The Gift of the Church

(Psalm 68:1-13, 17-20, 32-35, Ephesians 4:1-16)

Our passage from Ephesians this morning is a difficult one in some ways, largely having to do with Paul’s use of Psalm 68. As you likely noted during the reading, Psalm 68:18 says that God received gifts from people, while the quotation of that verse in Ephesians 4:8 says he gave gifts. At first glance, this seems like sheer incompetence; and yet, Paul had trained as a rabbi and he knew the Scriptures very, very well, so that’s out. What he has done here with the psalm must have been deliberate. Of course, that only raises the question, how could he justify doing what he did?

The answer seems to lie in the broader context of Psalm 68. You see, this is what has been called a “divine warrior” psalm, celebrating God’s defeat of his enemies, both past and future; victorious, he ascends Mount Zion, his holy mountain, having taken captives and plunder from those who opposed him. So far, so clear. The connecting point is that in the ancient world, kings would give away some of the spoils to their supporters, probably as a means of strengthening their position; they plundered their defeated enemies not simply to enrich themselves but to reward and strengthen their friends.

We can see this even in the text of this psalm. In verse 12, after announcing the flight of the Lord’s enemies, the psalmist observes, “The women at home divide the spoil”; and in verse 35, God is praised because “he gives power and strength to his people.” Thus the gifts Christ gives his people are precisely those gifts he has wrested from his enemies. The one who descended from heaven to the earth, Paul says, has now ascended back to heaven in victory, showering on his people the gifts he received.

And what were those gifts? Us. It’s one of the interesting things about Ephesians 4:11 that the focus isn’t on what we think of as “spiritual gifts” but on people who have been gifted to serve in particular ways. Christ came down to live among us, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death, and to ascend back to heaven in glory, where he now intercedes for us before the throne of grace; and in his victory he won us as the spoils, and from his place before the throne he now gives each of us as gifts to his people.

Paul specifically highlights those who have been given to the church in various leadership roles, but note the purpose he names for such people: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Too often, churches are defined by their pastors, denominations by their leaders, and both by their structures; but Paul says no, the purpose of those leaders (and thus, logically, those structures) is to serve the people of God, such that his saints—that’s you—are well-trained and -equipped to do the work of the ministry of the church.

Note the goal to which that’s aimed: “until all of us come to the unity”—that’s one: we’re supposed to be united; but on what terms?—“of the faith”—that’s two: “the faith” in Paul’s usage being of course faith in Jesus Christ and him alone, no exceptions, no additions, no alternatives, no fooling—“and of the knowledge of the Son of God”—that’s three: we are to be united in and by knowing Jesus Christ. The primary focus here isn’t on what we know about him, because one could know a great deal about Jesus and not know him at all; that’s part of the picture, but the focus is on the direct, personal, experiential knowledge of Jesus and his love which comes from being in close relationship with him.

That’s what the Holy Spirit is on about in our lives: telling us about Jesus, drawing us close to Jesus, helping us to know Jesus, and indeed God the Father also, in this real and personal way. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son and wants to talk about them, and so the more we’re filled with the Spirit, the better we will know them, the more we’ll love them, and the more we’ll want to talk about them, too.

Through this, we come “to maturity,” which is “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” It’s important to note that this is a collective statement, not merely that we become mature individuals—though that’s obviously part of the picture—but that collectively as the church, we become mature. Unity in Christ, after all, is an element of maturity in Christ. This is about how we live. All of Paul’s thought in this passage flows out of the clarion call with which he opens it: “I urge you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We were created in love by God the Father, and redeemed in love at a horrible cost by his only Son, and now we have been given in love the great gift of his Holy Spirit in our lives; that wasn’t just so we could keep toddling comfortably along like the rest of the world and then go to heaven when we die. God did all this for us to give us something far, far better—to give us the life of heaven, not just after we die, but now—and he wants us to experience the full goodness of his gift.

