A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
August 1, 2021
We don’t know much about the origins of this letter. It likely wasn’t written by Paul, even though his name is on it. The vocabulary and understanding of the church is not quite the same as the letters we know he wrote. In some early copies of this letter, it doesn’t say anything about being written for the church in Ephesus either.
Whoever wrote it, we pause to say thanks. Because they have given us an important insight into the development of the church after the time of Paul, and how the early church struggled with, and worked through how to be church, together. How to live together in community with people who might also like Jesus, but that’s about the best thing you can sometimes say about them.
I trust y’all know what I’m talking about. Being in community is hard.
After a year and a half of being primarily in online community, I also want to affirm that being in community is so amazing and wonderful. I missed people. I missed singing with people, and praying out loud together.
As we slowly return from this pandemic, I hope you’ve heard me talk about how to make sure we return well—not just to return to what we used to be and do, but to discern—what do we need to leave in the past? What needs changing? What have we really missed that we want to return to as soon as possible so we can have healthy and meaningful community?
I wish our whole country could do that, in truth—to look with some discernment about the ways in which we interact with each other, the ways we fill our days. I don’t want to return to being over scheduled and pretending that was a virtue. I want to return to good community—meaningful relationships with people who know and love me.
The letter to Ephesians is not that long. I invite you to read through it all this week. Its opening prayer is lovely. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you….” (1:17-18)
The letter talks about the faith of Christ, which has broken down the dividing walls between us. And then we get the passage we heard today, with our instructions.
“I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called”.
I’m guessing you don’t need to say that to people who are already busily leading lives worthy of their calling. You say that to people who are making bad choices and you feel you’re running out of options.
When do I use the word beg? Not often. It’s a sketchy parenting strategy—if your kids know you’ll come begging, what incentive do they have to do what they know they should do?
I did say it recently to some beloved people in my life, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling to which you have been called and get vaccinated against covid, even though you’re young and healthy and think you will be fine. I beg you.”
I may have also badgered, cajoled, and bullied them. But they got their vaccines and we can all celebrate that.
We don’t know exactly the situation in the church where this letter was first sent to, but it sounds so familiar, two thousand years later, and we’re reminded that being church has always been complicated and messy, and lovely, and irritating, and blessing, and challenge.
After the writer begs them, he uses the word “one” a whole mess of times, reminding us that we’ve been called to unity. Just in case they think chaos and division are just fine with God, he calls them to unity. We’ve been called both to a purpose that rises above our individual wants and desires AND that uses our individual gifts and desires to build up Christ’s body, the church, and to equip the saints.
I wanted to skip over the oneness and unity part of this passage, because blah blah blah who wants to hear another sermon on unity in the Spirit…. but in truth it is the thing we may have the biggest trouble with in both the church and in culture.
We seem to be really solid on the word “one” as in “unbridled individualism” but less clear on “one” as in:
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.
Our culture is full of illustrations of “I want x, y, and z for me, but I’m not going to be inconvenienced for you, I don’t want my money benefitting you, and I don’t care if or how you survive.”
The writer of Ephesians might have some opinions about that tendency of ours. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about…”
Instead, we are called to use our gifts to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, even the members of the body we don’t know, or that we think we don’t need.
A few weeks ago, I referenced Simon Sinek’s definition of faith. Here it is again: “Faith is knowing you’re on a team, even if you don’t know who the other players are”.
We aren’t called to cookie cutter sameness or to pretend that there aren’t real differences between us. Unity in Christ doesn’t require us to stop being who we are. In truth, it requires us, it calls us, to acknowledge the particularities of our gifts and callings, and then to focus those toward unity and building each other up in love, recognizing that we all belong to each other.
We are invited to speak the truth in love.
That may seem like a simple instruction, but I think it is the most important and most difficult thing we are called to do. We live in a shallow culture of truthiness and image. But if we want to be one in the Spirit, we have to be honest with each other about who we are. We have to both tell our truth and listen and receive the truth of others.
What truth are you unsure you can speak in love?
People hide their truth, whatever it is, for many reasons. Maybe because of shame. Or fear that they are the only ones facing that particular painful truth. Or because society has made their truth illegal or dangerous.
And the hiding of our truth is killing God’s beloved children.
One of my truths is that in college, I had an unplanned pregnancy. I had a few weeks where I told nobody, hoping I would wake up one morning to find I had been mistaken. I was crippled by the shame of it. I was a good church kid. What would my parents say? What would my church say? What would my friends at college say? Would I be asked to leave school and if so, what would I do?
In my head, I spun out a million terrible scenarios about what might happen. And then one morning, I looked in the mirror and, I still can’t quite explain how I knew what I knew, but I knew that I couldn’t fix all my problems at any one moment, but if I could be honest and truthful about who I was, that I’d be okay. That I’d get through it, day by day, with God’s help.
