Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 4:1-6. Just a few weeks ago, men and women, boys and girls around the country opened brightly wrapped packages containing new clothing, collectibles, toys, gadgets, and gizmos. Some of those gifts needed no instruction sheets or directions for use. But many of those gadgets and gizmos, the ones with really shiny surfaces and cool buttons and touch screens and plugs and chargers, came with instruction sheets. And as the excited husbands, I mean children, or maybe both, rushed to start up their new toys and play with them, boxes and packaging were ripped, warped, maimed, and mangled in the rush to start them up and try them out.
Former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, in a column entitled “READ THIS FIRST” said this … “Congratulations. You have purchased an extremely fine device that would give you thousands of years of trouble-free service, except that you will undoubtedly destroy it via some typical bonehead consumer maneuver. Which is why we ask you to PLEASE FOR GOD’S SAKE READ THIS OWNER’S MANUAL CAREFULLY BEFORE YOU UNPACK THE DEVICE. YOU ALREADY UNPACKED IT, DIDN’T YOU? YOU UNPACKED IT AND PLUGGED IT IN AND TURNED IT ON AND FIDDLED WITH THE KNOBS, AND NOW YOUR CHILD, THE SAME CHILD WHO ONCE SHOVED A POLISH SAUSAGE INTO YOUR VIDEOCASSETTE RECORDER AND SET IT ON “FAST FORWARD”, THIS CHILD ALSO IS FIDDLING WITH THE KNOBS, RIGHT? WE MIGHT AS WELL JUST BREAK THESE DEVICES RIGHT AT THE FACTORY BEFORE WE SHIP THEM OUT, DO YOU KNOW THAT?” Any user’s manual ignorers here in the sanctuary today?
In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul has described the dizzying vision for a new kind of community, a new kind of humanity, that God sets before us. Paul’s incredible vision for the people of God goes far beyond new life for you and I as individuals. He’s describing God’s creation of a new society – an outpost of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, or maybe an embassy, a place where the truths and principles and reality of the kingdom of God are lived out here in this fallen world, in this fallen creation, in our fallen and very broken culture. He describes a place where an alienated humanity is being reconciled to God and to one another, where a fractured humanity is being united, where a brand new humanity is being created. And now, beginning in chapter 4, Paul gets to the practical implications of all of this; of what it means for you and I day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, living as a new kind of human, together as a new kind of humanity, the people of God. He gives us the instruction manual for life in our new existence, our new reality in Christ. This is the instruction manual for what this kind of life is supposed to look like. We would do well to pay attention. Ephesians 4:1-6.
Paul talks a lot about “walking” in the second half of this letter. Here he tells us to “WALK worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” In 4:17 he says to “WALK no longer as the Gentiles do.” In 5:2, “WALK in love.” In 5:8: “WALK as children of light.” And in 5:15: “Look carefully then how you WALK, not as unwise but as wise.” Walking implies something that is enduring and directed, not frantic and aimless. Walking isn’t a short-term endeavor. The walking Paul is talking about here involves a lifetime of faithfulness. We cannot EARN our salvation. It is a gift of God given to us when we place our faith in Christ. But we are to put EFFORT into our salvation, into the working out in our daily life together of the reality that is ours in Christ. One pastor wrote “We want discipleship without discipline; it does not exist. We want what we can get by with, but the challenge here is to do what we should, to live worthy of the call. Our problem is that we have a million dollar salvation and a five-cent response.” Much of what St. Paul is talking about Ephesians 4 & 5 is about WALKING as people who are following Christ, putting effort and discipline into our walks with Christ.
Okay, so what does that look like? Just as instruction manuals often include graphics and pictures to remove all confusion and doubt, St. Paul now paints a clear picture of what it looks like to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” He gives us four characteristics, which have often been called the Christian virtues, four things that absolutely must mark the lives of those who follow Christ.
