Sunday, September 26, 2021
Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & Ephesians 4:1-16
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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I’m a bit hoarse this morning because I was cheering for my kids at their games yesterday. Phoebe is playing soccer and Jenson is playing flag football. And Yes…I am that parent who yells super loud from the sidelines. Whenever I see anyone from church at any of my kids’ games I say: “Just to warn you, you’re about to see a side of me you’ve never seen before.”

It’s fun to watch my kids and all of their teammates learn how to work together as a team. Something has clicked for Phoebe and her fellow teammates. They are actually passing the ball to one another. No one girl is trying to shoot a goal on her own or simply kicking the ball down the field…to no one in particular. They’re learning to rely on another to score a goal. Inevitably, however, there’s going to be a player who makes a break and runs the ball down the line and the rest of the team is nowhere to be found.That’s when I yell “HELP HER OUT! HELP HER OUT!” to remind Phoebe and her teammates that they’ve got to be available to help each other out because if they want to score they’ve got to work together. Part of being a team is making it perfectly clear to one another you are there for one another. One way to do that is to do whatever you can to help one another out. 

In the same way this was Paul’s advice to the fledgling church in Ephesus. They needed to know that they were for one another. To bear one another in love. If they were to remain a united community that is committed to following Jesus Christ, then they first needed to know that they were without a doubt for one another.  

As with most things, this was, however, easier said than done. The early church in Ephesus was a diverse one. It was a hodgepodge of a group. There were Jews and there were Gentiles, two groups representing two very different cultures, ethnicities, two very different ways of understanding faith. If it wasn’t for Jesus Christ there’s no way these two groups would even associate with one another. But Jesus Christ called them together and now they now had to figure out, while relying on Jesus Christ, how to be in community with one another. 

The problem was that while the Gentiles embraced Paul’s teaching, some of them took it a bit too far. There was a faction of  Gentiles who were excited about the freedom found in Jesus Christ that Paul preached about and the idea that Jesus created a new faith community. But in the midst of their excitement, they looked down upon the Jewish approach to faith. The Jewish understanding of the law and emphasis on God’s covenant with Israel all seemed archaic and old fashioned to this faction. There didn’t seem to be any place for this old way of doing worship within this new exciting worshipping community.

On the flip side, the Jews were offended by what they perceived as the Gentile’s lack of morality and using “freedom in Christ” to justify their questionable actions. They also were put off by the Gentile’s dismissive attitude toward the Torah, the law and the rich history of God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. 

All that to say it was very hard for this fledgling new community believers to truly be “for one another.”

Even so Paul reminds them that even in the midst of their diversity, they are called to be one body, united by one faith, one God who is the Father of all, above all, through all and in all. 

Unity does not mean uniformity for Paul. Not only were there two very different ethnic groups and two very different cultures present in the early Church in Ephesus, but Paul also points out that each person is uniquely gifted by God. And each unique gift is important to this community. Or as Paul puts it each gift is important to the body of Christ. Some are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists and other pastors and teachers.

The culmination of all their different gifts is their strength. Their strength is their diversity. Their gifts however aren’t meant to put the spotlight on one particular individual, but rather each gift is used to better the entire community. According to Paul, the gift of each individual is meant to help every person in the community grow in their faith in Jesus Christ. Together the unique gifts of each individual are meant to help the community grow stronger in their faith. 

In an article I recently read by David French, this quote stuck out to me:

“Disconnection from the church doesn’t just mean disconnection from Christian community, it also frequently means disconnection from biblical literacy and Christian ethics.”–David French

The responsibility we have to one another in a Christ centered community is to help one another grow in our faith. We do that by deepening our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. This looks like reading and talking about the Bible together. Praying with and for one another. I’d like to put another plug in for free Bibles because they’re study Bibles, meaning they include commentary that gives more information about the context of each book of the Bible. But the Bible was meant to be read in community.

I think it’s safe to say, however, that many of us would rather engage with the Bible on our own. By ourselves. For some of us it’s because we don’t have the time to meet with others whether it’s a PW Circle, a Faith Formation class or a small group. For others of us it’s intimidating to talk about the Bible with others because as many of you have shared with me, you don’t want to appear unintelligent or ignorant about scripture. No matter how much or how little you’ve engaged with scripture there’s always more to learn about what the Bible says about Jesus Christ. It never ceases to amaze me when I take the time to carefully read a passage of scripture, whether it’s for my own devotional reading, for a sermon or preparing for a Bible study, even if it’s a passage that I’m familiar with, I always notice something new.

Going back to what Paul said earlier in this passage, we need to bear one another in love. Drawing from Christ’s love we need to lovingly meet one another where each of us is at in our respective journeys of faith. Sure some of us might be more familiar with scripture than others, but to quote Paul again we are “one body, one faith in one God who is above all, through all and in all.” We may be at different points in our faith, but we are all growing in faith together.

Following Jesus with others means learning together. And not just learning information from the Bible about God, but embracing what Scripture says about who God is (to quote our Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy)  with all of our heart, soul and might. Like Ephesians, Deuteronomy also emphasizes how we are to learn about God and to love God in the context of community. 

Jesus Christ has called us to follow him, but to follow him with others.  

God is a relational God and desires for us to be in relationship with others. Community isn’t just something God wants, but something that God wants for us.

Community is all over the Bible. The Old Testament is all about how God worked through and in the nation of Israel, helping them build community with one another and figure out as a community what it means to follow God together. Jesus himself had community. He had the disciples. They ate together, worked together and served others together.

The book “Boys in the Boat,” is about the 1936 varsity men’s crew team from the University of Washington (my alma mater) who went on to win gold at the Berlin Olympics. 

It’s a beautiful story about teamwork and underdogs, but more so about community. The book focuses on Joe Ratz, a young farm boy from rural Washington who grew up in poverty and was essentially abandoned by his family at the age of 10. He had to quickly learn how to make his way in the world. Since Joe was used to “going it alone,” this was reflected in his rowing. His coach finally had to pull him aside and tell him “You’re a fine athlete, but you row as if you’re the only one in the boat.” His coach goes on to tell him, “what mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing.” Joe had learned to row past pain, exhaustion, past the voice that says “it couldn’t be done.” According to his coach, Joe now had an opportunity to “do things most men would never have a chance to do.” 

He concluded with a remark that Joe would never forget: “Joe, when you really start trusting the other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes you will feel like you rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” 

Essentially what the 1936 University of Washington varsity crew team won was not just a gold medal, but the life changing experience of giving their all alongside and with their teammates for something greater than themselves. In the end, what Joe Ratz treasured most was not his gold medal, but his teammates who became the family he had always wanted, but never had.

When we as a church do the hard work of being in community together we experience Christ’s love in ways we’ve never experienced before. When we are brave enough to talk honestly about our disagreements, but do so out of love, we experience the Holy Spirit bringing us closer together and closer to God in ways we didn’t think was possible. When we take a leap of faith and start studying and discussing scripture together, we’ll experience Jesus Christ in ways we’ve never experienced him before. We come to find that God’s love in Jesus Christ is bigger than we ever imagined.

Together we were meant to experience the love of Christ. The only love that is bigger than the love of any one individual or any one community. But it is only the love of Jesus Christ that holds and sustains us as a community even in the midst of our differences or disagreements. None of us are perfect and our church family is not perfect. The beauty of accepting our imperfection leads us to more fully rely on the perfect love of Jesus Christ that is above all, in all and through all and holds us together. Amen.