(a sermon for September 11, 2016, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:11-16)
It’s amazing the difference that something like a comma can make!
That’s the proposition of a bestselling book from a few years back entitled Eats, Shoots and Leaves in which the author, Lynn Truss, makes the strong case for proper punctuation in today’s society. Now that may sound like the stuff of a third grade textbook; but what Truss proposes is that in this world increasingly filled with tweets, texts and emails, a punctuation mark can very well make all the difference in getting a message across properly… or not!
For instance, she says, you might send this text message to a friend: “What’s the latest dope?” Add a comma, and that message becomes, “What’s the latest, dope?” which is not apt to endear you to your friend! A theater critic might write that “the play ended happily,” but with a comma it comes out as “the play ended, happily,” and that’s a different review altogether! Or imagine reading this headline tomorrow morning in the Concord Monitor: “Democrats say Republicans are Sure to Win!” It’d be a whole different story if it read, “Democrats, say Republicans, are Sure to Win!” (Either way, however, there’d be lots of letters to the editor!)
The use of a comma, you see (or for that matter, a period or an exclamation point), not only changes how you read a sentence, it can sometimes even alter its true meaning! It can even happen in the way we read scripture; which brings us to our reading this morning from Ephesians, in which Paul speaks about how as believers we are all united in the Body of Christ, and yet how each one of us has been given unique gifts as part of that Body: “that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Well, there are some older versions of scripture that actually translate the original Greek in this way: “some [should be] pastors and teachers [comma], for the equipment of saints [comma], for the work of ministry [comma], for building up the body of Christ.” What that seems to suggest is that pastors and teachers have the job of equipping the saints (that is, to direct and empower the membership of the church) and, along with that, also doing the work of ministry, and building up the body of Christ!
And in all honesty, that sounds kind of reasonable; after all, that’s what we pastors do, right? As “trained religious professionals,” doing the work of ministry and building does seem to be an accurate and appropriate part of the job description; look on any ministerial profile, and you’re bound to find that right up front! But… here’s the thing about this text: modern biblical scholars, as well as experts in ancient languages, have come to understand that in translating the original Greek into English, there may well have been… a punctuation error! Basically, there are too many commas! And so that verse we shared really ought to read this way: that “some [should be] pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, [and] for building up the body of Christ.” Turns out, friends, that my job is not as much to equip the saints and do the work of ministry as it is to equip the saints for the work of ministry! Or, as it’s beautifully translated in the New International Version of scripture, “to prepare God’s people for the works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith.”
Now, let’s look at that for a moment; because when you think about it this is actually a pretty radical concept about the nature of church and ministry! Because what this makes clear is that the church is not the building, or the steeple, or even the organization, per se; it’s the people that God has called out of the world and into community, and then who are sent forth to make God known in the world. And while we clergy-types have our own unique and particular place and calling in that ministry, ultimately it will be the people of God who by their very lives will serve as visible reflections of the invisible God in our world. What this means is that you and I – and I do include myself in this admonition – you and I can never succumb to the notion that we can leave these crucial tasks of Christian ministry, outreach and nurture to “the professionals,” whoever we might perceive “the professionals” to be! Each one of us, you see, are meant to be out there living as we have been graced to live, reaching out to others as we have been equipped and empowered to do, and then sharing what it is that we ourselves have been given.
That is our ministry; but that’s also the challenge for us, isn’t it? Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, and pastor of Saddleback Church in California (a congregation of over 20,000 members!) writes that nonetheless church pews are often filled with members who are “doing nothing with their faith except ‘keeping’ it.” In fact, Warren goes on to say, “if we [could] ever awaken and unleash the massive talent, resources, creativity, and energy lying dormant in the typical local church, Christianity [would] explode at an unprecedented rate.”
The bottom line is that whether the congregation numbers 20,000, 200 or even 20 a healthy, vibrant church functions through its people: people equipped to share their spiritual gifts and to unleash all those incredible talents and creativity that God has placed with them for the sake of doing the work of ministry in Christ’s name. This is how we truly become one body, as Paul describes it to the church in Ephesus, “grow[ing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” so that, as The Message translates this, “his very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.”
I’ll say it again, friends; that’s our ministry, yours and mine; and it’s at no time more applicable than right now as we begin a new season of Christian formation and nurture amongst our children here at East Church.
