March 22, 2009

The Church: Gifted by Christ
Ephesians 4:7-16

Bill Cosby did a piece several years ago entitled “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” At one point near the beginning when Bill paints a picture of the scene—the small, broken bed and thin wall separating his and Russell’s room from their parents’ room—he refers to a long-standing tradition of the Cosby family. According to this tradition, the oldest child sleeps with the parents. At that point in time, Bill said, the tradition was still followed. He had a brother, 28, still sleeping with his parents! Every night, Mom and Pop Cosby, in sheer desperation, sent the older brother out for pizza at 2:00 AM.

That’s weird. Certain parenting books encourage moms and dads to bring their babies into bed with them, and some couples choose to do that. But a 28-year-old? That’s abnormal. Parents want their children to grow up and move on. They want them to make good decisions, gain a measure of independence, make a valuable contribution to the world and, if they are Christians, serve faithfully in the Kingdom of God. That is largely what parenting is all about, isn’t it? Protecting, providing for and training children so that they grow up. No healthy parents want their children remaining babies forever. Mine didn’t. They wanted me to grow up. Unfortunately, they died four years ago, so they never saw their wishes come to pass! “Give your children roots and wings”—that is the way Zambians phrase it.

God wants his children to grow up, too. Paul tells us as much here in Ephesians 4:7-16. Having laid out his understanding of God’s plan and vision for the church in Ephesians 1-3, Paul now expresses God’s desire—and his own—that churches everywhere grow up. If there is anything worse than watching a person act like a baby, it is watching an entire congregation act childish! Believe me, I know. I’ve gone with other members of various mediation teams into churches where the people were acting like babies, to put it plainly. Arguing over this. Fussing over that. Everyone wanting their own way. I’ve literally seen choir members in one congregation reading Sears catalogs in the front of the church during the pastor’s sermon as a way of expressing their disapproval of the direction in which he was attempting to take them! “Grow up,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t, at least not at that moment.

The question is, “How do churches grow up?” The answers, of course, are complex and dependant upon varying circumstances. Here in Ephesians 4:7-16, however, Paul sketches a basic plan to help congregations develop and mature. Let’s look at the plan together for a few moments.

Paul’s plan begins with a generous “Giver,” Jesus Christ. Christ, Paul points out in v. 15, is the head of the church, the head from which the entire body draws its life and meaning. As the head of the church, Christ has given to the church everything it needs to function and flourish. Note the gist of v.7. Each of us—every one of us—was given special grace in proportion to the measure of Christ’s own gift. In so far as Christ gave up everything, including his very life, then the grace that he has given to us must be monumental indeed.

In further emphasizing Christ as the Giver, Paul calls our attention to a rather obscure verse in Psalm 68. Psalm 68 is a victory hymn celebrating God’s triumph over all of his enemies. In v. 18, the writer uses the common image of a victorious warrior to convey the impact of God’s marvelous deeds. Like a triumphant warrior climbing a pedestal—or an Olympic athlete mounting the winner’s stand—God ascends a high and lofty mountain. As he does, all of those who have benefited from his saving works—former captives—follow close behind. As God ascends this mountain, he in typical fashion receives gifts from the crowds looking on. Dancing with excitement, the people throw coins and other valuables at his feet.

In Ephesians 4: 8-10, Paul uses this same image with reference to Jesus, but with a remarkable twist. This same Jesus, who according to vv. 9-10 descended to the lowest recesses of the earth—“he took on flesh and dwelled among us”—ascended again to the very heights of heaven. When he did, captivity was itself conquered and freedom made possible for all. At this point, however, Paul defies the type-scene and throws in a surprise. Instead of receiving gifts from the celebrants, as one would expect, Jesus turns the table and becomes the gift-giver. As he climbs higher and higher into the heavens, Jesus, the victor, lavishes gifts upon all who watch and wait. Jesus Christ, Paul emphasizes, did not leave his followers ill-equipped and resourceless. On the contrary, he gives gifts to the church as liberally and completely as he gave of himself (v. 7).

Paul discusses, secondly, the specific “Gift” that Christ gave to the church. In such passages as Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists a wider variety of “gifts” than he does here. In this case, he refers specifically to selected leaders who serve within the church. Apostles were those who had seen the risen Lord and who had first-hand experience with him. Prophets were orators who brought special messages from God to the church. These first two roles were particularly important in the early church because the people did not yet have the New Testament in hand. Evangelists focused on the outward ministries of the church, ensuring that the good news of the Gospel never remained captive within church walls. Pastors oversaw congregational care, and teachers worked to instruct the believers in the ways of the Lord. If you pause and reflect on the various “gifts” listed here, you will readily note that all of the needs that any particular congregation might have are suitably addressed here, assuming that all of these roles are filled and operational. Christ did not leave any need unattended.

Importantly, Paul clarifies in v. 12 the overall function of these various leaders. In a sentence, the purpose of these people—the reason that Christ gave them to the church—is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,…” One can hardly overestimate the importance of Paul’s instructions here. At some point early in its history, the Church began to get this confused, even backward. When Christ did not return as quickly as many early believers expected and the church began putting down roots for the long haul, official roles began forming within congregations. Eventually, the influence of these “privileged” people sky-rocketed and the importance of ordinary people in the pews lessened. Out of this developed an unfortunate preoccupation with paid, professional clergy, like me.

Now, to be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with paid, professional clergy. It is right for the community to support people in the ministry and thereby enable them to serve in ways that others within the congregation cannot. A problem appears, however, when these professional pastors—when apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—become, not so much the equippers of the saints, but the doers of the work. It is a subtle but deadly shift that leaves congregations gasping for air and largely ineffective. Jesus gifts various church leaders to equip the church, not to do the work of the church. That is your job.

Think of a team model in the world of sports. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are rather like coaches, trainers and equipment managers. These people do much of the work behind the scenes, determine the schedule, oversee practices and make certain that the players themselves have what they need to succeed. Rarely, however, do these people play themselves. When Andy Reid was younger, he was a player like everyone else on the team. Now as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he never enters a game. Neither do any of the assistant coaches or the athletic trainers. They prepare and equip the team to play—that is their role. Imagine what the Eagles’ record would be if Andy, his fellow coaches, the trainers and equipment managers went out on the field against the Patriots or Steelers. Or even the Detroit Lions, who didn’t win a single game this past season! The players must get out on the field for the team to have any chance of success.

So it is in the church. There are those of us who are called, gifted and equipped to plan the schedule, develop practice routines and coach the team, but a church in which the leaders alone do the work of the ministry will either hang on by a thread or die altogether. Evangelists equip the body to take the Gospel outside of these walls, but it is your responsibility to share the good news with your neighbors and people you work with. Pastors train the body to care for itself—to visit the sick, provide meals, shoulder burdens, and speak the truth to one another, but it is up to all of you to carry such things out. And teachers work hard to ground the community in the richness of the Word, but it is up to you to live out this same Word in your everyday life. All of the work of evangelists, pastors and teachers is worthless, or nearly so, without players. All of it is fruitless if the players themselves either fail to exercise or refuse to enter the game.

Finally, Paul describes the “Goal”—the reason that Christ gave the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the church in the first place. He gave them in order that “…all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” He gave them, in other words, so that we, the church, would grow up and be like Christ. Apart from the preparation and coaching provided by such gifted leaders, the church remains a hapless group of children, running toward the wrong end zone or shooting at the opponent’s basket.

When selected leaders are doing their part and everyone in the congregation is involved in the ministries of the church, what results is a living organism such as the one described by Paul in vv. 15-16. Dependent on Christ and fully functional. In fact, as the body matures, it becomes, in a sense, self-nurturing (v. 16). It still depends on the head, of course. That never changes. But importantly, like older children helping their parents raise their younger siblings, maturing people in the church increasingly nurture the younger believers. The older kids watch out for the babies.

The goal of a maturing congregation, of course, has significant implications for all of us, leaders and congregants alike:
We need to depend on the generous Giver, Christ himself. He is the head of his body, and we must look to him for direction and strength.
For leaders, building up the body must always be at the forefront of our minds. When we plan our sermons, prepare our S.S. lessons, teach our classes, and lead our meetings, we must not only ask such questions as “Is this appropriate for the age group?” or “Will the group understand and connect with this?” but most importantly “Will this help build up the church?” “Will this assist the church in maturing into the likeness of Christ?” “Do our classes address the needs of the wider range of people in our congregation?”
For others in the congregation, Paul’s teaching here presupposes that the players get in the game and play. Teachers and other leaders are gifts from Christ for the building up of the church, but the work of the church falls on the shoulders of all of us. As a result, we must all ask ourselves such questions as, “Am I attentive and teachable?” “Am I sitting back and either watching and criticizing, or do I recognize that I have a role to play in carrying out the ministries of this congregation?” “Am I looking out for my younger siblings here in the church?”
Parents want their children to grow up. God does, too.