Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IS ONE BECAUSE THERE IS ONE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
We remember today that the Lord Jesus Christ poured out His Holy Spirit in Jerusalem so many years ago. Almost naturally we open our Bibles today to Acts 2, that chapter which tells us the details of the Spiritís coming. At the end of that chapter, we read the glowing testimony of the unity that flowed from the arrival of the Holy Spirit: "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common" (vs 44). More: "So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart" (vs 46).
We realize: hereís a wonderful unity. Then we look in our families, and we look in our congregation, and we look in our bond of churches, and we look at the situation as it is amongst Christians in our country, and we conclude: our situation today is so different from that of Jerusalemís believers on the day of Pentecost! And that makes us somewhat jealousÖ. Unity amongst believers? Certainly, thereís much for which to be thankful in our congregation. But the watchful eye notices that on the car park after church people tend to talk with the same people Sunday after Sunday, so much so that one notices groups in the congregationÖ. All of us free to go to each otherís homes for a meal? No, thatís not the caseÖ. It leads to the conclusion that the unity of Pentecost is not here....
For the benefit of the Ephesians, brothers and sisters, the apostle Paul recalls the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Ephesians needed to know of that outpouring, because in the face of their divisions they had to know that in fact they were one. Itís an instruction we today need to know also.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IS ONE BECAUSE THERE IS ONE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK.
1. The unity of the church is a reality.
The words of our text this morning, brothers and sisters, were written to the saints of Ephesus (1:1). To these saints Paul says that they are to "endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." We understand that when somebody tells you to "keep the unity", then itís assumed that at the moment you have that unity. You canít keep a horse unless you have a horse. The Christians of Ephesus are told to "keep the unity", and that means nothing else than that they already have that unity. Thatís why I said that the first point for this sermon is: the unity of the church is a reality.
Before we can move on to the meat of our text, there is another thing that needs to be said. The unity spoken of in our text is not the unity of the Ephesian Lawn Bowling Club, but rather the unity of the church. Yet the apostle does not speak here about an invisible church made up of believers all over the world. Paul rather speaks specifically about the local congregation of Jesus Christ in Ephesus, and of that local congregation he says: there is unity. Now, itís true: what Paul says about the unity of the congregation in Ephesus is true also of the unity of all elect of all ages and places. I hope to come back to that thought later on. But in first instance weíre to understand Paulís words as referring simply to the church in Ephesus; Paul would have the Ephesians know that in their congregation there is unity.
There is unity in the church in Ephesus, and thatís why the Ephesians are to "keep the unity". In fact, in the verses following immediately on our text, Paul makes a point of stressing the reality of that unity. Vs 4: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." You hear the refrain: one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith.
Earlier in this letter the apostle has already explained what he means with this oneness. We read from chap 2. In vs 11 Paul wrote that the Ephesian Christians were once "Gentiles in the flesh". What that means is spelled out in vs 12: "you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise." As such, these Gentiles in Ephesus differed from the Jews in Ephesus, for these Jews were from the people of Israel, and the people of Israel were not strangers to the covenants of promise. But herein was displayed Godís mercy (vs 13), that the gospel of Christ has come also to the Gentiles, to those who had no place in Godís covenant, with as result that "you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (vs 13). And what now is the effect of this saving work of Christ? Vs 14: Christ has made "both one", and itís repeated in vs 15: Christ has created in Himself "one new man from the two." Vs 16 says it once more: Christ has reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God "in one body." Thatís what you are, says Paul: despite your different backgrounds, some of you being Jews by birth and others of you being Gentiles by birth, yet in Ephesus you are one body, one because youíre all saved by one Christ.
When Paul, now, in the words following our text, tells the saints of Ephesus that there is "one body", itís of the work of God in Christ as outlined in chap 2 that Paul thinks. There is unity amongst the saints of Ephesus, not because these believers happen to get on so well, nor because they all have like temperaments and like tastes; there is rather unity amongst the saints of Ephesus because Jesus Christ has worked salvation for Jew and Gentile alike, and then He sovereignly made one body out of these various Jews and Gentiles. And what now is that body? That body, beloved, is the church. Thatís what the apostle says in l:22f: God "gave [Christ] (to be head over all things) to the church, which is His body...."
