rooted in love: unity

I’m playing a bit of catch up it appears. Our text two weeks ago was Ephesians 4:1-16, a text that talks at length about the unity of the world in Christ. It doesn’t really fit the text or the congregation, but I so wanted to start this sermon or end it with U2’s One. So, here’s that. Actual thoughts on the passage are after the jump.

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”

These are the opening words from the six year-old protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that tells the tale of a little girl, named Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy in a flooded Louisiana bayou town. Hushpuppy’s life is shaped by forces far beyond her control—global warming, unrelenting poverty, illness, and decisions made by the civil corps of engineers. What can a six-year old do in the face of forces like these?

Hushpuppy, though, loves to listen to the heartbeats of creatures. She holds all manner of critters up to her ear, to listen for the steady thump-thump animating them. Where we might see chaos, Hushpuppy is searching for order, for coherence. She stakes her little life on the bet that there is some wholeness in this universe, that her life is not irrelevant but is an integral piece, tied in with the flourishing of all things. It’s an audacious claim for a little girl in a little town abandoned by the world.

It’s not so different from the claim we see here in this letter to the Ephesians.

After three chapters of prayers and discourses on the nature of Christ, the letter takes a breath, and move to the so-what question.

What does all this lovely prayer and pontificating have to do with anything? So what?

So, this, says Paul: Christ is in all and through all and all in all. So what? So none of us is truly separate from the other. So bear with one another, humbly, gently, patiently. That’s so what.

This is not rocket science. We’re all in this together. Care about each other. Six year old Hushpuppy in the Louisiana bayou had this more or less figured out.

But knowing and doing are two different things.

As far as we can tell, this letter was not written in response to a problem in the church.  The church this is addressed to is a healthy one. The tone is one of encouragement, not reproach.

That’s not so different from the position we find ourselves in.

We’re not wracked by divisions, by immoral behavior, or hateful habits. We’re a community that loves each other, that is seeking, to the best of our ability, to live out the love we’ve found in Christ. And this letter from a couple thousand years ago lands in our laps today and says, keep on keeping on.

Be gentle and patient with each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Use your gifts for each other. Act like you know you’re in this together.

There are countless ways I see you do that, both in our common life together and in your ministry out in the world. When you consider how would this decision make so and so feel, when you choose to listen to each other rather than stay convinced of your own opinion, when you disagree and yet decide to value the relationship over the ideological divide, when you notice and affirm each others’ gifts, saying so-and-so is so very good at hospitality, and so-and-so has a way with words, and so-and-so would be a great help as we tend the grounds—in all those times you’re living out this passage.

And out in the world, when you say, I could do such and such and make a ton of money but I’d rather do this that helps others, when you build relationships with your neighbors and care about their lives, when you take precious time and use it to help someone else, when you put others first, or say, here, I can help on that… in all these ways you testify in your daily actions that we are not separate, not really.

We’re in this together. Whether we want to be or not. We—big We—are in this together.

For us as Christians, this is not just some sort of fashionable spiritual claim. It is a fashionable claim today, but that’s not why we make it.

The heart of our conviction about the inter-connected nature of reality comes in verse 4, at the beginning of the second paragraph: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.”

One body. One Spirit. One hope. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God.

It is a seven-fold testament to our Christian understanding that in Christ what was divided is reconciled and there is a fundamental, inalienable coherence to the world.

All things. All of our selves. All of our contradictions, our joys and mistakes, our triumphs and our shame. And beyond our selves, all people—the ones we love and the ones we can’t stand. The ones we admire and the ones we judge. And even more—all of creation. The beautiful and the broken bits, are all bound up, gathered up in Christ.

That—the idea that the good and the bad get pulled together in Christ—that is what Paul’s getting at in the odd section about the one who ascended is the one who descended. He’s saying that in Jesus, God not only rules from on high, but has descended, entered into the depths, even the depths of despair and depravity, and refuses to leave anything and anyone out, but fills everything. In Christ, all holds together.  Nothing, not one thing, is beyond God’s reach in the love of Christ.

The claim here is almost scandalously simple. One body. One. One spirit. One Lord. One. There is a fundamental cohesion, a wholeness to life. For the author of this letter, this is the bedrock claim of the Christian life.

There are some hard parts to this. Maybe the most difficult part of this whole we’re all in this together thing, is the level of trust is asks for. If we’re going to live as a body, that takes trust. The right foot, as it leaves the ground, has to trust that the left will stand firm. As the heart beats, it has to trust that the veins will return the blood it has just sent out. No one part can do it all, and all manner of physical ailments result when one part tries to over-compensate for another.

That’s how our relationships are too. This vision Paul has of the church here asks us to discern, what is mine to carry. What are my gifts, to what am I called? For the good of the body, we pick up those pieces, and—here’s the tricky part—set down the rest, trusting that someone more suited to the task will pick it up. And if no one picks it up, perhaps we’re being asked to let that task lie dormant for a while, rest, fertilize. This isn’t just true at church. This is true throughout our lives—we’re asked, for the good of everybody, to discern what is ours to carry, and to set the rest down, so that it can be picked up by someone whose gift and calling it really is.

For those of us who are fairly used to trying to carry every single thing, this is a monumental act of trust.

This is why Paul counsels us, be patient with each other. Be humble and gentle. Bear with one another in love. Paul says, we’re all fundamentally connected in Christ, so let’s take a deep breath, and see how it goes if we live into this reality step by step, sharing the load, letting go of what is not ours to carry, each playing our part, bearing with one another in love.

Maybe, just maybe, if we practice this bit by bit, day by day, we will begin to see, to know, deep, deep in our bones that you are not really separate from me.

It’s really not that complex says Paul. It’s pretty simple. There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. One, one Love that made this world, that holds this world and all of us, that came and lived and died and was raised, one Love that is committed to the reconciling of all creation, one God that is above all and through all and in all.

It’s simple, really. In Christ, those dividing walls are taken down. There is peace for the far off and the near. You and me, we’re not so different. In Christ, we are part of one body.

It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard.

In Christ, we are one body. If we take that confession and live with it, say it when we rise and when we lay down, when we’re tired, when we’re mad, when we’re hurting, when we have hope, when we rejoice, at all times and in all places, we will, bit by bit, live into the incredible simplicity of it. We might even discover that Christ really does fill all and is in all and is all in all. It really is, just that simple. In Christ, we are made whole. We are invited to live in that wholeness, each day of our lives. It’s just that simple. And just that hard.

 by Sarah W. Wiles
August 26, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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4 Responses to rooted in love: unity

  1. Judy Handy says:

    Sarah, as always, your sermons are gifts to us. This is brilliant. Also, One is THE perfect song for this. Bless you.

  2. elderdeacon says:

    I’ve heard the “that just that simple and that hard” on several occasions but it fits beautifully here. thank you sarah

  3. Rachel says:

    Simply beautiful. -Rachel

  4. Phil Bangert says:

    I don’t know how I have come to recieve these sermons but I can say I read them out loud to no one but myself. And they are quite remarkable.

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