The epistle from the fourth chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians which has just been read is deeply encouraging, because St Paul reminds us that “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” We each have different callings; and it is wrong for any of us to compare what Christ has given to us to what Christ has given to some other member of our congregation. The callings are diverse and challenging—to be prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—within our local church community, in doing whatever needs to be done—serving, singing, teas, flower arrangements, cleaning—and also within our families and with our friends. Yet St Paul makes clear that these callings are not primarily gifts from Christ to us as individuals, but gifts from Christ to the Church—gifts, as St Paul phrases it, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, in the building up of the body of Christ.”
Shockingly, we are “the saints” who are given gifts from Christ “for the work of service, in the building up of the body of Christ.” St Paul is writing here not only of how to build up the Church in Ephesus around the year 60 AD, but of how we can build up the Church here in Manchester in 2013. St Paul is challenging us today to reach out and touch “the fullness of Christ;” and we do that in our prayer and in our service and, as St Paul phrases it, by “speaking the truth in love.” Now, to speak the truth in love to another person is difficult to do. Often, we can pray; we can discern specific services that the Church needs, but to speak the truth in love is challenging. The contemporary Christian philosopher Parker J. Palmer suggests that “to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” Palmer proposes that this ‘community of truth’ is built up through “a rich and complex network of relationships in which we must both speak and listen, make claims on others and make ourselves accountable.” That is what we are creating today and in the months and years to come in this church—a network of relationships in which we slowly learn how to “make claims on others” that draw them into “the fullness of Christ” and at the same time we learn how to “make ourselves accountable” to, as St Paul has phrased it, “Him who is the head, Christ.”
For more than 2,000 years we in the Orthodox Church have been trying to make ourselves accountable to Christ. As St Paul reminds us here in Ephesians, “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” because we now “are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, Christ.” How can we grow up spiritually? How can we genuinely equip ourselves to be saints who build up the Church, the body of Christ?
Writing in the fourth century, St Jerome explained that: “This entire upbuilding, by which the body of the Church increases cell by cell, is being accomplished through the mutual love of one for another. . . . This does not imply,” writes St Jerome, “that to each [person] will be distributed the same level of maturity. It is an error to assume, for example,” he writes “that all human beings will be formed anew into angels. Rather every [person] will be perfected according to [their] own distinctive measure and function.” I find that very encouraging. I am not expected to become an angel; nor are you. We are only asked to become mature to the best of our limited abilities. We are only asked to become mature to the degree of grace that God in Christ has given to each of us. However, we are asked to love one another, in the midst of all our spiritual and emotional and physical limitations, but still seeking to grow, helping each other to grow by “speaking the truth in love” to one another.” That is how we grow—by loving each other, both in in how we listen and how we speak to each other.
The fifth century Church father, St Theodoret, a native of Antioch, educated in its monastery schools, is quite right: “In the future life we shall attain perfection. But in the present life we need all the help we can get from the apostles, the prophets and our teachers.” I think it is fair to say that those apostles, prophets and teachers can be found both in the Bible and in the Church Fathers and their interpretations of the Scriptures, both Old and New, as well as here today within our own church.
It is indeed possible, as St Paul firmly tells us later in this fourth chapter of Ephesians to “lay aside the old self” with all its fears and hesitations, and instead “be renewed in the spirit of your mind and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God,” St Paul says, “has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” The impact of putting on that “new self” is, as St Paul insists, that we then lay “aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbour, for we are members of one another.” Precisely because “we are members of one another,” St Paul closes this fourth chapter of Ephesians by urging us to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” That means something quite magnificent: that God in Christ has already forgiven each of us for the actions of our “old selves;” and in that act of divine forgiveness God in Christ has also given us the grace to be what He intends for us to be within the Church, within our families, with our friends, and even with our enemies.
It is good that we should remember together the words of one other fourth century theologian, St Didymus the Blind, from Alexandria, who was indeed blind from infancy. He reminded us that the Church “is a house set up and ordered by [Christ]. . . . [who] does not does not do this in a casual manner, “ but rather writes St Didymus “with the utmost discrimination and discretion. One [person] is assigned to the rank of an apostle, one to the place of a prophet, others to look after the flock of Christ and to work at the divine instruction of others for those saints who are prepared to learn.” That is the challenge St Didymus poses to each of us: Are we “prepared to learn”—to learn about Christ, to learn about our own strengths and weaknesses, to discern what gifts and what grace God in Christ has prepared for each of us? Already, our very own Metropolitan John has become the new Patriarch of Antioch, John X. Father Christopher and I both feel deeply honoured to have been ordained by the Patriarch.
If we are prepared to learn about Christ and about life itself, then we may well be surprised by how and when Christ calls us to serve, just as two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, in today’s Gospel were when they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and Christ came to them. A personal aside: growing up in Georgia in the 1950s, in the deep South of the United States, my brother and I both wanted to serve in the civil rights movement, to tackle the racialism and the hypocrisy of the Old South. One summer, as teenagers, we agreed together a plan to hitchhike to Mississippi. It was not entirely clear why, but we both wanted adventure and to tackle social issues. Where better than Mississippi, the very heart of the racialism and the hypocrisy of the Old South? Our father was very upset; he pleaded with us not to go. It was the only time in his life that he broke down and cried in front of us. We both thought we were right, and he was wrong, but he pleaded and cried so much that we agreed not to go. He probably saved our lives, as it was several years before the civil rights movement began; and large numbers of people, both black and white, were already been silently slaughtered in Mississippi for insisting that all people, whatever their race, have a God-given right to life.
In fact, neither my brother nor I were actually being called to serve in the civil rights movement. It was our idea, a good idea, but not a calling. Years later my brother became an infant school teacher for several decades; and I came to England, married Sylvia and worked earlier with Christian Aid and War on Want and in housing aid, and now to serve as a deacon here at St Aidan’s and as a medical writer seeking to understand infectious diseases.
As members of this church, we gather each weekend for Vespers and the Divine Liturgy and for feast days. We live and work throughout the Northwest; and we will be called to many different places and to face many different challenges. We are a regional church—a church with the potential to serve a region of this country. Whatever our callings we can be confident that God in Christ will equip us “as saints for the work of service” and that He has prepared for each of us the grace to grow into mature persons united, in St Paul’s words, “with the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
To conclude, we need to remember that both the act of God in Christ forgiving us and His gift of grace are not pre-ordained. We each choose in our own free will whether to reach out and ask for this forgiveness of God in Christ and for the gifts of grace that empower us to be a living part of this local church and of the universal Church on earth. So whatever our age, young or old, or somewhere in between, let us spend a moment in silence now in the privacy of our own thoughts and feelings to ask God in Christ for forgiveness of what our old selves have done or not done. Let us also ask for the grace to “put on the new self” created “in the likeness of God.”
==a moment of silence and personal prayer==
Lord, forgive my inadequacies and draw me into your purposes, in this church and in my life. So be it.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.