Today’s Bible reading from Ephesians 4: 1 – 16 is in three parts; the first introduces the metaphor of “body” to describe the church, the second highlights the life changes that follow becoming a Christian and the third deals with some practical applications. We’ll be looking at all three parts but focusing on the verse (NRSV):
“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 knitted 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.”
There are three ways that this passage looks at the church-as-body. The outcome is a blend of all three ways.
In our modern, rationalistic era, we have tended to focus more on the idea of the body as an organisation of diverse parts. In this view, Christ has spiritually gifted people to perform a variety of roles. People are labelled in terms of their roles and we respond, positively or negatively, to the implications of that label to ourselves and either include or exclude them from our company. The whole point of the emphasis on inclusive diversity in this passage of scripture can be diminished.
But while this aspect of church-as-body is emphasized in other letters of Paul, it is not the main point of this Ephesians passage. Here it is “the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped” that we are invited to explore further. The emphasis is not on the parts, but on how the parts relate to each other and, by implication, since each of us is a part, how we relate to one another.
The second part of the bible reading reminds us of how the world outside the church (code word, “Gentile”) relates. For the Ephesians, it was a reminder of the lifestyle they had left to become Christian. For us this distinction is often blurred. In the third part of the reading, Paul gives some practical examples of how the church as a relational body works. We’ll head there.
At first glance, this section comes across as moral advice – which we, myself included, can give a self-righteous nod of approval and then ignore. But something caught my attention this time that made it more of an imperative. It was the verse, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands”.
The Ephesian congregation included a group of thieves! They must have had an evangelistic outreach to the sub-culture in Ephesus for whom stealing was their everyday work and brought some to Christ. (I recently had a brief encounter with that kind of sub-culture. I was waiting in Centrelink when two young men came in separately and began a conversation across the waiting area. I couldn’t help overhearing it! They chatted about being in prison and court appearances and people they knew inside like a workplace conversation.). Of course they should give up stealing and get a job! But if I was a member of that Ephesian congregation I would face a second imperative. I should give them a job if I am concerned about relationships that build up the church and grow maturity. Would the thieves stay in the church if all they got was condemnation and no practical help to change?
Here’s where the rubber hits the road in terms of the difference between Christian and the world’s values. Would you employ a known thief as a cleaner in your house? As a baby-sitter or gardener? Would you give one a job at your place of work? I struggle with that question. But for the thieves in the Ephesian church, their only chance for a different life was for people from that congregation to give them paid employment. The world wouldn’t!
The same call to action applies to the other imperatives in this section to which we give self-righteous approval and nothing more. In response to the verse, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” we are likely to say, “So and so is like that!” without considering the imperative of what we should do to help So and so change, or to heal the damage that such relational misbehavior does to the church. It’s risky, nigh on impossible, unless we take on board the third aspect of the church as body – the mystical body.
In our modern, rational world, the mystical comes across as funny/peculiar stuff. Yet it is part of the Ephesian view of the church-as-body, along with the organizational and relational. It is more clearly the focus of today’s John 6 lectionary reading – especially the section that follows on from today’s verses.
We eat and ingest Christ’s body and by doing so, become Christ. We live like Christ. We do what Christ does and it is only as this happens that we can do the relational imperatives that the previous section laid upon us. I can’t do it but Jesus in me can.
We don’t have to be literal, like the Catholics about this. Perhaps the simplest, for us, is to extend what we know and believe about Holy Communion. Most of us, at least some times, experience communion as a time of personal healing, forgiveness, resurrection or peace. It should not be difficult to extend this experience of grace to include our empowerment to be healers, forgivers, raisers from the dead or peacemakers. Jesus can continue his miracle-working ministry of Bible times in and through us.
Thus the church-as-body is an organisational body of spiritually-gifted people, a relational body of those who have chosen to live in a truthful, loving and courageous Christian way, in contrast to the world, and a mystical body in which Christ is tangibly present to others – all three. Then the church is the body of Christ in the world.