December 31 lesson: Faith to Unite
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Faith to Unite
Winter Quarter: Faith in Action
Unit 1: The Early Church Proclaims Faith in Christ
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 31, 2017
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 4: 1-16
Background Scripture: Ephesians 4
Paul is writing from prison in Rome to the church in the great city of Ephesus. The last time he had communicated with these believers was when he bid the leaders of the church farewell on his return to Jerusalem following the Third Missionary Journey. In that emotional moment recorded in Acts 20: 17ff he sensed that imprisonment and death awaited him. Now in prison he cannot see them, and so he writes.
Ephesus was one of the largest and richest cities in the Roman Empire. The temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was there. Even as today, tourists came to see the great sights. Little statues of Artemis made by local artisans for these tourists were a major source of income, and Paul’s preaching inflamed them because faith in Christ threatened their livelihood. We have visited Ephesus, and the magnificent theater where Paul preached is still there.
Ephesus was not only a major commercial and cosmopolitan city, but became a major center of first century Christianity. The genius of Paul and the early Christian leaders was to establish churches in such critical places as Ephesus.
Today’s lesson focuses on the importance of how we Christians live in our diverse world of many races, cultures and religions—just like Ephesus. Faith in Christ is a calling to live in such a way that our very lifestyle is a statement to the way of Christ. “Worthy of their calling” is in itself Paul’s call to the mission of Christ in the world.
He names humility, patience, and love as the examples of the way God is! “The unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is the foundation of the church’s presence in the world. Here are echoes of his Galatian statement about the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22ff). His use of “bond” may be a subtle reference to his present imprisonment. We are in bonds wrought by the Holy Spirit, holding us together in spite of differences.
Verses 4-6 begin a call to unity with seven statements of the oneness that describes who we are and what we believe: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all—the beginning of the creed that still thunders down the corridors of time.
This oneness is not a human achievement, but the result of the Spirit of God working in us. Because of the freedom with which God endowed us in creation, we can indeed obstruct the purpose of God. Our part in this miraculous unity is openness and cooperation.
Paul loves the metaphor of the body when describing the work of the Church. Each member is a significant part of the whole. There are no insignificant parts for the healthy functioning of the whole. His most explicit picture is in Corinthians 12:12ff (which he wrote earlier from Ephesus, by the way). With reference to the Spirit, Paul is showing the Ephesians how the unity of God is a model for their relationship to each other. He declares there is One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father of all. One of the earliest declarations of the nature of God, this belief would later be known as the Doctrine of the Trinity. Like the parts of the body, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are distinct in their work, yet totally united in their nature and purpose. So must the Church be. There can be no room for division—differences, yes—division, no!
Paul uses the word “grace” here like “gifts” in Corinthians. Usually, Paul uses “grace” to define the nature and character of God’s unconditional and unmerited love. Here “grace” still refers to God’s favor, but with the focus on what God does after we are saved! The grace of God is evidenced in the gifts given to believers. This evidence is seen in the person’s functioning in different ways within the structure of the church. In first century Christianity, titles given to these gifts were apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (verse 11). The gifts were incarnated in persons. When you compare this list with Paul’s list of gifts in Romans 12 and Corinthians 12, Paul is making a clear distinction between abilities/talents and leadership of persons.
There is always the danger of the sin of pride. How easy for us to hear compliments about voice, or sermon, or education, or knowledge, or decisions, etc. and slip into a feeling of “I did it!” “I earned it!” Remember, God’s grace bestowed the gifts and chose the leaders.
To define each of these words may be superfluous, but here is our list:
Apostles: Those like Peter and Paul who witnessed the resurrected Christ and were the first sent to establish the Church.
Prophets: Forthtellers, not foretellers, who speak God’s truth—preachers.
Evangelists: Comparable to modern missionaries.
Pastors: Used here for the first and only time in the New Testament; the common meaning is shepherd.
Teachers: Those who instruct about the life, work, and teachings of Jesus.
Sam always believed his calling was multiple: as preacher, pastor, and teacher.
The purpose of these gifts to the leaders is stated in verse 12: “to equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.” When an individual grows in the faith, the entire Church is made stronger. In strength, the Church meets the world and accomplishes the mission of Christ to gather and redeem His lost creation. Again, the purpose is not for self but the Church. This maturity brings us closer to being like Jesus (vs. 13).
Verse 14 hints why Paul wrote this letter: like in the Corinthian church, factions were emerging, with claims on various understandings, resulting in a divisive spirit. Paul believed, with the proper grounding as he has written, the believer would be able to stand the storms raging in their lives.
He closes his focus on unity with his famous admonition: “speak the truth in love.” When we relate to each other with the love of Christ, we are knit together as a body is knit together with health and wholeness. There is a spiritual connection, as there is a physical connection between growth and health. Unity is both the energizer of the Church’s growth and the goal guided by Christ the Head!
Let us conclude with a word of encouragement. Your Sunday school class is a prime location for what this lesson has emphasized. By studying, discussing, sharing, learning, and “speaking the truth in love,” you will become an example to others, both within and outside the church. “Keep the faith, and walk the talk.” Doing so, you will indeed, “Have a happy New Year!”
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.