The church in Ephesus had a fascinating back-story. Made up of people from every social and cultural background imaginable, from those steeped in Old Testament law to others raised in a culture of ritual prostitution and sorcery, it was as diverse as any modern church. Men and women who once stood on opposite sides of the ancient canyons of sex, race, and social standing now found themselves shoulder to shoulder, facing the enormous challenge to live and love as the body of Christ.
As Paul writes his stunning letter to the Ephesians, deep fatherly love evident in every line, he begins by reminding them of their story. For three chapters blessing upon blessing tumble over each other, coming to a crescendo as he prays that the reality of their position before God would take root, deepening their understanding of who God is and transforming their lives.
Fast on the heels of this outpouring of favour comes the question raised at the beginning of Chapter 4. “If all this is true, then what?? How do we respond to this undeserved torrent of grace?”
You have a part to play in building and nurturing the body of ChristHeidi Johnston
It is often said that wisdom is asking the right questions. If this is true then the prevailing questions, particularly within Western Christianity, reveal not only a growing lack of wisdom but also a tendency towards a highly individualistic view of the Gospel. Again and again we ask; What is God doing in my life? How are my needs being met by the church? Where can I find a place where my talents are appreciated?
Pushing back against this mind-set, Paul reminds the Ephesians that grace not only sealed their place as children of God but also placed them firmly within His Kingdom. When we are welcomed by God, we are welcomed as part of His Church. While our individual, intimate relationship with God is both beautiful and crucial, it cannot properly exist outside of the rag tag bunch of broken souls who have been touched by the same grace. As God’s people, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, we have been given a pre-existing supernatural bond that supersedes our differences. Paul, knowing the importance of this gift, urges the church in Ephesus to preserve it, doggedly clinging to unity as they give sacrificially of themselves for the good of the kingdom they are now part of. Like Jesus, Paul sees the way we respond to others as the first indicator of our intimacy with God.
It is in this context of intentional community that Paul turns to the subject of spiritual gifts, taking an approach that is perhaps very different from the one that has been sneaking into our collective understanding.
There is a beautiful passage in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when, in the midst of a long and difficult journey, Father Christmas arrives with gifts for the Pevensie children. The conversation goes like this:
“These are your presents,” was the answer, “and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” With these words he handed to Peter a shield and a sword. The shield was the colour of silver and across it there was ramped a red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it. The hilt of the sword was of gold and it had a sheath and a sword belt and everything it needed, and it was just the right size and weight for Peter to use. Peter was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.”
There is a gift for each child – a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and horn for Susan, and a dagger and cordial for Lucy. Each gift is directly related to the personality and role of the child but each is given for the good of Narnia. Rather than diminishing the value of the gift itself, this knowledge adds a solemnity and significance that would otherwise be lacking.
While it is important to know what your gift is, I think it is equally important to understand the purpose for which it was given. Rather than simply a pat on the back from a benevolent father or a weapon in the fight for pole position, any gift we have is given as a crucial and integral part of the battle to defend, strengthen and build the Church of Christ.
Eph 4 v11-13 says, “And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
Whatever it is that demonstrates God’s character at work in your life, according to Paul, you have a role in getting God’s people ready for service. You have a part to play in building and nurturing the body of Christ and encouraging others towards wisdom and holiness, mending broken bones and helping other believers walk their road with a surer step. Paul reminds the Ephesians that the gifts they bring, however small, form part of the glue that holds the Church together, helping God’s people to cling to the supernatural unity that will mark them out as followers of Jesus. As we each, individually, lay down our skills and talents for the good of the Kingdom, we help one another come to an intimate, authentic, life shaping knowledge of God. Together, we are better equipped to fulfill our created purpose, reaching maturity in faith and living lives that are marked by and reflect the fullness of Christ.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.