Homily for Proper 18, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 2nd, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worth of the calling to which you have been called…”
The early chapters of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians are a description of how God in Christ, in his unfailing love for humanity, has poured out the riches of his grace upon us. St. Paul blesses God who has blessed us in Christ Jesus with every spiritual blessing. Perhaps the greatest of these blessings is that Christ opened the way of faith not only to the Hebrew people, but also to the gentiles, and that in this remarkable development the people of faith become, in fact, the Temple of God.
Thus, we now reach the fourth chapter of the letter in which St. Paul addresses the question of what it means to live a life worthy of such a calling. Many of us will turn to such a list and perhaps experience a sense of deflation, if not conviction in realizing that we are confronted with lofty demands. What is a life worthy of the calling of God? We read in Ephesians 4 that it is a life lived “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.”
In the world around us, humility and gentleness are for suckers, patience is not a virtue, bearing another person’s foibles in love will only stunt my growth and defer the fulfillment of my personal and individual goals, and unity is, of course, a liberal ideal that can never truly be attained. Thankfully, though, we are members of another society, the Church of Christ. In the Church we are, of course, always humble and gentle with one another, we always have patience for those who think differently from us, no one ever feels unloved, and we are known to the world for our unity with our brothers and sisters in our own denomination and throughout Christendom.
Let us not, then, think ourselves holier simply because we are the church. I offer this thought not to shame us for failing to live up to the goal of a life worthy of the calling of God, but rather to demonstrate that when left to our own devices, desires, and human propensities, we simply cannot do it. What then are we to do?
On the one hand, there are Christian communities that understand this reality all too well but refuse to accept it. The focus of such communities is to try harder and harder, to work more and more to become the people they believe God wants them to be. These communities are often characterized either by an obsessive commitment to transforming the world through social justice initiatives or to obsessive attention to personal improvement through acts of piety and charity. And yet, somewhere along the way they lose sight of God’s grace. As a result, the harder they work their increasing moments of failure stand in stark contrast to their fleeting moments of success, and begin to realize that they are falling short of the glory of God.
On the other hand there are Christian communities who live with a sense of perpetual realized holiness. There is no need to work at things at all for God has made me perfect in his eyes. I am saved and I live a holy life through the virtue of being washed clean in his blood. Such groups are often characterized by a lack of concern for issues of social justice, the care of the world around them, and quite frankly, any concern for the well-being of anyone else outside the salvation of their eternal soul. Those who join such groups and cannot seem to attain that expected feeling of perpetual holiness often feel that they are unworthy in the eyes of God, and indeed, unlovable.
To be sure, these two portraits are caricatures. The reality is that both portraits speak to a dichotomy of the human condition within each of us. Each one of us will be tempted at times to either earn our stripes as a Christian through works of benevolence and charity or to be tempted to into believing that we are holier than we really are simply because we are Christians. But neither of these temptations are what it means to lead a life worthy of the calling of God because ultimately, both pictures focus not on God, but on you and me and what we are doing to lead a good and holy life.
The spiritual and ethical disciplines of gentleness, humility, patience, mutual upholding in love, and the striving for unity come not from efforts that derive from human potential. Rather, they are the outpouring of divine potential. What do I mean by this? Let us consider what St. Paul goes on to say a bit further in the fourth chapter.
After enumerating the characteristics of a life worthy of the call of God, he does not immediately go about giving us tools to live the life, but rather speaks of the origin such a life. He turns to examine the character of God and who we are in light of God’s character. “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.” Anglicans will of course immediately recognize this as the opening of our baptismal liturgy. Our identity as Christians is rooted in the oneness of God who is above, through, and in all. Let me put it another way. Years ago, I offered a word of thanks to a much beloved history professor at York University for an act of kindness he extended. He responded by paraphrasing the apostle: “Not me, Dan, but Christ in me.” He then went on to say that given the background of his life and upbringing he was not capable of offering the kindness that was extended. It was only because Christ dwelled in him.
Now, he was not saying that his humanity was evil, but rather that his humanity had been transformed in Christ. This is precisely the point made by Paul in the subsequent verses concerning his descending into the lower parts of the earth prior to his ascension. What I believe Paul is trying illustrate here is the assumption and transformation of our humanity in the Incarnation of Christ. Christ came among us not simply as a visitor or a ghost but as a true and living man who was born, lived and breathed, and died. God, in Christ, not only walked amongst us but assumed our nature that we might assume the divine nature. Thus, the Christian life is a life in which we lay hold of that divine nature that coming to fruition within is, or more appropriately, God lays hold of us. To be a Christian is not necessarily to emulate the Christ but to allow Christ to conform our character to his. This is what we mean when we say we are “in Christ” or as St. Paul says elsewhere, “in Christ we are a new creation.” Indeed, in the Incarnation of our Lord Christ fills all things. Thus, we are his Temple and he will transform us in order that we shall be capable of this calling.
Alas, we live in an “in-between” time in which all has not yet come to fruition. This is what leads some groups to work all the harder, forgetting the one that is already within them and why others place too much emphasis on what they already have, forgetting that the road ahead may yet be long. The reality is that each of us struggles daily with who we are under our old nature and who we are in Christ. The old nature, the one that is focused on me, both on what I can do or what I already have is a selfish nature. We can delude ourselves by playing into its charms and seductions. The new nature, or more precisely, our true nature is the one that draws us out of ourselves. It recognizes that it is God who calls, God who animates, God who gives life, and God who gives direction. It is an empathic nature; one that finds its ground of being in the divine and wholly Other and directs our actions toward those around us who are “other” than us. It is a nature that is drawing us into the completion of who we are. This is why in his companion letter to the Colossians Paul can speak of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We live in an age of expectation but it is also an age of hope.
As we are drawn into this growing maturity we will begin to understand, and believe that our faith journey is less about what I can do for God, but what God desires to do through me, and more precisely, and what God desires to do through us, his people. Thus, to live a life worthy of the calling of God, is hand over all our failures at being humble and gentle, to hand over all the moments where we could not be patient, to hand over the moments where we fell short of holding up each other in love, to hand over our frustrated attempts at unity, and turn to the one who shapes our destiny through his indwelling Spirit. Seek him where he may be found, in the longing of your transformed heart, and in the face of your brother or sister, then we shall lead a life worthy of the calling of God.
Copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves