Sunday, 2 August 2015

No Body but Ours (Eph 4:1-16)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Aug 2, 2015)


Are We Actually Called?

The first time I heard the call of “God,” I was five or six years old, and I was in the downstairs bathroom, excitedly preparing for a trip to the swimming pool. First it was a whisper: “Jonathan….” Then a second time, more clearly: “Jonathan.” Now I’d heard the story of young Samuel in the Temple (1 Sam 3:1-15), and so my heart began racing. Was God calling me? Here? Now? In a bathroom, of all places? Then I heard it a third time, and on this occasion it warbled dramatically: “Joonnnatthan.” That…was not God. That was my brother—who had apparently uncovered the mystery of our house’s ventilation.

Chances are, most of us have come no closer to hearing God’s audible voice than I did when I was five or six years old. And I think that’s part of the reason it’s easy to skip right over the opening of today’s text, where Paul “begs” his audience “to lead a life worthy of [their] calling” (4:1). We skip over that verse because we’ve become so accustomed to skipping over the very idea that we ourselves have actually been called.

Can we honestly talk about having received a call from God? While the calls in the Bible might seem out of our league, many of them actually take place in rather mundane settings: they happen at night or in dreams and visions of the heart, or even in silence. These are settings common to all our lives. So perhaps we have been called too. Has some unknown corner of your heart ever ignited, set you on fire, persuaded you to do something that didn’t fit the life you’d calculated for yourself? Have you ever felt that something’s chosen you more than you’ve chosen it?[1] The distinctive thing about a call is that it confronts us out of the blue.[2] We don’t know what the call is until after we’ve heard it. We may have read about other people’s calls in the Bible, and we might imagine what a call would sound like. But if we’ve prepared for a certain call, if we’ve planned for it, then it’s not so much a call as it is us talking to ourselves. Nobody plans to fall in love. They hear the call, and only once they’re falling in midair do they realize they’ve responded. We don’t plan to be kept awake at night by a thought or feeling that won’t let go of us—a regret, perhaps, that reminds us of a call we did not answer, or a good memory that calls for us to live it again in a new way.

I recently read a story about a lonely woman who lived in the Bronx. She had lost her three sons to Vietnam and her joy to a life without family. Then one day, when she was walking up to her tiny corner in the projects, she saw two little girls being herded through a crowd of hookers. Their mother had died, and a couple of social workers were taking them away, probably to an ill-equipped institution where they would grow up without a mother or father. The woman remembers the moment vividly, as though it were a candle still burning in her soul. She found herself stepping out confidently into the path of the social workers. “It didn’t seem to me that I was in the same body anymore,” she recalls. The workers asked her if she knew these kids. And although she knew practically nothing about them, she heard herself respond: “Yes.”[3]

To my ears, this woman heard a call. It wasn’t simply her saying yes; after all, she hardly knew the kids. It was God inside her, calling her, saying “yes” through her, saying, “Yes, I know these kids, and I know this mother, and I know they need one another.” It was a divine “yes,” which is a “yes” that brings new life. One theologian has said that our calling is where our deepest desire meets the world’s deepest need.[4] This woman heard a call because her unspoken yearning for family and love met these two girls’ need for the loving nurture of a family.

It may take some time, but I imagine that we all of us can remember moments of our lives when we heard such a call. Moments when something chose us more than we chose it. And as diverse as these moments are, I imagine that many of us would trace them back to the same source. To Christ, who calls us to lose ourselves for the sake of God and others. According to Paul in today’s text, it’s this shared sense of calling that unites us here today. There’s a beautiful reminder of this in the original word for church: ekklesia, which means “called (out).”[5]

The Body of Christ: Unity Not Uniformity

So the same call calls us all, out from the security and self-centered rhythm of our own lives into the life of God’s kingdom. The same Spirit haunts all our lives. We all look to the same God, “who is above all and through all and in all” (4:6).

I had a roommate in college who was troubled by all this sameness, all this oneness. He feared that the Christian faith would strip him of his identity, that he would be cut by some Christ-shaped cookie-cutter. But if Paul has anything to say about it, our shared calling and faith does not erase our differences. It celebrates them. We the church, Paul says, are “the body of Christ.” And a body is made up of many different parts, each of which performs a different function. Amanda recently used the metaphor of the body in her “From Where I Sit” reflection, where she also suggests that we’re like a team. And that’s another great metaphor: a team has different players, and they each have different strengths, but all are united together in one purpose.

In Paul’s day, the image of the body celebrated the unity of two very different groups of people: Jewish and Gentile believers. It didn’t matter if you kept kosher or not, whether you said the same prayers in the morning or not. Either way, you were part of the same body. Fast forward 1800 years or so, to the beginning of the movement that would result in the formation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and you’d see a similar celebration of difference. A number of ministers in America at the time were writing up creeds in an attempt to ensure the uniformity of the church.[6] But Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, two forefathers of the Christian Church, resisted these compositions, and they may well have cited the letters of Paul in their defense. In fact, the early Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came up with a three-word motto that brilliantly paraphrases Paul’s image of the body in Ephesians 4: “Unity not uniformity.”

