The Importance of Unity (Ephesians 4:1-3)
All this weekend Canadians are going to be gathering around tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. We’re giving thanks to God for all of the blessings that we enjoy. For many, that’s going to mean time with family and friends, which is something for which we should be thankful. But some of us also understand what Johnny Carson once said: “Thanksgiving is an emotional time of year. People travel thousands of miles to see people they only see once a year. And then they discover that once a year is way too often.”
That’s very cynical, isn’t it? I want to go on the record that this is not at all how I feel about any member of my family. I’ve never felt that way. But I understand what’s behind this statement. Relationships are hard. And sometimes the hardest relationships are the ones for which we have the highest hopes. And so we’re going to be looking at what the Bible says about relationships. We began last week, and we’re going to continue this morning and for another six weeks.
But before we go any further, let’s pause and ask: Why is this so important? Why spend all this time talking about relationships? Of course, there are all kinds of answers. We could discuss the results of a Harvard University study that tracked a group of students over 72 years, and all of the factors that contributed to their health and happiness. At the end of the study the director of the research concluded, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” We could talk about the importance of relationships to our happiness, and we’d be right.
But this morning I want to give a biblical answer to the question of why relationships are so important. The answer is found in verse 1 of the passage that we read this morning: “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). What we need to understand this morning are three things. First: our calling. Second: what this calling means when it comes to our relationships. Finally: some practical implications of what this means.
First: let’s understand our calling.
If you’ll notice, we’re in chapter 4 this morning. I’m being a little unfair with you. We’re jumping right in the middle of a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus. Paul has been unpacking God’s eternal purposes throughout all of history. It’s like he’s pulled back the curtains of heaven and has let us see what God is doing. The first three chapters are some of the richest teachings in all the Bible in understanding what God is up to, and how his purposes are being carried out, and all that it means for us.
And then we jump into chapter 4 and realize that Paul is drawing conclusions from everything that he’s said up until that point. Paul has been giving us some of the deepest teaching on what God is up to, and here it’s like he turns his attention from God and his eternal purposes to the difference it should make in our lives. In light of what God is up to, he says, this is how we should live.
And then he goes even further. “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received.” Paul’s going further and saying that all that he’s taught in chapters 1-3 amounts to a calling that every believer in Jesus Christ has received. What does that mean?
When Paul uses the word “calling” he is usually referring to God’s action in drawing men and women into fellowship with his Son through the preaching of the gospel. Let me give you a couple of examples. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, Paul said, “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 he says:
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
So what does Paul mean when he talks about “the calling we have received.” What he means is this: if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have already experienced all the blessings of salvation. You have been united with Christ in his resurrection and exultation. You have been reconciled to God. You’ve been chosen by God (1:4). You’ve been predestined to be his child and the heir of all that he owns (1:5). God sent Christ to atone for your trespasses (1:7). Together, we’ve been called to display God’s wisdom to the heavenly places (3:10). Your calling is to receive all that God has done for you in Jesus Christ to the praise of his glory.
This is a very helpful. It gives us an idea of our calling. The offer is made to everyone: through Jesus Christ, those who are spiritually dead can live again. Paul reminds us again of what Jesus Christ has done, and he says that we have a calling as those who have enjoyed the blessings that come out of what Christ has accomplished.
This leads us to ask the question:
What does this have to do with our relationships?
Paul says, “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worth of the calling you have received.” In other words, because of what God has done, we have been called to live a certain way. Paul is calling us to bring our lives into conformity to God’s saving work in Christ. In other words, what God has done ought to make a practical difference in your life.
When I pastored another church years ago, I joined a community board with all kinds of people on it. I was the only pastor. You could tell that people were nervous about me at first before they realized that I was just a guy.
Charlene became friends with some of the people on that board. And when we got together we would sometimes joke around. And this one particular friend would sometimes stop us and say, “Don’t forget that you have a position in this community!” I think what she was saying was this: Don’t forget that you’re a pastor, and pastors aren’t supposed to have too much fun! She knew that being a pastor matched up with a certain type of behavior that you could expect from a pastor. I have a friend who pastors a church, and someone said of him, “Did you know our pastor wears jeans?” “What, to the office? On Sundays?” “No, but he wears jeans!” Once we know who someone is, we have expectations of how they will act.
So that’s what Paul is saying here. You expect certain people to act in a certain way. And if they don’t, there’s a problem. So a politician who acts unethically will be seen by some as unworthy of serving as your representative. A former colonel who pleads guilty to first-degree murder is unworthy of wearing the uniform. A judge who accepts bribes is unworthy to sit on the bench. There is so much honor attached to certain positions that you expect a certain standard of behavior. Anything less brings that position into disrepute.
