In chapter three of Ephesians today, Paul continues unpacking the depth and width of salvation. In chapter one, Paul gave a panorama view of salvation and how salvation necessarily transforms who we are, while in chapter two Paul explains that this change is both instant and gradual, as God declares us holy through Jesus and then spends our lifetimes sculpting us more into that holy person we’ve been declared to be. Now in chapter three, though hard to follow at times and with more to cover than I have time, Paul uses his own testimony—his own life’s story of experiencing those things he just described: salvation, justification, sanctification—Paul uses his testimony to introduce a new theme in this letter: unity. Paul first entered the Bible’s stage in the Book of Acts as a zealous Jewish person persecuting Christians, an enemy of the early Church. That origin is why Paul here and elsewhere calls himself “the very least of all the saints” in admission of his sinful and hurtful past. But Acts says Paul had a miraculous vision of God while traveling to hunt down another group of Christians, and he finally sees the light of Jesus and the error of his ways. And so Paul—who was once an enemy of the Church—now has instead been united with it. Moreover, Paul here explains how God specially tasked him “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Jesus Christ.” Paul, who once was so zealous for his Jewish faith that he persecuted Christians, now travels the known world speaking with non-Jews that they might likewise be united with him in the faith he once persecuted.
Of all the times of the year, we Americans are perhaps most united in desire, belief, and identity as a nation at this particular time, in the two weeks we’re in the middle of. Between last Sunday’s playoffs and next Sunday’s Super Bowl, 90% of us Americans will be united… as we once more root together for the New England Patriots to lose the big game. This is my fourth state to call home, yet still I find wherever I go that—when in doubt—insult either the Patriots or Yankees… and you’ll fit in just fine. But still, despite an almost nation-wide unity against the Patriots in these weeks… unity is not a commonly celebrated virtue here in America. We pride ourselves on being a nation of rugged individualists, a country of lone rangers riding off into the sunset, a land of revolutionaries. There is value in that independent streak we Americans have, for it makes us want to compete and be strong. But embraced without considering the will of God, taken to an extreme… the virtue of independence quickly becomes a vice. Studies say we Americans are getting lonelier year by year. Perhaps my favorite example of independence hurting us is the devolution of bowling. One researcher tracked how while there used to be large bowling leagues everywhere and now… we mostly bowl alone. The same can be said for many parts of our modern western world. This separation from each other is not just a mental health problem either. Even twenty years ago, social scientists were arguing our individualism, while a virtue in many ways, was also tearing away at the social order, unweaving the friendship bonds that united our towns and states and nation, leaving us apart without a way to build back together again. And you all know how easily churches get divided, how disagreements or dramas can rip a congregation apart. Disunity is an all too common problem in the modern West.
As one who likewise shares that American love of individualism, it’s easy for me to read the story of Paul’s conversion with that independent eye we all have. Paul spearheaded the campaign to persecute Christians. Paul had this miraculous experience that no one else could see. Paul’s life changed, and he fought for and lead the mission of preaching the gospel to Gentiles, to the non-Jews who never knew the promises of God before then. But… to read Paul’s conversion as a solo story, as a tale of man coming to faith on his own… is to miss the bigger picture of what Paul is saying. It’s our American independent streak blinding us to what was being said 2000-ish years ago in ancient Rome by a Jewish man in a communal society. Because while Paul may have encountered God in a lone vision, his testimony, his faith story… are all about unity.
