What does it mean to be church?

The following comes from a series of sermons preached by our minister the Rev Shuna Dicks on what it means to ‘be’ church.

Part 1 – Ephesians 1:1-14

This week sees us begin a short series of sermons and services looking at what it means to be church. And the title given to this week’s service is ‘One with Christ’. This is a good place to start as it reminds us that above all else we are united by the love of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.

That despite our various starting points, our different experiences of faith, our theological training, our faith backgrounds and traditions – we are united by the love of God found in Jesus Christ. And that truth is a great leveller. It puts us all in the same place. No-one more important or further up the pecking order than anyone else.

And this is important – very important. And worth reminding ourselves of right at the beginning of this series looking at ourselves through the lens of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The Epistles – the letters of the New Testament were not written to individual people but to communities and infant churches. Whilst they can be read as being direct to just us – and indeed we might hear them like that – it is important to remember they were written to a collective.

The letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul when he was in prison. There is some argument over the authorship of this letter – many argue that the style of the letter is so different to Paul’s earlier letters that it cannot be from him. Willie Barclay argument is that this can be explained by the fact that Paul was in prison when he wrote it – he had time to script a more poetic almost liturgical letter. He describes the first three chapters as one long prayer.

There is also some discussion as to whom this letter was written. One of the oldest suggestions is that it was written to Laodicea in inland Turkey as opposed to Ephesus – which although also in Turkey is nearer the coast. The suggestion is that this letter was the letter referred to in Colossians chapter 4: 15 Give our best wishes to the believers in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.[a] 16 After you read this letter, make sure that it is read also in the church at Laodicea. At the same time, you are to read the letter that the believers in Laodicea will send you. 17 And tell Archippus, “Be sure to finish the task you were given in the Lord’s service.”

It is suggested that a copy was then sent of this letter to Ephesus – and has become known as the Letter to the Ephesians and not the letter to the Laodiceans.

This all very complicated and maybe interesting to historians but the essence of the letter remains the same – it is about the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ and that we are united in that love. Indeed, Willie Barclay goes as far as to suggest that this letter was not written to any one particular community but was intended to be passed on – a circular letter. And if Willie Barclay is right in this so is his claim that this is the supreme letter of Paul.

So putting all that interesting conjecture about authorship and intended recipients aside for now – let’s look at today’s reading – the opening verses of the letter.

Although translated into manageable sentences these verses in their original Greek are one very long sentence. The flow of the words reads like a great piece of poetry, ideas sliding into other ideas in words shaped to praise God and our relationships with God through Jesus.

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world.

The flow is important and is full of ready-made liturgical statements none of which is there to be explained but is a stream of expressions that in some way connect us all through the relationship we have with God. We are picked up by them and are invited to join the flow of the stream of ideas.

Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son! 7 For by the blood of Christ[c] we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God, 8 which he gave to us in such large measure!

This passage is one great expression of how God blesses us all through Jesus.

Perhaps some questions to ponder, that will help engage this passage are about the places where we find blessing. Where in our church life do we recognise the blessing of God: might it be in baptism or communion; might it be in the places where community is engaged and where we understand ourselves as ‘being in Christ’; might it be where we are blessed by others in the gifts of wisdom and experience? These are the kinds of things we will consider over the coming weeks.

One of the important insights to recognise and remember is that when the writer speaks of ‘us’ he is speaking not to a group of individuals but to a community. This is not about individual salvation but the blessing that comes to a whole community. It is quite easy to re-translate all Paul’s letters as if he is speaking to individuals but Paul never does that: he is always addressing a community of believers.

The perspective in this passage is much wider and more universal than a list of what we should believe about God. It is about the whole relationship we enjoy with God and the blessings that come as a result of the love in which we are created.

To analyse it too much misses the beauty of this great flow of ideas and moments that hold us in a relationship with God.

It is less for understanding and more for expressing what it means to be ‘in Christ’. What that means flows out of the relationship we have with God rather than being able to understand all the separate elements.

