To mature. Webster’s Dictionary defines maturing as the process of growing or developing. Full development of the body and mind. To become complete and perfect. Now there is a word that we don’t like very often do we - perfection.
I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals. One of the songs that rings through my mind from Mary Poppins, the story about a cheerful nanny, is called “Practically Perfect.” This was her way of introducing herself to the children and she declares that she is “practically perfect in every way.”
We’ve created an image of Christian perfection in our heads that few would even want to obtain –nonsensical, prudish, unimaginative, and perhaps even gruff. Someone who doesn’t smile or laugh or have fun. As a United Methodist, one of the tenants of our tradition is that we are moving on towards perfection, but if these characteristics mark perfection it is most certainly not who I want to be, nor is it who I wish to lead people to discover as their pastor.
When I think about Jesus Christ, the one that we are invited to mature in the example of and through the power of, I don’t apply any of the words we fear around perfection - nonsensical, prudish, unimaginative. No Christ invites us into a much more Wesleyan understanding of perfection in this passage - becoming more deeply in love with God and your neighbor every single day.
For the author of Ephesians, this deeper love expresses itself as unity. This is another word that seems to bother us from time to time, mostly because it is mis-understood. The author is calling for unity of the Church, or a coming together around Christ as the center of our faith. But unity is not uniformity. We all have different gifts and talents. We have lived out our faith in different ways. God is not looking for cookie cutter Christians. No. God wants us to use our uniqueness to bless the Lord every single day. However, we need to keep coming together around our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Unity is emphasized through peace. How many times have we seen Christians behaving badly - arguing over things that do not have eternal value? Rev. Lori Steffensen shared at the 2015 Charge Conference about having churches that fought over who brought what covered dish to church events and the color of carpet. I wish I could say that this was abnormal, but I’ve seen some of the same fights in my time as a pastor as well. Do those things have eternal significance? No. Then let them go for the sake of unity through peace. Let them go for the sake of proclaiming the message of the Kingdom of God.
This passage, friends, is talking about what it looks like to be the church and why it matters. One of the things I do my first year in a church is work my way through the directory visiting folks, so we can get to know one another in the body of Christ. But it can get quite awkward if the directory hasn’t been updated in a while and contains folks who have left the church. Then I hear heartbreaking stories of why folks have left the church, and often it is because they were not treated with gentleness, patience, and love. It’s equally heartbreaking when I’m new in an area and introduce myself as the pastor of XYZ church and I hear folks respond with the stories they’ve heard about why folks left that church years ago. The author of Ephesians is reminding us that we need to do better - we need to be unified - because our ability to fruitfully share about the Kingdom of God is at stake.
Church, we have the most important and beautiful message to share that has ever been told - the story of Jesus Christ. The story of hope and faith. The story of God pursing us and making a way for us to be reconciled to a holy God, even when we were yet sinners. The story of the cross and the grace that is to be found there. But all too often all this other stuff gets in the way of us being able to share that message. And as a result we become a church that is better known for our fundraisers or our fights then sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
Its time for us to grow up, church. Its time for us to mature in our faith. The ten dollar theological term for this process of maturing is sanctification, to become set apart for a special, holy purpose. This is an ongoing process as we focus more and more on the love of Jesus Christ and less and less on the things that don’t matter.
Part of maturing is making sure that Jesus is in the right place in your life - right at the center. Have you ever noticed that when Jesus isn’t the center of your attention and focus that you can often become side tracked by other things? That you are more prone to slip into the sins that can rip apart a church, like pride and gossip? When we don’t have Christ as our center, we often think that the Church is about us - meeting our needs instead of reaching out to those who don’t yet know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But when Christ is in that right place in our lives, all of our focus comes around serving God and glorifying the name of Jesus.
But the other part of maturing in Christ is building up the body of Christ. This is not building up the select members of the body that we like. Its encouraging everyone in the body to use their gifts and talents to live into the call God has for them and the call that God has for this local church. It's helping to carry one another’s burdens during tough times and celebrating during joyous times. We are to build up one another is all that we do. The local church is God’s greatest hope in the world for spreading the message of Jesus, but when we are dysfunctional we aren’t as effective in doing that.
Think about your own body - growth depends on all of the parts of the body working properly together. When one part is out of wack, even from something as simple as a cold, the whole body suffers. So it is with the body of Christ, we all need to be working together and not against each other in order to be the most effective at reaching folks for Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, how is our local body of Christ doing? Are we maturing in the faith? Do folks know us as a place where the love of Jesus is proclaimed and shown? If not, what needs realigned in order to get us there? And what about you as an individual? Are you moving on towards perfection? Are you loving God and your neighbor more and more every day? If not, how do you get your focus back on Christ? Folks, we are never done maturing. Never done growing. Never done moving on to perfection. Let us keep running the race with endurance, building one another up in love. Amen.