I have worked as a chaplain in four different hospitals and my experience is that there are similarities across multiple contexts, even in different states. So, I begin with a parable this morning from the staff at Community Memorial Hospital:
Mary is a labor and delivery nurse and if there ever was the epitome of a mother hen, it is her. She loves the nurturing role that her job affords her. She loves holding babies, caring for them, and even changing diapers! And is she ever protective of the children in her care?! Any new face comes onto the unit, she stares them down in order, and asks a thousand questions before she lets them into her sanctuary. After all, those are her babies, and it is her job to protect them. And they are her mothers, too. She is just as protective of all of the moms, especially the first time ones, and cherishes the opportunity to help teach them about how to care for them. She loves her job, and the hospital is blessed to have her.
Nancy secretly loves the fact that they call her Nurse Ratchet behind her back. She is a veteran of the Coronary Care Unit, and spends her twelve hour shifts dealing with those who have had heart issues and most often open heart surgery. Many of them are men, and many of them are workaholic, out-of-shape, unhealthy eaters who can’t turn it off, even after 7 bypasses! She can’t count how many McDonalds cheeseburger sacks she has confiscated, how many times that she has less-than-patiently explained that they need to rest and recover and not pull out their laptop or their phones to keep working. She is tough, no-nonsense, and won’t back down. And that is what makes her good at her job. So let them whisper that she is Nurse Ratchet. She relishes it as a compliment. She loves her job, and the hospital is blessed to have her.
There’s no getting around it…Jace is just a little crazy. A good portion of the ER staff at the Trauma One Community General prides themselves on being a little off-kilter, and Jace is no exception. He is a self-prescribed adrenaline junkie, and he has found the perfect place to get his fix. Stabbing in bed one. Car accident in bed two. Gunshot wound in bed three. Not much shakes him anymore. While everyone else is trying to get time off of their jobs on the Fourth of July, Jace is begging to work. It’s his favorite holiday of the year, because he derives a twisted pleasure at seeing what injuries people are going to have whenever you mix alcohol, free time, and fireworks. It’s not that he enjoys the fact that people get hurt, but he’s pretty pragmatic about it: people are going to get hurt. Sometimes because accidents happen. And sometimes because people are stupid. For example, he has a special name for people who ride motorcycles without helmets: organ donors. But in order to survive in his job, that kind of irreverent humor is crucial. As are his gifts that allow him to help when that inevitable emergency does take place. He loves his job, and the hospital is blessed to have him.
In fact, that is what pulls together all of the staff at Community Memorial. They are all diverse and incredibly different people with incredibly different personalities. But they all are joined by the shared task of healing. They want to see people healed, and they want to use their gifts to help make that happen. Some are more cynical and jaded than others. But they agree: a healthy body is better than a sick or injured body. And whatever they can do to make that happen, they will.
A parable inspired by the words of Ephesians Four. How do I get from point A to point B? Let me start with some background.
Ephesians is a tricky book to categorize. Even in the first couple hundred years of the early church, early scholars realized that there was something different about Ephesians. It looks like one of Paul’s letters, (and in fact claims to have been written by Paul), but it just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t use the same syntax and voice as Paul. It skips some of the same themes that were favorites of Paul’s. And it assumes a working of the institution of the church that simply wasn’t around when Paul was writing, 20-30 years after the death of Christ.
So, most scholars today suggest that it was probably written by one of Paul’s disciples, most likely an Essene, a member of a Jewish sect that became disenfranchised by the current state of the world and the faith and left to hide out in the deserts. While he was there, it seemed, this Essene found the writings of Paul, and maybe even spent time with Paul himself, and became a proponent of this man’s theology and his way of life. So, as a demonstration of his honor and respect for his hero, he wrote this theological work – the Book of Ephesians – in the format of his mentor. He wrote it in the style of a letter to a church, like Paul often did, and signed Paul’s name as the author. Today, we would consider that weird, even an example of libel, and a prosecutable offense. In that day, it was the highest honor of a scholar to his mentor.