That’s part of why he calls us as a people and gives us the church, and gives us to the church. He lays out these commandments in verses 2-3, and then look at verse 7: to each one of us grace has been given—how? Enough grace to do this perfectly by ourselves? No; to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. And then he goes on to talk about the spiritual gifts. Jesus sent us his Spirit to empower us to be humble and gentle and patiently loving with one another, to seek the good of others ahead of our own and have a long fuse with the failures and sins of those around us—why? Because those are good virtues? Well, yes, but for a more specific reason as well: because those are the virtues that enable true unity and peace. And why is that important? Most basically, because we are all called by one God, we are one people serving one Lord, filled with one Spirit and given one common faith, and we ought to reflect the unity in love of the God whom we worship; but on a practical level, there is also this: we cannot live the life of Christ alone. God didn’t set it up that way.

Understand this, because this is important, and God did it deliberately: he took all the gifts and strengths that are necessary for us to grow to maturity in Christ, as individuals and as a people, and he mixed them up and gave some of them to each of us—and then he gave each of us as gifts, to the church and to each other. He designed us and prepared us to work together, to live together, to be fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each of us has strong areas that stick out, and weak areas where we have holes; I am strong where you are weak, and you are strong where I am weak, and we fit together such that our strong areas fill in the weak areas of others.

This is what it means when we say we believe in the church: not that we put our faith in the church—we put our faith in Jesus Christ—nor that we believe we are saved through the church—we are saved by Jesus Christ—but that we recognize that we are saved into the church, the one holy people God is creating for himself through the work of Jesus Christ, by the power of his Spirit. It means that we confess that we can’t live this life on our own, that we need each other, because God has designed and gifted us to need each other; it means that we understand that we are not for ourselves, but that we are gifted to serve others, to be God’s gifts to them, and that we need to accept them humbly as God’s gifts to us as well. Granted, some of those around us may not be the gifts we might have wanted God to give us, but even so, they are the gifts he knows we need.

Now, in the language of the Nicene Creed, when it affirms one church, it adds three adjectives, so let’s take a look at those for a minute; and let’s take them in reverse order. The creed affirms the one church as apostolic. There are those who take this as referring to a continuity of structure between the church now and the earliest church; this is of course the basis of the Roman claim for the authority of the popes. That’s false. What’s in view here is something much more fundamental: the true church is that which stands in continuity with the faith and teaching of the apostles, which we have revealed to us in the New Testament. We share their faith and understand ourselves as under the authority of that teaching, rather than feeling free to accept only what pleases us.

Also, the creed affirms the one church as small-c catholic: though the form and culture of the church changes through the ages, and there are differences about particular beliefs, we are not many churches, we are all one, because we all have the same Spirit and worship the same Lord. Any individual part of the church which claims the label “catholic” exclusively for itself makes a false and unjustifiable claim.

And finally, the one church is holy, not because we have reached moral perfection, but because the work of Christ in our lives has restored our relationship with God and set us apart as his people; he’s now about the process of changing us from the inside out so that our lives reflect what he has already done in our hearts. It’s rather like education—as one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, educated is what you’re supposed to be coming out, not going in. Holy is what we’ll be when God is done with us, not what we have to be to sign on.

The key in all this is that when Jesus sent us his Spirit, he didn’t do so just to bless us as individuals—he sent his Spirit to enable us to lead a different kind of life, so that each of us, in our own way and with our own gifts, might be a blessing to his people, his body, the church. He didn’t call us and fill us with his Spirit to live for ourselves; rather, he called us to live devoted lives—lives devoted to his service, to the service of the church, and to the service of all those in need—and he gave us his Spirit to empower us to do so. Thus, as we pray that the Spirit would shine the light of Jesus into all the world, we need to remember that part of the point is that his light shines into every part of our lives, as well, seeking out and burning away the darkness in us; we need to remember that looking at Jesus changes us, and the longer and more intently we look, the more we will change, because the ultimate goal is for us to look like him.

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