And so I told my best friend. And then I told the father of the baby. And I flew home and told my parents. And I told the Dean of Students at the University. And I told my sorority sisters. And I told my pastor. All of a sudden, everyone knew what had been secret and shameful and I didn’t have to hide. I could just be me, the pregnant girl on campus.
I still think of that time as the Great Unburdening.
A very few people on the sidelines of my life offered unhelpful comments, but the people who cared about me gave me love and acceptance where I expected to receive shame and judgment. Maybe the biggest surprise came from the people I didn’t know that well who stepped up and cared for me, buying me lunch, typing my papers so I could rest more, loaning me clothes to wear.
And while I wouldn’t encourage everyone to go out and have a challenging life event in order to experience the character building and grace that I experienced, I will say it shaped me deeply to speak my truth and to be accepted as I was. It taught me to extend love to myself and to value and honor my relationships, and to care, and dream with hope, for my unborn child.
I placed my son for adoption, and have been privileged to be a part of his life all along the way. He’s now 32 and he and his wife are expecting my granddaughter this month. Back at the beginning, when I was spinning out all of the many ways the story might end, none of the scenarios included this one I’m now living in. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
Shame and silence keep us from imagining the best future God is trying to dream for us.
I haven’t paid very close attention to the Olympics this past week, but it was hard to avoid the news that Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, and a 4 time gold medal winner, was pulling out of some of the competition. She spoke her truth and said she wasn’t in a good head space to compete. She said when she’d been competing in the vault event, she got the twisties, which means she lost her ability to know where she was in the air in relation to the ground.
I can’t even do a summersault, let alone contemplate any of the moves she and other gymnasts do routinely to compete. I’m willing to trust that if you can’t locate the ground when you’re doing huge flips through the air, you shouldn’t be doing the huge flips through the air.
Plenty of people criticized Biles for speaking her truth. And plenty of people applauded her for it and sent her well wishes. And Biles tweeted this:
Because she spoke her truth, and because it was heard in love, she now can begin to know that she is more than her accomplishments. I pray we all receive that awareness.
I recognize that speaking your truth is never easy, and it might not be safe. People can lose jobs and relationships when difficult truths are admitted.
You don’t need to post your Truth on Facebook, or shout it on a street corner, but can you tell one person? Is there one safe person where you can bring your truth so you don’t have to carry it alone?
For too many years, our denomination kept people from speaking the truth in love. Before 2011, when we finally allowed ordination for people of all sexual orientations, good and faithful people who were called by God to serve as pastors had to hold their truth in secret or face losing their jobs as pastors.
Brian Ellison, Covenant Network’s Executive Director, is a dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other a long time. He describes the toll our ordination restrictions took on his relationships with the congregation he served. He came out to them as he left to join Covenant Network, and said, “The most challenging talks were not those with members who had moral concerns with my being gay; the heartbreaking moments came in conversation with those who would have been supportive … if only they had known. They were hurt because even though I was with them in their most vulnerable and special moments — premarital counseling, baptizing their children, burying their parents — I wasn’t being fully open with them. The church’s prohibitions, and my own fears, drove me to inauthenticity.”
As I have celebrated the changes in our denomination in recent years—and it is worth celebrating—my heart still breaks for the people for whom the changes came too late. It is why serving on the Board of the Covenant Network is a privilege and a calling.
Before we can speak the truth in love, we have to know our truth will be received in love. How can we, as a church build a world where people can speak vulnerable truth and have it be received in love?
One thing I learned when I was honest and vulnerable about my truth, was how it connected me to people. Most other people had not experienced the same truth I was going through, but everyone had some experience of shame, and fear of exclusion and judgment. My story gave them space to look at their own story differently. Our lives and stories became connected.
The author of Ephesians writes:
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.
If we want to be one in the spirit, ‘joined and knit together’, it has to be around the real and vulnerable places in our lives, the places where we can let God in, acknowledge our limitations and failures, and work for redemption.
In our world right now, we seem to join and knit together around the people we exclude, the ideas we fear, the causes we champion. That is not what the author of Ephesians is hoping for. It may feel good in the moment to rally with others against another group, or another idea. But it isn’t the joining that leads to the unity in the Spirit.
Can we join and knit together not against others but for them, trusting we are on the same team? Can we join and knit to form the whole body of Christ “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”?
I’m not promising it is easy or glamorous work to build honest community where people can bring their whole selves, but it is the only way I can see for us to get through this shallow world of connection in which we often find ourselves.
Speaking the truth in love is how we grow toward Jesus, and grow into becoming his body in the world. I pray that we all may have and build community that is joined and knit together in love and truth.