"When God gives gifts to the members of his family, his household, he usually wraps them within a person."
One of the greatest spectacles of the ancient world was when a general who had won a major victory returned home with the spoils of war. The people would turn out in their thousands to welcome home the victor, and their cheers and praises would no doubt be ringing in his ears for days.
When Jesus ascended to heaven - when he returned home - it was in triumph, sin and death defeated through his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. And ringing in his ears must have been the praises of those who saw him return.
"Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God."
The ascension then was a most important event, and one which is as relevent for us today as it was for the disciples who, we are told, witnessed it. For it reminds us that Jesus is our risen Lord. Paul tells us in our reading from Ephesians that "When Jesus ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." Another version puts it that "he led captivity captive." This was a triumphant return, truly vindicating his claim to be the Son of God.
Paul now takes this moment of Jesus ascension as the point at which the church was ready to receive the spirit, when he "gave gifts to men." Jesus had promised his disciples that when he left them to return to his father he would send the Holy Spirit.
Risen and ascended, Jesus now makes available to the church his power and victory. Paul and the other early church leaders were well aware that Christs victory was their victory, and they lived as though it was. Do we?
What does Paul say to the church in Ephesus? In the first verse of our reading he urges them to "Live a life worthy of the calling you have recieved.... to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."
What do we mean by unity? Is it just the act of getting on together, sharing the odd cup of tea and digestive biscuit after church, or is it something deeper?
Paul reminds us that we have as our example the unity of the Godhead, God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit - three in one. We have one hope, one Lord, one faith and one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in us all. But if this all sounds a bit theological and difficult to grasp then look at it another way.
In verse 15 we learn that Gods plan is to bring all creation together... with Christ at the head. The word Paul uses pictures the whole created order as a house (Greek oikos) over which God is sovereign. Within it God is working through Jesus to bring everything together into proper relationship.
One of the central themes in Ephesians is the importance of the church in Gods plan. The church is Gods oikos, his household, and we can speak of the oikologia or ecology of the Christian community. Now, ecology is a word that means something to people these days. Its all about plants and animals and the environment, but whats it got to do with the church?
Scientists, when they talk about living things use the term ecosystem, and all this refers to is the environment within which a group of plants, animals and organisms live. You know the sort of thing -leaves drop to the ground, beetles eat decaying leaves, rodents eat the beetles, and birds of prey or foxes eat the rodents - and this goes on quite happily until something happens to upset the delicate balance, be it disease, farming practice or hunting - And then the disappearance of even the smallest creature can cause everything to suffer.
Sounds familiar, doesnt it, because the bible talks of the body of Christ being made up of many members. In fact, a scientist might say that the New testament view of the church is an ecological one - we can relate it to what we see and know about us in ou dealings with nature.
When something happens to upset the delicate balance of Christs body, when even the smallest part is harmed for whatever reason, the whole suffers.
The mighty Red Kite soaring over the Welsh countryside would all but die out if the tiny creatures which are the food of the small rodents it feeds on were killed by careless use of chemicals. Even the strongest church would suffer if the quiet and almost invisible elderly lady who spends so much time praying for those in need, was ignored or hurt by a careless remark.
The unity that we see in the created world around us is our constant reminder of how our church, Gods household, should exist. The strength of the unity which we as a church display points to the reconciling power of the gospel we preach. Division and conflict merely put a question mark in peoples minds about Gods purpose....., which is? TO UNIFY THE WHOLE UNIVERSE UNDER THE LORDSHIP OF CHRIST.
What happened to the early church? We read in Acts that they were of one mind as they met together in close fellowship, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. And what happened?
"And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
Its easy to look at nature, see the wonder of Gods creation and be attracted to it, even moved by the beauty of it, without understanding anything about the science behind it. Whenever and wherever this unity and interdependence is visible in Gods household, then outsiders cannot help but be attracted to Jesus Christ, even when they know very little about him.
