God has a plan for us to have perfect spiritual unity with him in Christ. As I think about how Paul described it in our text today, it reminds me of a flock of birds, or a school of minnows, where the whole group moves as one body. Imagine a world like that, where everyone is united by one spirit, and acts like one body. Because of that connection, everyone in that world cares deeply about everyone else. Every last person will give you the shirt off their back—they will do anything for you. No one ever says an unkind word. If it’s been a rough day, the first person you run into would love nothing more than to drop everything and listen to your problems. Of course, to live in that world, you also have to care deeply about everyone else.
For the past two Sundays, we have been hearing about the plan that God has to create that loving unity that I have just described. He has chosen us in Christ. In Christ he has brought us near to himself. Together, all of us are in Christ and Christ is in us, so that we are like one body under Christ our head. Today Paul continues to explain God’s plan for perfect unity in Christ, by explaining that God has given us people who preach and teach his Word and administer the Sacraments, so that we will grow in our faith. God wants us to grow into the mature body of Christ—so that Christ’s love fills us and comes out in Christian love for everyone around us. Christ is the Head and we are the body; his attitudes and actions are supposed to come through in our attitudes and actions. His humility, his gentleness, his patience and self-sacrifice will be seen in our humility, our gentleness, our patience, and our self-sacrifice. God’s great plan is a perfect world where everyone deeply cares about everyone else, because we are all united in Christ—Christ in us, and all of us together in him. We certainly aren’t there yet, but God is building us up. And while God’s work in us isn’t complete yet, it certainly is a reality.
Hear the Word of God through the apostle Paul in Ephesians, chapter 4:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
In our verses today, Paul said that we are called to “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Christ dwells in us through faith, and his thoughts and attitudes fill our thoughts and attitudes.
Now if you’re like me, you might be a little put off by that idea, because you have seen some people who were bubbling over with faith and love for Jesus, and you feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of being like that. It just isn’t you; you might not have that bubbly radical personality. I don’t. Paul isn’t saying you have to, though. When you take time to think what he actually means that Christ dwells in you, you find a wonderful thought that fits with every personality. It’s the unity in Christ that I was talking about when I began this sermon.
In the opening words of our text Paul explains what your life as Christ’s body should look like:
Paul encourages us to be humble—always remembering that in our relationship with God we are like children in the Father’s household, and like servants in our King’s palace. In humility, think of yourselves as servants, because this is the attitude of Christ our Head. On the night before he was crucified, Jesus’ disciples had begun to argue about which of them would be greatest in heaven. Jesus answered them by showing them humility. He, the greatest, the Son of God, was not too proud to be their servant. He got up to wash their feet. Be humble, like Christ, your Head.
Paul encourages us to be gentle—especially when dealing with people who are crushed and suffering, or when you need to rebuke someone who has a soft heart. When Jesus came to his friends Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus had died, he gently reminded them that he all who believe in him will rise from the dead. Then, when he approached the tomb and saw the friends and family crying, he felt their pain and he wept also. Then he raised Lazarus from the dead. Have a gentle heart like Jesus. When someone is in pain or struggling, feel their struggle and feel their pain.
Paul encourages us to be patient—When they don’t get it, when they relapse, when they are slow to obey, make your fuse long. In Acts 1:6 we hear that Jesus disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” This was after teaching them for three years, telling them all along that his kingdom is not of this world, and showing them that the glory of his kingdom would come only by suffering and death and cross. Then, after he had finished his glorious mission, conquering death for all who believe in him by his resurrection from the dead—the disciples seem like they hadn’t noticed that glorious victory. They said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus did not give up on them even then. Forget the patience of a saint. Have patience like Christ, your head.
We are to bear with one another in love—because you care about your fellow Christians and value them as one with you in Christ, and you want to build them up. If they are slow or rebellious, it just means that you will have to be more patient, more tactful, more persistent, or more bold—whatever it takes because the goal is to be united in Christ. You are like your Head, the Good Shepherd who goes out to find just one lost sheep.
Finally we are to make every effort to keep our unity, as Paul wrote. We are supposed to be like Jesus, who did not want Peter to lose his faith during those last and most difficult days of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus reached out to Peter, by telling Peter what was coming—that Peter would betray him, by praying for Peter so that he would not fall away. And then, when Jesus was on trial and surely had a thousand things on his mind, he took time to look down to Peter with a look that called him to repentance. With that look from Jesus, Peter instantly felt the guilt of his sin in saying that he didn’t know Jesus. Then, after the resurrection, Jesus made a special effort to approach Peter by the Sea of Galilee in order to restore their relationship. Like Christ your Head, no effort is too much, no matter what you may be suffering yourself. You are never too busy or too troubled to help someone else.
