Sixth Sunday of Easter – 5/5/2024

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Ezekiel 36:23-27   23 I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.  24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.  25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ephesians 4:11-32   11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  16 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.  17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds.  18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.  19 They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  20 That is not the way you learned Christ!  21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.  22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,  23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,  27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,  32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 

Living Out Our Gifts

In our scripture reading today Paul starts out by talking about the gifts God gives to His people.  Paul talks about gifts from God in many of his letters.  The lists vary from place to place and none of them are exhaustive or exclusive of one another.  Here Paul is specifically speaking of gifts that equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.  I want all of us to see today how many of us have gifts and use them for our church.  

I’m going to call out different gifts and if you have that gift I want you to raise your hand and keep it up until we are done. Let’s consider the gift of teaching.  How many have ever taught Sunday School for either adults or children?  Is there anyone here who helped start the Learning Center? What a wonderful and Christian opportunity for the children in our community.

How many have a gift for leadership?  Raise your hand if you are an ordained deacon or elder, have been the financial secretary, treasurer or clerk of session.  These are the ways we lead in the Presbyterian Church.  

Raise your hand if you have the gift of hospitality.  That would include anyone who has brought food to a Potluck, worked in the kitchen when we have a meal, set up for Coffee Hour or contributed to Coffee Hour. It also includes anyone who has participated in decorating our church for Advent.

Raise your hand if you have ever made a meal for someone in need. If you have helped with Rise Against Hunger or Meals on Wheels.

Raise your hand if you have done the work of an evangelist.  This would include if you have ever led anyone to Christ, ever preached, ever told an unchurched neighbor about the good news of Jesus Christ. Raise your hand if you raised your children in the church, you are an evangelist. I understand at one time people went around our neighborhood inviting people to church.  That’s using the gift of evangelist. Raise your hand if you were on of those people. Now look at all the hands that are raised!  And consider how many of you fit into more than one category! Ok, hands down.

God gave us each our gifts so we could equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Obviously, I serve as pastor and teacher.  Many others serve as teachers.  We need evangelists, those who are gifted in presenting the gospel to others and bringing them into our fellowship.  Paul doesn’t give a full list of gifts here; there are many other gifts that people have.  Gifts of hospitality, generosity, administration, compassion and more.  Think of all those who have served as elders, financial secretary, clerk of session, church secretary and all the many other positions in our church.  All the women who have worked in the kitchen every time we get together for meals.  All the people who have served on work days or cleaning days.  All the work done by the St. Andrews group throughout the years. Each of us has our gifts.  We were given these gifts and they are to be used for the good of all.  Just as we are not to hide our light under a bushel but put it on a stand for all to see, so we are to use our gifts for the benefit of all.  Part of our Christian journey is discovering and using our gifts.  

According to Paul, the purpose of our gifts is to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.  Let’s consider what this looks like.  Paul tells us we are seeking to come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.  “Knowledge of the Son of God” refers to experiential knowledge of Jesus attained through day-by-day discipleship.  Paul means knowledge that goes beyond what can be packed into the head, knowledge that also flows into the heart and out into a life spent in obedient and loving service to our Lord.  It is this twofold knowledge of head and heart that is necessary for the believers to attain maturity.  We are also to have unity, a unity that comes from believers growing in a knowledge of the truth, as we find it in the Bible, and then living that truth out experientially in day-by-day fellowship with Jesus Christ.  

As in other letters, Paul uses the image of the church as the body of Christ.  We will not function if our body is not working together, if there is not unity.  Unity is not conformity nor is it uniformity.  That’s why there are different gifts.  God creates each one of us as unique creatures.  Each one of us has our individual DNA, our own finger prints; in the same manner we each have our own gifts and our own ideas.  We each have a contribution to make to the whole body of Christ, as it exists here in the Aston Presbyterian Church.  We are not all totally the same in our beliefs.  As long as we hold to the essential truths of our faith, we can agree to disagree on the non-essentials.  We can all learn from each other.  As I’ve preached through Ephesians one of the commentaries I’ve used is written by James Montgomery Boice.  He was the pastor for many years at Tenth Presbyterian church in Philadelphia.  I believe he is an excellent Bible scholar and I have learned much from his commentary.  On the other hand, Dr. Boice and I disagree on the ordination of women.  Tenth Presbyterian is a PCA church and they do not allow women to be ordained as elders, to teach men or to preach.  Since our church has many women elders and called me as pastor, we as a church do not agree with Dr. Boice but we can learn from him.  

If you study the confessions of the Presbyterian Church you will soon realize that people have disagreed strongly over the years on certain points of doctrine, what was essential to the faith in one generation is no longer even considered a point to be disputed in another.  

Paul says, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”  

I read an interesting article in Christianity Today.  The title was, “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity.”  It makes the point that in many ways Christians today remain juveniles in their faith, they do not grow to maturity.  The author believes today’s worship services focus too much on our experience and our need to feel good about ourselves.  Rather than working towards maturity in the faith, we strive for self-development.  Contemporary churches appeal to thousands of Americans by providing an informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music.  The sermon is more about jokes and good stories than theology.  This tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith. 

That is not what will produce maturity in our faith.  As Rick Warren says in his book, “The Purpose-Driven Life”, it’s not about us.  Maturity comes from walking the walk of faith, using our gifts to build each other us up.  As Paul said, “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

Our Old Testament passage from Ezekiel today speaks of God giving us new hearts.  That is what God has done in sending Jesus Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins and in sending the Holy Spirit to live within us, to write God’s law on our hearts.  This was God’s plan from the moment of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, to bring us back to God’s love and to teach us to love as God loves.  

The new hearts in the Ezekiel passage is what Paul calls the new life in Christ.  We must put off our old self and be clothed with the new.  God works the transformation in us through the Holy Spirit but we must work along with God.  We are given the power to turn from temptation but we must exercise the will to do it.  Think of it as your car.  Your car gives you the power to travel from one place to another at a high rate of speed, far faster than you can walk.  But if you do not get into your car and turn it on, if you do not exercise your willpower, you will never get from here to there.  In the same manner if we do not practice spiritual disciplines, if we do not strive to grow and mature as Christians we will never get very far in the Christian life and God will not be able to use us as he wishes.  Every surrender to temptation encrusts the heart, hardens it’s sensitivity and narrows the range of future choices.  Think of atherosclerosis in which blood vessels are gradually narrowed by plaque deposits until the necessary blood can no longer flow.  This is what we risk as Christians if we do not walk in the newness of life that Christ has granted.  We are in danger of slipping back into the old life.

We are no longer to live as the Gentiles live but we are to live as those who have been given new life.  Paul is addressing our daily conduct, our morality, the distinctive marks of those who are seeking to grow up in Christ.  Paul gives a list of what not to do and also what to do instead if we are living in the newness of life.  We are to put away lies, anger, bitterness, theft, evil talk, wrath and such.  Instead we are to tell the truth in love, not let the sun go down on our anger, work for an honest living, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving as we have been forgiven.  I am not saying this is easy.  Growing up never is, but if we want to grow in our faith we have to surrender our lives to God and allow Him to stretch us, to transform us.

Let us be praying for God to show us new ways to be the church here in Aston, praying for God to reveal our gifts to us and help us find new ways to use them. And to God be all the glory now and forever, Amen.