So the church is to understand the importance of unity. But this doesnt mean that the church is to be composed of identical looking, identical thinking and identically gifted clones. The body is made up of different parts. The mighty lion is not a vegetarian, but without the small plants which nourish the gazelle upon which it feeds, it would weaken and die. We are all different - thank goodness. Our reading tells us that
"To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it"and "It was he who gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers"
We are all different, and God wants it that way, because we all have different strengths and weaknesses. When Bob Geldof was deeply involves in that great charity fundraising event, Bandaid, he met Mother Teresa and says
"The second I met Mother Teresa she struck me as being the living embodiment of moral good. I felt I had no business sitting beside this tiny giant. There was no false modesty about her and there was a certainty of purpose which left her little patience. But she was totall selfless; every moment her aim seemed to be, how can I use this or that situation to help others? She was never pious about this....... She is one of the few people who have impressed me on sight. I was in awe of her. She held my hand as she left and said. Remember this, I can do something you cant do, and you can do something I cant do. But we both have to do it.'"
God isnt calling us to be another Bob Geldof or even another Mother Teresa, but he is reminding us of those words which I read from Ephesians. To each one of us grace has been given.....It was he who gave some to be...etc. Within Gods household, within this congregation are all the gifts necessary...for what? Lets read on
"...to prepare Gods 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 fulness of Christ."
What did Mother Teresa say? "Remember this, I can do something you cant and you can do something I cant" and then she added those vital words. "But we both have to do it!"
If we wander through our Christian lives saying "Amen" to those words of Pauls about unity and gifts, and yet fail to apply them to our lives then the whole thing falls apart. I have a gift, you have gifts, but what use is it going to the party if you refuse to hand over the present - nobody is blessed by us refusing to share that gift which we know we have, whether it be a public gift of teaching or a private gift of prayer, or by the refusal of the church to accept the gifts within it.
A gift is for giving and recieving. And in the act of giving as well as the act of acceptance of the gift, both giver and reciever are blessed.
Oh, but you say, Ive got nothing to offer, on a scale of one to ten for usefulness I must rate minus two. NOT TRUE!. We all have a gift or gifts. Sometimes we have to step out in faith and say that we can do this, or that, task within the church, at other times our gifting is revealed to us by others.
Im sure my wife wont mind me sharing that at one stage in her Christian life she said exactly the same thing..... Gifts? Im useless! and got seriously depressed just thinking about this. Then one day a dear Christian friend said to her. You know what? You really do have a wonderful gift of...listening!
Listening? Is that a gift? Of course it is.
One of the problems with society today is that people are frightened to talk and open up about themselves, afraid to show any sign of weakness, afraid to share their joys and sorrows and worries. Thats why theres so much time taken off work with stress. We need at times to be able to open up and talk through our problems, and we need that sympathetic ear, someone we can trust.
Of course we also need prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, and looking around the churches in this land we seem desperately short of some of these. Now I cant imagine that God would have deliberately left us short-changed when it came to the sharing of gifts, so I can only assume that there are some who have yet to acknowledge their gift, or others that have yet to hold out their hand and accept it.
Remember the story of the talents. A master entrusted his servants with money whilst he went on a long journey, each according to his ability. The servant who was given five talents to look after made use of them and made five more. So did the servant who had been given two. But the chap who had only been given one talent hid it away until the master returned, and in fact by not even putting it in the bank, it lost value. It was he who was scolded on the masters return. Gifts are for using, for investing in the future of the church - a bank that offers a good rate of interest.
This is not what Jesus has in mind when he gives gifts. They are gifts to be used, we are told for the building up of the body, for the health and vitality of Gods household. You see, Paul doesnt envisage any member of the church being merely a spectator to its worship and involvement in the wider work of mission.
The goal is a mature and fully functioning body within which every believer is participating. With that maturity comes a deepening of faith as we draw not only closer to each other through service, but ever closer to the head of the church, that is Christ. For then, as Paul explains "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."
What Paul is pleading for is a living and vibrant unity of the church with Christ, whose own life provides the example and power for growth and harmony among the sometimes very different characters who together make up the members of Gods household.
Have we reached that point yet in this and the other churches in this area? Paul gives us clues to look for in our reading. In verse 2 we are told to be completely humble and gentle; to be patient with one another, bearing one another in love. In verse 15 comes a much more difficult command..........we are always to speak the truth in love, and finally we must ensure that we as individuals play our part, however small or large that might be.
I would leave you with a single thought...When God gives gifts to the members of his family, his household, he usually wraps them within a person.