Vision | Grow
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his 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 people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of 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.
Today we are continuing this series at Fellowship on vision. Here in this church we have chosen three words in particular to express our mission statement as a church: Love, Grow, and Serve. These three words give us direction as a church towards our purpose for being here. And so, we use these ideas from our mission statement to lay the foundation for our vision. Or to say it another way, loving, growing, and serving are not only an expression of mission and purpose, it is also a guide for where we want to go and who we want to become as a church. Last week we started this series by talking about love. This morning we continue by talking about our mission and vision of growing.
Just like last week, let’s keep in mind that a single word can be stretched in many different directions. Last week we talked about the balance between the three directions of our mission to love. Today we want to nail down precisely what we mean by our mission to grow. This time it is not so much about a balance of many directions, but a clear understanding of the contrast. That’s why I’m having us look at a section from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It was only a few weeks back when we looked at a section of Ephesians 2 in another sermon. One of the features I noted then was how Ephesians is a letter about contrasts.
Alright then, let’s look at what it means to grow by noting some of the contrasts that Paul brings up in Ephesians 4.
From Infancy to Maturity
This one might seem pretty obvious. Healthy infants grow to become mature adults. There is an expectancy to this. Nobody expects a baby to remain a baby forever. Of course, we expect that a child who is healthy is going to grow. Paul lays this out as a baseline comparison for spiritual maturity. He is saying, I expect that people who are Christians will become mature in their faith.
From Tossed about to Joined Together
Next, let’s note that Paul’s idea of a church that has growing Christians is a church that is joined together. The contrast he makes here is against those who are tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there be every wind of teaching.
It’s tough to get anywhere when you keep changing directions. That’s true enough when it’s just one person who keeps going back and forth. How much more does it stall momentum when an entire group of people keep darting about one way and then the other, running into each other and over each other.
This is especially true in our society in which we embrace individualism. It is so easy to convince myself in today’s world that I don’t need the church, I don’t need other Christians; all I need is Jesus and a Bible. But, I think the Bible is being pretty clear in this passage that growing in faith as a Christian requires each of us to be joined and held together with other believers, otherwise we are tossed about and cannot grow.
From Deceitful Scheming to Living in Truth
Trust is a hard thing to come by once you’ve been deceived by someone tricking people into some kind of scam. If you’ve ever fallen for the lies of a dishonest person trying to take advantage of others, then you also know how refreshing it is when you come across those you can trust to be truthful.
Now, I might walk away from that as being a simple black-and-white kind of principle. Got it; tell the truth; move on. But that’s not always so easy, is it? Maybe this is why Paul adds a condition. We are to speak the truth in love. Here is where some maturity of judgement comes into place. I mean, what is the right answer when grandma asks, “How do you like my casserole?” I am supposed to speak the truth. But I am also supposed to speak in love. It’s not always so easy then, is it? Being truthful in love isn’t always an easy thing to do.
But, truth is also more than just our words. The Greek of this passage actually uses the word truth as a verb. There is no good way to translate that to English; it would literally say truthing in love. That’s why I put it into the notes as living in truth rather than speaking in truth. Paul is making the point that living honestly is the contrast to deceitful scheming. And living honestly also produces the kind of spiritual growth we’re talking about.
From Selfish Human Origin to United in Christ
The final contrast we should note in this passage is the difference between a life of selfish human origin verses a life of being united in Christ. Let’s admit that we are constantly pulled by this one. We live in a culture that tries to convince us that living for ourselves is the highest value there should be. Our culture tries to tell us that you can do anything you want as long as you just believe in yourself and find your inner strength. In that kind of world, I become the center of my own universe and everything else revolves around me. Anything that benefits or helps me has its place and it can stay. Anything that doesn’t benefit me or make me happy gets cast to the side.
But instead, when Christ is the center of my world, then everything that is of value has its place in its unity to Christ. And our value—you and I—have our place in this world because we are united with Christ. Then, it is our unity in Christ which forms the basis of our identity. It is our unity in Christ which provides guidance and direction for our mission and vision as people of God.