This passage is a vision of what it is to be ‘in love’. Here there are no barriers, no prejudices, no limiting of life because of culture and tradition but the flowing life of a church that is ‘in Christ’, indeed a world that is ‘in Christ’.

All will be one when Christ is proclaimed.

This passage is about God’s limitless love for us all – a love that binds us together.

Paul in this opening passage fair gushes about the wonders of God’s love and of his grace.

He extols his love for God almost like a young man falling in love for the first time. When you fall in love the first time, it is so good, so high, so beautiful, and so euphoric. This is like Paul in this letter.

Paul has experienced and seen the riches of God’s grace, the riches of his mercy, the lavishness of God’s generosity, and the he is overwhelmed by it all. Throughout the whole book of Ephesians, like in no other book in the Bible, you experience and hear Paul’s heart bursting with the joy of the love he feels for God.

God is lavish. His love for us is lavish.

Its not that he gives us lots of things – he doesn’t buy us anything, he doesn’t turn up with goody bags full of all the luxurious extras we might want.

But he showers us with love – he is extravagant with his love – his grace – his mercy. God is not frugal with that. Oh no, God gives and keeps on giving.

You and I may be stingy and mean, but in the Bible and the book of Ephesians, we hear of God’s lavish and generous grace to us.

It never fails to amaze me when I look at the wonder and beauty of God’s creation. The beauty of our earth, the loveliness in the face of a young child, the colours of the flowers that fill our gardens and countryside, the kindness and goodness of people – ordinary people.

God has been lavish with his love.

Of course there is a lot of ugliness in the world – but most of that is man made. I say most of it – but there are some ugly creatures in the word – but maybe that is why God has hidden most of them at the bottom of the sea! I mean what was he thinking with the fangtooth fish – I would have shown you a picture but it might have scared you!

Seriously though – where the earth is not so pretty – where it is littered with rubbish, where it has dried up and no live is apparent, where ponds have gone stagnant – most of that was us. Humans abusing God’s creation.

And yet God, the ever-indulgent Father, carries on loving us, carries on giving us more and more love and grace.

And what about what man does to his fellow man – the evils of war, the bitterness of hate, the tears of the displaced and starving. Not much sign of God’s love there. But plenty of mankind’s work – This is not what God wants – but again he is there ready to reach out to us – even when we are in the pits – when we might not even so much as like ourselves – God is there ready with even more love to pour out on us.

God’s gift of grace is the most precious gift we have. It is the most lavish of presents. No matter what we have done or said – God never stops loving us.

Godfrey Birtill wrote a song called God’s Amazing Grace – the lyrics include these:

There’s a lot of pain but a lot more healing
There’s a lot of trouble but a lot more peace
There’s a lot of hate but a lot more loving
There’s a lot of sin but a lot more grace

Oh outrageous grace, oh outrageous grace
Love unfurled by heaven’s hand
Oh outrageous grace, oh outrageous grace
Through my Jesus I can stand

There’s a lot of fear but a lot more freedom
There’s a lot of darkness but a lot more light
There’s a lot of cloud but a lot more vision
There’s a lot of perishing but a lot more life

There’s an enemy
That seeks to kill what it can’t control
It twists and turns
Making mountains out of molehills

But I will call on my Lord
Who is worthy of praise
I run to Him and I am saved

When we turn to God and we are showered with grace and mercy – he lavishes us with love.

Through Christ on the Cross he did that for us – for you and for me. That outrageous grace – Jesus on the Cross – for you and for me.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians is extolling this – God’s love – God’s lavish love – God’s outrageous love for you and for me.

Each of us – One with Christ. And that is what makes us all a part of Christ’s church.

Over the next few weeks we will explore what it means to be a church united in diversity, a church as the body of Christ and a church prepared and ready.

But for now – it has been good to remind ourselves that our starting point is God’s love for us – at one with Christ.

I know I quote from Eugene Peterson’s The Message often – but its only because he can so eloquently put into contemporary language a contemporary slant on the original text.

