Sunday we heard in the 2nd reading the beginning of chapter four of Ephesians. Since I'm not a scripture scholar, I need to leave aside the very interesting discussions of scholars about Pauline authenticity, and the ways in which large parts of this letter do not match the theology or style of the letters (like 1 Corinthians and Romans) that are almost certainly of Pauline authorship. For my purposes, I want to ask a question about what the author of Ephesians says about what it means to "live in a manner worthy of the call you have received." I've been thinking a lot about vocation these last few weeks as I have been preparing for my sessions with the adults at Music Ministry Alive. So trusting that in this section, at least, Ephesians carries the best spirit of the church and perhaps the mind of the apostle, I just want to say "out loud" what I heard as our readers proclaimed the first verses of that reading.
First of all, let me say that "the call" that we have received is the call to believe in the good news. To put that into words that might "translate" what they meant in the first century: we have a choice to make between empires. The civilization the runs the world—the whole world, no matter what the form of government or economy—is based on violence and threats of violence. It is an escalating resource-grab, six billion people and their representatives vying for control of limited and dwindling resources. Civilization requires law, borders, armies, treaties, enforcement, and religions to keep the whole thing from turning into a violent free-for-all. For the people of the first century, the god of civilization was Augustus, then the rest of the Caesars who rules and guided the Roman Empire.
But Jesus, raised in Jewish tradition, understood that that was not the world that God had made, nor the one that God wanted. Jesus began preaching "Turn around, "repent," go the other way. The empire of God is close by. You just have to turn around." Everybody knew something was wrong. Everybody knew it wasn't fair, that they weren't happy. I like to say, "Hey, how's that Roman empire thing working out for you? Is Caesar a good god? Giving you a good life? I have another way."
In the sermon on the mount, his healing, his table ministry, and his exorcisms, Jesus reminded people about "the call you have received" in their Jewishness to be the people of God. He called them to be who they were meant to be, the children of God, brothers and sisters to one another. It was clear to Paul, and later to the gospel writers, that Jesus expanded the heart of this "good news" of the new empire to include everyone, not just the Jews, but all kinds of non-Jews as well, even the Romans, even enemies. Enemy love was a major component of the teaching of Jesus, whose message was to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" by letting the sun of our lives shine and the rain of our lives fall on the good and bad alike. Jesus lived that good news himself by sharing his table with everyone, "good and bad" alike, that is, those who perceived themselves as good, and those whom the good perceived to be bad. And as his message grew in popularity, he attracted the notice of the Romans, who killed him for sedition. And we know the rest of the story: how God raised him on the third day, and was experienced as alive by the twelve and others.
So with that as a background, how does the letter to the Ephesians call the Ephesians (and us) to "live a life worthy of the calling" we have received when we were baptized into Christ Jesus?
with all humility and gentleness,
bearing with one another through love.
Isn't this the very heart of the new empire's good news? That there is to be no more violence, not even rhetorical violence, or psychological violence, in a world ruled by agape, the love with which God has loved us. There is no rivalry in the text, no urgency toward shortcuts that might require coercion, no sense of "having all the answers," insisting on being right, or superiority. We live a life worthy of the good news/gospel we have received by being patient, by acting humbly and gently. That is gospel living.
…striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace,
one body and one spirit, as you were also called to the one hope your call.
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The one God whom Jesus identified as Abba, the head of the household of humanity, and the spirit of Christ that gives life to the body are the source of radical unity that underlies everything and that ought to be evident in the life of the church as a living sign of the truth of who God is and what Jesus means. We "strive to preserve" that unity through the "bond of peace." That is to say, by rejecting rivalrous antagonism and refusing to take part in activities that incite violence or drive wedges between people or groups of people, we live lives worthy of the calling we have received through the gospel.
Knowing that we are loved, living in that love, and promoting that love by living gentle lives, this is the way that we live lives worthy of the calling we have received.
It's not about noisy protests, talking heads of self-righteous orthodoxy, legislative demands on a non-believing society, sociological litmus tests of personal "morality" constructed by the self-appointed gatekeepers of truth.
Working, worshipping, singing, serving, affirming, living together in non-competitive mutual benevolence is a sacrament of the gospel. The calling we have received is to believe in a different empire and a different "emperor," an emperor who serves, who bows low to be like us and be with us, who points the way to a civilization based on justice and love and not on violence and threats. Lives worthy of that calling will reflect Jesus's call to enemy love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
I guess what I'm feeling today is, the next time someone says that the United States should be a Christian nation, ask them if that's really what they want. If a church says it is a gospel church, ask them if that's what they mean. It's not meant to be an argument. It's a call to every one of us. Be humble, gentle, and patient with each other. Cool it with the orthodoxy tests. Live a life worthy of your calling. Or as God might say dramatically in the avatar of Rita Hayworth, throwing back her red hair and looking right into humanity's flabbergasted eyes, "Shut up and kiss me."