Unity not Uniformity
When we buy a new laptop, or get a new car, or treat ourselves to a coffee machine, the first thing we do is get it out and take it for a whirl, right? It’s only when we are struggling with something that we look at that book with the title ‘Read this before operating device.’ So this is what Paul is doing here, instructing us to come back to the basics, like one does to the instruction manual when something needs clarity. And the undercurrent of this section of Ephesians is unity – being built up towards unity.
Indeed: “Unless we are working to maintain, defend and develop the unity we already enjoy and to overcome, demolish and put behind us the disunity we still find ourselves in, we can scarcely claim to be following Paul’s teaching.”
When reading this passage earlier this week, I was struck by the logical repeated-ness of the word “One”. One one one.
There is only one baptism – there is no need for repetitions, no judging that someone’s baptism was invalid in their childhood or because it was performed in a foreign country, or because the presiding Pastor is later found to be a hypocrite or worse. It’s the pulling out of the bit of safety paper from a battery-operated toy for the first time. That’s it!
There is only one Lord, very unlike the pagans that surrounded the communities that Paul was writing to, including us. Verse 1 emphasizes our first and foremost calling in our lives to follow our Lord and King – the absolute priority.
This is then followed by a very Trinitarian structure: one Spirit (v4), one Lord (v5), one Father (v6). In the same way that God operates in unity, so we should seek to work is conversation and support of one another, and guard unity – not for unity’s sake, but continuing to work together, and putting friendship above our differences.
But there is a difference between unity and uniformity, the state of being the same as others. Verse 7 starts with a resounding “But…!” As a single beam of light enters into a prism, the light reveals a whole spectrum of colours that it consists of; so likewise we have one God, one faith, one baptism, one church – and many talented people with varying gifts.
Verse 7 alludes to Romans 12:3 (also a masterpiece of Paul and his team), which we believe suggests that God gives different measures of grace and faith to different people. This can seem a big confusing – why does he or she have more than me?! I find it helpful to think of how we sometimes talk about our relationships with other people – I need an extra helping of patience with her…I have to go the extra mile to have grace with him. Or if you are faced with a challenge like abseiling down the side of a building – some people go for it, others need a bit more coaxing. Different people need more or less grace than others. Different people need more or less faith than others.
Why is this a grace?
We then have this interlude from Psalm 68:18. This verse from the Psalm refers to when Moses went up to receive from God the law, engraved on tablets of stone, at Mount Sinai. Moses went up, offered gifts to God, and came back down again. At least this seems the logical progression. So, with this in mind, Paul now points to Jesus as higher than Moses with more authority, following a similar pattern: Jesus ascended, and “returned in the person of the spirit, through whom different gifts are now showered on the church.”
Jesus has ascended, been lifted up, into the highest heavens, offering himself as a gift offering to the Father, and has returned, as we read about in the book of Acts, in the person of the Holy Spirit, bestowing on us spiritual gifts. How revolutionary, that God is desperate to give his gifts of grace to us!
Why is this a grace? Because Christ himself is received. Christ is the gift for us. It is a gift that we neither deserve, nor could earn. But Christ has fulfilled the requirement, and through Him and only Him do we have access to the Father.
One of my favourite Christian music artists is the group Jars of Clay, and on many of their CDs, they leave hidden songs. On one CD, the last track seems unusually long, with a long silence after the song has finished. For the patient listener, or the person with fast-forward, there is a final jam, where they sing the words from 2 Corinthians 4:
We have this treasure / In earthen vessels
To show that this power / Is from God and not from us
Christ like a dust cloud
Verse 10 states that Christ, “ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. The ash cloud produced by Chile’s Puyehue volcanic eruption, which disrupted flights and left thousands of passengers stranded, was able to circumnavigate the globe several times. The ash cloud floated across the southern Atlantic Oceans, under Africa, into the Indian Ocean and over Australia and New Zealand. Twice. Volcanologist Professor Arculus stated: “A big eruption from Pinatubo a few decades ago in the Philippines produced ash that went west and around the globe several times. In that case, the sulphur dioxide droplets reacted with water vapour to form sulphuric acid and that can stay in the atmosphere for several years”.