For the believers of Ephesus this word from the apostle meant nothing else than that their congregation, that church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus, was the body of Jesus Christ. Backgrounds notwithstanding, they were one, one body together Ė each member of the church a part of that one body.
The unity of the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus was rooted in more facts than the lone reality that these saints were one body. Paul adds that there is "one Spirit". Also of this Spirit Paul had written in Eph 2. Vs 18: "For through Him [thatís Christ] we both [thatís Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians alike] have access by one Spirit to the Father." The point is this: Jews and Gentiles alike are all by nature dead in sin. But, their different customs and characters notwithstanding, they have all been born again through the working of one Spirit. It was not two Holy Spirits who labored to renew those for whom Christ died, one working on the Jewish Christians of Ephesus and another on the Gentile Christians of town. No, one Holy Spirit has acted upon all, and the result is that in Godís eyes every Ephesian saint is the same, all have the same access to the same Father.
Here, of course, we touch on the whole marvel of Pentecost. Though the Old Testament had decreed divisions between Jews and Gentiles, divisions that resulted in Gentiles having different access to the temple of God than Jews enjoyed, yet on Pentecost day the Holy Spirit broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. Thatís the reason why the Spirit, on the day of His outpouring, caused the disciples to speak the gospel in many foreign tongues; this gospel was for all without distinction. Similarly, thatís the reason why the Spirit later in the book of Acts worked faith in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles alike. Think of the Ethiopian eunuch, think of Cornelius the Roman centurion, think of the goal keeper in Philippi, etc, etc. The one Holy Spirit worked faith in persons of different race, different color, different language, different nationality and custom. Yet this one Holy Spirit renewed them all in the same way, worked in them all the same faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The result is that there is unity amongst all those who believe. Then tongue and temperament may historically be different, but, since one Spirit worked on all those whom God called to salvation, these called persons form one body.
Thatís also why, beloved, the apostle can say that the saints of Ephesus have one hope, they all share the same expectation of Christís promise to care for them day by day, they all know they have one Lord who rules over all for the sake of His church (l:22f), they all share one belief, embrace the same gospel in true faith, they all enjoy the benefits of one baptism, all having their sins washed away by one Savior, and so on. For if the one Spirit of Jesus Christ has worked in them all, then all share one faith, all share one hope, all share one Lord, one Father. God is one, and therefore it follows that His people are one also. Here is unity, deep and profound, unity worked not by men, but unity worked by God alone. It transcends personality differences, transcends cultural differences, transcends language barriers, transcends social and economic differences. Here is unity because in many hearts the Holy Spirit works the same bond of one faith in one Christ. Itís the gospel of Pentecost in Ephesus!
Are we to understand from the apostleís words, beloved, that in Ephesus there was a congregation with no visible differences, a church where unity was obviously apparent for all to see?? Are we, given what Paul has written about the unity of the church of Ephesus, are we to think that every member got on perfectly well with every other member, that no one disagreed with any one else on any point of doctrine or practice? Are we even to think that in Ephesus there were no longer personality clashes?
Let it be clear, beloved, that such was not the case. Iíll expand on that momentarily. That point that weíre to understand now is that this unity in the church in Ephesus, in its depth and its fullness, was something that the human eye could not see; it was rather something one was to believe. As with any word of God, so also this word about the unity of Godís people in Ephesus was to be believed, simply because God (through Paul) said it was there. God says: there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, and so on, and so the saints of Ephesus were to believe that Yes, they were one, one despite the differences and tensions that existed in their midst.
Here, congregation, is instruction for us. It is this: we in Kelmscott are also one! We are one not because we all get on so well or because we all agree on every last issue. We are one not because we have similar temperament or tastes for reformed living. Weíre rather one because the Lord God does not gather His church through the work of two Holy Spirits, nor does the one Holy Spirit work two or more faiths in Jesus Christ, nor does He work faith in more than one Christ, one Lord. The church of Jesus Christ in Kelmscott is one, one by virtue of Godís one saving work in Jesus Christ applied by one Holy Spirit to all the called. Because that one Holy Spirit has worked one faith in one Savior in the hearts of each of us, are we inherently united, are we one body, altogether Christís church in Kelmscott. As He is not divided, so His church is not divided. As long as we remain church of Jesus Christ we also remain one, one body through the working of one Spirit who works in our hearts one faith in the one Lord so that we all have one hope in our one God and Father. This is something I believe, believe on the simple grounds that God has said so.
Then itís true that this unity receives some visible expression at the Lordís Supper table, for there we all eat of one bread and drink of one cup. But even at the Lordís Table this unity is visible only to the eye of faith. That is: at the Lordís table I believe that I see something of the unity of Christís church in Kelmscott. I believe I see it, because those at the table all believe the same thing, have one faith, and that ĖI believe from Godís Word in Scripture- is the work of the one Holy Spirit in our many hearts. To say it with the words of the confession: "I believe one holy, catholic church." And the oneness of that catholic church begins here.
See here, beloved, the effects of the Spiritís outpouring on Pentecost day! We look with a measure of envy to the unity described in Acts 2. But we are to know, brothers and sisters, that the same unity is present among us. The one Spirit poured out so long ago works one faith in one Lord, and so we all Ėyou and I and the person in the next pew- all belong to Jesus Christ and hence are altogether His body in Kelmscott. One Spirit has worked, and thatís why we today are one. And whatís true of the church of Jesus Christ in Kelmscott is true by extension also in the bond of churches: here is unity, unity because we all believe the one faith (confessed together in the 3 Forms of Unity), and thatís the work of the one Holy Spirit.
And now we understand too, brothers and sisters, that unity is not restricted to the local congregation or even to the bond of churches. There is one Spirit only, and that one Spirit works only one faith in all those called in the one hope of their calling Ėregardless of where they live or when- and the result is that all serve one Lord, embrace one faith, acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, know themselves children of one God and Father. Such is the instruction of the apostle Paul in Eph 4: in Christ there is unity amongst all Godís own, regardless of where they are.
Now I come to our second point:
2. The unity of the church must become apparent.
But what, then, beloved, of the reality as the eye sees it? The fact of the matter is that differences exist, even divisions. Sure, itís easy to point to the national situation, the multitudes of different Ďdenominationsí throughout our country Ė some of whom are so very similar to us, and yet weíre divided. But we can, and should, think first of our own congregation. One we are, we believe it. But the watchful eye can observe differences. Itís fact: we do not all think alike about the importance of differences between ourselves and other churches, we do not all think alike about what one should watch on TV or whether one may attend the movies. Thereís differences amongst us as to what our children may wear, differences in thought about some aspects of the confessions, even distrust amongst some of us. Birds of a feather flock together, and one sees that in the friendships one maintains. Thatís what the eye sees, and so the question arises: whatís become of the unity the Holy Spirit worked amongst us?
But consider then the situation among the Ephesians, beloved. Paul in our text tells the Ephesians that they need to endeavor "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Surely, the reason Paul gives this instruction is that the unity of the Spirit in Ephesus was under threat, and the peace that should characterize the unity was under attack. Itís the implication of vs 2 also; when Paul in vs 2 instructs the church in Ephesus to embrace "lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love," then he lets us see something of what was going on in that congregation. One body that congregation was, indeed, but the one member exalted himself over another member, the one treated the other harshly, the one was impatient with the other. In fact, in the last half of chap 4 and in the entirety of chap 5, Paul gives us more insight into the state of affairs in the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus. There is a reason why Paul in 4:25 says that the saints of Ephesus are to "put away lying" and to "speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another." Thereís a reason why Paul added in vs 29 that "no corrupt communication" was to proceed out of the mouths of the Ephesian saints, but rather "what is good for necessary edification." Thereís a reason why Paul told the church in Ephesus to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking (vs 31), and instead "be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you" (vs 32). Though the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus was one body, the human eye saw so little of it, saw instead much strife and disagreement, much name-calling and backbiting. In a word, to the human eye the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus was so totally, totally different from the church of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Jerusalemís church on the day of Pentecost exuded unity, peace; the church of Ephesus in the days of Paul oozed tension, division.
But Paul, brothers and sisters, knew what the church of Jesus Christ in Ephesus really was. The Holy Spirit had been poured out, and Heíd been busy since the day of Pentecost working one faith in one Lord in the hearts of all those called in that one hope, and the result is that there is one body of Jesus Christ in Ephesus too, a church chosen to everlasting life. Thatís why the apostle does not despair in the face of the divisions and the strife that met his eye in that town. In the face of the divisions that were, Paul rather instructed Christís one body in Ephesus to "endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." The apostle knows: unity is a reality, despite what the eye sees. Itís a reality, and therefore is that unity to be preserved, kept, cherished. So the apostle lays a duty on every member of the congregation of Ephesus, and that duty is this: strive to keep the unity the Spirit worked in your midst. You are one body, you have one faith, you share one hope, altogether you are the property of one Lord Ė very well, then keep it that way, despite all the divisions that you now see in your midst.
Can the saints of Ephesus, though, obey such a command? Given their divisions, the lack of lowliness and gentleness, given the back-biting and clamor and bitterness in the congregation, can it be expected that these brothers and sisters discard their differences and give public expression to the unity the Spirit has worked in their midst? We would be inclined to say No, itís asking too much. And, beloved, of people to do so is asking too much! But notice what the apostle does now: he follows this command to keep the unity by an explanation of Christís gifts to the church. Says Paul: when Christ ascended into heaven, He gave gifts to men. What His gifts were? Vs 11: "He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers." In a word: office-bearers. Why He gave these gifts? Vs 12: office-bearers were ultimately given "for the edifying of the body of Christ." That body, Paul had already said, is one. But in Ephesus Ėand itís true of every congregation everywhere in this broken world- the body looks so torn, so divided. Hence Christís gift of office-bearers so that the one body of Christ in Ephesus (and in Kelmscott too for that matter) might be built up! To what goal? Vs 13: "till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." One body there is, by the mighty working of one Holy Spirit. Now it is for the saints of God to strife to keep that unity, and it is for office-bearers to labor in the flock so that this unity becomes more and more visible in this broken world. For that one body has to grow, each member has to learn more and more to do his part for the good of the whole body. Vs 16: through the work of the office-bearers there comes "growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love."
Is this a goal the saints of Ephesus could achieve? Could they in fact keep the unity the Spirit had worked? Make no mistake, beloved: the ascended Christ preserves His own! He has poured out His Holy Spirit, and that Spirit-of-Pentecost continues His work long after Pentecost.
That gives us in Kelmscott so much perspective, and encouragement too. The unity of the Pentecost church of Acts 2 is present in our congregation Ė though much weakness remains. We believe it, and therefore also need to keep working Ėeach of us, under the leadership of the office-bearers- to keep that unity, indeed, to bring that unity to fuller and richer expression in our congregation. That means in concrete terms that we need to labor to overcome whatever disagreements and tensions that might exist in our midst - on the premise that we in fact are one.
And what is true locally here in Kelmscott is in principle true also beyond the reaches of this one congregation. In the bond of churches too we are in essence one (even though there are differences amongst the congregations), and that means also that in the bond of churches we need to endeavor to bring that oneness to fuller and richer expression.
And again, what is true locally in Kelmscott as well as in the bond of churches is true in principle also beyond the borders of the bond of churches. Because the one Spirit of Pentecost has made one all those called to the one hope there is in Jesus Christ, are all Godís people in fact one, and therefore are all Godís own to be one; itís one holy, catholic church we believe. So there is a need for the churches to be busy with other churches God has placed on our path so that we promote the unity thatís already there. Yet even as we note the need to promote unity with other churches of the Lord, weíre to recall that Paul instructed the Ephesians not on the need to pursue unity around the world but rather specifically in Ephesus. On the local scene is where things are at first of all. And it surely made but little sense for the Ephesians to keep the unity with those far off, while they were biting and devouring each other at home.
The Holy Spirit was poured out so long ago, and the result of His coming was a delightful unity in the church of Acts 2. Itís a matter of faith, brothers and sisters, to embrace as true the fact that the unity of Acts 2 exists in Kelmscott today, exists in the bond of churches also. Yet we accept it as true in our midst, accept it because we believe in one Holy Spirit who works faith in one Savior in the heart of all the called. We accept it as true, believe it, and therefore also make a point of making that unity more and more visible. And we know: one day the unity thatís in essence present in our midst will be perfectly visible for all to see. Yes, the unity that in essence exists today amongst all Godís own over the whole world will be demonstrated in clearest terms. John saw that crowd of 144,000, all the elect of all times and places, saw them together, all crying out the same thing with a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Rev 7:10).
Itís the unity of Pentecost perfected. Amen.