Let’s pull this together. We are trying to figure out what it means for us to grow as a mission and vision of the church. The apostle Paul lays out some contrasts telling his readers that growing in faith involves maturity, being joined together, living the truth, in a way that is united in Christ. How do we mash these ideas together and get a clear picture of what it means for us as a church to pursue a mission and vision of growing our faith?
Vision Towards Growth
Vision Towards Growth
Spiritual growth is more than individual or academic
Often, when we think about spiritual growth—what it means to grow our faith—I think we are drawn to an almost exclusive individual or academic focus. You know, to grow my faith means I am learning more about God, I am getting to know God better so that I can love God more. It means I am reading my Bible so that I can learn scripture. Often, I think, we reduce discipleship ministries to intellectual academics, or individual pursuits. Spiritual growth is about cramming in more Bible study groups, and more personal devotions, and more prayer time.
I’m not knocking these as bad things. And I think I’ve said this before in other messages. But, personal spiritual disciplines like devotions and prayer and Bible study groups are all means to an end, not an end in themselves. In this passage of Ephesians Paul is all about spiritual growth and coming to Christian maturity, and he is not saying a single thing here about prayer, or devotions, or teachings. No, Paul seems to be focusing his vision for spiritual maturity on one thing: RELATIONSHIPS.
Visionary growth in the church is a growth that focuses on relationships that are joined together and united in Christ.
Visionary growth in the church is a growth that focuses in the direction of relationships that are joined together and united in Christ. That may sound easy enough. But apparently Paul was having some difficulty getting his church in Ephesus to fully understand this. And generally Paul has pretty nice things to say about the Ephesians. So, it may be worthwhile for us this morning to pause and consider how this might just be a message aimed squarely at us too. Let’s not be too hasty in assuming that we’ve got this relationship thing nailed.
The church in Ephesus started because Paul brought together a group of Jewish people living in that city who all believed the message about Jesus being the promised Messiah. Paul is also champion of the gospel message that, in Jesus, all people of the entire world are invited to receive the grace of God. This was a stretch for other Jewish people. These are people who have always been taught that Yahweh was the God of the Israelites, and only the Israelites. Bringing gentiles into the church is Paul’s mission. At first, he is getting resistance. Eventually, resistance turns into reluctant acceptance. But we see evidence of the tension that exists.
So, Paul writes this letter to the church in Ephesus with a particular focus. He is trying to encourage the various segments of this church to work towards unity together in Christ.
I remember car trips as a kid growing up. This was back when there was no such thing as video entertainment systems built into the car. None of us had personal devices with screens and headphones. The only thing there was to do in the car to pass the time was fight with my sisters. At some point my parents would create an imaginary line across the back seat of the car. You stay on this side; and you stay on that side; and don’t open your mouth unless you have something nice to say.
I imagine Paul driving the car of this church in Ephesus and warning them. “Don’t make me turn this thing around!” We’ve all been there. I think in any group setting there is always the possibility of people that we just need to put up with. And this is exactly what Paul is saying as he begins chapter 4. Verse 2 – “bearing with one another in love.” The Greek word translated there as bearing means to put up with or tolerate. Verse 3 – “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Paul be like, can’t we just find a way to all get along here?
Now here’s the thing. That’s only the beginning. Paul is instructing his church and the church here yet today. He is saying that just finding a way to get along is only the start. Growth and Christian maturity, then, goes beyond our tribal divisions in order to find something no one else in the world has ever seen: UNITY IN CHRIST. A vision towards growth is more than just you stay on your side of the car and I’ll stay on my side of the car. It is more than you do your thing and I’ll do my thing and as long as we just stay out of each other’s way it will be okay. Because that’s not really joined-together-unity-in-Christ relationship.
There are essential relationships that are absolutely necessary in the body of Christ in order for us to embrace our mission and vision of growth.
Working Towards Unity
Working Towards Unity
Let’s workshop this one. We need to leave here this morning with some real idea of what actual relationships of unity in Christ look like. And we need some kind of a target about how each one of us can measure that in our own lives. In order to do this, we have to face some realities about the tendencies of our culture and dispel a few myths about unity. So, what are some of the myths of unity that we convince ourselves about so that we can just keep living with our heads in the sand thinking we’ve got this unity thing all worked out?
