Last month I traveled to Washington DC with our ecumenical youth group so that we could learn more about poverty and homelessness in America. Many of you have been on mission trips, so you know that traveling as a group means living in community in ways that we are not accustomed to here at home. Oftentimes it means sleeping on the floor, cooking together and showering in the same bathrooms. It means sharing space with people you don’t know; people who are different from you, and for some it can be a pretty big adjustment if you’re not used to it. But at the end it always seems that everyone ends up growing close in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. One of the first things you have to come to terms with is the diversity of the group and the people that you encounter, because it is imperative to the mission, whatever that is, that everyone fall into a rhythm of unity. Our group traveled in unity to the nation’s capital where we hooked up with an even larger group; and everywhere we went we found ourselves working with diverse groups of people who had come together in a unified purpose, which was to reach out a hand of understanding to those in need.
I think this was what Paul had in mind as he wrote this letter. I did not read the entire letter to you; if I were to read it all, we wouldn’t have time to talk about it. But when it was first written, it was meant to be read in its entirety –not just to the Ephesians – but to all of the churches in the surrounding area. Well it did better than that because it is still being passed around today – to Christian churches all over the world! This letter is about relationships; and since healthy relationships are the heartbeat of God’s kingdom it is as relevant today as it was when it was first written.
Today, we jumped right into chapter 4, but had we read the first three chapters we would have known that the author was making it clear that in Christ, there was to be no more distinction between Jew and Gentile. In fact, this letter was written to Gentile believers who were gathered in communities and cities all throughout ancient Asia Minor. These cities were major urban areas with all sorts of different people and religions; and Ephesus was at the center of it all since it was the location of the great temple of Artemis.
To me it seems pretty amazing that the people who were living in these big cosmopolitan areas were suddenly willing to switch gods just like that. Plenty of them did though; in fact, plenty of them went underground and were exiled from friends and family all so that they could be a part of this powerful movement where unity is created by love and grows in love. But people are people, and regardless of all the good intentions, it was a major struggle for both Jews and Gentiles to accept God’s gift of reconciliation. For some odd reason, people seem to think that the only way to be on the “inside” is if someone else is on the “outside,” and the idea that everyone is now equally gifted by God is one that people have just never managed to latch on to. Today it’s the same struggle, only now “Jew and Gentile” have been replaced with “gay and straight,” “black and white,” “rich and poor,” or “men and women.”
Paul’s message speaks just as loud and clear today as it did when it was originally written, because no matter how you look at it, living in community can be messy and difficult. We all have different talents, beliefs, perspectives, opinions and ideas that sometimes clash and when that happens it can get pretty ugly. It seems the tendency is always to separate and go our own way when we disagree, and for this reason there are literally thousands of different religions and denominations all insisting that their way is the only way. So we need reminders – all of us – because unity is vital to our growth, and part of living in unity means embracing the diversity of others and understanding that our differences are part of what makes God’s community so rich.
This is why I love the United Church of Christ so much. One of our logos is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” I love that because unity and diversity describe the very essence of God. Diversity does not compromise God’s oneness; it makes it like a prism where rainbow-filled light shines as God moves and shifts. The early church knew that and out of this mysterious paradox of unity and diversity, came a radical new understanding about God – what we now call the trinity.
Yet even though Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit were intended to teach us about a dynamic God, some people just never seemed to be able to get on board with it, which eventually caused a regression back to rigidity, control and law-making by imprisoning the trinity into a hardened weapon of hierarchy and exclusion. The trinity at its best is really all about relationship, and relationships, like God, are dynamic, energetic and vital. The trinity is about a God who is hospitable and healing and creating spiritual union, transcending dualistic concepts like “us,” “them,” “in,” “out,” “mine,” “yours,” “better,” “worse.” It does not standardize or assimilate or colonize or wipe out our identities. In the trinity, being in relationship transcends what divides. In the trinity, we are together, but not the same.
And Paul’s Ministry of Reconciliation calls us to remember that deep down we are all one – one body, one Spirit, one hope, and that all our divisions and disharmony are not reflective of God or of God’s dream for us but of human failing, human pride, and human resistance to that dream. Imagine reaching a level of spiritual maturity where you are so focused on God that you can see all people as children of God, where you can find truth in every point of view—even those that differ most from yours, and imagine that you can serve anyone and everyone because that is what Christ would do.
Paul says: “You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same.” In the letter to the Ephesians, unity is not the same as uniformity. The mystery of God that is made known in Christ does not seek to eliminate the distinctions between different groups. Instead, it reveals “the wisdom of God in all of its rich variety” (3:10). Part of our call is to tolerance, or “bearing with one another” and the assumption is not that all distinctions will cease, but that even with the persistence of differences, the church may nevertheless grow together as a body.
Today we remember who we are, who we are called to be as followers of Jesus, and what we are living for. Within our own congregations and within our yoke, we are called to be one, to be reconciled, to be strong, to strive to be worthy of our calling. But it doesn’t stop there because we are called to seek that same unity across congregational and denominational lines, to reach out to our Christian sisters and brothers and to find common ground, common hope, common calling. All of this is to bear witness to the loving God who “laid down the earth’s foundations,” thinking of us, focusing an immeasurable love on us, intending for us to be whole and holy through the power of that love.
What a beautiful reminder on this beautiful day in the park where we have all gathered together as one body, one spirit and one mind. On the way here I was admiring all of the wildflowers that seem to pave my way wherever I go these days. What I love about them is the beautiful mixture…all of the oranges, yellows, purples, pinks and whites everywhere dancing together in the wind in perfect harmony. It’s like one giant diverse, yet unified bouquet beckoning and welcoming me wherever I go, and in my mind it is a perfect witness to God’s immeasurable love for us.