You know, each year as we welcome our kids back to Sunday School I find myself reflecting on what it is we really offer these children in the hour or so we have them each week. I mean, we sing a song or two, they hear a Bible story and play a game or do a craft; and then, of course, I have my very small window of opportunity to impart some measure of spiritual wisdom before they run off to Sunday School! Not long ago I spoke with my nephew who’d been asked if he might speak at a local church in his community about the mission project that he’s part of, and this included a children’s message; and so he called to ask his uncle the minister if I had any advice about that. I simply said, “Rule number one, you’ve got maybe three minutes before you start to lose ‘em; and rule number two, what they want to talk about is not necessarily what you want to talk about… so be prepared! The point is that we’ve got so much we want to teach them about God’s love, so many of Jesus’ teachings that we want them to know and to make real in their hearts and lives; but in a world where these kids (and their families!) are already being pulled in a hundred different directions, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine,” so to speak, how can this ever happen? How do we nurture within them an authentic Christian faith that will ultimately define their very lives; not to mention change the world for the better?
It seems to me that Paul has given us the “curriculum,” as it were, simply in reminding us that “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” In other words, our task, our call to do ministry and to build up even the youngest parts of the Body of Christ, involves each and every one of us with our own unique, God-given gifts.
It begins, you see, with discipleship.
It is no accident that the word “disciple” appears 269 times in the New Testament. In fact, here’s an interesting fact: the word “Christian” only appears three times; and refers directly to the disciples themselves! To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; and our discipleship comes down to how we seek to live out the teachings of Jesus in our lives; it’s as simple as that. So you want our children to grow up surrounded by the presence of loving God? You want them to profess Jesus as Lord and Savior, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus as best they are able? Do you wish for them to truly understand what it is to love one another after the manner of Jesus? You want them to have lives girded in peace and true justice, and for them to direct their own pathways in a way that says that this is what they intend for the whole world? You want these kids growing up to be disciples of Jesus Christ? Well, it begin with our being disciples of Jesus Christ… by sharing what we’ve received so that they might be equipped for ministry.
Perhaps you read in the paper this week about the passing of Hugh O’Brian at the age of 91. Hugh O’Brian, if you don’t know, was an actor who appeared on Broadway and in Hollywood in a whole lot of movies over the years, and was best known for playing Wyatt Earp on television during the 50’s and 60’s. He was, as the article I read in the paper put it, a “household name” for many years; but as it turned out, Hugh O’Brian’s greatest legacy was something much different than a fast “quick-draw.”
It seems that in 1958, at the height of his popularity, O’Brian accepted the invitation from the medical missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer to visit him at his hospital in the African wilderness. O’Brian spent nine days working as a volunteer at this place, his evenings spent talking for hours with Schweitzer himself. They spoke together about the precarious state of the world at the time; about global peace, the urgency for change and how education must teach young people to think for themselves. As O’Brian said later, it was a life-changing experience, far removed from what he’d known and experienced in Hollywood. And at the end of it all, as he was preparing to depart down river, Schweitzer took O’Brian’s hand and asked, “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?”
Well, later that same year this so-called “cowboy actor” created the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Program (HOBY, for short), and to date, over 450,000 high school sophomores across the country have been selected by their schools to learn more about their potential for leadership and service in the world. I am pleased to say that our own daughter Sarah was one of those selected back when she was in high school; and she will tell you it was a very powerful and worthwhile experience. As O’Brian himself described the program, “I believe that every person is created to be the steward of his own destiny with great power for a specific purpose to share with others, through service, a reverence for life in a spirit of love.”
I love that; and the fact is, you and I are also stewards with great power and a purpose; a power that comes to us in Christ Jesus, and a purpose that is revealed in countless ways as we share the gifts we’ve been given: with our children… and with one another; also with those who are sick and struggling, who are lost and lonely and grieving and in the need of care; and with those who are downtrodden or who have found themselves on the outside looking in. As disciples of Jesus, and ministering in his name, you and I have this incredible opportunity, right here and right now, to share with all those around us “a reverence for life in a spirit of love,” and in the process helping each one of themselves in being equipped for ministry.
That cannot help but raise up our children – and everyone else – in the way they should go; and it will most certainly help this Body “in building itself up in love.”
May the Lord guide us and bless us in this ministry we share!
And may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry