CBC – September 11, 2016
E Pluribus Unum
Sermon Text: Eph 4:1-13
Meditation/Preparation –All real saints are united to one another, and have communion among themselves. They form one body, are all united to Christ as their common head, and are partakers of one Spirit. They have all obtained like precious faith; and their faith, as to the leading doctrines of the gospel, is substantially the same. They are also united in love, which is called “the bond of perfectness.” So perfectly were the primitive Christians knit together by this bond, that they were “of one heart and of one soul”—Acts 4:32. There is nothing which our Saviour more earnestly inculcated upon his followers than mutual love; he represented it as the best proof to themselves, and the most decisive evidence to others, that they were his genuine disciples. … As the natural body consists of many members—some of superior, and others of inferior use, and each member is serviceable to its fellow-members, and contributes to the good of the whole—so the mystical body of Christ is composed of many members, endued with different gifts and graces; and the several members ought to be profitable to each other, and promote the benefit of the whole Church. – Robert Shaw, “The Reformed Faith:
An Exposition Of The Westminster Confession Of Faith,” (1845), ch. 26
1. The blessing of variety and difference in the church
2. The goal of unity among people of faith
3. The pathway of ministry and body-building
On every coin in your pocket (except maybe for the dime where the coin was too small for it to fit) and on your five-dollar bill are the words from which the title of this morning’s sermon come from. They’re words that summarize very nicely the message in this morning’s text of the 4th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. “Out of many, one.” They are on the Great Seal of the United States and they became the informal motto of the US until 1956, when Congress passed an act adopting "In God We Trust" as the official motto. These days the new motto may be falling on hard times. And the old motto is probably undergoing a popular re-conception. It used to refer to the many states giving rise to a single nation of United States. Today people probably think more of a melting pot of many cultures coming together to make up a single people or nation.
Either way, it’s a laudable expression of what Paul envisioned for a church of Jews and Gentiles, of people variously gifted as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, of Asians and Macedonians and Cappadocians and Mesopotamians, of young and old, of male and female, of slave and free, all coming together to be united in faith and knowledge of Christ.
That’s the compelling vision that Paul lays in front of the church’s eyes as the goal of all of our life and ministry as a church: many gifts, many members, focused on one Christ as one body. [rpt] Both elements of that vision are indispensable to God’s design for the life of the church. Leave either one out and the church is not living as God intended for us to live.
The church consists of many members who are each differently gifted. That is true of the local church, and it is true of the church universal. And it is true by design. The variety and the differences of many members contributing their various gifts is a means by which God means to bless the church. Leave any of that variety out and you may have something good that does one or more things well, but you no longer have the church.
Let’s think of some examples, just to illustrate the principle that variety and difference contribute by design to the blessing of the church as a whole.
Imagine that your family, instead of consisting of a mom and a dad and several kids and some grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, consisted of about five clones of you. Sameness everywhere. There might be some benefits of complete agreement about what to make for supper and what movie to watch and where to go on vacation – although I even have some arguments with myself about some of those things! But how boring and tedious and unproductive would a family like that be! No surprises, no new ideas, no spice of variety, no opportunities to learn and to grow, and of course, by nature, no children. Nothing but self-love. No agape. Not much blessing at all for any of the members of this family.
You can imagine other examples. An orchestra made up of nothing but piccolos or tubas or even first-part violinists. There might be a bit of beauty there. And sectional practices of piccolos alone or violins alone can be very helpful for perfecting a performance. But the fullest beauty of an orchestra needs instruments of multiple tones and ranges and other variety.
The variety and the differences of many members contributing their various gifts is a means by which God means to bless the church. Leave any of that variety out and you may have something good that does one or more things well, but you no longer have the church.
The men’s and women’s Bible studies are starting back up for the fall this week. These are good expressions of life in the church. In fact, “good” doesn’t quite capture it. These are outstanding opportunities and to be involved in something like them is indispensable not only for each individual who participates but for the church as a whole as well. If you’re not part of a Bible study or cell group for fellowship of some kind with like-minded people with whom you can build trust and accountability you should seriously and prayerfully consider becoming part of one of the studies that are listed in our bulletin calendar each week.
You need this, and the church needs this, but these are not by themselves the church. These that I’ve mentioned are for men or for women. Some of you are involved in studies at the college and they’re composed entirely of college-age students. Some of you are getting involved with the O.W.L.S. Each of these are a blessing and they’re good for the church, but they’re not by themselves the church and can’t substitute for the church either in our lives or in God’s design. God meant for the church to be made up of young and old, and to be made up of male and female together.
There are various ministries on campus that focus on discipleship or on evangelism or on Christian service to the community or on gathering to sing praise or on accountability or on apologetics or even on being a denominational presence on campus. These can all be good. These all have the strong potential to be a blessing to the life of the college. But nearly every person in those ministries is a person of college age. And nearly every person identifies with Hillsdale College, or in other contexts with Spring Arbor College or Jackson College or the U of M or MSU. We call these ministries “parachurch” because they serve alongside the church. It is a mistake to let them try to be the church for you.
Even Baptists are not the church. Neither are Methodists or Presbyterians or Anglicans or Roman Catholics or any other denomination by themselves the Church over which Paul says God is over all and through all and in all. When we say with the Apostles Creed I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church we are not confessing our belief in the Roman Catholic church. The word catholic means universal, and despite the claims of each denomination including the Roman church to embody the most faithful expression of the church universal, we all fall short of the truth to which we aspire and are not by ourselves the church universal over which Christ declares himself to be the head.
But even these many members of the church with their many particular gifts and differing sets of doctrines are for all our possible flaws and errors, a blessing to Christ’s church. Even in our differences and disagreements we in all our denominational fragmentation have been and appear still to be some expression of the design God had for his Church, just as we are in our age and gender and racial differences.
I often hear students object to me that Protestants can’t be under any blessing from God because they are so characterized by denominational pluralism. There are several blind spots in that reasoning.
First of all, there is as much unity within each of these Protestant denominations as there is within the particularity of the church of Rome or of Antioch or of Constantinople or any other historical division of the Christian church. And similarly one can find as much disagreement within and between each of those divisions as one finds within and between the denominations that make up historic Protestantism. So there is as much potential within any of those divisions of the church for God to bless as in any other. The closer we come to representing the truth of Christ within each one, the more potential for blessing there is. (So of course each one is going to imagine they have the most!)
But more importantly for Paul’s argument in our text this morning, Christ seems to have designed his church to consist of many members, including, it would appear from history, many denominations, because in our multiple giftedness the church universal experiences an important blessing of variety and difference. In the longest tradition of the church, stretching several centuries earlier than the time when various authorities began enforcing uniformity of doctrinal thinking on cities or states or empires, the church universal, in its efforts to adhere faithfully to apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ and his place in Israel’s covenantal tradition came to be composed of diverging communities and interpretations of that teaching, and even of which texts could be trusted to convey the teaching of the apostles and the prophets about Christ.
Some said Jesus was only a human that God adopted to be a Son the way Adam was a “son of God.” Others believed that Jesus was a divine spirit of God that just had taken over a human body but that his human body was only just an apparent form of his divine reality. The creeds we have today that confess the mystery that Christ was both fully God and fully human were the product of those divergent communities arguing with each other, disagreeing with each other, sharpening each other’s iron, pressing each other into the scriptures like the noble Bereans of Acts 17:11 who re-examined whatever they learned in light of the scriptures. The presence of differing, varying interpretations helped the church as a whole to come closer to truth in a manner that is very much like the manner in which science makes progress today by the challenges of new hypotheses arising from fresh perspectives on the evidence, unhampered by authoritative protections of the alleged certainties of the past.
The objection I often hear as a Protestant Prof runs like this:
1. Christ in Scripture calls us to unity
2. The Protestant church is full of factions and disunity
3. Ergo, the Protestant church is unfaithful to scripture
That argument suffers from an understanding of unity that does not seem to me, itself, to be faithful to scripture or to the longer, greater tradition of the church. It substitutes an imposed uniformity for the biblical conception of unity that I hear Paul striving for in this text in Ephesians.
Biblical unity is not uniformity, except of a common faith in Christ. Biblical unity is not conformity, except with (what v.13 calls) “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Biblical unity is a common resolve to pursue together that faith and knowledge of the Son of God so that we are united in “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism,” in one body and one Spirit, called to one hope.
Do you hear how Paul expresses this? Unity is a call. Unity is something to attain to. Unity is a goal. It means that our variety and difference and even our disagreement is a good and a blessing, but it is always a good for attaining some better end.
Diversity is not the goal. Multi-culturalism is not the goal. The multiplication of denominations and worship styles and seeker-friendly adaptations is not the goal. These can all be good, but they are all good for something. And Paul says that something is the unity of the Body of Christ in one Spirit in the bond of peace, building itself up in love to display together the fullness of Christ.
A piccolo section is good. A string section is good. A trumpet section is good. And their sectional practices are good, even when they are exclusive. But in the bigger picture they are not good in and of themselves or for their own sake. A tuba concert might draw a few listeners who are intrigued by the curiosity of how that might turn out. But a full orchestra is bound to draw a much larger and more satisfied audience. And still it’s going to be fuller and more satisfying because it has some tubas in it. The goal of a violin sectional is usually going to be the perfecting of the contribution of the violins to the unified sound of the full symphony.
Women’s Bible studies and men’s Bible studies, youth groups and OWLS groups, African churches in Kenya and Hispanic churches in Mexico, InterVarsity and Equip and the Orthodox Student Fellowship and A Few Good Men on the college campus, boards and committees of different kinds, contemporary music and gospel music and traditional music and classical music, high church and low church, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals – all of this variety in the church is a blessing that contributes to the hope and aspiration of the church to unite together in the harmony and love – the grand symphony that is the body of Christ.
Gentiles & Jews coming together in Christ.
The unity of the church does not consist in the uniformity of its faces or its style of worship. It does not consist in an imposed conformity with a single creed or doctrine. The unity of the church consists in the shared goal we all have in discovering and embodying in all its glory the fullness of the Body of Christ that has built itself up together, in love and in common purpose, to exalt the holy name of God in Christ through the Spirit he gives.
Many gifts, many members, focused on one Christ as one body.
The body is Paul’s favorite metaphor for the unity that is the goal of the diverse gifts and contributions of the church’s various members. A body made up of nothing but elbows or eyebrows would be an ugly and ineffective thing. But it’s also true that a body without an elbow or an eyebrow is not as complete and beautiful and effective as a body with all its members working harmoniously together. Each part is good and has its important role to play in attaining the goal of rendering the Body of Christ in all the harmonious beauty that God intends for it to represent and portray. Even the parts we may like least about our own body are parts that we would regret losing if we took the radical step of dismembering them. Cut off that ugly little toe, and we would lose some balance. Amputate an infected limb and we’ll be looking for a prosthetic to take its place.
Whoever you are sitting here in God’s house this morning: you have a gift and a contribution to make to this goal of uniting all our talents and interests and needs into a display of the greatness of Christ. If you’re one of those thinking, I’ve got nothing to offer to Christ’s ambition to build his church, -- just consider me a little fingernail or an earlobe that is along for the ride but don’t have much to contribute – think again. Think how painful it is to the body to have you ripped away from all the other members! Think of the value some of the more hidden parts have for the health and functioning of the whole. The body needs you!
That brings us to our last question: what do we do to reach this goal of unity in the church. What are the means that God gives us? That seems to be the main thing Paul is writing this passage to the Ephesians to explain. He takes it for granted that there are many gifts and many members. Vv. 11-13 “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” There are lots of saints. Among them there are shepherds and teachers. Almost anybody would recognize local churches under that description. And the goal of us all is to attain unity of faith and unity of the knowledge of Christ. Again, almost anybody would recognize most local churches under that description. So how do we progress from our variety and differences to the unity we seek?
Eph 4:12 -- Those in the church need equipment for the work of ministry and equipment for building up the body from all its diverse members. That is the specific purpose statement we have assigned to the building addition we would like to put up next to this sanctuary. We’re even proposing to call it the “4:12 Center” because of the centrality and urgency of this means to reaching the goal of unity in our pursuit of the faith and knowledge of Christ. But this is of course the means to which all our ministries as a church want to be aimed, whether they happen in a new addition or anywhere else.
Paul is calling us to strengthen our different gifts and personalities and interests and desires and preferences and then to employ all those different tools of ours in the common task of the church to display what Christ is like for a world that still needs to meet him. United worship of Christ in harmonious symphony is our goal. Diversity of abilities is our means. Equipping the saints with our abilities to build up love and knowledge of Christ in the body is our pathway. That’s what Paul sees as the best daily investment of ourselves – in the church, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods.
Three ways of seeing this in action:
1. always think of personal ministry in the context of the body’s larger goal of attaining unity in Christ
2. be conscious of your pronouns
3. volunteer your talents – gift survey
many gifts, many members, focused on one Christ as one body
That’s what the addition is about, that’s what this local church is about.
1 Thess 3:11-13 – Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.