Beth A. Faeth
Scripture Ephesians 4:1–7, 11–16
Six years ago, I decided, sort of on a whim, that I wanted to become a runner. Never mind that I did not enjoy running. Never mind that almost every other previous athletic activity resulted in personal injury. Never mind that no one in my life at the time thought that my pursuit of running was a good idea.
Instead, it was a time in my life I was heavily influenced by “shoulds”. I should get in better shape. I should take up a new hobby. I should find another commitment. I should be a runner. And so I joined a running group and started a program that was supposed to teach all of us non-runners how to actually become one. My family thought it was hilarious that I had basically signed up for “learning how to run” class. Their ridicule just fueled my desire to prove everyone wrong, and I started dreaming about the marathon I was going to complete. Twice a week, I gathered at a nearby park that had a few trails and began my quest to become a runner. I met some very nice people, but I did not enjoy one second of this time—not one second. Several weeks into the class, we gathered on a rainy afternoon. The ground was wet and I was anxious about falling. We ran on paved trails that included a couple sets of wooden stairs. My pace being one speed—slow—I was especially careful on those stairs, thinking how disastrous it would be if I turned an ankle.
You have probably figured out the end of this story. Actually, the stairs weren’t a problem. But having just come down a flight of stairs and feeling pretty confident, I took two more strides when suddenly, in a split second, my ankle turned, I heard a horrible pop and my running attempts and plans for record-breaking marathons came to a screeching halt as stabbing pain radiated up my leg.
Surprisingly, even to my doctor, I didn’t break my ankle, but instead an MRI revealed I managed to tear or sprain every ligament and tendon in my foot. I learned it is never a good sign when your doctor shakes his head as he examines you. I spent the summer in a boot and the fall in physical therapy. And while the hindrance in my life was minimal compared to the tremendous pain and suffering of so many, I became very aware of what happens when one part of the body doesn’t function as well as the other parts.
Obviously, there was a loss of mobility. I could still thankfully drive, since it was my left ankle that was injured, but I had crutches and could not bear any weight on my foot. My church administrator had to meet me at the car so she could carry my work bag and purse into my office, given I could barely handle myself and two crutches. Over the course of the recovery, my strength and stability vanished in every facet of my being—I could no longer lift heavy objects, even though there was supposedly nothing wrong with my arms. And then there is the transference of pain to other parts of the body as it compensates for one part’s weakness: my hip ached, my back was on fire and my foot remained swollen and bruised for months. I was not prepared for the length of time it takes to heal ligaments and tendons, and the set-backs that frequently occur. All these years later, my foot and ankle are still apt to swell and the discomfort will remind me that my body is still fragile. And then there is the fear that plants itself in one’s heart after the trauma subsides. While I can sometimes laugh about that awful summer, I carry with me the stigma of failure and the loss of confidence that continues to plague my physical ability. I honor you who run. I marvel at your stamina and strength, your determination and perseverance. I will not be joining your ranks.
I now know more than I ever wanted to about ligaments, which is why I am drawn to this morning’s scripture, particularly verses 15 and 16: “But speaking the truth in love, we must 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.”
If you have not read the book of Ephesians, I would encourage you to do so. It has been called “a resounding song of hope.” Whether written by Paul or one of his followers, whether to one church or to “all the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus” as it states in the first verse of the first chapter (Ephesians may have been written for a more general circulation among churches in Asia Minor), the intent is clear: to shore up and strengthen the church to be faithful in service. We are reminded again and again of who we are and whose we are, brought back to the sheer joy of living as God’s people.
Ephesians reminds us of God’s love for us: excessive, tender, richly abundant. Not only as individuals, but especially in community. As beloved as we are, we are lifted up into something far greater than ourselves. We are blessed, we are chosen, we are destined for goodness as we follow the way of Jesus, together. The constant plural pronouns remind us that this gift is not an individual blessing but always for the community. This letter was written for the church—not just then, but for now.
Ephesians was one of the most influential statements of Christian discipleship in early Christianity, and it remains a deep well of theological and spiritual resources today. It is a call to unity and harmony within the church and a reminder through prayer that believers might be filled with the fullness of God. Discipleship in Ephesians entails leaving behind the practices of alienation and hostility taught by the world and embodying the vision of reconciliation, peace and human unity that is the way of God.