And in Ephesians it is no different. This is how Eugene phrases to closing verses of our reading today:

11-12 It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

13-14 It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.
Amen

Part 2 – Ephesians 2:11-22

This is the church: the invitation,
the participation, the collaboration—

the young and the old,
the grown up, the grown bold;

the listeners, the learners,
dependents and earners;

those who went to university, left school at fourteen,
with stress or mess or success in between;

those who read the Guardian, the Times,
the stars and between the lines;

lovers and haters of Marmite, Mondays,
Facebook and Fun Days;

the inventive, inquisitive,
invisible, competitive;

nine to fivers, shift workers, students,
sessional workers, spendthrifts and prudents;

those getting by on a living wage, on pensions,
on bonus pay, on benefits, financial tensions;

computer geeks and technophobes, luddites,
socialites, hermaphrodites, suburbanites;

the politically active, inactive, apathetic,
engaged, enraged, or apoplectic;

the meditators, agitators,
commentators, procrastinators;

the book worms, TV addicts,
coach potatoes and gym fanatics;

rough it outdoors campers, luxurious glampers,
lovers of salmon sandwich hampers or weekend spa pampers;

those who pray on the hoof, or by the book,
who long for proof, or need a hook;

the left brainers, right brainers,
lion tamers, green campaigners;

the sprinters, plodders,
hobblers and odd-jobbers.

This is the church: the invitation,
the participation, the collaboration—

to be part of the mix
is no picnic, no quick fix;

to rub each other up the wrong way,
but rub shoulders for the long way;

together, forever,
in every weather.

This is the church: the invitation,
the participation, the collaboration—

to get things done, to have fun,
follow the Son, till Kingdom come,
to be one, to be one, to be one. (from Spill the Beans)

Is there any other institution on the planet bigger and more diverse and inter-generational than the church? If there is, few of us have heard of it, yet this reality of being a body of people who are rich in their diversity and wisdom and faith seems often to be more of a problem to us than a cause of celebration.

Too often we see diversity as a problem instead of a strength.

Back in Paul’s time when the human population was a tiny fraction of the size it is now, we still struggled to cope with the gift of diversity. The letter to the Ephesians takes up the issue in that culture but we can relate all too well to it today.

Paul’s premise is that God has formed a new humanity, bringing us together from different ends of the cultural and political spectrum in order to make us one in Christ.

Paul’s focus is on Jew and Gentile and the great battle raging in the early church about who was invited into the faith. Paul won that battle and the church became universal.

Last week in our service we were reminded that despite our backgrounds that at the centre of our faith was Christ and that the lavishness of God’s love, his grace, excluded no one.

Paul recognises such peaceful diversity is how the kingdom is shaped. It is not that everyone believes the same thing or expresses their faith or belonging in an identical way. Jew does not become Gentile and Gentile does not become Jew. Both become ‘one in Christ’.

The Holy Land that Paul was preaching to is the same Holy Land today that is still not a place of peace. The peace that Paul was teaching about.

The early church disagreed about many things – including traditions and Biblical interpretation. The example Paul uses is that of male circumcision. But he equally could have used the example of eating foods sacrificed to idols, or the fighting over who to follow Apollos or himself….there were lots of debate in the early church and there is continued debate today.

We are all aware of the most recent struggles within, not just the Church of Scotland, but within many churches over human sexuality and the issue of same sex marriage.

Over the centuries there have been many great debates in the church over many, many issues. It’s not that long ago that my standing here preaching would have caused people to leave the Church of Scotland for no other reason that I am a woman. And sad to say there are still parts of this country that women are still excluded not just from the pulpit but from taking on any leadership role in the church – and that is within the Church of Scotland.

There are still denominations of the church that do not ordain women in any role within their traditions.

This is not a debate based on sexism but a debate, like that of same sex marriage which is biblically based.

Different interpretations of the same text coming to different conclusions.

Differences that have caused people to walk away from their local churches. Even here we have had people leave us because they haven’t agreed with something the Church of Scotland has said or I have said.

And that saddens me. Because it misses the point that Paul is making in our reading today and in our reading from last week.

We have far more in common that we have that is different. Because the most important, the most important thing is that we have God’s love for us. And a faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour.

Paul said ‘It is through Christ that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are able to come in the one Spirit into the presence of the Father.’

That could easily be reworded for us to say ‘It is through Christ that all of us, local or incomer, male or female, young or old, Church of Scotland born and bred or got here via some other denomination or none, gay or straight are able to come in to the one Spirit into the Presence of the Father.’

It’s how we do this that is the real challenge. How do we ensure that everyone feels welcome into the presence of God?

We do it, I think, by recognising our diversity. And having recognised it not to see it as a threat but rather a strength.

In a time when churches are experiencing declining membership and lower attendances at worship, the last thing we should be doing is expecting people who come along to be just like us, to think like us, to be as mature in their faith as us.

The diversity of the Church of Scotland is one of the reasons I love it so much.

Yes there are times when I have been upset by something a colleague or member has said – because I disagreed with them. And I am aware that not everyone here always agrees with me – because on occasion I have been told. And that’s ok. I don’t expect us all to always agree. What I do expect is that in our differences we can be respectful.

I have sat and listened as another church of Scotland minister preached a sermon that basically said that my marriage to a non-Christian was against God’s will. Well after almost 29 years I can honestly say that my marriage to my best friend feels more like a blessing from God than a curse. And God has had a funny way of showing his displeasure – he called me into ministry, which for the most part is a joy – although I would be lying if I said it was never hard.

We are a diverse bunch. I look around this church and see a group of individuals. Each with their own life story to tell, each with their own understanding of God and each with their own journey of faith and what it means to have Jesus Christ as their saviour.

And none of those stories, understandings and journeys has any greater value than another. Not one of you is loved more by God than another.

Your story, your understanding of God, your journey of faith is yours and yours alone.

I cannot tell you what to think. I can give you my insight into what I feel God is saying to me or I can give you what I conclude from my studying the Bible and the context of the text and what it might have to say to our contemporary context but I cannot and should not tell you what to think or feel.

Gone are the days when the preacher would stand here and lambast you with doctrine and theology that woe betide you if you did not accept and adhere to.

That is not the world we live in; it is not the church we belong to.

Instead we have a much more diverse world and much more diverse church.

And of course, that brings it tensions – I would be lying if I said anything other.

But it also brings with it strengths. More strengths than weakness in my view.

That we are all different, that we all have our own opinions and views, that we have we have different stories to tell is a strength. Because it means we bring different ideas, different skills to the table.

Our differences do not have to weaken us. We can be friends with people we disagree with, can’t we?

I have colleagues within the Church of Scotland with whom I disagree with on certain aspects of doctrine and theology. But that does not stop me being good friends with them. That does not stop me working with them for the betterment of the church and God’s Kingdom. Indeed, I have been offered support and encouragement from people who are on a very different place on the theological spectrum to where I am.

Some of my best friends are people I disagree with. I have recently become good friends with someone that not so long ago I would have glowered across the room at. (I know not very Christian of me)

But we are now good friends and confidants. Sharing a mutual trust and respect for each other as well; as being able to laugh together we can disagree without falling out.

Guess what? We discovered we had much more in common than that which we disagreed on.

And yes, sometimes it means keeping my mouth shut for the good of our friendship and sometimes it does mean challenging his views. But this can be done in a civil, polite good natured way – harsh words never help any relationship.

I often think that if we were all a bit more thoughtful about how we express our differences and our concerns, if we were a bit kinder with our words how much easier it would be to get on with folk with whom we disagree or want to challenge. Words can wound. And often it is these wounds that take longest to heal.

And this take me back nicely to what Paul reminds us of in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul’s letter is a wakeup call to the church – not just the Church of Scotland but the Universal church. His letter is an invitation to get back to basics. To put aside our differences and to remember where our strength comes from. Where our unity comes from.

Our foundations are strong. Paul said ‘You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself. 21 He is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord. In union with him you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit.’

We are at our strongest when we stick together, despite our differences. When we recognise there can be diversity in unity and that that can be a strong bond held together by the God’s love and God’s indulgent grace.
Amen

Part 3 – Ephesians 4:1-16

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been thinking about what it means to be uniquely loved by God and to live in unity despite our diversity.

Each of us a unique individual loved by God and recipients of his extravagant grace. We are a diverse group of people – different stories, different understandings of who God is and different journeys of faith. And yet all part of Christ’s church, his body. All gathered here this morning in worship.

Our reading this morning – the next stage of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians takes us from Paul being pastoral and reminding us of God’s love into Paul giving instructions as to how we are to live together despite our differences.

His aim is to bring clarity to what a community of faith should be; not a collection of isolated beings but rather a network of connected individuals who together make up something much more than merely the sum of their parts.

And Paul does not hold back. He exhorts, begs even the Ephesians to hear what he has to say. WE can assume from the urgency of Paul’s letter that there were problems in the young church. He urges them to ‘live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another.’

Were they being otherwise with each other? Were some taking advantage of others or dominating the community in an unhealthy way? Quite likely. This was a new religion, everything was evolving. Paul wants to set them straight and get the groundworks, the foundations sorted before things got out of hand.

He therefore reminds them of the need live up to the standards God set, to be humble, gentle and patient. To show love by being tolerant with one another.

And it is not a bad thing for us to be reminded from time to time that what Paul is saying to the Ephesians he is also saying to us.

We claim the title of Christian and therefore as one writer I read this week put it ‘We wear his name … The Christian calling is a high calling, a high privilege, a high distinction.’

We wear his name – Christ’s name. We therefore have standards to live up to. We should have high expectations of ourselves because others certainly do. One of the biggest turn offs for people when it comes to religion is the hypocrisy people see in the followers of religions.

People have, quite rightly, high expectations of us Christians.

As the writer, I already quoted, Edward Markquart, puts it: ‘A Christian is to be loving, kind and gentle, compassionate and caring with his family, friends and world around him or her. We are to be generous to the poor and starving. We are to work for peace and justice.’

This is something that is expected of us but more importantly is something that we should expect of ourselves.

A wee story to illustrate:
It is the story of William Sydney Porter, Bill Porter, who was a young adult in New York City in the late 1890s, trying to make it as a writer. Bill Porter didn’t do so well, and so he worked as a pharmacist and then a bank teller before he got married.

Unfortunately, Bill Porter embezzled money from the bank just at the time his young wife died, leaving him with a daughter, Margaret. He was also facing a jail sentence.

By 1898, Bill Porter was in prison, serving a three-year term, writing some short stories for the New Yorker and sending what little money he made to support his child, Margaret. While in prison, Bill Porter needed a friend to help him and a prison guard became his guardian angel, helping and caring for Bill and working with Bill to get healthy.

After three years, the time came for Bill to be released and he approached the prison guard, his guardian angel, to thank him. At their last meeting, Bill Porter said to the prison guard: “I can’t leave this prison with my old name. I need a new name for a new life. … I want your name.”

The prison guard responded, “My name? My name is Otto Henry. For generations, there have been Otto Henrys. Otto Henry is a good name, a respected name. You may have my name, but take good care of our name.” The young author said: “I will. I will take good care of our name.”

Well, the young author left prison with the new name for a new life. His name was O. Henry, and that name became one of the most famous names in American literature. But the key line in the story is when the young author, prison inmate, said to the prison guard: “I want your name.” Otto Henry gave it to him, and said: “Take good care of our name.”

This is what Paul is saying to the Ephesians. Take good care of our name.

This what Paul is saying to us. Take good care of our name.

And this is not always easy, is it? It is not an easy calling to live up to. We all fail from time to time, when our actions belie our faith. Things we say, things we do. We are complicated beings – and as such won’t always get things right. I know I certainly don’t.

Edward Markquart closes his sermon on this text saying: ‘So we are left with that divine and profound paradox. On the one hand, we are all sinners who miss the mark and who are in need of God’s lavish grace to forgive us and save us. And the other side of the paradox is this: “I beg you, I plead with you, I implore you: Lead a life worthy of the high calling that you have received in Jesus Christ.” Take care of your good name.’

We need to make a conscious effort to be better, to do better, to live up to the name we claim when we declare ourselves to be Christians.

St Francis of Assisi is attributed with saying ‘Wherever you go, preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.’ – whether or not he actually said those words doesn’t matter, they are still good words to remember and to live by.

They way we live, the words we say, the actions we take – all say something to others about who we are. They are a witness to our faith.

And we evangelise to others through this witness. Did you know you were an evangelist?

Which leads me nicely onto the second part of our reading today.

After reminding us all that we have to live up to our calling as Christians, Paul goes on to remind us that we have received gifts from God to help us follow our calling.

‘Each one of us has received a special gift in proportion to what Christ ah given.’ (Eph 4:7)

And ‘It was he who “gave gifts to people”; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers.’ (Eph 4:11)

So I pose this question… Do you consider yourself a gifted person?

Now I suspect many of you will be thinking…no…not me, nope, I am not gifted in any way.

Well I want to say this to you – you are. Each and every one of us is gifted.

Being gifted under God is not the same as being talented. We often assume when we say that someone is gifted because we recognise in them a talent or being talented. That is being better at something than the rest of us. For example Donald/Maureen is a talented musician. And before they protest….you are better at playing the organ than any of us – much better. You have a talent.

So if being gifted is not the same as being talented – what do I mean when I suggest we are all gifted?

Rev Francis Wade explains this in his sermon on our text, he says this: ‘One way to understand these gifts is that they are the raw material and the tools that God gives us for a certain purpose. And Paul is quite clear about what that purpose is. It is “for building the Body of Christ.” In other words they are not for our benefit but for the benefit of others.’

I was very tempted to read you Rev Wade’s sermon verbatim – he has many good things to say that help us recognise what our gifts, not our talents are.

The raw material that is you – that might be your abilities, special aptitudes, interests and yes talents. But it might also be less obvious things like our backgrounds, how you were raised, insights gleaned from experience, our culture.

Rev Wade reminds us that ‘God went to a lot of trouble to make you and everyone of us as unique as snowflakes. There is a special chemistry to you that makes you different from everyone else. Those who were raised in your household. Those who share your background. Your gift may be that you are high strung or laid back; happy, serious, depressed, concerned, anxious, eager, funny, emotional, supportive, or confrontative. Notice that all of the gifts are not necessarily ones we would want but they are what we have been given for the business of life. They are the gifts that God has set before us.’

You are who you are and you are a gift and you are gifted. Do you recognise that?

Ask yourself how Jesus would describe you or how you would like to be described? What would he say about you? And you will find your answer.

How about thinking about time, place and relationship as gifts?

If our gifts are to help us build up the body of Christ then time, place and relationships are needed. And those we find here in this space we call church. We come to a place, we spend time together and we are in relationship with each other because of our shared faith. Time, place and relationships – gifts.

And each person here is a gift to those around them by being here in this place at this time. But it does not stop there.

We are not only Christian on Sundays. I know that this might sound obvious, but we are Christians outside this building too. And so we take the gifts we have been given out into our lives sharing time, place and relationships not just with those we worship but with those share our lives with; the people we meet in our community, the people we work with, play with. Remember what I said earlier about being evangelists by simply living out our faith and being witnesses to Christ.

These gifts we have are to be used for the body of Christ. And yes that means that some of us will be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers and be easily identified as such but we will each have a little of some of these roles in us.

Rev Wade helps assure us that we are who we are and to be affirmed in that, He says in his sermon: You and I might lament our meagre gifts. We might even wish for some that were more positive and attractive, but such wishing is a waste of time. There is a wonderful story that comes from Jewish tradition about a man named Simon. And Simon wanted always to be more like Moses ~ That was his constant worry. And he kept going to the Rabbi and saying, “Rabbi I must lead my life so that I live more like Moses did.” The Rabbi told him once “Simon God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses? God will ask you why you were not more like Simon?”

