Sunday, August 5, 2018
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13)
Building Up the Body
God of the lowly and the mighty, you know the ugliness of your people when we harm and destroy one another, yet you offer us forgiveness of our sins if we but turn to you. Expand our hearts to receive the mercy you give us, that, in turn, we may share your grace and mercy with others each moment of our lives. Amen.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making 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. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." (When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until 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. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a with Psalm 51:1-12 or
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 with Psalm 78:23-29
1. What are the "Caesars" operating in our culture?
2. What did you used to remember and need to un-forget?
3. What's the difference between childish and child-like faith?
4. What does it mean to "walk in the footsteps" of Jesus?
5. What is the "biggest" hope of your heart?
by Kate Matthews
Paul (or one writing in his name) writes the Letter to the Ephesians from jail to the church beyond prison walls, exclaiming, "How blessed is God! Long before [God] laid down earth's foundations, [God] had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of [God's] love, to be made whole and holy by [God's] love" (Ephesians 1:4; see Eugene Peterson's beautiful and easy-to-understand version of this entire letter in The Message).
These elegant words, from the first chapter of the epistle, set the stage appropriately for Paul's exhortation from jail to the church that walks free and empowered, not only long ago but today, in our time and in every setting of the church: Be reconciled, be one, be strong, strive to be worthy of your calling!
Called to be one
Our passage today is a moving reminder to us in the United Church of Christ of who we are, and who we are called to be as followers of Jesus, to understand "what we are living for." Within our own congregations and within our denomination, we are called to be one, to be reconciled, to be strong, to strive to be worthy of our calling.
And yet we are called to seek that same unity across congregational and denominational lines, too, to reach out to our Christian sisters and brothers and to find common ground, common hope, common calling. All of this is to bear witness to the loving God who "laid down the earth's foundations," thinking of us, focusing an immeasurable love on us, intending for us to be whole and holy through the power of that love.
God is working through us
That power doesn't come from within us as our own resolve or determination or intelligence. This wasn't our great idea; it's God's dream for us. This dream won't happen because we make it happen; God is bringing it to fulfillment. We simply participate--or not--in the great unfolding of God's plan for the world.
This is, indeed, really good news: God's own power "at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20, last week's Epistle reading), so we never need to feel overwhelmed or overpowered, because God's power is limitless and it's at work within us, always. We may think we dream big and aspire for great things, but God's power is already working towards a dream far bigger and greater than anything we've thought of or imagined.
What an incredible statement that is, and it sets up today's reading, which begins with such a significant "therefore": "I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been calledÖ"(4:1 NRSV).
Called to remember, or rather, to un-forget
Paul's exhortation is rooted in all that he has laid out, including the amazing illustration, as he sees it, of the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, bridging the gap so that Gentiles "have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (3:6 NRSV).
Reconciliation calls us to remember, to recall, to "un-forget" that we are one, deep down, that there is one body and one Spirit and one hope, and that all our divisions and discord are marks not of God, or of God's dream for us, but of human failing, human pride, human striving against that dream.
Years ago, I read that the word anamnesis, which means recalling or remembering, can also be translated as "un-forgetting," and that does sound more fitting when we look closely at the word itself, and connect it with "amnesia," or loss of memory. Often, it feels as if we once knew something deep in our souls but our heads have forgotten it, or we have forgotten to live our lives by its truth, and we need to "un-forget."
Learning to walk the talk
Our reading from Ephesians is a good illustration of how important it is to "walk the walk" in addition to "talking the talk." In fact, Carl R. Holladay says that the phrase "lead a life" in Paul's exhortation is a translation of the Greek for "walk," so walking the walk is a good way to imagine and embody our call as Christians.
How easy it is to think that talking and proclaiming are all there is to it! How much more difficult it is to live a life worthy of our calling, in humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. Very little in our culture today exhorts, supports, or even permits us to lift up such virtues when the goal of life is to acquire everything we can and to get ahead of everyone else.
Perhaps that brings home best the clear difference in Paul's claim that Jesus is our one Lord, for, as John Dominic Crossan says in much of his work, "If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not." "Caesar" today may be materialism and greed, militarism and violence, pride and self-righteousness, as individuals and as communities, too. All of these things, Paul would say, are unworthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Embodying the prayer of Jesus
Given our growing appreciation of the richness of our diversity, perhaps it is a challenge at the same time to tend to a deep and abiding unity in the midst of that diversity, the unity to which we are called by God. The United Church of Christ, for example, has historically strived to more fully embody Jesus' prayer that we all may be one, even while respecting the very different theologies and experiences that thrive within our church. How might these diversities actually lead to deeper unity and more profound beauty?
We might think of a bouquet of flowers, which can contain simply one kind of flower, or perhaps better, it may be an arrangement, a spilling-over of many different flowers. It is still one bouquet, and one beauty, even if the flowers are of many different colors, sizes and shapes. In the same way, there are many different, wonderful and often-overlooked gifts thriving in the beauty of each congregation and in the whole United Church of Christ. How does it feel to be one of the saints being equipped for ministry?
Childlike not childish faith
Do you think of childlike faith as a good thing? If so, how can we also, as Paul exhorts us, "grow up in every way"? One example of such "growing up" may be in our approach to Scripture, taking the time to study and learn how to read it as an adult--with, as Marcus Borg suggested, "post-critical naivete" (see his books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time).
Perhaps one of the most challenging phrases in this rich reading is "speaking the truth in love." How is the truth spoken in your church? How often is "the truth" in Christianity spoken with judgment, resentment, and anger? The virtues mentioned earlier in this letter (humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance) make us more skilled at speaking the truth in love, and such love and truth may lead us to greater unity.
How much do we dare ask or imagine?
Several years ago, the stewardship theme of the United Church of Christ was taken from the Ephesians text preceding today's reading: "Far More than All We Can Ask or Imagine." How does a text like this reading from the letter to the Ephesians lead us to greater commitment to our local church, to the wider church, and to the spiritual discipline--or gift--of generosity as an expression of that commitment?
What amazing things--beyond your imagination--is God accomplishing in love through the generosity of the members and congregations of the United Church of Christ? How does the passion found in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians free us to greater giving and to greater hope?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Gwendolyn Brooks, 20th century
"We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."
Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
"Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here."
Margaret Fuller, 19th century
"Harmony exists no less in difference than in likeness, if only the same key-note govern both parts."
Joan Chittister, 21st century
"In community we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. It is in community where we find out who we really are....It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it."
William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
"Human unity is really less something we are called on to create than simply to recognize and make manifest."
David J. M. Coleman, 20th century
"Christian community is a 'thin place.' Time and space matter less than the solidarity of God with us, and between those who share God's calling."
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, 21st century
"I believe in the power of a loving community to render miracles."
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 4th century
'The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.'
H.G. Wells, Love and Mr. Lewisham, 20th century
"There's truths you have to grow into."
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