December 16, 2001
A MATURING COMMUNITY
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
All caring parents long for their children to grow up and become responsible men and women. Along the way, they look for certain signs and indications that such growth is in fact taking place. Are their children developing healthy and meaningful relationships? Are they learning to organize their time and accomplish certain tasks? Is there increasing evidence of focus and a sense of direction? Are the children demonstrating ever-widening responsibility? When these signs and indications emerge, we parents feel a sense of assurance and satisfaction. When they are noticeably absent, however, caring parents understandably grow concerned.
Paul often reveals a certain parental bent, and it certainly comes through here in Ephesians 4. As in many of his epistles, Paul devotes the opening section of this letter to exploring various theological issues. In chapters 1-3, he discusses the formation of the church as a new community in which both Jews and Gentiles share equally in Gods blessings. He explores the role of Jesus Christ in establishing this new community, and he further describes the unique nature of the community itself. In bringing the opening half of Ephesians to a close, Paul pronounces a benediction of sorts:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
But for Paul, amen doesnt necessarily mean the end. On the contrary, he generally follows such a theological discussion with a call for action, and the epistle to the Ephesians is no different. As we move into chapters 4-6, therefore, we encounter Pauls expectations for his readers. Given this, Paul reasons, I beg you to do this. Paul, according to 4:13, clearly hopes that these people will push on to spiritual adulthood. Rather than their remaining infants in the faith, Paul imagines a maturing community.
But what does Paul see as he imagines this maturing community? First, he envisions in verses 1-6 a gathering of believers who affirm the importance of the group. With alarming redundancy Paul uses the term one: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. While we as individuals might be many, we are nevertheless members of the same team. A maturing community recognizes the importance of the group and seeks tenaciously to preserve unity within it.
Now of course Pauls comments here presuppose that differences do exist within the community, and that varying opinions and even conflicts do arise. I recall speaking at a church a few years ago, and after the service, an elderly man approached me for conversation. I dont quite rermember how the subject came up, but I do know that he told me about his marriage. My wife and I have been married for over 50 years, he said with obvious delight, and weve never had an argument. I typically weigh my words carefully, but on this occasion I blurted out without much thought, Wow, what a boring relationship that must be. Some of the most exciting times my wife and I have had, I continued, involved working through important differences. And it certainly is fun making up after disagreements. Fortunately, the man and I laughed together.
What is so bad about differing opinions? Who ever said that an argument about important things cannot be healthy? Can you even conceive of a group of people, be it a family or a church, who live together over a period of time without ever experiencing conflict? Why, there are any number of things that we can disagree about, and sometimes do, for that matter. We can disagree about worship stylewe all have our personal preferences. We may have conflicting opinions about various ministries and programs in the churchwhat we should do and when. We may not always see eye to eye on all theological issues, and the simple fact that there are so many personality types represented here virtually guarantees tension at times. Let me ask you a profound question. So what?
I dont mean to sound flippant, nor to minimize the significance of serious conflict. I do want to emphasize, however, that a maturing church is not one totally void of differences and tension. A maturing community is one in which the individual members recognize the inevitability of such differences and demonstrate an unwavering willingness to work at them in healthy and constructive ways. A maturing church is one in which the individual members show an increasing desire to seek the welfare of the whole rather than the fulfillment of their own personal agendas. I beg you, Paul writes, ...to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Just a few weeks ago, these words from one of you crossed my desk: As a senior citizen I worry about the gradual trend toward more contemporary music and the increasing use of guitars. Perhaps others of you feel the same way. But then this person added, I realize the young people like this type of music, and I see no spiritual reason to frown on it. I read that sentence several times, and then I said to the Lord, Thank you for people like this. Thank you for people who recognize the importance of the group. Thank you for people who are willing to set some of their own interests aside so that the church can embrace a host of others. I pray regularly that all of us, young and old, would be committed to doing just that.
As Paul continues to describe a maturing community, he secondly suggests that such a community recognizes the gifts of the group (vv. 7-13). Pauls list here is clearly illustrative rather than exhaustivethere are any number of gifts that might be included. What strikes me more than the gifts themselves are the implications of their being included here. God has given the church a variety of gifts to make possible spiritual maturity. All of the necessary components are cared for. The question, now, falls back on the manner in which the church will utilize these various gifts. In Pauls mind, those people who make up a maturing community not only exercise their own gifts, but also receive the gifts offered by others.
I shared with you in one of my earlier sermons here about the need for all of you to use your gifts with the church. If God has brought you among us, then you have a gift that could benefit this congregation. In the short time that I have been here, I suppose the most exciting moments center on watching you do this. A lot of you do a wide variety of things. In just the last few weeks, several of you have stepped up in invigorating ways. I received a telephone call from one of youyou were an hour from here talking on your cell phone!and you told me that you felt a keen desire to serve here at the Grantham Church. I enjoyed an invigorating lunch with a young couple a few days ago who asked, What can we do to help? Its exciting to see God-gifted people coming forward.
But Paul no doubt has another issue in mind here as well. The very fact that people are called to exercise their gifts presupposes that others within the community need those gifts. There are untrained people who need to be taught, so God provides teachers. There are ingrown people who need to look beyond themselves, so God provides evangelists. In order for this to happen effectively, then people need to place themselves under the ministries of others. What good are gifts if other people refuse to accept them?
In essence, Paul invites his readers to recognize the various areas in their own lives where they still need assistance, and to take advantage of the resources made available in the community. Be teachable, open-minded, eager to grow and to learn. Listen to those who know more about something than you do, and stop feeling as though you have to have your entire life together. The church isnt so much a museum to display saints, but a community to develop them. All of us have a great deal to learn, and all of us can learn from the people around us. There is a saying that is popular among some people who visit the Holy Land regularly. It goes like this:
The first time I visited the Holy Land, I wanted to write a book.
The second time I visited the Holy Land, I wanted to write an article.
After my third visit to the Holy Land, I did not want to write anything. I just wanted to listen.
Few things can do more to hinder genuine spiritual growth than either the attitude that you have already arrived and therefore know everything, or the feeling that you must put on a front and conceal your areas of weakness. God gives gifts to the church for building up the body of Christ. The people in a maturing congregation increasingly recognize the need both to share their own gifts as well as to receive the gifts that others bring.
Finally, Paul envisions the goal of a maturing community in verses 14-16. Members of a maturing church sets their collective sights on growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,... This goal, in Pauls mind, provides a sense of rootedness, stick-to-it-iveness, and determination. This goal provides us with both a common journey and a common destination. This goal, becoming more Christlike, is what should drive us.
Some years ago, R. A. Knox likened this image of growing up into him who is the head to the actual physical development that all people go through. At birth, a babys head is disproportionately larger than the rest of the body. Do you remember some of your embarrassing baby pictures?!? Through time, the rest of the body, if properly nourished and cared for, catches up. So it is with the body of Christ. Jesus, the head, is disproportionately greater and holier and loving and gracious than are his followers. Maturing churches recognize this, and in response they focus their attention on becoming like the head.
Now again, the fact that Paul emphasizes so clearly this seemingly self-evident goal presupposes that some among his listeners have not yet grasped it. There are those, for example, who are too easily enticed and persuaded by theological nonsense. Their sense of balance is disrupted every time some new teaching or experience comes down the pike. All you have to do is channel surf through the vast array of religious broadcasts or visit your local bookstore to get a glimpse of our contemporary smorgasbord of doctrines and teachings. Rather than concentrating their energies on genuine spiritual growththe kind that requires time, discipline, and a firm commitment to a body of believerssuch people move around like bubbles blowing in the wind. Sadly, they never quite know who and what to believe
Pauls manner of discussing this goal, however, suggests that he has other people in mind as well. Some people, many in fact, consider piety and spirituality to be private matters. While corporate worship can be enjoyable and beneficial, they maintain, the nuts and bolts of growing in Christ are personal, between them and God. Not in Pauls mind. Spiritual growth, as this passage makes clear, is not simply a private affair. The goal of a maturing congregation is not so much isolated individuals becoming more Christlike, but the entire community doing the same. To that end, members of a maturing community consider everyones spiritual condition to be of the utmost importance. We speak the truth in love. We assist each other. We are, to answer Gods question to Cain, our brothers and sisters keeper.
Parents care deeply about their children, and they hope for them to grow up and become responsible and God-honoring people. I certainly pray for that every day. That same type of longing comes through here in Ephesians 4 as Paul, the parent, imagines what his spiritual children might become. And what does he hope to see? A maturing church that affirms the importance of the entire group, uses and receives its God-given gifts, and concentrates its energies on becoming like Jesus Christ. With Gods help, may we be such a church.