“Once a cloud of ash gets into the lower stratosphere, it can stay aloft for many days, and can easily circumnavigate the globe several times over,” said Dr James Renwick. “The ash cloud is being lofted into the lower stratosphere and the upper parts of the troposphere (around 8-12km above the earth’s surface), where the mid-latitude westerly wind circulation is strongest”.
In 79 AD, the stratovolcano Mount Vesuvius violently spewed forth a deadly cloud of super-heated tephra and gases to a height of 33 km (21 miles), ejecting molten rock, pulverized pumice and hot ash at a massive rate of 1.5 million tons per second, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried underneath massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits, the best known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Scientists believe that because the dust cloud was so ferociously launched into the upper atmosphere, it was pulled into the stratosphere and continued to circle the entire globe for 30 years, resulting in a partial darkening of the sky on an international level. This is what we are talking about when Christ ascends so high that He can fill and affect the whole universe.
“Christ gave” – rooted in Him
One of the big keys to this passage is found in verse 11: “Christ…gave.” The pre-propositions in the Greek phrases of these passages work in a chain, all dependent on each other. And this chain starts with Christ, and develops into different giftings. But these gifts are rooted in Christ. They require effort, as we see earlier in chapter 4, but we cannot have them without Him.
We then read of 5 crucial gifts, though this list is by no means exhaustive. The gifted persons listed in verse 11 serve as foundational gifts. We might consider these people the ‘instigators’, the ‘game-changers’. But this does not signify a favouritism or oppressive hierarchy, only a starting point, perhaps also noting the weight of the responsibility that these roles carry. All of us will have some elements of all of these five areas, but may have a tendency towards one or two.
Rooted in our identity is a default to walk away from God (also with undertones in Psalm 68), so we need to be called back, and these five ministerial responsibilities seek to serve that purpose:
· You have the founders, those with a missionary-style calling, those that God has blessed with strategy, a view over the bigger picture and the ability to play the long game.
· There are those particularly gifted at listening to God.
· Then there are those that serve more local areas, either calling people into church, of caring for those there with a gift to gather and grow, and those with the ability to teach God’s love faithfully.
The text goes on to emphasize in verse 12 that these people with these roles are to equip others “so that the body of Christ can be built up”. All believers are to do the work of ministry. Christ releases gifts to equip his people for service.
My favourite film for many many years was Braveheart, where Mel Gibson plays the part of William Wallace in his struggle of being appointed and leading Scottish rebels against the English crown. It’s well acted, and gives the viewer a heart-felt insight into history. One of my favourite parts in the film is where Wallace has been appointed as High Protector of Scotland by the assembled lords, who then start to squabble over their right of claim to the Scottish throne. Wallace moves to leave, and one lord draws attention to this, and asks where Wallace is going? He replies, “You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.” Even though Wallace was a leader, he equipped and enabled people of differing opinions to function and unite behind a purpose.
These roles that we read of here in verse 11 have been provided, through God’s grace, so that every Christian, not some elite, but “Every Christian, equipped by God to play their part within the whole community, has a role in enabling the body to function.”
Application - Quiz
So what is your gift? Some of us may know what gifts God has given us. Some of us may think we know, but there are other gifts we don’t see we have or are yet to receive. Some of us may not know what gifts we have, if any! And some of us may be hungry for more gifts.
As you came in tonight, you will have been given a quiz to fill out, and there is also a link on our facebook page for those with itchy thumbs, helping you to consider whatever God is trying to tell you, depending on which of those “some of you” category you fall into. I invite you to take 5 minutes to fill these out, and take them home with you to meditate over. Arrange a coffee with someone you see gifts in, and encourage them, tell them what you see. Let us build each other up under Christ’s leadership.
So now take 10 minutes of silent thought-space…
To Him who like ash into the atmosphere covered the whole world (10b) in His love, be glory, honour and praise. Lord Father, reveal to us the gifts you have bestowed on us. Come Holy Spirit, and teach us how to use them wisely and humbly, for your plan and glory. Amen.