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We ARE the Church: The Church’s Maturity, Ephesians 4:7-16

The Church’s Maturity

Ephesians 4:7-16


2020 was supposed to have been an Olympic year, with Japan hosting the summer Olympic games. But like pretty much everything else in 2020, the Olympics were postponed when the Covid 19 pandemic hit. This would have been our first summer Olympics in quite some time without Michael Phelps representing the United States in swimming. Do you remember Michael Phelps? He was an incredible swimmer. He retired from competitive swimming in 2016 after winning five gold medals and a silver medal in the Summer Olympics in Rio. He’s the most decorated competitive swimmer in history, having won eight Olympic gold medals in 2008 and four gold and two silver medals in 2012.


When you look at his body, it’s easy to see some of the features that made the lanky guy with the long arms and big feet the most accomplished Olympic swimmer in history. But how exactly did all those parts work together? He’s known as an intense competitor who practiced tirelessly to be in top form for Olympic competition. But he had more than a few physical advantages over fellow swimmers.


Simply put, Phelps has the anthropometrics of the perfect swimmer. From head to toe, his body type and proportions are uniquely suited for swimming with both speed and endurance. First, he’s tall, but not too tall. At 6′ 4″ Phelps probably would be average for a basketball player, but as a swimmer, his height (or more accurately, his length) gives him enough glide in the water to provide a little extra forward momentum.


His arm span (or wingspan as some call it) of 6’ 7” is exceptionally wide even for a man of his height. His arms act almost like oars on a rowboat, giving him incredible pulling power in the water. His wingspan is a big reason for Phelps’ success with the butterfly stroke, which relies heavily on the upper arms and back to push and pull a swimmer through the water.


Then there’s his unusually long upper body, roughly the length one would expect to see on a man who is 6’ 8” tall. His long, thin and triangle-shaped torso helps him with his reach, especially on strokes like the butterfly and the freestyle. His torso is more hydrodynamic than the average swimmer’s, meaning it’s able to move through the water with less drag.


Phelps’ lower half is hydrodynamic too. But while his arms give him an advantage by being longer, his legs give him an extra kick (literally) by being a little shorter than one would expect for a guy of his size. Phelps’ legs, which are roughly those of a man about 6’ tall, help with kicks and give him more power in turns at the wall, where crucial seconds can be lost or won during competitions. We haven’t even factored in Phelps’ enormous hands and flipper-like size 14 feet. Both let him push and pull more water than other swimmers, adding to his overall speed.


If all that isn’t enough, Phelps also is double-jointed. He doesn’t have extra joints as the term implies, but his joints have more mobility than average. Most swimmers – and some dancers – work hard to stretch their joints to make themselves more agile, which in turn makes performance easier. With his more flexible joints, Phelps can whip his arms, legs, and feet through a greater range of motion than most swimmers.


But Phelps’ unique build isn’t his only advantage in competitive swimming. Most athletes need recovery time after exerting themselves because the body produces lactic acid, causing muscle fatigue. Phelps’ body produces less lactic acid than the average person, so he has a much faster recovery time. In the Olympics, being able to bounce back quickly and compete again are distinct advantages for any athlete. Add those unique dimensions to his parts to his fierce competitive nature and work ethic and it’s easy to see what made Phelps the perfect swimmer. His body was made to swim.


The body is one of the main analogies St. Paul uses to describe the church, the people of God in the world. He calls us the body of Christ. And just like a healthy human body, the individual parts of the body of Christ are uniquely shaped and positioned to enable the body as a whole to perform its task. Ultimately, that task is to help people who are dead in their sin to grow into mature, fully-devoted followers of Christ.