What Paul is getting at with the image of the body, what Stone and Campbell were getting at with their resistance to uniformity, is the idea that we are united not despite our differences but precisely because of our differences. Paul calls our differences “gifts” (4:11), as though to say that Christ intends these differences, indeed bestows these differences upon each of us. These differences are meaningful because they make us complete, the same way creation is complete because of its differences, because of its inexplicable mixture of land and water, bird and fish and fur, creepy crawly and human.

And just as this inexplicable mixture all harmonizes in a lively ecosystem, so too our shared calling in Christ harmonizes us in our differences, coordinates our movements into the movement of a single body. We are different people, we do different things. But we are all called to live a certain way. Christ is the adverb that attaches to us, to our actions. Christ is the adverb that inflects our behavior, that perfects us in our unique humanity. So to resume Paul’s body metaphor: If you’re an eye, eye the world the way Christ would, with compassion. If you’re a hand, then hand food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, yourself to the lonely, the way Christ would. If you’re a leg, then leg it to whoever is crying for help the way Christ would.

Christ Cannot Live an Instant Without Us

But…this is all probably starting to sound familiar. You’ve probably been asked to consider on more than one occasion, “Where do you fit on Christ’s body? Which body part are you?” These are illuminating questions, no doubt. But they risk distracting us from what Paul is really getting at. Remember, at the beginning of our text, Paul is literally “begging” us (4:1). He’s not begging us simply to accept his metaphor of the body of Christ, or to idly consider which part of the body we might be.

Because in the end, for Paul, it’s not just a metaphor. Paul is begging us to open our ears to our calling, to the reality that our bodies are the only body that Christ has in the world.[7] That if Christ lives anywhere, it’s in us (Gal 2:20). That Christ’s resurrection assumes its fullest truth in us. If we are divided, if we are not living according to the love and forgiveness and hope and new life that marked Christ’s life, then the world will not see a resurrected Christ.[8]

Numerous poets and saints have sung about this mystery, that we are the body of Christ. They are, I think, fascinated by the scandal—that God lives through the infinitely unique and fragile and finite lives of humans. And they are equally fascinated by the beauty: the beauty that we experience in each other and have no other word for besides “God,” the ways that we come to know God by the beautiful love expressed in our families, our friendships, and even (or especially) among the hospitality of strangers.

One particular poet, mystic, and saint from the 1500s, Teresa of Avila, heard the urgency in Paul’s plea better than most. And she revoices it poignantly in words of her own. You might recognize her poem. But I’d “beg” you to listen to it now with a new ear, to hear not simply a metaphor but a reminder of our calling, a calling that chooses us more than we choose it, a calling that we trace back to Christ, who now lives—if he lives at all—in us:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.



[1] The word “vocation” comes from the Latin, vocare, “to call.”  It is, in other words, a calling.  We don’t choose it.  It chooses, or “calls,” us.

[2] The strangeness and otherness of the divine call is captured in Luther’s describing our righteousness as an “alien righteousness.”  So Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (orig. eds. Gerhard Ludwig Müller and Albrecht Schönherr; trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and ed. Geffrey B. Kelly; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 32, who says that Christians “long for the redeeming Word again and again.  It can only come from the outside.  In themselves they are destitute and dead.  Help must come from the outside.”

[3] Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (New York: Random House, 2009), 324.

[4] Frederick Buecher is commonly credited for the quote: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

[5] Ekklesia derives from ek, “out from” and “to,” and kaleo, “to call.”  The church is called out from the world and to God’s kingdom.

[6] See, e.g., Stone’s description of an 1807 meeting he was invited to attend.  D. Newell Williams, Barton Stone: A Spiritual Biography (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 130-131, cites Barton W. Stone, History of the Christian Church in the West (Lexington: College of the Bible, 1956), 47, where Stone recollects that the meeting was for the purpose of writing a formulary “by which uniformity might be promoted and preserved among us.”

[7] Angelus Silesius, a poet and priest of the 1600s, articulates this concisely. Angelus Silesius, Cherubinic Wanderer (ed. Josef Schmidt and Maria Shrady; London: SPCK, 1986), cited in John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 35: “I know that God cannot live an instant without me; / Were I to become nothing, He must give up the Ghost.”

[8] Paul’s lengthy plea for unity derives from the idea we are the extent of God’s existence in the world, that we are the extent of Christ’s resurrection.  (Therefore, Paul can talk about our actions as impinging directly on Christ’s body, e.g., 1 Cor 6:16.)  Our unity attests to the unity of the divine purpose.  Our lives attest to the life and way of Christ.

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