So Paul says, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” It means that we have given a position in Christ that requires a certain pattern of life. Our calling should line up with a certain way of living. Now, ask yourself what you would expect Paul to say here. Paul has just pulled back the curtains of heaven and described God’s eternal purposes. He’s included us in what God is doing. What type of lifestyle is consistent with someone who has experienced God’s saving call and all of its blessings?
Read verses 2 and 3: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Relationships are the first issue that Paul addresses as an essential element of our living consistently with our calling as Christians. To live a life consistent with the gospel, Paul says, pursue relational unity.
Let’s go back to the question I asked at the start of the sermon. Why are we talking about relationships? There are all kinds of reasons. Relationships are important. Relationships are key to our wellbeing. There are all kinds of reasons. But here’s a key biblical one: we’re talking about relationships because relationships are key to living consistently with the calling we’ve received.
Read verse 3 again: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Notice that we don’t have to create unity. We already have it. In chapter 2 Paul wrote:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Christ has made us one. We don’t create unity; God does. It’s a unity that is centered on Jesus Christ, and it’s a unity that can’t be destroyed. But, Paul says, we have to maintain the unity. It takes effort. But it’s essential to what it means to walk in a manner that’s worthy of the calling we’ve received. The way we relate to each other is an outgrowth of the gospel.
Well, let me get to the final question we need to ask:
What difference does all of this make?
Charles Colson’s book The Body contains a chapter called “Extending the Right Fist of Fellowship.” Listen to what he writes:
It was the right hook that got him. Pastor Waite might have stood in front of the Communion table trading punches with head deacon Ray Bryson all morning, had not Ray’s fist caught him on the chin two minutes and fifteen seconds into the fight.
Waite went down for the count at the altar where most members of Emmanuel Baptist had first declared their commitment to Christ … Within an instant the majority of the congregation converged on the Communion table, punching or shoving. . . .The melee soon spilled over to an open space beside the organ. … Mary Dahl, the director of the Dorcas Society, threw a hymnal. … The missile sailed high and wide and splashed down in the baptistry behind the choir… When Ray’s right hook finally took the pastor down, someone grabbed the spring flower arrangement from the altar and threw it high in the air in Ray’s direction. Water sprinkled everyone in the first two rows on the right side, and a visiting Presbyterian experienced complete immersion when the vase shattered against the wall next to his seat. … The fight ended when the police arrived on the scene.
We’re probably not quite that dramatic. But it’s pretty easy to slip into unhealthy patterns of relating to each other. Paul gives us a list later in the chapter of really bad ways of relating to each other that are actually pretty common in verses 31 to 32. Whether it’s fistfights at the communion table or just gossip and grumbling, we’re often tempted to engage in behavior that is inconsistent with the gospel we proclaim.
Paul tells us in very specific terms how to live consistently with the gospel in our relationships in verse 2. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
this is what it will take, according to Paul:
- Humility – The Greeks in Paul’s day saw humility as a quality for servants and wimps. If someone back then called you humble, it wouldn’t have been a compliment. But Paul urges us here to pursue humility, literally lowliness of mind. It means that we see the inherent worth and value of others, refuse to insist on our own rights, and put their interests before our own.
- Gentleness – Gentleness refers to a disposition towards others. Some used it to refer to domesticated animals. It means controlling one’s strength to be courteous and considerate of others, being more concerned about the common good than getting our own way.
- Patience – A different way of putting it is to be long-suffering towards aggravating people. It’s closely related to the next and final quality:
- Bearing with one another in love – There will be tensions and conflicts, and sometimes we’ll have to just put up with each other. But Paul says not just to do this, but to do it with love.
This is what it will take if we are to apply our theology of relationships. Don’t you love how real this is? There will be real tensions and real aggravations, and Paul says we’re to maintain the unity that we have in the gospel through huge doses of humility, gentleness, patience, and just plain old putting up with each other in love.
Martin Luther, the Reformer of the 16th century, had a really bad temper. He once called fellow Reformer John Calvin “a pig” and “a devil.” Mark my words, that and worse will happen sometimes even in the church! But John Calvin replied, “Luther may call me what he will, but I will always call him a dear servant of Christ.”
So that’s why relationships are so important. To live consistently with the gospel means to pursue relational harmony. And this doesn’t just apply to some ideal church somewhere else. It applies to real people who can be really challenging. It’s in this context that we’re called to live consistently with the gospel we talk about every week.
And this can only happen through Jesus. “For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Father, may we think the right things, biblical things, about relationships. And may we bring our actions in line with what is true and right, not through our own power but through Jesus Christ.
We come now to the table because we need him. May we live lives worth of the calling we’ve received, and may we do so in the way we love one other. In Jesus’ name, Amen.