And all of this matters simply to help us understand the context in which the author wrote this work. Instead of a specific letter written to a specific situation in a specific context in the early days of the fledgling church, Ephesians was probably written as a more general letter to any church, closer to 60 years after Jesus’ death (and 30 years after Paul wrote). So the church had begun to become more formalized and institutionalized, and the language of Ephesians mirrors that context. Unlike Paul’s spiritual gift lists in Romans and Corinthians, the list in Ephesians includes roles that would have been common in a more established church: pastors, traveling evangelists, apostles (what we would probably call “denominational executives”). So, in this context, in this world, around the year 90, after the Church has been around for a generation or two, the Church is beginning to get distracted by the things that distract churches. Budgets and political infighting and disagreements about ministry and missions giving and how to worship and where to worship and when to worship. There is nothing new under the sun. Right?
So, the author of Ephesians enters into that world and delivers this powerful message about unity and purpose. And he (or potentially she) takes Paul’s metaphor of the body and expands and expounds on it. Look at the language in this passage alone:
- “…build up the body of Christ.”
- The extended metaphor at the end of the passage: “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
- Even the famous phrase from verse 12 – “equip the saints” – is a medical term. The Greek word is katartismos, which literally means “the setting of a bone.” What a great phrase to describe what our equipping is supposed to look like: careful and intentional setting of a bone like a surgeon would, in order for that arm or leg or whatever to be used in total health to return to its purpose.
The author of Ephesians extends Paul’s metaphor to explain how the job of the church is just like that of a hospital: to bring wholeness and unity to individuals as well as the community. In fact, it could probably be on the wall at Community Memorial!
In fact, theme of unity is the overarching message of this whole passage. But, unity in this context is complex, as it is in most. Remember, the readers of this book would have likely been at an established church, one that has gathered a lot of people from a lot of walks of life, and has thus had the opportunity to follow a lot of mission statements, spoken and unspoken. There would be no shortage of agendas, and litmus tests, and disagreements about what the most important goal of the church should be.
But in the midst of that diversity, the author is calling for unity under the head of Christ. Look again at the phrase from verse 15: “speak the truth in love.” This is a narrow but crucial path to which the author is calling the churches. Walk the line, says the author of Ephesians. Don’t fall to one side, to an overly cozy, blanched out, vague “love without truth”. Or to the other side and a strident, uncaring, relationship-destroying “truth without love.” When he calls the churches to walk the line and “speak the truth in love,” it is a high calling of unity – amidst diversity.
In fact, it is not unlike what we have grown to call the work of a sandpaper church. We believe here at First Baptist that we are called to have hard conversations together about hard issues. Homosexuality a few weeks ago, interfaith dialogue a few months ago. And the author of Ephesians I think would commend us for walking that line – not running and hiding behind “love without truth” nor berating from our soapboxes our version of “truth, without love.” And those conversations must continue, if we are to be what Ephesians – and Christ – calls us to be. Unity in diversity is the only way that a body can be healthy.
The author of Ephesians makes it clear what our role is: maturity in the model of Christ. That’s our vision for ministry here, and our job description. And just like the staff at Community General Hospital, we are all going to do that in different ways. But meanwhile, it is that vision that unifies us under the cross of Christ. That strengthens us. That sends us forth to do what we do. And so whether we are a nurturing preschool Sunday school teacher, or a jaded and pragmatic volunteer at LINK, or an adrenaline junkie ready to give out popsicles to anyone who walks up at the sidewalk sale, your role in this church is important. We need you. And we are blessed to have you.
In fact, we go as far as to put it on our worship bulletins each week:
“Every member of First Baptist Church, like every disciple of Christ, is commissioned to participate in Christian ministry.”
Every member is a minister. All of us, in the midst of our diverse gifts and diverse callings and diverse perspectives on faith, are called to get to work. To be a part of that body! And in the unity that comes from following Christ in the midst of that diversity, our church – and the Church – grows in health and wholeness.
And so, what would our parable look like today? If we were to name the realities of our own congregation, our own nurse ratchets and adrenaline junkies and mother hens, where would you fit in? What is your role here? What are your gifts that make you a significant part of this body? How are you equipping the saints? How are you filling your job on the back of our bulletin: “Every member is a minister”?
Let us be called once more to the life and ministry and words of Christ, who calls us together under his head, to lead a life worthy of that to which we are called. Amen.