I had the occasion to ride on an airplane this week. My fondest wish when I get to the airport—every time—is that the flight I’m flying is empty. See, what that happens I can unload my carryon and spread out without anybody bothering me.
Alas, this never seems to be the case.
This week I arrived at the airport only to discover that the flight I was on was filled to its absolute limit.
Every single seat was populated.
That meant, of course, that we were all squeezed in together with barely enough room to breathe, much less spread out over several seats.
Nevertheless, I was determined to get some work on my Sunday School lesson accomplished, so I pulled out a book and started reading and taking notes. My neighbor in the seat next to me seemed very interested in what I was doing (since it was hard not to see what your neighbor was up to) but I tried very hard to ignore him.
My neighbor opened the conversation by saying, “Are you a therapist or a social worker?” (I assumed it was the book I was reading that would lead him to ask that question . . . .)
I thought briefly about just saying “No” and ignoring him, but instead I sighed because I knew what was coming and I said, “No, I’m a minister.”
Now, I could talk for hours about the varying responses I get when a new person discovers this little detail about me. Occasionally the response includes as quick and exit as possible, but since we were smashed like sardines into that airplane there was nowhere for that poor man to go; he was stuck.
Strangely enough, the discovery that I am a pastor did not seem to faze this man. In fact, he replied immediately and very animatedly: “Well, then, we do almost the same kind of work!”
He went on to explain, “I’m a scientific researcher at NASA. I have a Ph.D. in mathematics and I work to develop systems and databases.”
It is a rather rare thing, as you know, for me to be rendered speechless, but my mind was racing as I tried desperately to make connections in my brain. NASA? Mathematics? Databases? The parallels eluded me, I have to tell you.
The next two and a half hours were filled with an explanation of this man’s work. It was fascinating, really. His job is to apply systems theory, logical thinking and formulaic processes to the work of building diverse and healthy community. In other words, he studies and researches what kind of system one might build and put into place in the workplace, say, a specific department of the government, to promote a diverse and healthy workforce.
It’s funny that I should have happened to sit next to this man, because he caught me at a time when I have been thinking a lot about the letter to the Christian church at Ephesus, and particularly the section of chapter 4 that we read this morning. As I listened to my new friend tell me about his work I finally began to see the parallels he alluded to at the beginning of our conversation—if I thought about it all from the perspective of Paul and the church at Ephesus.
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As you probably know, Paul was the most influential figure of beginning Christianity, and specifically of the start of the Christian church. He was a very educated scholar of the Torah, the Jewish law, and he had had a conversion experience that totally changed him. All of the sudden his life’s work became using his sizable intellect and professional talent to bring life and continuity to the very first church—the experimental first institutional expression of the Gospel.
This was a challenge, as you can imagine.
In fact, I started to think, it must have been a lot like developing a mathematical system for building a healthy work environment.
You see, Paul’s task was to take the mystery of relationship with God and help people learn to live into the promise of that relationship, with all the gritty reality of real people trying to create healthy institutions that actually support and express what they say they believe.
Doesn’t sound very systematic or mathematical to me. How about you?
But Paul was a lot like the guy sitting next to me on the plane. Mystery, relationship, well, all of that was just fine and dandy, but how would we ever end up putting it into practice? Making the life of faith real and practical, so that when the world looks at us—when the world looks in our direction—they will see compelling and irrefutable evidence that we live our lives to a different standard; that God is at work in and among us in powerful ways.
If you sit and read the book of Ephesians all the way through, which is really what we should do since it is a document that stands on its own as a letter, you can easily follow the train of Paul’s logic.
He starts by telling them, “All of you have been called to faith in Jesus Christ—all of you—Greeks, Jews, Pagans, anybody—that means you are called to live in unity with one another. Accept everyone into your community of faith and learn to live as unified community, working hard for the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
And, in his systematic, mathematical way of thinking, Paul goes on with the argument here in chapter four: “Since you have been called to live in unity together (a most impossible idea, if you think about it), I am begging you people . . . live lives worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
Oh, that all sounds so nice. We talked two weeks ago about the community of Christ that Paul was describing here—messy and difficult, full of different perspectives and different approaches—not the most comfortable community in which to function.
But by the time the churches received Paul’s letter they already knew that if they were going to try to build a faith community full of people from all different backgrounds and perspectives, well, it wasn’t always going to be pretty.
And Paul, like the mathematician on the plane with me this week, knew he couldn’t exactly quantify behavior . . . that he couldn’t prescribe or legislate exact standards, that he couldn’t really apply a mathematical formula to the community of faith.
But he also knew that these young Christians were floundering. They believed in the mystery of new life in Christ and the transformation of their lives because of their faith. They were willing to follow Paul’s admonition to welcome everybody into their community of faith. But they needed some guidelines, a system, some rules so that they’d know how they were supposed to behave.
The result in the case of Paul and the early church was this beautiful passage in the book of Ephesians about the qualities of genuine faith community.
For those of us who need some rules, some guidelines for how we navigate our way through this strange adventure of faith, Paul lays them out right here. Speak the truth in love; be angry when you should be angry, but don’t hurt one another; keep tabs on what comes out of your mouth to make sure any words you speak build up the community of faith—give grace to those who hear, Paul says. Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice . . . and be kind to one another, always forgiving each other. The rules. Got them?
In 1997 a book hit the market and became an instant bestseller, to the total surprise of everyone involved. It started out as a run of the mill self-help book and became, for some people, a dog-eared reference book for romance. The book was entitled The Rules: Time-teste d Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right . Reviewers describe the book as “a self-help book for women who want to hook a man that seems to have struck a chord with desperate American women.”
In 1997 and since that time, in fact, I have not personally been trying to hook a man, but I couldn’t avoid reading and hearing about this book in magazines, talk shows, newspaper articles, the like. Seems like the main strategy in the book—the main rule to apply to human relationship if you really want to hook a man—is to play hard to get. Don’t return telephone calls and all of that.
I have to wonder, does this really work? Can you apply such a system of rules to the mystery of romantic attraction and lifelong commitment? One reader enthused: “[This is] the BEST relationship book I’ve EVER read, helped me catch and keep my man, which is more than I can say for those other books out there!!!!!!”
Writing “The Rules” for healthy community is what my seat mate on the plane is trying to do for NASA; it’s what Paul was trying to describe for the church at Ephesus. Can we live lives and develop a community with all the hallmarks Paul laid out in his letter to the Ephesians?
What a relief, you might be thinking. Some of us who just wish our Bibles came with a nice little pull out chart in the back for assessing whether or not we’re making the cut of the Christian life—or better yet, so I can assess whether YOU are making the cut of the Christian life—those of us who long for black and white standards, for the tools to go around saying, “You know, you are not behaving very gracefully, as you see you should in Ephesians chapter 4 . . . .”
And while Paul is a guy who likes systems and order, and who would probably also have liked a list of rules, the fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, relationship with the divine is mystery and gift, far beyond any imposed structure of behavior we, or Paul, or a Ph.D. in Mathematics who works at NASA, might ever construct.
Living the life of faith in the context of the community of Christ is mysterious, transformational, miraculous, even. And relationship with God is not about imposing rules; it’s about looking around at the evidence in your life and in my life that God is well at work in and among us. We can recognize the work of God in this church by looking around and seeing people who follow the rules because they love Jesus . . . and when we look we’ll notice grace and love, building up and forgiving, dealing with anger in healthy, open ways, the people in this community behaving in a way that is tender-hearted toward one another.
These qualities, far from being a system imposed top-down, are miraculously and wondrously side-effects of living in transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Anyone whose life is engaged in authentic relationship with Christ will exhibit these qualities—these “rules” for healthy Christian community.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the stationery section of several stores lately. See, on Thursday Mark and I celebrated our 15-year anniversary and I felt that I had to find the perfect card—you know, something beautiful but not too sappy (he’d make fun of that). Something funny, but not so light-hearted that it would take away from the notable nature of the event. Something that managed to communicate in words all the things I was thinking: thank you, it’s been great, it’s been hard, I love you, look at all the great times we’ve had, thanks for helping me get through the hard times, I’m so glad I married you, can you believe we have three kids, I really appreciate that you do the laundry . . . you know, all of that.
I looked and looked and looked. For weeks. Finally, early Thursday morning I officially gave up.
There is no printed greeting card anywhere on this earth, I am certain, that could express all of the things I wanted to express. And in the process of looking for that perfect card, right in the middle of the stationery section at Borders, in fact, I had a sudden and jolting realization.
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t really matter at all.
See, if I found the most perfect greeting card that managed to say everything I wanted to say and expressed it in a beautiful, classy, funny way . . . it wouldn’t mean one single bit unless Mark could look back over the last 15 years of his life and ALREADY KNOW WHAT I MEANT.
If my life does not reflect what I say, well then, no matter how nicely it’s packaged, it doesn’t really mean anything.
In other words, the rules for a catching a man, having a happy marriage, building a healthy workplace, living in unity as the body of Christ . . . all these things are very nice guidelines by which we may be able to stay on track. But at the end of the day the real test of love, commitment, faith . . . this happens for the long haul, when we walk through life together.
See, we’d all love to have a formula—something we could apply in every situation to ensure regular and predictable results. But rules can’t always universally apply to something like the mystery of human relationship or the miracle of faith in Christ.
How do we know it’s real?
We know that our faith is real, that God is present, when we live in the gritty reality of relationship with God and with each other . . . and everyone is following the rules.
May it be so.
Scripture quotations are the author’s paraphrase.
Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.