Now, when we think of the church as a body in this way, we tend to think of a specific local church as the body, and the members, or attenders, as the individual parts. And that’s true! That’s a legitimate way of envisioning any church. But the analogy doesn’t stop with individual churches. Each individual church, across denominational lines, is also a part of the larger body of Christ in an area, a city, a town, or a region. And certainly churches in a region that are a part of the same denomination function together as a body. Ultimately, the churches of each city or region make up a part of the larger body of Christ in their state and nation, and ultimately the world. We as the followers of Christ who make up Christ Church in Traverse City are each parts of that body, and Christ Church is a part of the body of Christ in northwest lower Michigan, then the United States, then the world. You and I, each one of us, are a part of the church, the body of Christ in the world, and just like the parts of your body fit together and work together to enable your body to function, so we fit together in the body of Christ to enable his body to grow and function in the world. Turn with me to Ephesians 4:7-16.


We are the parts that make up the body, but Christ is the head of the body. WE are not the head. Christ is the head. The gifts, ultimately the word grace means gift, given to each person, each part of the body, are given according to Christ’s intention and design. “According to the measure of Christ’s gift,” Paul says. It is Christ who determines each person’s gifts, talents, abilities, personality, and life experiences and how they all fit together to help each person to fulfill their unique role in the body of Christ.


Look at Vv. 8-10. Paul takes Psalm 68:18 and kind of makes an awkward quotation of it here. I say awkward because he changes the wording a little. Psalm 68 is a song about God’s victory on behalf of his people. In the psalm, God is pictured as the victorious, conquering king who frees the captives, ascends his throne, and receives gifts from the peoples he has saved. Here Paul talks about God giving gifts to his people, according to his design and purpose. And the focus on Christ’s ascending emphasizes his victory over sin and death. Paul is emphasizing the VICTORIOUS, sovereign lordship of Christ. He has conquered sin and death and ascended to take his place at the right hand of the Father.


We talk a lot about Christ as our Savior, don’t we? We love the truth that in Christ our sin is forgiven and our hearts are made clean. We love the truth that in Christ we are made right with God. We love the truth that Christ is God’s love made visible for us to see and experience. But we don’t talk about the lordship of Christ as much, do we? We don’t talk about the truth that his victory over sin and death, that his victory over OUR sin, gives him the right to be OUR LORD. That means he’s the one in charge now, not us. We belong to him. We just prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and in that prayer, we prayed, “THY kingdom come, THY will be done.” The question is, did we mean it? Are we really willing to set OUR wills aside and seek HIS will? Are we willing to allow Scripture to reveal to us the places where our will collides with his, and are we willing, when that happens, to make our wills subject to God’s will, God’s desire for us? Yes, Christ is my loving Savior! Yes, Christ died on the cross for me! Yes, Christ took my punishment upon himself! Yes, God’s grace and mercy flow through Christ. But he is also my Lord and my God, and so as a follower of Christ I am to pray “THY will be done.” It’s the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). When MY emotions and MY thoughts and MY will want to do one thing, and God is asking me to go in a different direction, am I willing to say “THY will be done”?


Now, look at Vv. 11-12. Look carefully at the words Paul uses here. “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers …” Paul doesn’t say that God gifted people as apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastor-teachers. He says “He gave apostles …” and all the others. He does gift people to be and do those things, but the gift is really the people themselves. We are each gifts to one another. I may not be the gift from God you WANTED, but I’m his gift to you nonetheless. For some of you, I may seem more like a lump of coal, and that’s fine. Because the truth is, God’s gift to his people is … his people. God’s gift to me is you. God’s gift to you is me.


The specific gifts listed here are the gifts of leadership. Some are called and gifted for positions of leadership, but all of us, every single one of us, are called to positions of significance. You see, the body wouldn’t be fully the body, the body wouldn’t be complete, without YOU. Every organ, every cell, every joint, every believer supplies something to the body of Christ. And when you are missing, the body of Christ is diminished. You miss out on us, and we miss out on you.


And those leadership gifts are given to guide the church toward something very specific. Look at V. 12. So the leadership gifts are given to guide a very small group of people within the church, called “saints” to do ministry and grow to full maturity in Christ, right? No. Wrong. Who are these saints Paul is talking about here? Believe it or not, he’s talking about you! And even more remarkably, he’s talking about the idiot sitting next to you! How many of you have ever thought, “Wow, I’m a saint.” For most of us, it’s probably more like, “What? I’m a saint?” or just “I’m no saint.” But that’s the word Paul ALWAYS uses to describe the people of God. In Christ, your fundamental identity changes. You are no longer lost in your sin. You are now a saint, saved by grace. I think the biblical definition of saint is “sinner saved by grace.” I am still tempted and fall into sin, but by grace I am no longer defined by my sin. I am defined by my relationship with Christ. I am a saint. Even if you don’t think I am. That’s grace.


