‘Growing up into Christ’ – Ephesians 4: 1-16.
In ordinary social terms: we expect parents, teachers and others to spend much time, energy and money in enabling children to grow up, and become mature, responsible adults.
At Ephesians 4: 1-16, Paul uses the same images of ‘growing up’ and ‘maturing’ in relation to the Christian faith: and he does so for the same end-result reason; responsible adulthood – but set within the Holy Church of God.
Today: we seem not to accept Paul’s church-based usage of ‘growing up’, anywhere near as readily, as we accept our own social and family usage. This may be because many Christians have developed an attitude toward Paul: seeing his teaching as being too challenging, and demanding.
Christians, with such an attitude: can become choosy, about what they will, or won’t accept from his teachings.
Straightforward statements, such as ‘love one another’: are likely to be accepted, worked at, and to produce good results, in their lives.
However, Paul’s more complicated, and demanding teachings; such as our text from Ephesians 4: 1-16: are very often put on hold; and can, eventually, become completely overlooked.
All of Paul’s readers had experienced ‘growing up’ for themselves: and many would have had the responsibility of helping their children to grow up. The process of growth was natural, and normal: and produced expected results.
Paul may have used this common, physical experience; to encourage the understanding that spiritual growth was just as natural and normal: and that Christ requires his followers to develop in ways that he expects of them.
However: many of today’s Christians have allowed the power of this teaching to fade from their minds: and its place to be taken by a comfortable-sounding phrase: ‘Moving on in the faith’.
That phrase has become so widely established: that ‘Moving on in the faith’ is now a quite usual way in which to describe good, Christian progress.
‘Growing up’ (‘into Christ’) as St. Paul puts it: is a means of development that is packed with great potential for good. ‘Moving on in the faith’ may sound equally descriptive, of growth taking place: but it is not necessarily so.
I joined the Methodist church forty-seven years ago: studied, and was made a member of the church. Before long, I was made a steward, with a seat on the church council; and, therefore, enabled to take part in all committees.
This was followed by being promoted to senior steward; and given a place in most of the clergy meetings in that town. The minister, and several others, felt that I was, indeed ‘moving on in the faith’ – and I felt so, too.
What they did not know, because they never asked: and what I had not, then, realised; was that, throughout seven years of church attendance, and of fulfilling the responsibilities given to me – I was not a Christian.
It was not until I actually accepted Jesus Christ as my personal God, Saviour and Lord; and became a Christian, that I began to ‘grow up’.
In ways that cannot be mistaken: ‘Growing up, into Christ’ implies that spiritual growth, of a very considerable order, is actually taking place.
It must be said that ‘Moving on in the faith’ can mean much the same thing. However: I believe that, very often, it does little more than to describe life within Church structures, practices and responsibilities; rather than to indicate consistent growth towards maturity, through the Spirit of Christ.
Paul never allowed particular teachings to stand in isolation. Instead: he set them within a simple framework, of what God has done for the world; and what the Lord will do for us, providing that we obey what he requires of us.
In so doing: he demonstrates that the individual Christian life cannot stand in isolation, either; but must be set within God’s great purposes for the world, and the calling, function and ministries of the Church.
Paul’s ‘Grow up, into Christ’ teaching: begins with highlighting some important qualities that help form the framework of the text. He begins with a challenging imperative: ‘Live a life worthy of the calling you have received’.
That is a very big thing in itself: but Paul goes on to make brief touches on the humility, gentleness, and patience that belong within Christian living; and then places a particular emphasis on love.
Much of Christian speaking, and writing about love: deals with it being an aspect of God’s own nature which; through graciousness alone; is entrusted to the care of frail humanity.
Paul seldom wrote along such theoretical lines: because he was a realist, who taught people to set about the practical application of love, and similar gifts; through putting them to work in the ups and downs of daily life.
At Ephesians 4:2, he writes of ‘bearing with one another in love’. ‘Bearing’ (with one another) has implications of calmness, patience and restraint; and sounds a wee bit high-flown.
I tend to feel that what Paul had in mind, was more down to earth. To me: ‘Putting up with one another in love.’ sounds more like it.
