I need to start on a personal note here. As I was looking through the calendar this week and doing some planning for the months ahead I realized that as of right about now Abbie and I have been in Cincinnati for three years. It was the beginning of August, 2006 when we rolled into town, with our moving van, and our seven month old Eve. We were met with a crew ready to move our items into the house and also bash out the walls of our bathroom, which we did quite thoroughly. I distinctly remember the feeling that Abbie and I had after that first day. All of our possessions were piled up around the house that we had just purchased, our only bathroom in the house was fully dismembered, and we had signed the contract to pastor at Cincinnati Mennonite. The feeling was something like – Well, there’s definitely no going back now.
More than just an anniversary, the three year mark carries special significance, which I noted in looking at worship and sermon preparation work for the month of August – because we have this thing called the lectionary which we follow. The lectionary provides, every week, readings from scripture – a gospel, an epistle reading, a psalm, and OT reading – that we draw from in worship. The lectionary is divided into years A, B, and C, and when you get to the end of C, you go back to A. A three year cycle. Which means that after three years of ministry together and all that’s occurred over that time period, we’re right back where we started.
This is indeed an interesting place to be. That August of ’06 we were using a worship theme that was taken from the gospel readings from John 6 where Jesus talks about being the bread of life, the true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. You may remember that series – it was called “Becoming Bread” and I believe every week for about 5-6 weeks we had different forms of bread as a part of the service. It was a good series. I still have it and the sermons on the file. Hmmmm.
Well, even though we’re focusing on the Ephesians texts rather than the John texts this time around, it’s caught my attention that it’s worth noting the direction that worship takes us. If one is going to stick with this Christian worship thing throughout life, we’re going to keep looping back to these same texts, these same stories. In a linear way of movement we’re not really going anywhere. Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and we get to chew on that the rest of our lives.
During the youth-adult joint worship service in Columbus Ted Swartz offered a memorable and rather funny monologue likening faith to cows in a meadow, ruminant creatures that they are, eating grass and chewing on it, and swallowing it, and bringing it back up, and putting it through another chamber in the stomach, and doing that for a while until it’s ready to be moved on through. Which really just serves to fertilize more grass that eventually will be undergo the same digestive process. The faith cycle and the cycle of worship. His final line was something like, “faith – chew on it, and pass it on.” Rather than being a linear progression, worship could be something more like those words that Rachel spoke to last week in the book of Ephesians – “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” This makes it sound like we are moving, perhaps expanding, every direction at the same time. Better knowing the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.
So that could be point one, which already hints at point two, the main point. Point one, we’re not going anywhere and the ground we’re on now is old, but fertile, terrain. Point two, we are going somewhere, there is movement happening in all directions, and Ephesians has some things to say about the vehicle that is supposed to be carrying us along.
Alongside the John 6 Bread of Life readings are also readings from the book of Ephesians, which is a letter that speaks to what it means to be the church. What is it? What does it look like? This summer has held a number of different gatherings of the church meeting together and worshiping and reflecting on its own life, so it feels fitting to follow through with a number of weeks on “Being the church,” which will be our August theme. We are many generations removed from Paul and Ephesians, but the questions persist: What is church? What does it look like?. Keith’s sermon a couple weeks ago and the youth and Rachel’s reflections last week I feel did a great job of getting us started on this path.
Before we turn to the Ephesians passage I want to tell about some of my first encounters in Asuncion, Paraguay, after getting off the airplane for the Mennonite World Conference. After getting my visa checked and passport stamped, and needing to use bits of my broken Spanish to get by, I was relieved to see people holding up signs that read Mennonite World Conference. I walked toward the sign and was asked to stand in a group that was waiting for a bus to take us to our hotels. I then began what would be an entire week of meeting the church. In that group was Luke Gascho, director of the Merry Lea Center that works with issues of environmental sustainability in conjuction with Goshen College. One of their buildings at Merry Lea was one of the first 50 LEED certified buildings in the nation, platinum level, for sustainable construction. I met a group that seemed mostly to be from Canada that would be part of a group doing presentations on indigenous spirituality. I also talked briefly with a seminary librarian, Brent Koehn, and a writer, Gordon Houser, whose name you will see often if you subscribe to The Mennonite magazine. Helping all of us get where we needed to go were youth from the church in Paraguay who were bilingual and well-informed about the logistics of the day. On the ride to the hotel I met a man who had worked most of his life helping lead new churches in New York City. He was accompanied by his teenage granddaughter from rural Georgia. These were some of the people with whom I could speak. There were others in those first hours that I heard speaking other languages and being instructed where to go in their native tongue.
That we come into this with difference and diversity is a given. The first half of Ephesians takes on one of the key differences that the early church worked with – that between Jew and Gentile. Irreconcilable differences it would seem, as irreconcilable as whether to play Rook High or Rook Low, those who do it the right way and those who do it the wrong way. I didn’t grow up playing Rook, so I don’t have an emotional attachment to either one, but Keith’s metaphorical haiku-ing still rings true to me. How in the world are we going to work all this out? How is this coming together going to happen? Different cultures, different languages, different convictions and senses of what is true….Ephesians’ answer – through Christ Jesus, we are all members of the same body. And then the verse that never fails to floor me – in Ephesians 3:9-10 “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The mystery is the coming together of Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, the rich variety of God’s creations, and the place where this happens, the vehicle for this journey with cosmic significance is, surprise, the church.
