A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on October 3, 2021
Ephesians 4:1-6 — I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you 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, making every effort 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 of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is World Communion Sunday. Just parenthetically, some of us remember when this day was called “World-wide Communion Sunday”, but today it’s World… World Communion Sunday was begun by our Presbyterian cousins in the 1930s and began to be sponsored by the National Council of Churches in 1940. The idea was to create a a day and experience which would be a visible sign of Christian unity by celebrating the sacrament of Communion together. We continue that visible sign today in our celebration.
I think, however, that it’s worth our time to think together of just what that unity might mean in today’s world. Back in the 1930s and 40s, unity was, as much as anything, about structural unity. It’s the time when denominations were combining, when Evangelical & Reformed Church and Congregational Christian pastors in St. Louis first began to talk about bringing their constituent churches closer together; they dreamed that their union might bring forth the great reunion of all parts of the Christian Church.
Well, it didn’t happen. The whole big effort crashed and burned – among other reasons — on the rocks of different beliefs that were each important to parts of the whole, and often, offensive to other parts. That might sound like failure. I don’t think it is, though. I think we had to go through that stage to get to where we are today.
Where we are today is in a place where unity is not about whether we belong to one particular church body or whether it’s even possible to all belong to the same denomination. Unity, today, is about how we live together. And in moving from the form of unity, we have come to the substance of unity. It’s not about belonging to the same club, or the same local church, but about living in same ways, showing love, working for justice, acting with mercy.
Unity is the recognition that the goodness of our world is incomplete when we are not together. Moreover, it is the recognition that we are called to make this good, unity, better… by working together, loving together, serving together… unity made manifest.
Let’s look again at our reading from Ephesians. You know this is one of a number of letters written either by the Apostle Paul or by people who’d studied and worked with him. You might have been surprised when you learned that this letter, written in Greek to Greek-speaking followers of Christ, went to a city in Turkey. Back in Paul’s day, Ephesus was a big Christian center, a big trade center – and in those days, Greek was the language of the eastern end of the Mediterranean world. The city produced a number of early leaders of the Christian church, before wars and natural disasters left the city in ruins by the mid-600s. But when this letter was written, it was a great city.
Now back in those days, the Christian Church was really pretty congregational in organization – at least in the sense that there was not yet an over-arching church organization which controlled all the local centers or local churches. True, there was a Council in Jerusalem, but after the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of leaders, it became harder to get together. Travel wasn’t easy, distances were really distances, not “gosh it’s a long drive to Hartford”, but more like, “ooh, we’re walking to Milwaukee…in the winter… and we have to go through Chicago at rush hour….”
The first divisions in Christianity will emerge to some extent because of those distances, and because different people in different contexts will see the world in different ways. Paul is trying, in this letter, to distill the meaning of Christianity into something that will be true wherever this word is read….
He gives us two statements, both of which describe unity. The first tells us that the marks of a unified heart is living with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
This kind of unity is not just about church structures; it’s about all our relationships – in our homes, at work, here in this church, in the work we do with other believers, in our relationships throughout the world. When you get right down to it, a Christian faith that only shows itself inside this building is not much of a faith at all, and I don’t think it’s at all what God wants from us.
Unity is not an in-thing, not something just for us. It is our gift to the world. It is our work as Christians to live with humility and gentleness, patience, love and an enduring persistent unity… even when it doesn’t work, even when we lose our tempers, even when we turn away in anger, even when we expect to be treated better because we’re white, or because our family founded the church, or because we went to Wesleyan instead of Thread City Tech over in Willimantic.
(Willimantic is the Thread City, because of the American Thread Mills…. and Thread City Tech is the local name for Eastern Connecticut State University.)
The second thing Paul uses to describe unity is about unity within the family of Christians. He reminds us that there is one body and one Spirit, . . . one hope. . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…. No matter the details of our faith, no matter the words we use in worship, or the clothes our leaders wear, no matter what, we are one. We use many ways to worship the one Lord, our faith, tho different is still one, the baptism we use is the same throughout Christianity, and we all believe in one God who is a parent, our Creator, for it is when we follow God that we become one.
In a few minutes we will share the Sacrament of Communion. This day, when you take, and eat and drink, re-dedicate yourselves to this kind of unity, the unity of the Spirit of God, the unity of the bonds of peace and justice, love and mercy.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child