Pentecost 10B: Maintain the Gift of Unity

The readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament       Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15

Psalm                    Psalm 78:23–29

New Testament      Ephesians 4:1–16

Gospel                   John 6:24–35

I will focus here on the Ephesians reading, and especially the first four verses:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

It doesn’t matter whether you accept the traditional view, that the Apostle Paul wrote Ephesians, or someone a generation or two later wrote in his honor and with his theology; the urgency and emotion is the same. The author is on his knees, begging the people to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

A recent pre-marital counseling session I conducted reminded me of a set of insights I have accumulated through the years: marriages start with love, they falter when that love is questioned, but couples can surmount any problems when they do it together.

The couple I counseled at my home this past week was ideal in every way. They both were mature. They both cared deeply for family. They shared many interests, including a farming life they hoped to pursue, and a love for the out-of-doors, and caring for animals. As I took notes I filled a couple of pages of legal pad paper with their enumeration of the reasons they love each other.

Then I reminded them that life, and married life in particular, is full of challenges. Challenges bring on disagreements, and the temptation is to start taking all the things on your “things you love list,” and start keeping a mental list of disappointments and wounds.

But, I assured this couple, as I have done everyone I married, that if they could but remember why they loved each other in the first place they could fight that temptation to give up on their spouse, and they could handle every problem.

I think Paul, or whoever wrote Ephesians in Paul’s name, had the same basic ideas in mind. “Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” is the heart of the exhortation and prayer. Maintain what you were given as a gift.

This letter to the Ephesians is all about “together.” Ephesus is Paul’s baby. He spent more time and effort in Ephesus than he did any city. This letter has his name on it, and it may or may not have been written by him—it could have been written in the next generation or two – but it certainly expresses Paul’s hopes and prayers. All of his letters say the same thing: “We can handle anything if we stick together.”

And if Paul was doing marriage counseling with this congregation he would have the people talk about all the ways they love each other—and he would plead with them:  “Don’t forget—don’t take this inexpressible for granted.”

“Maintain the love and the unity it nourishes!” And then comes the words that very likely came from the baptismal liturgy of Paul’s day: At the very beginning of your life of faith you are told this faith, and this unity of believers is a great good gift:  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

The same holds for us today. It matters not whether you were baptized as an infant or as an adult, you started with the Spirit’s gift of faith and love for your fellow believers. You did nothing to deserve your baptism. But with the water there was a promise given: “One body, one Spirit, one calling, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, all held together by one God and Father of all who is above all, through all, and in all.”

But oh how easy it is for the devil to wheedle in there and make you neglect and forget this gift. One of the most common themes of the New Testament is that Satan is working overtime to lie and confuse and delude people. Today we call it disinformation.

Of course there are the BIG divisive issues of our day: race relations, politics, inequality and poverty, sexual identity, and global pandemic. And the devil is having a wonderful time spreading disinformation about all of these things to keep us all polarized and mistrustful of each other.

And, believe me, these were big tools for the Devil in Paul’s day too. But he fought back by insisting that in Christ there is a New Creation: No longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female. We are one. God gave us this gift—now maintain it (Galatians 3:27-28)!

But the devil doesn’t need these big, dramatic tools to divide us, does he? Though Sunday mornings remain the most segregated time of the week, and churches seem amply segregated with blacks here and whites here and Asians there, and the poor well sealed off from the wealthy, and increasingly the liberals from the conservatives, the devil can still divide even the most homogenous church in many ways. We don’t need to fight over racism when we can fight over the kind of light bulbs or toilet paper we buy, or where the AA groups who use our buildings  put the coffee pots away and extinguish their cigarettes.

The devil can also cannily use the “big little things.” What happens when the pastor leaves? When the congregation’s bank account runs dry? When we have to decide how to worship during this new wave of the pandemic?

Any one of these things can cause us to leap from thinking “That person has a completely different approach to this problem;” to being quite sure “That person doesn’t love my church, probably doesn’t love God, and definitely doesn’t belong here.”

Soon the unity you had begins to fray at the edges, and then is torn apart. Why? Because we didn’t maintain the gift of the unity we once loved so much. We forgot one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We let the devil trick our eyes and our hearts and we began to see other people not as bringing a wealth of new ideas—but as enemies who just don’t belong.

The reason the writer of this letter gets down on her or his knees to beg the people to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, is because this is the way the world comes to know God’s love.

When Paul first came to Ephesus, on the Western edge of what is now Turkey, nobody had heard of Christ. Nobody could imagine that God could love them, much less the whole world, so much that God would send his son to die for them.

By the time someone wrote the Letter to the Ephesians in Paul’s name and with his spirit, the number of Christians may have grown from the thousand or so of Paul’s day to about 7,500 in the whole of the Roman Empire or Mediterranean region. But they were still a miniscule fraction—maybe 1 or 2 out of ten thousand!

How would the world know of God’s great, self-sacrificing love if Christians couldn’t love? How could these Christians survive in world of hate and shine the light of peace and justice and love?

So, today. Think we must all think of our  great-grandchildren, our grand-children, our children, our brothers and sisters,  and husbands and wives. How many of them live their whole lives feeling they don’t belong—feeling no one understands or accepts or loves them. How many of them don’t go to church because they are told they will find nothing but guilt and judgment and bigotry there?  How many of them don’t know yet how much God believes in them and loves them?

It is for the sake of all of these people we love, and for the billions we don’t even know. For their sake we must maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

We take courage because we don’t have to create that unity, or earn it or deserve it. It is given to us as a gift of one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

All we need do is maintain it. We do that by remembering why we love Christ, and the people here at Grace.

Make a list. Call it the Creed: We believe in God the Creator, in Christ the redeemer and lover of our souls. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  The Spirit has gathered us together in faith and helped us through countless generations to do great things for the world.

We have these things as gifts. It makes us love each other though none of us are perfect.

Now maintain this unity. And remember, there is nothing we can’t do—no problem we can’t solve, when we do it together.  

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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