Paul’s writing here ranges all over the place, but I think one thread you can sort of trace through it is an evolution of unity across Paul’s life and mission. After he had that vision of Jesus Christ that converted him… Paul was united with God. And when God sent Paul to learn the faith from a hidden group of Christians—the same group he had set out to hunt—Paul was then united to those who had been his enemies. Because both Paul and his targets-turned-teachers were united with God through salvation, through God they were both united to each other. And where once Jews and Gentiles were at odds with each other, God revealed to Paul that he was to spread the good news to Gentiles that they might know Jesus Christ just as the first Christians, all Jewish converts, came to know God more fully through Jesus. Though Jew and Gentile had centuries of division between them, through Jesus both were untied with God, and through that unity with God Paul now sees both are united with each other. And beyond the divisions within the Church, Paul sees how the ancient world persecuted and hated it, how devils and emperors alike threatened God’s people… and so just as God united Paul to himself and the Church, just as God united Jews and Gentiles within the Church… now God tasks the Church to go back out into the world with that same message of unity with God through Jesus. It’s the idea that Church isn’t pulling away from the world to go be holy on a hill far away somewhere… but rather that Church is separating from the world in order to be equipped to go back into the world, to spread the good news of reconciliation, to be agents of us, that the Church’s stepping away isn’t an act of isolation but of preparation for reunification. In essence, Paul here celebrates unity through Jesus Christ in all its forms, from his own testimony to ethnic divides overcome to the total mission of God in the world.
Bart and Jeannette Gentsch—longtime members of this church—have an apple tree that inspires me. If I recall, the tree has four or five different other apple tree branches grafted onto it, so that the one apple tree ultimately bears many kinds of apples. We all rely on God as Christians: for guidance, for hope, for salvation, for all things. As Paul says in the verses right before this chapter, “we are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone, the key piece.” Your faith unites you with Jesus Christ, and through that union with Jesus you are united with God. But that is also true for the person next to you. And it’s true for Christians worshipping in secret in China. And it’s true for Christians living 1500 years ago and 1500 years from now. We are all united with God through Jesus… but in that same way, we are united with each other. The church is like Bart and Jeannette’s hybrid apple tree: we are all planted and attached to Jesus Christ, our trunk and root through whom we have life and hope. But in that attachment to Jesus, we find ourselves attached to all other sorts of branches, all other kinds of people. We as Christians were not designed to go it alone. It’s not in the DNA of the church, for God unites us all to him and so to each other like the many flavors of apples on their tree all ultimately sharing one root, one supply, one life.
Paul himself here in Ephesians three sums up the good news he’s been spreading as: “the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, sharers in God’s covenant promises in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Paul’s good news to the world is of unity with God and God’s people. And Paul understands his own sufferings within the context of this unity: “I pray you do not lose heart over my sufferings for you: they are your glory.” For if we truly are one body as the Church, the hand would not want the foot to despair for the sacrifices it makes on the other’s behalf, as they are all parts of one body. Or looking back to the dawn of creation, Paul celebrates and declares: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” Chapter three marks the halfway point in Ephesians, as we transition from the gospel foundations Paul lays into a focus on how we Christians are to live together, and so it is no accident as Paul gives his testimony, his personal God-given mission, his understanding of salvation itself and the world’s ultimate end. Paul gives all these things using the language of unity, of togetherness, of no longer being alone but of being connected to God and through God being connected to all things.
We Americans like to pretend we’re independent. Many folks whom this church helps don’t like accepting assistance to pay off bills. Many who walk in through my office doors in spiritual crisis spend half their time apologizing for taking up my time, as if such times weren’t why I do what I do. But if you reorient your perspective, see yourself not as an individual shopping churches but as part of a greater whole, grafted into the larger church body like a hybridized apple tree… then there is no shame in getting help or needing others, just as the mouth doesn’t apologize to the hand for sneezing nor the nose to the lungs for breathing. For we are all one. That doesn’t mean we’ll all get along. Paul spends so much time talking about unity in Ephesians, which suggests his readers were not united, that they didn’t understand this lesson yet, that they needed to learn to live together. I don’t even get alone with all my family, so I can’t imagine getting along with the 200+ members of a single church, let alone the Church universal. And yet I know I’m connected to my family, even if I can’t stand a few relatives. And in a short while, we’ll be holding our annual meeting, where I’m certain there will be disagreements and debates. But we do so that we might clear the air and have greater unity in the long run. For the gospel says we are each united to God through the work and life of Jesus Christ, and through that unity with God, we are united to each other. And so Jesus becomes the filter through whom we view each other, God, and the world. May we thus be so united. Amen.