Readings for this day
- Ephesians 4: 1-6 NRSV link »
- Psalm 122 NRSV link »
- John 17: 6a, 15-23 NRSV link »
- Bible Browser Readings at Oremus.org
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Between the words spoken and the words heard, may God’s Holy Spirit touch our hearts with love, hope and action. Amen.
Ephesians 4:1 I therefore the prisoner of the Lord beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
How many times have we heard these words? A passage read at ordinations, inductions, and Thursdays in the convent when the Sisters pray for Christian unity. It’s very moving to me that every week prayers go up from this chapel for the unity of all Christian people.
Paul and his followers write in powerfully poetic language about this urge, this prayer. Their words are probably drawn from early hymns and liturgies. This letter is a celebration of the community of disciples that is the church. Paul believes that the family of believers was established by God’s eternal purpose through Christ. We the members of Christ’s family are to live in unity with God, with one another, and within ourselves. We do this through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. This direction toward unity is where things are tending – the telios – the full union in the life to come.
But Paul has a curious turn of phrase which bothers me: “the prisoner of the Lord”. I mention this because I’ve been thinking about that word off and on. I love the passage – but ‘prisoner’ – that’s too strong for me. What ‘prisoner’ means in Greek and for Paul is the subject of another homily.
What I want to focus on is not the word itself, but my reaction to it. I don’t like it. It’s one of the tensions in my own life – perhaps in yours as well. I understand my loyalty to God in response to God’s love and grace in Christ, but also I want my own freedom. I think my freedom is a gift of God. So I want to belong – I want to be part of it – but describing myself as a prisoner is going too far. I can see myself as yoked – loyal – a disciple – a learner – a member of the body - those words all work, but not prisoner.
As I think about it, there is a tension between my need to belong and my need to be free. We see this tension in ordained and professed life; in married and family life; even in our employment. I want to belong but I don’t want to be chained down. ‘May the circle be unbroken’ but ‘Don’t fence me in’.
As part of my vocational work I use an instrument called the Birkman Method and there are two scores that refer to this tension. One is the ‘acceptance’ score, which is how much I need to belong to other people. The other is the ‘freedom’ score which is how much do I need my own freedom. In my case they’re both very high.
That’s why, as I reflect on it, parish ministry as a priest worked very well for me. On the one hand, I belonged to a bishop and a diocese, and to a community, but I was free to set my own schedule, be my own boss and express my individuality. As I look back now, in many ways I was free to be myself. My current work as a vocational consultant also gives me this freedom. But I also need to belong, and this community is one that gives me that opportunity.
You probably know a thing or two about this. I know people – perhaps you do too - who have not entered into marriage or ordained ministry – I suspect religious life as well – because they thought they would lose themselves instead of finding themselves. Their need for freedom was too great to allow them to belong to a community.
And it seems to me that it is to this tension of opposites that God calls us – to belonging – and yet to individual personhood, worthily magnifying God’s holy name. A phrase from the collect for peace at Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer captures it – ‘whose service is perfect freedom’.
I remember a neighbouring minister in the middle of a conflict in his church telling his board, “I am your servant but you are not my master”.
And so that is the unity Paul is writing about – the unity of this tension – I therefore a prisoner of the Lord – beg you from my own person to live out your own life and vocation worthy of your calling together. Be yourself but take responsibility for the community.
And this is the unity that Jesus prayers for, not that we’re to be taken out of the world but that we’re protected from the evil one. We’re here to share in the glory – the ortho – doxa - of the relationship of personhood in the community of the divine Trinity of love and purpose and energy. From the chains of love comes the invitation to join with Christ and be yoked easily and to lightly carry the burden because that is what it means to be learning to live with Christ and what it means to be me and what it means to belong. There is freedom with responsibility. Personhood and purpose.
I therefore the prisoner of the Lord beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The prisoner of the Lord from the chains of love begs us to take the invitation seriously. Amen.
Notes for a homily preached at the noon Eucharist of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine - 30 July 2009 by the Rev. Canon Tim Elliott. Tim is an Associate of SSJD. Tim's Website here »
The Rev'd Canon Tim Elliott
July 30, 2009
July 30, 2009