The Fifth Sunday After Easter April 27, 2008
221(1-5), 767 [TLH alt. 466], 477, 216
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
Christ Jesus, our risen Savior, reigns over all things for the benefit of God’s children. In His name, dear fellow-redeemed:
King Solomon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to [harvest]…a time to weep, and a time to laugh…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff).
Sometimes there are clear indicators that it’s time to do something or move from one season to the next. For example: When a lawn gets to a certain height it’s time to mow. Of greater significance—when graduation requirements are fulfilled it’s time to move on. Of even greater significance, but less known to us—when the days which God has appointed for us on the earth are completed it’s time to die and enter eternal life.
This Thursday we will celebrate Jesus’ ascension. As we consider this event there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, Jesus’ ascension was part of God’s overall “salvation plan” for the souls of sinners. Secondly, Jesus’ ascension does not signal the end of His work for souls, it only signifies the end of his visible presence on earth.
The next season for Jesus’ disciples began after Jesus was no longer visibly with them. Ten days after Jesus ascended the disciples would be equipped for their new season through the gift of the Holy Spirit. That season continues with the disciples of today—you and me—and we continue to be equipped by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. JESUS HAS ASCENDED—IT’S TIME FOR GROWING UP I. Jesus gives gifts to promote growth, II. Continuing growth characterizes spiritual maturity, and III. The whole body matures as each part matures
The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus Himself “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…” [v.11] Jesus gave by the authority He has as our exalted and ascended Lord. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes: “[God] put all things under [Jesus’] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
Before He ascended Jesus told the disciples, “All power—all authority—is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Our victorious, exalted, and ascended Lord is ruling in heaven with all authority. He wields that power for the benefit of His Church—all believers. He wields that power to preserve the faith of believers already in the Church, and He uses that authority to guide all things with the goal of bringing even more sinners into the family of God. This is the work which Jesus is doing right now. To accomplish that work on earth, He—the ascended Savior—gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.
Jesus gives gifts to individuals on earth to enable them to serve in these offices and capacities within His church. He gave gifts to the apostles many years ago, then He gave the apostles as gifts to the Church. He led them to opportunities, gave them the knowledge to use their gifts, and with that they evangelized the world of their day spreading the Gospel wherever they could. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were inspired to write the very words of God in order to provide a written Scripture for generations and centuries upon centuries of God’s people. The ascended Lord gave the gifts that were needed for these men to be the apostles we know them to be and as such they were gifts to the church.
Jesus continues to give gifts to individuals and in turn gives them to the Church right down to the pastors, teachers, and other leaders in the Church of today. Jesus gifts to the Church are “for the equipping of the saints (believers).” [v.12] Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that a man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Jesus gives individuals as gifts to the Church so that they will use the Scriptures for their intended purposes and thereby equip others to also use the Scriptures.
The equipping of the believers is “for the work of the ministry and for the edifying of the body of Christ.” [v.12] The reason Jesus gives gifts to His Church on earth is not so that select individuals can go about the Gospel ministry and be the only ones doing so. Rather, they are the spark plugs, they are the instructors. As more and more are equipped and begin to share the Gospel, then by sheer numbers the Gospel spreads because the saints are equipping the saints to equip more saints so that they all share in the ministry of the Gospel!
So the work of the Gospel ministry within a congregation or a church body is never just for the called servants. It is never just for those in a leadership role. It is for every saint—every believer. Those who are called and given particular gifts are to equip the rest, and the whole body of Christ is to edify one another and strengthen one another’s faith by sharing the Gospel with each other.
The CLC Convention is coming up in less than two months. At Convention there will be called servants and lay delegates—it is a group endeavor. As we consider the work of our church body, it is not for the sake of those called servants, it’s not for the sake of a synodical hierarchy and organization. It is for the sake of the Gospel ministry. There are individuals who are called to serve in specific capacities in our fellowship, these are given by the ascended Lord as gifts to the church to promote growth; but the work that lies before us is work for all of us.
As this work continues there will be spiritual growth—growth in knowledge of God, in faith, and in the confidence of faith. This growth continues “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—“ [vv.13-15]
Making use of God’s Word will create growth leading to spiritual maturity. Peter wrote in his first epistle, “Desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
Consider today’s Gospel reading. Jesus did not grant the woman’s request immediately. He tested her faith. He challenged her faith. That process of circumstances strengthened her faith, but it wasn’t apart from the Gospel. As Jesus tested her faith, she relied upon the truth of what she already knew about Jesus, namely, that He was willing and able to help.
In a similar way, God will test our faith with what He gives or takes away or allows to come into our lives. At those times our faith will be strengthened when we make use of God’s Word and rely upon the truth we find there.
