II Samuel 11:26–12:13a
Let me start by being honest. Our Ephesians passage includes several statements that at first made me a little nervous. “Lead a life worthy of your calling, … making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” The gifts Christ gave were “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. ... We must grow up … into Christ, … each part working properly, promoting the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
I don’t know about you, but I read this and asked, “How?!”
How are we supposed to “measure up” to Christ? How are we supposed lead a life worthy of Christ? How are we supposed to build ourselves up to Christ?
And, moreover, doesn’t that sound like a rather strenuous life? Making every effort, working, and building—and all toward a goal that, honestly, seems pretty far-fetched.
Are we not born sinners? “I have been wicked from my birth,” David says, “a sinner from my mother’s womb” (Ps. 51:6). Are we not human? Do we not make mistakes quite often? Are we not in the habit of doing what we don’t want to do and not doing what we want to do?
Are we not the kind of beings that are liable to act like David acted? Though he was a great man, an earnest, devoted servant of God, he did obscene things, and then tried to cover them up, and then he had the nerve to pass judgment on another person who acted similarly. When Nathan tells him about the wicked man from his story, David says, “The man who has done this deserves to die,” for “he had no pity.” But did David have pity on Uriah? Did David have pity on Bathsheba? Does David not deserve to die for what he did?
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
And none of us could throw one, could we? We have all done something that we wish we wouldn’t have, something we wish we could take back. Maybe we’re even haunted by certain memories. I’m sure David was. I’m sure that later he thought of Uriah and couldn’t help but cringe, grabbing his face and shaking in shame and guilt.
Paul says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So how are we supposed to measure up to Christ? Surely, we don’t have what it takes, we finite sinners. Surely, we aren’t made of the right stuff. Surely, we don’t have the proper tools.
A confession in the Book of Common Prayer says, “There is no health in us.” If there is true, how can we build anything that isn’t futile or fleeting or weak?
But thankfully, there are more words in our passage than effort, work, build, and grow. There is another word, one that is absolutely decisive, one that changes the whole dynamic, including ourselves.
That word is: Grace.
Yes, Paul does say, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but right after that he says, “they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
And in our Ephesians passage, the words “give,” “gift,” and “grace,” appear several times. It says, “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’”
Out of the abundance of God’s love, God shows us sinners mercy. He forgives us and gives us grace. David prays, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness” (Ps. 51:1), and God does indeed have mercy on him. He prays, “Give me the joy of your saving help” (v.13), and God does indeed give his saving help.
God is merciful and gracious. He gives us an abundance of gifts.
He gives us forgiveness. David prays, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me,” and God doesn’t. In Christ, God willed from all eternity to be our God, to be with us. As Karl Barth liked to say, in Christ God determined once and for all that he would not be God without us.
And he did this even knowing our sinfulness. God is always Immanuel, God with us, regardless of our sin. God forgives us. In Christ, he refuses to cast us away or take himself from us. Instead, he draws near, he comes closer, and becomes one of us, so that we might become one with him.
God forgives us and God redeems us. David prays, “Blot out my offenses, wash me, cleanse me, purge me, purify me, create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me.” And God does! God makes good things come from bad. God helps what is passed help. God transforms lost causes into glorious victories. He not only forgives our sins, but washes us clean, purges sin out of us, purifies our hearts, and makes us new.
God heals us.
It may be that there is no health in us, but Jesus made it abundantly clear that God heals the sick. He provides for those in need. We saw with the feeding of the five thousand last week that when Jesus sees people who are hungry, he is concerned for them and intends to feed them. And just like Jesus, God comes for the sick, for the lost, for the poor, for the outcast. He comes for those in need of a savior, and he comes bearing gifts. Whatever our need is, he comes to us with the proper gift.
You’re a sinner? God comes with forgiveness. You are sick? God comes with healing. You are hungry? God comes with food.
God meets us where we are at. We do not have to deserve anything. We do not have to measure up to anything. We do not have to climb our way to the top, or work our way up a mountain in the hopes of getting to our savior at the top. No, Jesus comes all the way down. He “descends to the lowest parts of the earth,” as it says in our Ephesians passage (4:9).
I actually hiked up a mountain recently. It was “Mailbox Peak” in Washington state. At the entrance of the trail, there was a warning sign. It read, “Mailbox Peak Trail is a very steep, wet, unmaintained, difficult, challenging trail. It is 2.5 miles one way to the top and gains 4,000 feet in elevation. Search-and-rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist distressed hikers. Please respect your own ability.”
Now, I got to the top.
