“Unity and Growth in the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2018

“Unity and Growth in the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Our text today is the Epistle, from Ephesians 4. We are now entering the second half of Ephesians. In the first half, St. Paul laid down the foundation of our life in Christ, that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, according to the riches of his grace. Now in the second half, Paul moves into the practical implications of this for our life together as church and our life as individual Christians. Today’s text emphasizes the churchly dimension of our life together, that we walk together in unity and growth, in truth and love.

Unity and growth–these are great goals for the church, aren’t they? Everybody wants, or should want, the church to be united. Everybody wants the church to grow. This is true for our congregation, of course. But what kind of unity? What kind of growth? We’ll explore that today, how unity and growth come about and can be strengthened. And so let’s look at our life together as church now, under the theme, “Unity and Growth in the Body of Christ.”

To begin with, let’s be clear that we do not create the church’s unity or growth. Both of these are gifts from God. He unites us. He causes his church to grow. Let’s be clear about that from the get-go. In fact, when we try to unite the church or grow the church, apart from God, on our own strength–that’s when we can end up doing the exact opposite. But to start with, let’s say it loud and clear: God establishes the unity. God gives the growth.

The unity of the church has already been established. That’s why Paul urges us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We don’t create the unity. We are called to maintain it. God has established the unity of the church, as Paul says: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yes, the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–the one true God establishes the one true church. The church is God’s creation, and we find our life in the life of the triune God.

The Holy Trinity is the source of the church’s unity. Notice how Trinitarian this marvelous three-part statement of St. Paul is. It begins: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.” Here Paul refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, who has called us by the gospel, brought us into the body of Christ, and given us the hope of everlasting life. Next: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This refers to our Lord Jesus Christ, the focus of our faith, and in whose name we Christians are baptized. Then: “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Here we have the heavenly Father, the maker of heaven and earth, the Father of whom the Son is begotten and from whom the Spirit proceeds.

And so the church’s essential unity has already been established by God. It is his gift, and we do not add anything to it. There is but “one holy Christian and apostolic Church,” the assembly of all believers in Christ, in all times and in all places. What we are called to do is to maintain and manifest that unity as much as possible.

And Christ has given his church the gifts to do just that. Paul goes on to say, of Christ, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, having won the victory for us by his death on the cross. On the cross, Christ atoned for all our sins, our sins against God, which condemned us to death and made us the slaves of the devil. But Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, by his holy precious blood paid the price for the sins of all humanity, including yours. In this way Jesus defeated death and the devil. He then descended into hell to proclaim his victory even there. Then he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling all things. Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on his church, to empower the church’s life and ministry, for the church’s unity and growth.

For this purpose, Christ gave gifts to his church. Those gifts are people. Our text says: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This is saying that Christ’s called and ordained servants of the Word are his gifts to the church. Through the foundational teaching of the holy apostles in the New Testament, and through the preaching and teaching of pastors even now to this day, Christ is building his church. Oh, the church’s ministry involves the whole church, not just pastors. But the pastors are the ones called to “equip the saints,” specifically, through the preaching and teaching office that pastors exercise publicly.

And the purpose, the goal, is the unity and growth of the church: “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Now we see the kind of unity that is being spoken of here. It is “the unity of the faith.” And now we see what kind of growth is in view. It is growth into “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This gives us guidance when we consider how unity and growth are to be achieved in the church.

We’re talking about true unity and true growth here. There can be an apparent unity and apparent growth that may deceive us and entice us, but which are not the unity and growth that God desires. Now nobody wants to see a church body or a congregation wracked by division or discord or conflict. But what causes this lack of unity? Often it is because not everybody is on the same page with regard to doctrine and practice. Not everyone is on board with the doctrine of our church and letting it permeate our life together. They don’t know what it is. People neglect to learn and grow in sound biblical doctrine, in their knowledge of the Christian faith. They neglect to have their children trained in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. People become apathetic, assuming that just a minimal knowledge of doctrine is enough.

This lack of zeal for the truth of God’s Word contributes to conflict and it obstructs a united church life. Failure to attend to doctrine, and the failure to connect pure doctrine to the church’s practice–this gets the church into trouble. It sets the church up to lose its moorings. Like a ship tossed on a stormy sea, such a church doesn’t know where it ought to be headed. The church loses its direction. Division and discord result. People who don’t really know what our doctrine and practice ought to be get mad at the people who do care about doctrine and practice, and vice versa. Hard feelings and resentment result, on both sides.

What to do? Repent. Cry out to God for forgiveness for the part that each one of us plays in the church losing her way. God will forgive you. That’s why Christ died, after all, to win that forgiveness for you. He gives it to you freely, showering his grace upon you. God will pick you up and get you going again in the right direction.

God will help you to grow in your knowledge of the Christian faith. That’s why we have the Divine Service here every Sunday, and Bible class, and classes during the week. That’s why you have Bibles and catechisms and hymnals in your home, these basic resources for your daily life. God wants you–he wants us–he wants this whole congregation together to grow in the unity of the faith. That happens as we are here regularly, faithfully, every Sunday, in Divine Service and in Bible class, week after week, month after month, year after year. Have you been slack about this? It’s time to get in the regular swing of things. God will help you.

What will be the result? Good things! Paul puts it like this: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” You see, when we are united and growing in doctrine and practice, then our ship has direction; we’re not blown about and blown off course.

Paul then adds: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” There, that is true growth! There’s a lot of talk these days about “church growth,” but so often it’s just about a surface growth in numbers, at the expense of real growth in the building up of the body of Christ. Indeed, sometimes that’s how the growth in numbers is accomplished, precisely by sacrificing any depth or substance in doctrine and practice. Things are watered down to appeal to a worldly audience, skirting around things like Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, which ought to be at the heart of everything the church does. But the experts say that gets in the way of numerical growth. Well, so be it. Better to be faithful in what God has given his church to do, and leave the numbers up to him.

By the way, notice the “when each part is working properly” part of the text. We need that in our church, each part working properly. Particularly in a smaller congregation, we notice it more when some of the parts are missing. We need everybody on board, all hands on deck.

Dear friends, God wants his church to experience genuine unity and growth. He has provided everything necessary for that to happen. The unity he wants is the unity of the faith. The growth he seeks is growth in the stature of the fullness of Christ, the building up of the body of Christ. These things will happen, true unity and growth, as all of us together are united and growing in the Word of God. God grant us a renewed and intense zeal for his Word, for pure doctrine and the practice that proceeds from it. God’s Word is saving and life-giving. It is where we hear the voice of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, in whom we have new life now and eternal life forever. And as we are united and growing in Word and Sacrament, our little church will be strengthened in faith and love and in our purpose to carry out the mission God has given us.

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Published in: on August 4, 2018 at 9:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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