Consider this example from a Christian author: If you came to doubt that Old Faithful, the geyser in Yellowstone Park, would really erupt on time and with regularity, how could you become convinced that it really was faithful? Would your faith in Old Faithful improve by staying home and telling yourself over and over, “I need more faith in Old Faithful. I just need to believe it.”? This wouldn’t help at all! The best way to become convinced of the geyser’s reliability is to go and see for yourself, or at least research it’s past faithfulness.
Similarly, the way for us to be strengthened, to be built up, “to come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” is not to expect a stronger faith simply by going through life and thinking, “I need a stronger faith.” Rather, our faith is strengthened when we go to see God in action through His Word and when we research His past faithfulness there.
In God’s Word we find a witness to how faithful He was in providing salvation for us, and how faithful He was in guarding and keeping the believers of Biblical times. When we learn God’s faithfulness, hear His promises, and apply that to ourselves then we will continue to grow and develop a deepening spiritual maturity.
We understand the need for maturity and growth. We desire that our children mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually into adulthood. The desire that God has for our hearts and our faith is no less. Growth in spiritual maturity is certainly something we wish to pursue.
Spiritual immaturity is characterized by being pulled this way and that way by every new spiritual fad and doctrine; or by being easily blown into doubt concerning God with every new human challenge to His truth. A young child quickly changes his preferences and viewpoints depending on who has said what most recently. As a child matures, he develops a consistency that comes with maturity. Spiritually, we want to grow into maturity that isn’t easily pulled from one thing to the next so that instead of being tossed about by every new fad and doctrine we will stand fast and not be pulled from the cornerstone of our Savior.
Spiritual maturity is very important in this world because there are, as Paul told the Colossians, many who will seek to “cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the traditions of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8-9).
Another part of Christian maturity is to speak the truth in love (cf. v.15). It does not take any particular spiritual maturity to simply take God’s Law and “hammer” anybody and everybody with it and condemning everyone. That is just taking one aspect of God’s Word and “letting them have it.” It doesn’t take much spiritual maturity to speak as if sin doesn’t matter—ignoring sin and talking about God’s love.
It doesn’t take much spiritual maturity to talk about God’s love without explaining how He demonstrates that love and what that love means in the context of our sins.
It doesn’t take much spiritual maturity to use God’s Word however and whenever it is convenient and for selfish purposes.
It does take a growing spiritual maturity to know when to apply Law to a heart and when to apply Gospel. It takes a spiritual maturity to speak the truth without compromise, but to do so in connection with Christ-like love with the well-being of a sinner’s soul in mind. This is why Martin Luther said that a true theologian is one who can rightly divide between Law and Gospel and apply them correctly—something he never claimed to have mastered despite his God-given insight and years of study.
Continuing growth will characterize spiritual maturity that stands fast in the truth of God’s Word, relies on His promises, continues to delve into His Word for even greater knowledge and faith, and then also shares it with others by speaking the truth in love.
In Paul’s writings, the Holy Spirit uses the illustration of a human body to visualize the body of Christ—all believers. Jesus is the head—the operating center of the body. All believers are the individual parts that make up the rest of the body.
In Romans 12, Paul speaks of the many gifts God gives and says if you have a particular gift, use it! “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8).
Paul wrote similarly in 1 Corinthians but then he goes on to say that the body is incomplete without the other individual parts. If the body were all one big eye, how would we hear? If it were all one big ear, how would we smell? In other words, it takes every single believer to make the whole (cf. 1 Corinthians 12)
Paul writes in our text, “…the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” [v.16] There are no spare or useless parts in the body of Christ.
Years ago doctors would extract tonsils without much hesitancy. Tonsils were considered largely useless so it was no big loss if they were gone—just leftovers from some evolutionary process some supposed. Doctors still remove tonsils if it becomes necessary, but if at all possible they leave them because it turns out that when God created us He did have a purpose for the tonsils after all. Yes, we can survive without tonsils or an appendix or with only one kidney or only part of other organs, but in those cases our body is incomplete. We can survive, but our body will not function as fully or perfectly as when every organ and every part is working properly and doing its share.
The same is true about the body of Christ. The work of the Gospel ministry will continue without you. God’s Word will prevail. But because you are a child of God who has been called to faith you have a role to play. You are part of God’s chosen generation to proclaim the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). You can ignore it, you can avoid it, and the spread of the Gospel will continue but not as completely as if you serve using your gifts in the way that God has called you.
The whole body benefits when the individual part uses his gifts for the work of the Gospel and to edify one another in love. This means that the parts of the body who are stronger can edify and build up those who are weaker. Those who are strong shouldn’t leave the others behind. No one should strike out on his own way. Being joined together and knit together with Christ means that when each individual grows in spiritual maturity, the whole body grows. When the whole body grows it thrives and when the body of Christ thrives the Gospel goes forth for the salvation of more souls.
Jesus has ascended. He is living and reigning in heaven for us—His Church on earth. Now it’s time for growing up. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.