Does that describe you? It doesn’t, does it? Not perfectly. But Paul didn’t expect that it would when he wrote these words. He actually said that Christ is building us up, so that one day we will be perfect little imitations of Christ. Now, according to the Bible, that isn’t going to happen until Christ brings us to live with him in heaven. For now, we are growing and striving for unity as Christ builds us up.
Paul wrote, “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
The apostles and prophets were those who first received the Word of God, and they wrote it down for the rest of us in the Bible. The evangelists are those who took that message and spoke it to people who had not heard before. Pastors and teachers care for these new believers, building them up in their faith until they are mature members of the body of Christ—full of Christ and showing a Christ-like mind and attitude in everything they do.
Once again, in this life we will never be fully mature members of the body of Christ—that is something we have to wait for until God brings us to heaven. But while we wait, Christ has given us his Word to build us up. He has also given pastors and teachers of his Word, who have spent time studying God’s Word so that they can use it to strengthen other Christians.
As you strive to be Christ-like people, you may become discouraged by your lack of success. You may feel like you are not part of the body after all, or that you don’t belong in the body. The pastor’s job is to speak this Word of God that reminds you of Christ’s humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Christ was not too proud to come to earth to save such horrible sinners as us, though we often forget him and slide back into our sins. After Christ offered his perfect life in our place, and suffered our punishment, remember that he made a point of seeking out Peter. The rock-like apostle Peter was so shaken in his faith that he denied even knowing Jesus on the night before Jesus died. Still, after the resurrection, Jesus came to Peter by the Sea of Galilee to tell him that he was still to be an apostle. Jesus was not too proud to use apostles who were less than perfect. In fact, Jesus still called him Peter, which means rock, because in God’s eyes his sins had been forgiven and he was still the rock-like man of faith. Christ’s forgiveness covers you too, and he is not too proud to be your Head and include you in his body.
The pastor baptizes, and reminds you of your baptism, where God marked you as his own child, promising that he would be gentle and patient with you, even though he knew long ago what all your faults and sins would be.
The pastor distributes the Lord’s Supper to you, because even though Christ has seen what you have thought and done, he is still patient with you, and he continues to offer himself and his sacrifice to you. In his great patience, though you may fail him time and again, he continues to give you his own body and blood, so that the life he sacrificed for you would be in you and a part of you. Then also, that same body was raised from the grave on the third day, and the living Christ is given to you with the bread and wine to dwell in you. Christ has given people to you who can preach to you and teach you these things, reminding you that you belong as a member of his body.
Christ is your Head, and he lives in you through faith. When you are moved by your faith, you are thinking like him and acting like him. In your actions you are like his hands to help people. In your words you are like the mouth of Christ, speaking gentle, humble, patient words. That’s already true when you act according to your faith. One day it will be perfectly true. Paul calls it your maturity as part of the body of Christ. It’s coming after you die, when Christ lifts you up to heaven, and when he raises your body on the Last Day. We will be with Christ, and we will be like Christ. Paul wrote in Philippians that we eagerly await our Lord Jesus Christ, because on that day he “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Don’t give up on living like Christ, because you have a glorious future as a member of the body of Christ!
As we mature in Christ, the more we think like him and act like him, the more we will come to realize that we are at odds with the rest of the world. The sinful world is opposed to Christ, and they will be against us too. You will notice it when your Christian thoughts and attitudes make people angry with you. They aren’t going to like you telling them that they are doing wrong. They will tell you that you need to be more understanding, and that you just need to love and accept them for who they are. What they really mean is that they don’t want you to be a part of the body of Christ. A member of Christ’s body does what Christ does, and says what Christ says. They are betting that they are more important to you than Christ is, and they demand that you be united with them in accepting their sin rather than be united with Christ. Like Paul said, they are cunning and crafty—they know that your heart is going is going to pull you towards them. You want your family’s love. You want to be cool with your friends. Their relationship seems so much closer and more real than your relationship with Christ. To paraphrase what one of you wrote in the sermon survey this week, “Logically, I know that the love of God is more powerful and better than my family’s, but I still want theirs.”
In those situations, be like Christ. Gently, with love, and with patience, you need to speak the truth to them. Because you are united with Christ, let his gentleness, his humility, and his patience flow through your actions as you truly love your fellow Christians, your family, friends, and really all people. Also let his words flow from your lips. As long as they are against Christ, you can’t have perfect peace with them. When Christ would rebuke, you rebuke. Also, when Christ would forgive, you forgive. After all, this is what you have been called to do. This is what you are being built up for. Christ is your Head, and you are his body. Amen.