As you have already heard in numerous sermons, Paul (and those writing to imitate Paul) liked to use the human body as the metaphor for the church and for the way we must use our individual gifts so to better the whole. When any of us experience illness or injury, we realize the importance of our body as one unit—with each part of the body playing a specific role. The whole is compromised when one part of the body isn’t able—or willing—to fulfill its role.
In order to preserve the health of this body, the church, we are called not only to use our gifts generously, but to look at things in a new way, remembering our dependence on God first and then on one another to create pure health within the body. We need to inspect each working piece, each ligament and tendon of the body so that full unity can be achieved. Speaking the truth in love, emphasis on the love, even when that is hard to do; naming that within the body that is suffering and injured; celebrating that, with work and determination, the heart beats stronger, the joints become limber and, lo and behold, the body itself may grow, incorporating new parts, new gifts, new possibilities. Our unity breaks down when we forget that going God’s way begins with a call from God that we are to live into in a particular way. That particular way, according to Ephesians, includes gentleness, humility and patience, bearing with one another in love, and giving ourselves fully to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Now is the time to examine those things within ourselves, and within this body we call Plymouth Congregational Church. We have just moved through a year filled with tremendous change, challenge, grace, growth, sadness, joy . . . the list goes on and on. I imagine you have your own thoughts about this past year in the life of the church. We are moving rapidly now towards doing the familiar in a new way—Sunday mornings will, in some ways, look and feel different in the fall and also be filled with all that makes Plymouth the amazing place that it is. Some of us are moving towards this new thing with great anticipation; others are feeling uncertain about what the future holds. How might we move into this new season in a unified way, even if we aren’t all on the same page? Some of us are still feeling sprained and bruised from the events of the past year. Spiritual ligaments can take a long time to heal. For others, there is a desire to separate from the tumult of last fall and close the door on that chapter so as to open a window for something new. Knowing that we are all part of this one body, how do we honor and acknowledge all of the connective tissue that creates the whole?
Diversity and unity are common themes in Paul’s writings. And while we may think these words are opposite, they are far from it. In fact, they are core words to our common Congregational heritage. But these values must work in concert with one another. Minister Anthony Robinson wrote that “Paul’s writing validates both unity (one body) and diversity (many parts). When unity overpowers diversity, it becomes uniformity. When diversity overpowers unity, the result is fragmentation and disarray. We need both: unity and diversity and have to manage that polarity rather than resolving the polarity in favor of one or the other. . . . The body has many different parts. But we need one another. We are one body. Interesting how contemporary something that is so ancient can be.”
The body we call church is not stagnant; it does not stay the same. We welcome new parts of the body into our fold, we say goodbye to those who have moved away, moved on or joined the saints in light. Just like the human body, the church is a living, breathing, changing organism. And we must always be willing to adapt, to strengthen, to work for true health of the body. The power of unity suggests that we, Plymouth Congregational Church, face the future unafraid because we trust that God is at work in and through us and that we are better together than we are alone. We are better together than we are alone. We are not all in agreement about what is best for Plymouth, or the way things should be done, or the way things have been done. We are far from uniform. Thank goodness! But we can frame our moving forward by embracing Paul’s ancient invitation to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Let us take great care to pay attention to where healing is needed and reach out to those who may feel disenfranchised. And for those who are feeling uncertain about the changes and the path upon which Plymouth is embarking, I would ask that you, too, participate in a quest for unity, seeking necessary resolution so as to move us all closer to feeling one in the Spirit.
Those of you who have recovered from illness and injury know that to heal takes intentional work. In order for my ankle to heal its torn tendons and shredded ligaments, I had to endure painful therapy and practice a lot of patience. I had to fully vest my head, my spirit and the rest of my body to get with the program and do what needed to be done. I also couldn’t do it alone. I needed a team to guide and teach me, to measure my progress, to evaluate my healing, to suggest a different course of treatment when necessary. I also needed family and friends to nurture my bruised ego as well as carry my groceries, clean my house and help care for my children. Such it is with the body we call church—the work needed to grow in spirit is individual practice. And then together, in community, through our covenant, the spirit is enlivened so that the transformative work of peace and justice can occur.
There are few places in this world where very different people, with very different backgrounds, different opinions, different likes and dislikes, can gather for a common purpose. The church is one of those places. We are the ligaments, tendons and bones of this one body, each part adding our own significance and purpose to the whole. The goal is to grow through the building up of love, with humility, gentleness and patience as our keystones.
Thank goodness this is not a race to the finish, for the learning comes along the way. And the ability to run is not required.