The role of the leadership gifts is to equip everyone for ministry so that the body of Christ is built up. When we think of the church growing, we tend to think of attendance numbers and large churches. James Bryan Smith says we tend to measure the success of a church by the A-B-C method – attendance, buildings, and cash. And if people are coming to faith in Christ, the church WILL grow. It might be slowly, but it will grow in numbers. But that isn’t at all what Paul is talking about in this passage. He isn’t talking about growth in size at all. He’s talking about growth in depth. He’s talking about growth toward maturity. How many of us would say, “I am maturing in my faith?” If not, why not? Look at Vv. 13-16.


So what does mature faith look like? Paul uses three analogies here – human development from infancy to adulthood, sailors who are tossed around by the waves verses sailors who know how to maneuver their ship in a storm, and the beauty of an athletic body in action. And he kind of mashes them up together to paint a picture of maturity in Christ. The first trait of maturity in Christ is unity. Mature believers have mastered the art of getting along, of disagreeing agreeably, of knowing where to draw lines between what is and isn’t part of the faith, and where NOT to draw those lines. Mature believers recognize that in Christ we are ONE body with many different parts doing many different things, and they handle disagreements well without dividing the body or feeling like they have to leave.


Second, mature believers are growing in their knowledge of and experience with Christ. But this knowledge isn’t just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Life in Christ isn’t a cosmic game of Jeopardy, where knowing the right answers to every impossible question is the key to success. Growing in Christ is more akin to building muscle by working out. Mature believers have more than just knowledge about Christ, although they have that knowledge and they build that knowledge. Mature believers have experience with Christ. They have learned to trust him when trusting is difficult.


When you have experience with Christ and trust him, and also the ability to live together in unity, you are speaking the truth in love. Mature believers are able to live out and speak truth in a gentle and loving way. Mature believers never use truth to hurt someone, and they also don’t distort the truth to be more loving. They are able to bring the two together – truth and love – in a way that only a mature follower of Christ can, because mature believers are becoming LIKE Christ. They aren’t becoming Christ, but they are becoming Christ-like.


Fourth, mature believers have developed a sense of steadiness in the faith. Mature believers are able to discern the truth of Christ from the many lies hidden in shades of gray this world throws our way. Mature believers aren’t gullible like children, and they aren’t tossed here and there like inexperienced sailors. They can make appropriate course adjustments when necessary and maintain a steady course with Christ. Mature believers aren’t rigid and unbending, but they also aren’t taken in “by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” They are able to discern the truth of Christ from the lies of this world and then walk in that truth.


And fifth, mature believers are doing the work of ministry. They understand that ministry isn’t something the pastor does and church attenders receive. One pastor said the church is made up of one big mouth and many tiny ears. Being a part of the body of Christ isn’t sitting and listening and nothing else. What we hear taught, we apply well. And we jump in and do our part of the work of ministry. We all minister to each other. We build one another up. And we reach out, outside our walls, together, building up our community as well.


Mature believers know how to stand in unity, have a growing experiential knowledge of Christ, are able to speak truth in loving ways, are steady, and are doing the work of ministry. The picture Paul uses as an image of the body of Christ as a group of mutually maturing followers of Christ? An athlete at peak performance. Look at V. 16. Michael Phelps might look kind of goofy on land, with his huge hands and feet, his long arms and long torso with short legs, but in the water, doing what he was created to do, he is a sight to behold. Every cell, every joint, every muscle working in perfect harmony as the body glides through the water. Every part created to do exactly what it is doing and built up to incredible strength and efficiency by hours of training and repetition. When each part is working properly, the body of Christ grows so that it builds itself up in love. Let us pray.