Trinity XVII.

Ephesians iv, verses 4 & 5 – There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism….

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Our first lesson today is taken from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  Ephesus was an important city in Asia Minor, and in the book of Acts, chapters xviii and xix, we read at some length about St. Paul’s experiences there.  We find lots of strange things and people in Ephesus.

St. Paul followed his usual missionary practice in Ephesus.  Generally when St. Paul went to a new city he began by going to the synagogue, where people already would have some understanding of and sympathy for the idea of a messiah, a Christ.  So in Ephesus Paul ‘entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews.’ (xviii.19)  We are not told that Paul gained any converts there immedi­ately, but neither do we sense any hostility towards him either:

When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not; but bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem:  but I will return again unto you, if God will.  (xviii.20-1)

This passage suggests at least that Paul was listened to with respect and interest.  So we begin with the gospel message offered to the Jews, just as it was earlier in Christ’s own life.  Salvation springs from and is offered first to the Jews.

Now Paul did leave for Jerusalem, but in the next chapter we find that he returned to Ephesus as he had promised.  There Paul met ‘certain disciples’ (verse 1), who, it turns out, were not yet really Christians, but only followers of John the Baptist (v. 3).  St. Paul baptized and confirmed these men, all of whom, we are told, received the Holy Ghost (v. 6) and ‘were about twelve’ (v. 7) in num­ber.  Biblical numbers are usually significant, and this one certainly is.  Ephesus is going to be the base for St. Paul’s third missionary journey.  Every mission is a renewal of the work of Pentecost, when the gospel message was preached by the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, to men and women of all languages and lands.  In the history of salvation we begin with the Jews, we have the preaching of John the Baptist, the work of Christ, and the Spirit-filled college of the twelve apostles.  So too in Ephesus we have the preaching in the synagogue, the disciples of John, and twelve core converts.  From this beginning, which so obviously mirrors the original gospel and Pentecost stories, Paul’s third missionary journey will spread.

After this positive beginning Paul ran into trouble.  First, he encountered resistance in the synagogue, so that he had to stop preaching there, and instead started meeting in a school (v. 9).  Then we read about certain ‘vagabond Jewish exorcists’ (v. 13), who, without following Paul, used his authority to try to cast out demons in the name of Jesus:

And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?  And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.  (vv. 15f.)

This actually was no trouble for Paul, but rather for the naked and wounded exorcists.  But this story of the exorcists, like the notice of disciples of John the Baptist, does indicate that Ephesus had some strange things going on, with odd undercurrents and divisions and a very complex religious picture.

We get the same picture again a moment later when we are told that many practitioners of ‘curious arts’ – that is ‘magic’ – ‘brought their books together and burned them’ publicly (v. 19) after they heard Paul’s message.  In other words, the gospel began to dispel magic, fortune-telling, and other forms of superstition; which evidently were common in Ephesus, since the value of the books burned was ‘fifty thousand pieces of silver’ (v. 19).

Now all of this information from the book of Acts emphasizes for us that the Church in Ephesus was formed from the most diverse and strange collection of people you could imagine.  There were converts from the synagogue, from the followers of John, from suspect Jewish sects, from the pagans, from the black arts, from all sorts of backgrounds and practices.  The Church began with diversity, division:  it was, if you will, multi-cultural.  And in his epistle to this Church, to the Ephesians, Paul often reminds them that they include both Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, ‘strangers and foreigners’ (Eph. ii.19), as well as natives of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ (Ephesians ii.12).

But my text today, written to these same Ephesians, emphasizes, not their diversity and division, but rather their essential unity in God.  The unity comes from the fact that all Christians are baptized into the body of Christ and so are united as members or parts of one body, which is filled by the one, Holy Spirit of God our Father:

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are 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.  (Eph. iv.4-6)

There is only one Church, and it is the Catholic Church, which was founded by the apostles, and which is filled with God’s Spirit, and so is holy.  There is ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’, which we say we believe in whenever we recite the Creed.  This Church is not purely spiritual and its unity is not merely invisible, for Christ came to make divine things visible and tangible and accessible to human beings by his incarnation or enfleshment in human time and space.  The Church has a spiritual and invisible dimension, but the unity of the Church also involves outward and visible signs and marks.

St. Paul writes, ‘[O]ne Lord, one faith, one baptism’.  The unity of the Church rests ultimately in the unity of Christ, which is expressed first in faith and doctrine, ‘one faith’, and secondly in sacrament, ‘one baptism’.  Our Church teaches in more detail that the unity or catholicity of the Church may be seen by four marks:  first, the Bible, which contains all things necessary for salvation; secondly, the Creeds, which summarize the teaching of the Bible; thirdly, the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, by which God actually makes us his body and gives us his life; and thirdly, the apostolic succession of bishops, around which the Church gathers and through whose ministry God gives the sacraments and preserves the right understanding of Scripture and creed.  Bible, Creeds, sacraments, and apostolic succession:  these are the four marks of the Catholic Church, and wherever you find all four of these truly preserved, there is the Holy Spirit and essential unity, even in the midst of all our wild diversity and eccentricity.  Our Church preserves for us Bible, Creeds, sacraments, and apostolic succession, and so she is our Mother, and by cleaving to the Church as our Mother, we gain God as our Father and heaven as our home.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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