Is it really August already? I feel like I’ve been locked in the basement for a while, and when I climbed up the stairs and out into the sunlight, blinking and squinting in the white glare, I realized July had pretty much evaporated; at the end of June I fell into a wormhole and on Thursday I emerged on the other side. I do vaguely remember, though, that I spent more than a week chained to my desk, reading books I wish somebody had pointed out to me years ago and some books I wish had never been written and writing papers of varying length and profundity about all of them. Then I spent two weeks with twenty-two colleagues in a windowless room with an enormous white board covering the entire length of one wall.
Speaking of which, I wish I had a white board to draw a Venn diagram; in case you’re wondering, that’s a set of overlapping circles that help you see things that are difficult to grasp in words, like the difference between dweebs, dorks, geeks, and nerds. You see, dweebs combine social ineptitude with intelligence, while geeks combine obsession with intelligence, and dorks combine social ineptitude with obsession. Nerds, however, according to our imaginary Venn diagram, represent a perfect balance of intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude. Why am I telling you all this? Because the twenty-two of us in that windowless room at Lipscomb were totally geeking out. Imagine four afternoons of four hours and four verses of scripture each, and at the end of the day, each day, the white board is covered with scribbles, triangles and arrows representing the theory of everything and each of the twenty-two sits back in their chair and, after a quick stretch, declares, “This was awesome.” So, how was your July?
We heard a wonderful passage from the beginning of the second half of the letter to the Ephesians, and there’s a part of me that wishes we had four hours and a white board, because it’s such a rich passage. But we’re not here to study, we’re here to worship God and to listen deeply for the word of God for us in Scripture, surrendering to it with receptive hearts and inspired minds, so that we may embody it in our life together, whether we’re together or apart. The first part of the letter is an invitation to join in praising and thanking God for uniting us with Christ, for breaking down the dividing wall between God’s people Israel and the nations,
for making members of the household of God of all who once were strangers to the covenants of promise, and for creating from the two who once were ‘us’ and ‘them’ one new humanity in Christ. The first part of the letter is an invitation to join in praising and thanking God for gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth, for the redemption of life from the powers of sin and death. This is who we are, God’s own people, a temple of the Lord, the body of Christ on earth, a people called to live to the praise of God’s glory. It’s like we’ve each been given a new first name, the first thing we ourselves and the whole world needs to know about us before anything else and after: our new name is child of God. And so we sing and thank God for giving us a new identity that is rooted and grounded in love, and not in fear or guilt or shame or income or education.
So, if this is who we are, we ask, how are we to live? And apparently Paul knew this question would be hanging in the air after we’ve thanked God for what God has done.What are we to do? Paul doesn’t jump right into the second half of the letter that answers that question in both its personal and communal dimensions; he ends the first half with a prayer:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Even when we’re ready to ask, “What are we to do?” and go to work, even then, or perhaps especially then, we are to remember that the work is God’s and we are called to be participants in it. And what are we to do? “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” writes Paul.
That’s called maintenance work, isn’t it? That’s a bit of a downer for those of us who like to think of ourselves as kingdom builders, isn’t it? We just finished embroidering with gold thread our new name on our white robes, and now we’re given a blue shirt with our new name over the left chest pocket flap, and on the other side, just above the right chest pocket, it says, “Unity Maintenance.”
“Lord, I thought you might need me to be an elder or a teacher, or an evangelist, pastor, bishop, or deacon.”
“I might need you to fulfill any of those functions,” said the Lord, “but that’s the shirt you’re going to wear.”
Unity maintenance. The way Paul puts it in his letter, “I urge you then – I, the prisoner in the Lord – to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Unity maintenance. Not unity politics or unity management or unity by executive decree. Unity maintenance. Humble, gentle, patient; putting up with people who are so hard to put up with; changing the world by letting the love of God transform our hearts. Unity maintenance. One body. One Spirit. One hope. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God of all. 7x1=perfect unity, reflecting the unity of God. Perhaps you get a little nervous when you hear unity talk like that, I do, because I worry about totalitarian fantasies that wipe out difference. But this is no program or party platform; this is a unity far beyond our imagining; this is a body in which every member does its part to promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love; this is a community gifted with all that is needed to equip the saints for their work with God.
Since we’re talking about maintenance work, you may think that equipping is about equipment. But equipping is not just about giving somebody the right kind of tools or helping them develop the set of skills needed to accomplish a goal. That’s part of it, but not all of it. The word translated equipping is also used for the setting of broken bones or fostering healing, for making something whole and strong. The word makes an appearance in the accounts of Jesus calling fishermen to be his followers. James and John were in their boat mending the nets when Jesus called them to a life of discipleship. Mending and equipping are the same word in Greek, so to equip the saints for the work of ministry is about more than training; it’s about healing; it’s about weaving wholeness where life is frayed; it’s about repairing what is broken instead of writing it off; it’s about restoring rather than discarding what is fractured; it’s about each and every one of us being needed and indispensable for what God is up to in the world. And so we don’t go looking for the church gear peddlers at the ministry fair who build flashy displays of their latest and greatest apps and gadgets; we go looking for each other. God wants Christ to have a body on earth, and you and I and all the others who long for life that is real will do. We will do. Not because we’re worthy or holy or grown-up by any measure we use, but because we are beloved and called and gifted according to the measure of Christ’s gift. We go looking for each other to help each other trust and see that no matter what life has done to us, we are worthy because we are God’s beloved; we are holy because God never ceases to call us to wholeness; and we are growing into the fullness of life whose measure is Christ alone. God wants Christ to have a body on earth, both for our sake – so we become who we truly are as God’s own – and for the sake of the world – so the glory of God will shine forth from every nook and cranny of creation.
Now somebody will probably tell me this afternoon that this was the perfect moment to wrap things up, but I want to highlight just one more thing in this rich passage. At the beginning Paul writes, “I urge you then – I, the prisoner in the Lord – to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” It’s a letter from prison, like Paul’s letter to the Philippians or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. However, Paul doesn’t simply refer to himself as a prisoner, but as a “prisoner in the Lord.” We can read that to mean he’s in prison because of his faith in Christ and his proclamation of Christ as Lord. But earlier in this letter as well as in two other letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of the Lord. Now we can still read that to mean he’s in prison for the sake of the Lord, but to me it’s a curious phrase, a prisoner of the Lord.
The root meaning of the word prisoner is bound or in bonds, and that opens up a surprising connection. In verse 3, Paul urges us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and the word for bond here has the same root as the word translated prisoner. Paul certainly was a prisoner when he wrote from prison, but he also wrote as one bound by Christ or one in the bonds of Christ and therefore one whose identity and life were inseparably bound to Christ, whether in or out of prison. Likewise, what is holding us together in unity is not some chain or rope tightly wrapped around us. We are being held together by the love of Christ who has bound himself to us, so that our death would be his and his life, ours. What is holding us all together is the bond of Christ’s peace, and so we too are “bound ones” in Christ for the sake of God’s mission to liberate all who are still bound by powers other than love.
Now to him who by the power at work within us and among us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
 Mt 4:21; Mk 1:19
 Eph 3:1; 2 Tim 1:8; Phm 1:1, 9