his writings “a constant note that is insistently sounded, is that the road to a life of maturity is not a ‘yellow brick road.’  Instead, it involves considerable difficulties that cannot be bulldozed away.  This portion of a letter written to his niece is thematic:

“When at eighteen, I made up my mind to go into moral and religious training, the great soul and mind who took me in hand – a noble Dominican – warned me – “You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ?  Well, you will grow in and attain these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, mountain step – plod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth.  All demand for constant light ……all attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling.”[2]

When I was interim director of youth and families at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, my office was the old sermon writing hideaway of two previous pastors, both of whom served Highland for over 20 years.  There was a brick that was used to hold open the door in that office that had a message cross stitched on it.  The message stated simply and boldly that the one seeking to hold open the door, if only to save himself or herself from the stultifying heat that the ancient radiators always put out in the winter, was, most certainly, “a prisoner for the Lord” as we are told Paul was when he wrote this morning’s scripture.   I think about my ancestors in faith and vocation and I think about them laughing, or crying, as they put the brick in the door each week.  Laughing or crying as they found themselves holed up in that overly hot room trying desperately to stand between time and eternity, to come up with a Word from God to speak to the human beings entrusted to their care and to speak a Word from those human beings to the God who loves them.  Talk about standing in a dangerous breach…….prisoners for the Lord indeed!  But, of course, as prisoners for God in Christ; also truly free.

What do I mean by that?  The parameters of Christian maturity Paul sets out in our scripture passage this morning, mean that to live into our belonging to Jesus, we must be remain as we can, by grace, within these parameters Paul sets out.  Our calling as Christians, as Paul says, requires that we take seriously the imperative to interact with others with “all humility and gentleness, with patience”, as we “bear with one another in love”, while “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  And we do all this so that we will grow in love and our ability to speak the truth to others in love.  Which is to do the opposite of  sweeping the inevitable disagreements that occur among us under the rug.   It also does not mean we will always succeed in remaining within the parameters set out above.  But neither do we act as if there do not exist parameters that govern our common life in the church.  And we come up with ways in which members in the body take steps to remind anyone who blatantly ignores these parameters of the goal we all share, the goal of growing up into Christ who is our head for the sake of Christ who loves us, each one, so much, for the sake of our church, for the sake of the world, and for our own sakes.   For our own sakes so that we can finally be free.  And I don’t mean free to do what we want.  That is not freedom as the gospel defines it, I mean so that we can be free to praise with our lives the one is Freedom itself.  So that we can become who we truly are, those children of a God who come from love and go to love and in the meantime are for love, and love alone.

But Nelson Mandela echoes the thoughts of Baron Von Bugel on the long struggle that still must be fought for true freedom.  He said, perhaps even at his inauguration as President of the newly minted South African Republic, “the truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, or better said, the right not to be oppressed.  We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road.  For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.  The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”

And so it is for us.  Here in this place.  For attending church does not in and of itself mean we get to enjoy the salvation one for is in Christ.  It is just from here that we are sure we may begin the toughest part of the journey.  The journey toward truly growing up.  The journey toward the bond of peace, who is Christ himself.  The journey that involves learning what it means, and what it costs, to not just worship the one who is our peace, but to strive to become a beacon of that peace here in time.

And yet we can only be that peace once we understand that peace is much less something we strive for, and much more something we are given as a costly gift by the Savior who loves us beyond all reason.  Or that peace is made manifest in the world in echoes by those who in turn learn to love the Savior beyond all reason, and as such, when they are graced, reflect that Savior back into the world?  What if the bond of peace in the church and the world is not something we construct, but, instead, Christ himself, present only by the power of the Spirit who blows where she will?  What if the bond of peace is not something we achieve, but, as Christ himself?  How might understanding Christ as our bond of peace change the way we relate to one another?  If we truly believed that Jesus Christ holds us together no matter what, that the covenant is real, might we grow in our ability to speak the truth to one another in love?  What if we chose not to think in terms of which people or factions in the church, community our country deserve our loyalty and started thinking, instead, about what it might look like if we ourselves focused on how to learn more than lip service to the Savior, but learned to give our souls and bodies to him, to that one and only savior who is peace himself?

A portrait of what that might look like may be found in the story of a family who understood the call to live under one Lord.  Whether this family professes faith in the Christ, or baptizes its children, I am not sure.  But, I know they live it.  Here is what happened.  A 12 year old Palestinian name Ahmed Khatib was killed in the West Bank city of Jenin by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for the real thing.  His death could have been just one more blip on the news.  Instead, the dead boy’s father, Ishmael Khatib, who by self admission had fought against the Jewish army, donated his son’s organs to the benefit of six other critically ill children.  He chose to do this at the worst possible time in any parent’s life.  But, at the time of the fatal shooting of his middle son, Ishmael, was able to set aside the sentiments which drove him to fight.  The full story is told on the PBS series “Wide Angle.”  The snippet is called the Heart of Jenin.  It tells the story of Ahmed’s tragic death and of his father Ishmael Khatib’s journey to visit all of the organ recipients two years later.[3]  One of the children Ishmael visits is the daughter of an Orthodox Jew.  At the time of his daughter’s surgery, when asked if he cared if the organ his daughter was receiving that would save her life were from an Arab or a Jew, said, “I would prefer it to be from a Jew.”  Bloggers commenting on the episode point out the fact that attitudes such as these are, unfortunately, rampant on both sides of the conflict over Palestine.  Later in the film, the Jewish child’s father does receive Ahmed Khatib, and offer him a gift of gratitude for his decision to donate his child’s kidney.  Meanwhile, Ishmael, the father of the dead child, being unable to find work in Jenin as he was trained, as a car mechanic, opens a center for peace for children.  He comments that he sees his son, Ahmed, in each of the children he visits, and in all of those at his center for peace.  He sees Ahmed in the Druze girl who sends gifts back to the Palestinian children at the peace center in Ahmed’s name, in the beautiful daughter of the Orthodox Jew, and in the Israeli Arab named Mohammed.

I offer this story about Ahmed Khatib and his decision to donate his son’s organs to critically sick children regardless of cultural and ethnic background as a suggestion of what it might looks like to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, into he who is our bond of peace – into he 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.   At the table spread before us, peace nourishes us on Himself.  Let us gather around the table and eat of the bounty of God that is poured out here for our sakes.  We are invited here by Jesus Christ, who is the bond of peace to whom every last one of us belongs.

May our prayer be that it is true what they say.  That we really are what we eat, and that we shall, by grace, become Him.  Amen.


Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
August 5, 2018
Louisville, KY

[1] Peterson, Eugene.  Practicing Resurrection.  William B. Eerdmann, Grand Rapids, MI.  2010.  Pgs. 179-180.
[2] Peterson, Eugene.  Practicing Resurrection.  Pg 184.
[3]  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/heart-of-jenin/videofull-episode/5120