The first is humility. Look at V. 2. “with all humility.” When Paul was looking for a word to use here, he had to use a word that was coined by Christians themselves, because the ancient Greeks had no word for humility that didn’t have a sense of disrepute, cowering, and ignoble attached to it. The key to understanding humility as Paul intended it is to realize that it focuses on our thinking. It means “lowliness of mind” in opposition to haughtiness. It has to do with our minds – with what, and who, we spend our time thinking about. Have you ever been around someone who thinks only of themselves? Someone who always has a story to tell but it’s always about THEM, about THEIR life, about THEIR experiences?
C.S. Lewis defines humility not as thinking less of yourself, but as thinking of yourself less. For several years I had the privilege of serving on a church staff with a man named Mel Larimer. Mel was an outstanding choral conductor, an outstanding musician. He directed choirs at Alma High School, Traverse City Central High School, Olivet College, and the National Music Camp at Interlochen, before ending his storied career with a long tenure at Albion College, his alma mater. He then “retired” to Traverse City where he directed the choir at First Congregational Church for many years. He was a giant in the world of choral music who rubbed shoulders with some of the finest musicians and vocalists in the world. And Mel was always busy. But somehow, whenever you talked to Mel, you had the distinct feeling that he was, in that moment, really only concerned about you, about how you were doing, about how things were going in your life. And he would stop and really listen. He really wanted to know. I never once heard Mel talk about himself, about his accomplishments and achievements and talents, and they were many. Mel simply wanted to know about you, whoever you happened to be. He was the model of true humility for me.
Second, we’re to be marked by gentleness. Some translations use the work “meekness” here. When many of us think of meekness or gentleness, we think of weakness. But gentleness isn’t weakness. Gentleness great strength under great control. Aristotle wrote often about gentleness. In his thinking, gentleness is the midpoint between the two extremes of never getting angry about anything and getting angry about everything. A gentle person is one who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time. So a gentle person might be someone who is angered by the wrongs and sufferings of others but never moved to anger by personal insults and wrongs suffered at the hands of others. Great strength, but under great control.
I deal with great strength under great control every day, because every day I handle my Quarter Horse Tuff. I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden a horse, but there’s a moment when you put your leg up and over the horse and settle into the saddle and your body connects with the horse’s body that’s just electric. It’s an incredible feeling to connect with a half-ton of muscle beneath you and know that at any moment, if so desired, this animal could explode and remove me from his back, but he chooses not to. Great strength under great control. Every once in a while, he reminds me of his great strength when it isn’t under control. And once when Becky was turning him out he jerked his head out of his halter. In terms of all of the muscle in his body, he used very little. He simply snapped his head up. But it quickly broke Becky’s finger. Took almost no effort on his part. Gentleness isn’t weakness. It is great strength under control.
So those who are walking with Christ must exhibit humility and gentleness. Now Paul adds another: Patience. Some translations call this long-suffering, and it’s a word that, in the Bible, has two primary meanings. First, it describes someone who will never give in, who will endure to the end.
Patience means a lot more than just “waiting well,” which is how we tend to view it. Patience means having a spirit that never admits defeat, that can’t be broken by any disappointment or discouragement, no matter how large. Patience looks a lot like endurance. It pictures a person who hangs on to the end, no matter what. This is the person who continues believing God, trusting God, hanging in there with God no matter how hard, difficult, or painful life gets. Patient people don’t necessarily enjoy their suffering and pain. In fact, they probably hate it and try to seek some means of alleviating it. But they never quit. They never give up. Their walk may slow to a crawl, but they’re still moving.
But that isn’t the only sense of the word. Biblical patience also includes patience applied to our relationships with others. It is being able to endure, specifically the ability to endure rejection and injury from other people. Patience is the ability to endure attacks from other people and keep on loving and forgiving long after whatever natural human ability endure and forgive has been spent. It involves having the power to take revenge on someone but refusing to do so. This is patience not with people who are easy to love, but with people who are aggravating. Many churches deal with church splits. Some occur over significant issues of theology, but many are over much smaller matters. One such split actually went to court as each faction in the church tried to kick the other out. The government court handed the issue over to their denomination, so they called an ecclesiastical court, and one faction eventually won over the other. Sadly, when someone researched the split, he was able to trace it back to an elder receiving a smaller piece of ham than a child at a church dinner. That perceived slight, certainly not intentional and also not significant, started the whole thing. Of course, nobody knew that. What might have happened if humility, and gentleness, and patience with aggravating people marked the people in that church? How many marriages could be saved? How many families made whole? How much workplace drama could be avoided?
Humility. Gentleness. Patience. And lastly love. Are you picking up a theme here? Every time we turn around, the Bible mentions love as marking our lives as followers of Jesus. In fact, love sort of sums up everything else. If we’re living humbly, and if we’re living gently, and if we’re living with patience, then we’re able to show real love. And I love the phrase Paul chooses here. He says “bearing with one another in love.” I just love that! Do you know what he’s saying? PUT UP WITH EACH OTHER!!
The word for love here is agape. It means to love someone or something based on real appreciation and high regard for them. We sometimes refer to it as unconditional love. This kind of love isn’t just an emotion. It is an act of the will. It’s the ability to have an unrelenting goodwill towards the unlovely and the unlovable, towards those who do not love us in return at all, even towards those we really don’t like. It is loved that truly seeks what is best for the other, regardless of feeling or sentiment. Sometimes it means saying hard things because of love. But hard things don’t necessarily need to be said harshly. Hard things, disagreement, correction, can be handled in a spirit of humility and gentleness. They all go together.
Now Paul boils it all down to one word, and that word is ONE. Be one. Look at verses 4-6. Paul quotes an ancient creed and it highlights the sources of our strength and unity. You see, we can’t live the kind of life Paul’s been talking about, a life marked by humility, gentleness, patience, and love, without the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. He is the source of our strength, and he is the source of our unity.
Most efforts at unity focus on unity itself and try to create unity from the outside in, and so we fuss about differences in Christian denominations, and differences in worship style, and differences in the finer points of theology. Paul says don’t focus on unity itself. Realize that your unity is already there. Unity isn’t uniformity. Unity is oneness in the midst of great diversity. And we already have it. That work has already been done. Our unity comes from Christ. The call is to embrace the unity you already have. That’s the point. The point isn’t that every church in town should become one organization. That’s what people often think about when they think of unity in the church. We aren’t talking about organizational unity here. Different churches – new churches and older churches, contemporary churches and liturgical churches, mainline churches and evangelical churches – all have different roles to play. And we’re to recognize what God is doing in others, and what God is doing through others who name Christ as Savior. Just as there is one body (of which each human church is a representation), and one Spirit, one hope based on our call to trust Christ and walk with him, one Lord, one faith, one baptism – he isn’t talking about infant versus adult baptism there, he’s referring to our common baptism into Christ regardless of when and how – just as there is one God and Father of all, so we are to be one. The source of our life is one. So we are to be one. And we do that by focusing on Christ and seeking to walk with him and with each other in humility, and gentleness, and patience, and love.
And we are to realize that he is OVER all. There is no authority greater than his. No matter how things may look, God is in control. We may experience floods, but, as Psalm 29 reminds us, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood.” We are to realize that God is THROUGH all. God didn’t create the cosmos and then leave it to run itself like some giant clockmaker with a clock. God simply IS throughout his creation guiding, sustaining, and loving. And we are to realize that God is IN all. There is no where we can go in this life where we do not find the presence of God, and that includes our relationships with even the most unsavory of people.
God is calling us to be a new humanity, a new kind of people. In fact, God calls us his new body in the world, with Christ as our head. And it is made up of many cells and organs and tendons and ligaments, just as is your human body, and we are to honor one another, recognizing the different roles we play as together we live in, by, and through the one who gives us life, Jesus Christ. And our lives are to be marked by, not sometimes supplemented with, but marked by humility, and gentleness, and patience, and love. So may it be.