The small group of imperatives ends, at verse 3, with: ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’.
Some Christian speakers and writers; see peace as a passive quality that does not exist until hostility, aggression and war have been done away with.
When that happens; and those evils are done away with: then, we are assured; peace comes into being, and, quite naturally, moves in to take their place.
Paul appears to see things rather differently: and to view peace as an active quality; as a powerful tool that works against hostility, aggression and war; and, in so doing, produces positive results.
At Ephesians 4: 3, he states that peace, actively at work, will bring about, and maintain, ‘the unity of the Spirit’.
So many Christians appear to believe that peace is a passive quality, to be received, experienced and shared at a personal level. Paul encourages us to see it as an active quality, to be taken hold of, and put to work in positive ways; and this, for much wider purposes than self, alone.
Ephesians 4: 1-16 has a rough framework of 230 words: within which is set the very important teaching about growing up into Christ.
Verses 1-3 consist of 50 words that deal with various imperatives, or commands. Those that Paul wrote down; and the many other commands that Christ gave, during his years of earthly ministry; can be summed up in the one that Paul put at the top of his list.
‘Live a life worthy of the calling you have received’.
True Christian life is not an idea that we learned about, and then adopted into ourselves. It is, as Paul wrote: a ‘calling’ from beyond ourselves, and even from beyond the Church. It is the Spirit of God reaching out to us; and encouraging us to follow where He leads. It is no less important than that!
Verses 4–13 contain 150 words of theological statements, that either reminded Paul’s readers of what they already knew: or else instructed them about what they should know, and do, if their lives were to be built into Christ. Lastly, verses 14-16 contain the 58 words of the ‘growing up’ teaching.
The simple framework shows that living out Christ’s requirements of us: in the light of God’s graciousness on the one hand, and our active faith, on the other; brings our desired goals within reach.
In straightforward language, Paul shows that there is but the one way in which to fulfil our calling.
Without really realising it: many Christians are faced with two options: ‘Growing up into Christ’ as against ‘Moving on in the faith’, and they need to make the right choice.
In ordinary human life: our ‘growing up’ process builds upon the events and experiences of our past, thereby adding them to our present. Knees scarred by accidents in childhood, are likely to remain scarred, for the rest of our lives.
The love and care received long ago; from parents; relatives, teachers, and so on: remain in our hearts and minds. They form part of our understanding of social values; and inspire our love and care toward others.
The fears, misplaced hopes and wrong decisions of youth; will remain with us: but will lose their psychological power to harm us if, through developing maturity, we take a firm hold on them, and deal with them.
It is quite natural, and to be expected, that the good, bad and indifferent events and experiences of our past; become built into our developing selves, and, eventually, form part of mature adulthood.
The same sort of process applies to the spiritual development that takes place in ‘Growing up into Christ’. Few Christians became Christians without some sort of struggle, at some recognizable level.
Such struggles, when faced up to, and overcome: form part of the fabric of our spiritual development; and are built upon, and built upon again, as we grow upwards into mature adulthood, within the Holy Church of God.
However, ‘Moving on in the faith’ (not ‘in faith’) can have very different, and even negative implications. ‘Moving on’ can imply no more than direction and distance, rather than achievable purpose.
It implies arrival, at a designated place. Christians who are ‘Growing up into Christ’ do not have to travel, in order to arrive, for they are already there.
‘Moving on in the faith’ also implies leaving things behind: which may impose some sort of ‘drag’ that impedes progress. Whereas ‘Growing up into Christ’ leaves nothing behind, to drag and impede.
Paul’s teaching indicates that all those things that beset and trouble Christians; and hold them back from achieving their desires; can be dealt with: not by outside sources, to which we make recourse; but by the indwelling Spirit of God.
He says that: ‘We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together, by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work’.
Christians are not called to merely exist, against the day when God brings some greater good about.
Instead, they are called to thrive: and to actively build themselves up, in loving, caring ways that enable them to fulfil their calling, and to give effective witness to Christ, within the needy world that he loves. Amen.