But getting there was no joke. It was indeed difficult and challenging. I checked our altitude every five minutes, in the hopes that we were almost there. About ¾ of the way up, while I was physically exhausted, I was mostly mentally exhausted. You look up and all you can see is trees. You look down and all you can see is trees. Rows and rows and rows of tall trees that block out the sky. For the most part, ascending the mountain, that’s all you see: trees, more trees, and yet more trees. It rarely gets more dynamic than that. And, mentally, that monotonous repetition is relentlessly tedious, and exhausting. And so ¾ of the way up, I hit a wall.
I was distressed. Fed up, really. Just stop with the trees already! Let me just get there!
Some people experience the Christian life in this way. They feel like they have to ascend a staircase to perfection. Do something good, and you take a step up; do something bad, and backtrack, you take a step down. It feels like every sin puts you farther and farther away from perfection, so that each good work is just making up for the last bad one. With that monotonous repetition, life itself becomes exhausting.
But Jesus does not ask this of us. I say again, Jesus comes all the way down the mountain. He meets us in the valley. He’ll descend “to the lowest parts of the earth.” He meets us where we are at, so that he might meet our need, so that, Paul says, “he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10).
Our Bible passages today talk a lot about the body. David wants “a clean heart” (Ps. 51:11a). He wants God to wash him and cleanse him so “that the body you have broken may rejoice” (v.9b).
Ephesians talks about the church as a body, “one body” (4:4), the body of Christ. The gifts that Christ gave were for the “building up of the body of the Christ” (v.12), who is the head. Moreover, Paul says, “the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament … promotes the body’s growth” (v.16).
We see here an image of wholeness. One body, joined together in Christ, in peace and in love—healthy, “with each part working properly” (v.16). We all know what it’s like when some parts of our bodies are not working properly. We get colds, or indigestion, or headaches, or flus, or viruses, or whatever. We know that life is best when our bodies are healthy. And the same goes for the church, the body of Christ.
God is “above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). He is concerned with our hearts and our souls, but he is also concerned with our bodies. He wants to meet our bodily needs every bit as much as he wants to meet our spiritual needs. God wants to meet all our needs—bread for the body, and love for the soul.
God wants us to be whole and healthy, so that in our wholeness we might meet the needs of others, helping each other as one whole body of Christ, joined together by our faith and our hope.
In Christ, we believe in and hope for the resurrection of the body. People tend to think of eternal life as some disembodied state. Our soul is separated from our body at death and goes to heaven, which is some kind of bodiless, spiritual, and immortal existence.
But we don’t really get that idea from the Bible. That’s more of a Greek philosophical idea. The Bible preaches the resurrection of the body. Paul says in II Corinthians 15 that we are “sown a natural body” and “raised a spiritual body.” It is only that our earthly bodies are perishable, whereas they will be raised imperishable (vv.42–44).
And Jesus speaks of eternal food. The food we eat now perishes, but the Son of Man will give us “food that endures for eternal life” (Jn. 6:27). Moreover, the “true bread … is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (v.33). Just as we are bodies now, in need of sustenance and care, so we will be raised imperishable, spiritual bodies who live off the sustenance and care of Jesus Christ for eternity.
We are creatures of God, bodies created by God, with needs, dependent on God’s provision. That is our status. As Kathryn Tanner says, “We are here simply to be the recipients of God’s gifts.”
But, as we learned from David, the gifts that God intends for people are often hindered through sin. God’s gifts are stolen or withheld by selfishness and injustice. And so people all over the world go without shelter, or food, or care, even when God has given this earth for the good of all.
And so it is that among the gifts God are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, who equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12). The Greek word for ministry is diakonia, which is the same word for waiting a table. Ministry means service. The saints, meaning all who are in Christ, are intended to serve. Just as Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28), so the saints are not here to be served, but to serve.
The saints are among God’s gifts to the world. We are supposed to be gifts to the world. As God meets our needs, so we should meet the needs of others.
That is the kind of life that is worthy of our calling. That is what it means to build up the body of Christ. That is what it means to mature and grow to the measure of the full stature of Christ, who, as we read a few weeks ago in II Corinthians, “though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9).
You are a gift from God to the world. Be a gift to the world. Give gifts to the world. To quote Tanner one more time, “God may not need anything from us, but the world does.” So meet your neighbor’s needs. Meet the needs of the people in your world. Be humble and gentle and patient and peaceful.
In other words, love! Give bread for the body, and love for the soul, just as Jesus does. As Paul says, the body of Christ grows and is built up in love (v.16). So, “bear one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). “Speak truth in love” (v.15).
Not to measure up to a standard! Not to be perfect! Not to ascend some divine staircase! No. To be a Christian means to give because you have received from Christ, to serve because you have been served by Christ, to meet needs because your needs have been met by Christ.
You do not serve because you have been found wanting, or because you are impure and need to be made pure by doing good things. On the contrary, it is out of the wholeness that you receive from Christ that you are equipped and called to seek the wholeness of others.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon for the
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 5, 2018
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 5, 2018
Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 69.