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Sunday, November 15, 2020
What is church supposed to do or supposed to be? There are so many ways this question could be answered! There are enough books about church to fill libraries. You might come to church for a specific reason. Maybe it’s vague. You couldn’t say why, exactly. Either way, you’re here or watching on Facebook or YouTube. “Church is” [blank]. You could answer, give your view, whatever your view is.
Then, we go to the next person one row over, or someone right there with you, someone in your own family, and their answer isn’t identical to yours. Whether you’re a lifelong church attendee, seminary-trained, or an unbeliever who rarely darkens the church’s door, you could give your own thoughts. “Church is … .”
This message is not about church, but it is valuable to think what church is supposed to be. This message is not about church, racial strife, the election, or the pandemic. We have preached, prayed, and talked about those topics for months. The Spirit and the scripture lead us to this realization: no matter what is happening in our lives or in the world, we must constantly grow in Christ.
The New Testament book of Ephesians is the place to turn for insight into what it means to grow in Christ, and understand what the church is supposed to do and be. Ephesians 4, teaches a beautiful idea that sadly, has been terribly misused in sermons and discourses by many well-intentioned pastors, including me. Speak the truth in love, Ephesians 4:16.
Pastors, eager to condemn humble church goers in their sin, have leaned on this phrase as they harangue Sunday morning crowds with condemnation. Are you in the wrong marriage or the wrong kind of marriage? I’ll let you know and do so with force. Pastor, how could you step on their toes so roughly? ‘I was speaking the truth in love.’ Have you made a lifetime of mistakes? Have you voted the wrong way? Have you spent your money in the wrong way? Is there some category into which I can fit you and thus objectify you? Pastor, lighten up. I can’t. ‘I must speak the truth in love.’
Don’t get me wrong. We must all speak the truth in love, pastors, Christians, Christ followers, all of us. That doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to hammer people and expect them to come crawling and weeping to the cross in repentance. If people come to Jesus on their knees, it ought to be because they have been convicted in the heart by the Holy Spirit, not bullied by a persuasive, fiery preacher. “Speak the truth” in love is not code for “Hit’em hard! Drop truth bombs on ‘em. Make ‘em squirm.” That’s not what ‘speak the truth in love’ means.
Christians and especially pastors must deal with sin truthfully, forcefully, and most importantly Biblically. But, here’s a truth bomb, from this same chapter, Ephesians 4, verse 2. We are called to “bear with one another in love” with patience, humility, and gentleness. Gentleness! However energetically we want to confront people with truth, we must also heed the Biblical call to gentleness.
Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Galatians 5:23: along with kindness and generosity, gentleness is listed as fruit of the spirit; gentleness is produced when the Spirit is at work in the church. And in 1 Corinthians 4:21, Paul asks the church, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” The next time you’re sensing in yourself the need to “speak the truth in love,” pause; take a breath. And remember the New Testament mandates gentleness. If speaking the truth in love is not using the Bible to throttle people, then, what does it mean?
We’ve referred to Ephesians 4:2, bearing with one another in love, with humility, gentleness, and patience. This sentiment leads into a dramatic call to unity. Of course, this unity is not American unity or unity in any nationality. It’s unity among the people who make up the body of Christ, the people of the church. Unity is an ultimate value in Christ.
Listen to Ephesians 4:4-6. “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.” This echoes the prayer of Jesus at the last supper recorded in John 17 (v.23). Jesus asks God the Father to help his disciples and the subsequent generations of churches birthed from their witness worldwide to be one. He prays that our unity as brothers and sister in Him will be as tight as the unity in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. Unity – based on who Jesus is and who we are in him, is an ultimate value.
Ephesians goes on to talk about spiritual gifts, but the list here, is different than the spiritual gift lists found in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 in that, all the gifts listed here are leadership related: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. More important than reciting a list is grasping what these church leaders are for. Verse 12: they are “to equip the saints [worshipers] for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.”
Unity is the responsibility of everyone in the church. We who have been called to leadership are tasked with encouraging, teaching, inspiring, training, cajoling, and prompting church members into living into their callings according to their gifts, experiences, personalities, and opportunities. Ephesians 4:13 sets the scope of church life. We leaders are to equip Christians “until all of us come to unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of the God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Obviously, we’re talking about lifelong work. I have not attained the full stature of Christ. Too many times in my own life, I yield to my short temper and sharp tongue instead of speaking and acting as Jesus would in my place. Because I fail to be gentle, I need daily forgiveness, countless second chances to love rightly and lead well and encourage others. I, broken as I am, stand as one of the pastors appointed to train all in the church to come to unity, grow in faith, and finally reach the full stature of Christ. I need to constantly improve in acting as Jesus would in my place and helping others do the same. All leaders have this call to train the saints – elders, deacons, church officers; all leaders.
Ephesians 4:14 notes why this matters so much. The world around us, cut off from God’s promises and indifferent to God’s ways, as it is, will tempt us in 1000 ways to live as if God didn’t matter. The world respects, self-promotion, and sneers at self-sacrifice. Thus, verse 14, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, [or] by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Advertising aimed at selling you a product you don’t need in order to live into an image that’s not true; political posturing to get you to vote for a candidate who says he’s looking out for your best interests, but really isn’t; temptations from friend and peers to do things you know you shouldn’t but do them for the sake of social status; a thousand ways we are taken by lies and deceptions. As we grow in Christ, we are responsible for keeping our eyes on Christ and resisting temptations and turning back false teaching.
So the teaching, speak the truth in love, rooted in unity, is an imperative from God to us, showing us how to live out our faith. Commitment to unity and resistance to unchristian speech, belief, and practice, join together in this word.
Consider the entirety of verse 15. “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Christ.” Verse 16 then ties it all together. This Christ, in whom we must grow, joins and knits the entire body – the church – together by every “ligament.” Each ligament is someone in the church. Everyone is equipped and [when working properly] “promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
The message then is growth. In our individual lives we grow in Christ. Through study and worship, through devotional practices and mission and ministry participation, we grow. We grow as we learn to see the world from Christ’s perspective. His values become ours. Our reactions to things – elections, pandemics, neighbors who offend us – our reactions are determined by Christ, not our emotions.
The message is growth. Collectively we make up the body of Christ. As the church grows in love, service, hospitality, and vibrant worship and inclusiveness, we more and more reflect the image of Christ. The watching world looks to us, see Christ, and is drawn to Him. We’d love for that to mean growth in the number of people in our church, but our commitment is to grow in holiness and love.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the embodiment of perfect love. Every person needs relationship with him. Every single one needs the forgiveness received through belief in his death and resurrection. When we reflect Jesus, teach Jesus, and love as he loves, then we are speaking truth. The closer we get to Jesus, the more unified we are. We know the church is where we meet Jesus. Church. We know that’s what we need. And we know that’s who we need to be.