Monday, October 09, 2006

The unique vocation of the local church – then (A.D. 60) and now

A message from the Epistle to the Ephesians to Anglicans in the light of The Windsor Report

Imagine a group of people meeting together in a large house or a meeting place in the ancient city of Ephesus, the third largest city in the Roman Empire, with a population of around 200,000. See the group as made up of both men and women and including Jews, Gentiles, slaves, and citizens of the Roman Empire. And amazingly they all seem to be mingling and relating as equals as they greet one another in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to them singing psalms together and praying to God in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah and Savior of the world.

Keep on listening as one whom they call a presbyter and/or pastor is reading out aloud a Letter sent to this fairly new and small congregation by the apostle Paul, who has written it to them—and probably to other local churches—from prison in the early 60s. Allow yourself to be astounded by what the apostle states is the vocation of this congregation in the will of God the Father.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (4:1-6)

We ask: What is the vocation given to this people by God in this pagan city where they live and assemble as a congregation of Jesus Christ?

Their vocation is to be a truly unified people, who are joined together in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who comes from the Father bringing the graces, gifts and virtues of the exalted Lord Jesus. We learn that their genuine unity in sincere fellowship, that is so crucially important, is only possible by the exercise of the virtues which were seen in the life and ministry of Jesus and which the Spirit makes available to those who are “in Christ.” (In passing we note that these virtues would not be prized or commended at all by the learned professors of ethics in Asia Minor or Greece at that time. They would be seen as signs of weakness.)

“Humility” is the opposite of pride and haughtiness of spirit; “meekness” is the opposite of self assertion and self justification; and “patience” is long-suffering, the capacity to accept delay, trouble, tribulation or suffering with becoming angry or upset. To these virtues is added that of “love,” the determination and readiness always to do for others what is truly for their good. “Bearing with one another…” suggests that St Paul assumes that there are and will be frictions and strains and differences in this congregation (for after all he understands the presence of sin within even the baptized believer – see Romans 1-8), and thus each and all need to work hard at exercising the Christian virtues. In fact, all need to have a blazing zeal, a profound eagerness, for true unity in Christ by his Spirit—a unity that is not only “in spirit and in truth” but is also really reflected in outward behavior, activity and signs. That is, a unity which is bound together by the virtue of peace (which is not merely freedom from divisions and strife but is the presence of wholeness).

The sevenfold formula—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father—relates the unity of the local church to the unity of the whole catholic Church and to the unity of God himself. The vocation of the mixed congregation in Ephesus to be one in faith, hope and love, and at peace, which the apostle so passionately believes in and asks for, is integrated by him into the purposes of God for the whole creation, visible and invisible.

This takes us back to “the calling” to which the congregation has been called and was described in that part of the Letter read before we began to listen. This calling is not to be united in fellowship, worship and witness, and without internal divisions, simply because this is good in itself and provides less headaches for local leaders, visiting apostles and evangelists. No, it is (as Ephesians 1-3 make clear) the amazing, hard to believe, vocation of this church to be a part of God the Father’s working out and fulfilling of his grand and vast design for ultimate unity through, in and by Jesus Christ, of the whole created order. This people in this pagan city is called in their unity in the Spirit not only to prefigure the ultimate unity of everything in Christ but also to be its inception. Surely this is a unique privilege and amazing vocation!

The place which the Father has assigned to this congregation is within, and is a part of, his plan of the ages—“according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). To serve God in his plan requires that this local church, and every local church, reflect now that unity in Christ by the Spirit which is the perfect will of God. That which the Father through his Incarnate Son the Lord Jesus Christ shall bring to fullness of reality at the End time, he now requires be made visible in each local church through the real and true unity of all members as the one body of Christ, living by the Christian virtues as guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is the true vocation of the local church and out of it flow worship, mission, teaching, evangelization and discipline that are to the praise of the Holy Trinity.

In this age and sinful world, this ecclesial vocation is completely and totally opposed by “the world, the flesh [human nature in its sinful state] and the devil.” This is why Paul ends his Letter in this way:

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might…Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one, and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (6:10-18)

The context in which the local church is to become in practice what it is called to be by God the Father is one of constant battle, but one that the Lord Jesus has already successfully engaged in and been victorious. And he is around to guide and strength now.

One thing we learn from this is that unity in Christ by the Spirit is not an option and not secondary to having orthodoxy in propositional form. It is a necessary quality of the body of Christ, the household of God the Father, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

October 9, 2006

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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