He goes on: So are you a gifted person? Yes, absolutely. Where you come from is a gift. Who you are is a gift, what you long to be are all gifts given you by God. The opportunities you have that come from where you are now, and what is going on now and the relationships you have now are also gifts from God. Use them to the Glory of God ~ to the building up of the Body of Christ. Use them to make the world God loves a better place. Do that and you will be doing the business of life.

We are called to be followers of Christ – others look to us to see what that means. They way we live, the words we say, the actions we take – all say something to others about who we are. They are a witness to our faith.

And as Paul in the concluding words of our reading from Ephesians today says: So when each separate part works as it should, the whole body grows and builds itself up through love.

We all have a place in the body of Christ and we are all gifted, loved and treasured.

Amen

Part 4 – Ephesians 6:10-20

Over the last few weeks we have been thinking about what it means to be church and reflecting on Paul’s vision for the church in his letter to the Ephesians. In today’s reading Paul gives advice as to how we are to prepare ourselves for the task of being church by putting on the armour of God.

Before we take a closer look at the armour I want to take a moment to look back on what we have been thinking about over that last few weeks.

WE began by thinking about how despite our various starting points, our different experiences of faith, our theological training, our faith backgrounds and traditions – we are united by the love of God found in Jesus Christ. And that this truth is a great leveller. It puts us all in the same place. No-one more important or further up the pecking order than anyone else.

God’s outrageous grace is outrageous because he offers it to all.

I also spoke about where we might find the blessing of God in our lives. One suggestion was in baptism – and it a delight for us all here that today little Scarlet Louise is being brought for baptism (at Aberlour) and will be blessed in her welcome into the church family. And there is a blessing for us too as we share in that special moment.

WE then went on to think about all the different way we are….well different. And in our diversity we were strong. Diversity brings challenges, yes, but it also brings benefits.

That we are all different, that we all have our own opinions and views, that we have we have different stories to tell is a strength. Because it means we bring different ideas, different skills to the table.

Our differences do not have to weaken us.

And we were reminded that our foundations are strong. Paul said in Chapter 2 of his letter ‘You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself. 21 He is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord. In union with him you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit.’

We are at our strongest when we stick together, despite our differences. When we recognise there can be diversity in unity and that that can be a strong bond held together by the God’s love and God’s indulgent grace. We are a community of faith.

Last week we considered what it meant to live the Christian life – with Paul’s reminder that we are to ‘live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another.’

We wear Christ’s name. We therefore have standards to live up to. We should have high expectations of ourselves because others certainly do. One of the biggest turn offs for people when it comes to religion is the hypocrisy people see in the followers of religions.

People have, quite rightly, high expectations of us Christians.

And we also thought about the gifts each of us has been given by God to use. Not so much gifts as in talents but the gifts that make up who we are.

Rev Wade reminds us that ‘God went to a lot of trouble to make you and everyone of us as unique as snowflakes. There is a special chemistry to you that makes you different from everyone else. Those who were raised in your household. Those who share your background. Your gift may be that you are high strung or laid back; happy, serious, depressed, concerned, anxious, eager, funny, emotional, supportive, or confrontative. Notice that all of the gifts are not necessarily ones we would want but they are what we have been given for the business of life. They are the gifts that God has set before us.’

So we are united by the love and outrageous grace of God; we are a diverse group of individuals who are in community with each other by our shared faith and we wear Christ’s name and have been given gifts to help us.

Today Paul’s helps us even further by offering us armour to put on.

The armour of God is perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in Paul’s letters. It takes imagery that people over the millennia would recognise and be able to contextualise.

This is the language of militarisation, and it feels rather strange in describing the requirements of a follower of the Prince of Peace.

However, this is not just Paul’s fevered imagination from the prison cell at work here, Paul is referencing the very depiction the prophet Isaiah gives of the armour that the Lord will don in order to judge the world. ‘He will wear justice like a coat of armour and saving power like a helmet. He will clothe himself with the strong desire to set things right and to punish and avenge the wrongs that people suffer.’

This is apocalyptic language, thinking about the time of judgement, the final reckoning, and the preparations we should make as part of the Body of Christ, recognising that the powers that work against the principle of love and grace will not go down without seeking to do great damage.

And so we need to be prepared.

Rev Edward Markquart, whom I quoted last week, has a great explanation of Paul’s imagery. He starts by explaining ‘Paul then lists seven qualities, seven pieces of armour that we can benefit from. Paul is so wise in describing each piece of necessary armour. The number seven is symbolic of wholeness, the whole armour, the full suit of armour.’

And he goes on to describe each piece of armour very helpfully– so please excuse me if I now quote Rev Markquart extensively…

First, put on the belt of truth. … Truth in all relationships. Truth about God and God’s love. Truth about our spouse, our children, our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors. Finally grasping the truth about ourselves. To live truthfully and not to live a lie. This is a gift from God.

Then, put on breastplate of righteousness. Right relationships. Healthy relationships. Good relationships with all those around you and even yourself. To be in right relationships and not wrong, sick and demeaning relationships. This is truly a gift from God that we all want.

Then put on foot protectors of peace. Not to be looking for a fight with yourself, your family member, your co-worker. … To be a peacemaker, to work hard for peace and towards peace in all relationships. This is truly a gift from God that we need.

Then, put on the shield of faith. To trust God. To trust that God is with you, to trust that God is in you, to trust that God will strengthen you for every situation that you are facing. You can’t prove it. You can’t prove God. You can’t prove God’s inner strength. You can’t prove eternal life. But you have been given the gift of trust. Trusting your inner spiritual self; trusting God’s slow plan to health and wholeness. You can’t see it, but you trust God’s future plan for your life on both sides of the grave.

Then, put on the helmet of salvation. What a gift to know that you are saved, that there is nothing you can do to earn or merit your own salvation, but that salvation and eternal life are a gift from God. I don’t have to worry about being saved. I don’t have to question whether or not I deserve eternal life. Eternal life is a given. I don’t have to worry about it.

Put on the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God. There is power in the Bible, in the Word of God. The words of Jesus, the Apostle Paul and the Old Testament are not merely words printed on pages of a dusty book that we pull out when the preacher is coming or when we have an occasional Bible devotional. God’s words are living words, intended to live in us. We learn them, memorize them, recite them spiritually in our brains, so that God’s words are constantly inside us. What a resource.

And finally put on praying in the Spirit. There is not a piece of armour mentioned with this seventh quality, but the quality is important. Last but not least is “praying in the Spirit,” in the mood, in the emotion, in the remembrance.

Rev Markquart adds that prayer is part of the armour – even if Paul doesn’t list it as such, he still encourages us to use prayer as the Spirit leads us.

This armour we are encouraged to put on is a great protection for all that the world might throw at us. And it helps us stay focussed on what it is to wear the name of Christ.

So where might we find this armour? Where do we go to find our belts of truth, breastplates of righteousness, foot protectors of peace, shields of faith, helmets of salvation and swords of the Spirit that is the Word of God – where is the armoury?

The armoury where I will be over the next couple of weeks is where much of the equipment the army cadets will be using is kept – but the armoury where we find the armour of God is right here!

This church, you the people of God. We are each other’s armoury.

And that is why it is so important that we don’t forget about our unity of purpose, our being united in God’s love and outrageous grace, and the many gifts we have been given. Last week I introduced you to Rev Francis Wade and his idea of time, place and relationship being gifts from God that we give and receive each time we come to church. In giving of our time and presence to each other here in this place. Time and place shared in relationship with each other through all that unites us – we can keep our armour in tip top condition. Always ready to ward off the temptation and evils of the world.

So as I might enter a very different armoury next week to get myself kitted our for whatever activity might be happening at cadet camp. I hope you will be here in a very different armoury but one where you will be kitted out for a life marked by God’s love and lived out carrying Christ’s name.
Amen