Myth 1 – It’s not me
Let’s be honest. We are a divided people. Our world is divided by various cultures and various languages and various geography. I think in recent years we have come to see and understand that we live here in a nation that is divided as well. We are divided by ideologies and generations and backgrounds. Now, the default response of those who face division and disunity is the response of blaming the other side. Disunity and division are never my fault; it’s always the other side’s fault. But that is not true. There are always two sides to every story. There are always two sides to every relationship. Here’s the point: unity in the church is something that all of us need to work on together. No one here gets a pass. No one here gets to say that they are completely innocent. No one here gets to claim that they have achieved unity in the body of Christ and so this message doesn’t apply to me because I’m already doing it.
Myth 2 – Sitting in the same room facing the same direction for one hour a week equals unity
Of course my church experiences unity. We all gather together for worship every week. We don’t even really fight about the music…that much. What would happen if all of you decided that you were going to start sitting in other seats on Sunday morning? I’ll admit, that would throw me off. I’m not sure I would know what to do. I would stand up front and look out and think, you’re supposed to be balcony people, you’re supposed to be side people, you’re supposed to be middle people, you’re supposed to be back row people. That would rock my world. I dare you to do it.
I’ve been here eight months and there are people here that I still need to get to know. I still have room for relationships to grow here. Some of you have been here 20 years or more, and I bet there’s room for relationship there too. I bet there are people here you still don’t know that well. Because mature Christian growth happens in relationship. And I want to pursue growth in my faith. And so, expanding and cultivating relationships in the church drives me towards unity and spiritual growth.
Myth 3 – homogeneity and unity are the same thing
In my world, the measuring stick of unity places me in a huddle. The measurement of unity means I circle the wagons with like-minded people who are just like me. Unity means I keep myself secluded in an echo-chamber where the only voices I ever hear and the only relationships I ever have are with people who are just like me. Just. Like. Me. In a world like that, the recipe for unity is simple and clear. The way to achieve unity is to drive out anyone and anything that is not just like me and just like my world.
That’s getting easier to do in today’s world. Thanks to cable news networks, talk radio, podcast channels, and social media, I can now completely surround myself and immerse myself in a world where the only people I know and the only voices I ever hear are just like me, only the ones I want to see and hear.
Some would say it actually began a longer ago. Michael Harrington, in his book The Other America points to the Eisenhower Interstate Act of the 1950s. As interstates began to push more well-to-do Americans out further into the suburbs, those left in poverty were left behind in crumbling urban areas. And thanks to the interstate highway system—Harrington argues—suburban Americans could now commute to their downtown offices for work without ever having to actually see people who lived in the slums and ghettos of mid-20th century America. Just like that, poverty became invisible. And so began the process of secluding and isolating ourselves into tribes of little communities just like us, severing all likelihood of real meaningful relationships with anyone else who is not just like me.
Then, in strolls the apostle Paul and defiantly insists that our myth of unity is a charade. And Jesus is the answer. You see, no matter what differences there may be – no matter how far apart we are on the cultural spectrum – no matter what generation you are a part of – no matter what political ideologies you hold – no matter if you like rom-com or suspense thrillers – if you’re Pepsi or Coca-cola – Wolverines or Spartans. No matter what, there is a foundation for strong relationship in Jesus.
There are very few institutions left in our society where you can go and engage in real meaningful community relationships with people who are so completely different in so many ways and come out being blessed and better for it, except for the church of Jesus Christ. It is all because of Jesus. He is the answer. Jesus is the one and only explanation for why such a complete mixed up entanglement of such vastly different people find a place to belong. Jesus was the one who stepped outside of his glory and came down into a world of lost and broken sinners and threw his arms around the most desperate and the most needy and showed them that they matter to God.
We are the ones who carry on that gospel message in the ways that we live and in the relationships that unite us. We are the ones who live in the grace of Jesus and grow in faith every time we encounter relationships with others who demonstrate to us love and forgiveness and compassion and mercy. We are the ones called to get outside of our tribal bubbles so that we can live out the gospel of reconciliation in relationships with others.
And we are the ones who will ultimately experience the blessing of God’s grace enrich our own lives as God uses a wonderous variety of other relationships to grow us closer to Jesus.