The difficulty of this work is what sets the tone for Ephesians 4. What Paul has to say now, he says in the form of a beg. “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/Mother of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Being one church is a miraculous event and it takes some Spirit given ingredients to even be possible. “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 body of peace.” Those words humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace sound to me like the same stuff as the fruits of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians 5 – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “making every effort.” Christ has done the groundwork, but it still takes every effort of our own to remember that we are all a part of one baptism.
Historically, the church has done a pretty lousy job at this. One of the things I’m fascinated with is to see how different groups interpret different events differently. Two of the major church ruptures in the last 2000 years have been the splitting of the Eastern Church and the Western church – the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church in the 11th century, 1054 is usually the date that gets assigned to that – and also the breaking apart of the western Roman Catholic church in the 16th century through the Protestant Reformation, of which we are heirs. There are a couple different pictures I’ve come across to illustrate the view of this that I find pretty fascinating.
The first one is this that I’ll pass around. I have this from seminary days and it comes from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox. It wouldn’t speak for all Orthodox, but it would be one picture of their own self-understanding. It’s a picture of a tree, with Jesus and the cross symbolically in the middle, and this tree is called the “tree of life” and it is the true church, which is the Eastern Orthodox Church which is the continuation of the church of the apostles. At the bottom of this tree there are some little branches which have fallen off which would be the early heresies of the church, but the major thing going on here is this strike of lightning that has broken off a large branch. This branch is labeled the “Roman Catholic Church” and the lightning is the great schism of 1054. So this branch is no longer a part of the true church of Christ. And then, you’ll notice, this branch that has broken off has leaves on the end of it which are falling off of it. This is labeled “The Protestant Reformation, 1517.” One of the leaves is Lutheran, one of them Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, etc. Mennonites don’t have their label – maybe the closest to us is Brethren – so we might be one of those anonymous leaves that are mounting up on this large leaf pile underneath the broken branch in the West. This is a picture where the unity of the Spirit has certainly been severed – a certain perspective.
Another image that has been used for the church, from early times, has been one of a boat. The church is like a boat, something like Noah’s ark, that sails across the storms of the world with the survivors safely inside. I wasn’t able to find this picture, so I’ll describe how I remember it and hope that I don’t completely screw it up by remembering it wrong. This painting would have been done in the years after the Protestant Reformation and it shows a large boat on the sea, with the pope and other faithful inside, and then there are several people who are trying to escape on life boats. The life boat people are labeled Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. What I can’t remember is whether this grand ship is sailing just fine and these people in the lifeboats are leaving the mother ship, in which case it would be the perspective of the Roman Catholic church. Or whether this large boat is actually starting to sink, and the leaders in the life boats and the one’s who are saving the church to stay afloat, in which case this would be the perspective of the Reformers. What I do remember, is that there are also several church leaders who are floundering around in the water without any boat and that Menno Simons is one of those leaders. So, whatever perspective this painting was from, we are definitely still sunk.
These pictures have some humor in them for us, but they are also pictures of deep pain….
More recently the ecumenical movement has tried to pull together some of the scattered pieces – the leaves and the branches and the tree, or the little independent life boats and those of us who are close to drowning — and bring out some of the commonalities that we continue to hold.
I’m encouraged by this direction and thinks it takes us in a more healthy way of thinking about the church of Jesus Christ. Where the ecumenical movement has headed, and where this passage from Ephesians heads is what I’d like to emphasize. And this is it. Rather than treating difference as a threat or as an automatic sign of unfaithfulness – we are asked to accept difference as a gift. Oneness of Spirit in the bond of peace does not mean uniformity, it means a wide collection of giftedness held together by the love of Christ.
So after mentioning one Spirit, one body, one hope, Paul moves on to say that we have each been given a different grace, a different gift. And the purpose of all these gifts is for the building up of the body of Christ that we might all come to a maturity in our growth.
Ecumenically, a book that reflects this is this Introduction to Ecclesiology by guy whose name I probably won’t pronounce right: Veli-Matti Karkeinen. His chapters talk about the different perspectives on the church that each tradition brings, their ecclesiology, and how we can learn from one another. So the chapters titles are The Church as an icon of the Trinity: Easter Orthodox ecclesiology; The church as the People of God: Roman Catholic Ecclesiology; The Church as Just and Sinful: Lutheran; The Church as Covenant: Reformed; The Church as the Fellowship of Believers; Free church ecclesiology – that’s us: and The Church in the Power of the Spirit: Pentecostal/Charismatic ecclesiologies.
In the church, with a big “C,” every person, every community, every tradition, carries with it a difference that contains giftedness.
I’ve tossed out a lot of metaphors and without really sticking to any particular one – faith and worship in the church being cyclical like a cow chewing grass in a meadow, the church as a vehicle that takes us somewhere even if that isn’t a linear path, the church as the body of Christ, as a tree with many branches (and leaves), a boat on the sea. So as a closing, I’ll mention one more metaphor. One that sums up what I believe this passage is saying and also carries a flavor we at Cincinnati Mennonite can identify with. The unity of Spirit to which we are being called, if it were a song, is not a melody. We are not all asked to sing the same notes, at the same time, in unison. We can think of it more as a harmony – many parts sung together, each adding its own texture, it’s own pattern, giving the song more richness, nuance, and beauty. The one who makes all this possible is the Creator who is the composer, the conductor, one of the singers, and, who is, mysteriously, the song itself.