Ephesians 4: 7-16. What a wonderful passage to preach on! Paul writes to the Ephesians focusing on themes of unity and the reconciliation of the whole of Creation in Christ. It’s heady stuff.
In today’s ten verse snippet, chosen I guess because it talks about the Ascension, which the Church celebrated on Thursday, the writer speaks in particular about the Church’s unity, that is our unity. He speaks of the Holy Spirit, who fills each of us with gifts from on high. He paints a picture where everyone, no matter who they are, is a person with gifts to offer, a person essential to the Church, with an essential part in God’s purpose not just for their own lives, but for the cosmos.
We are told, therefore, that we must grow up, pull together, come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. But what I want us to devote the next few minutes considering though, is the next sentence.
The writer says “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself in love.”
It is a profound image, picturing a body in which each of us has a role to play, each part supporting every other part. A body of true unity and harmony, where we are all joined and knitted together. A more essential image for our time, an image that is truly good news for our country and indeed our world, I cannot think of. Our society which seems more politically divided than it has been in years. Our world which sees a greater, and more quickly increasing, disparity between the unfathomably wealthy and poor. Our planet, which far from being conserved and working in harmony, is being poisoned and polluted. Far from a world where we weak are crushed by the strong, Paul describes a world where all work for the good of all, all are honoured, all have the dignity of sharing together in the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord.
I was struck, however, that pondering this for a service of healing, Paul’s utopian vision falls a bit flat. Paul describes a body with each part working properly. And yet we know, parts of our bodies often don’t work properly – or at least not in the same way they do on other people. They get sick, or were never quite right in the first place. Paul speaks of the body’s growth as though it will carry on forever, but we know that we grow for a time, and then we get old and begin to break down. It is the circle of life.
What we realise is that all of us, whether physically, emotionally, psychologically… perhaps even if not quite broken – then at least, are not the best version of our true selves. We are, each of us, in a way peculiar to each of us, in need of healing.
If that is true of us, then we see too that it is true of every society, culture and organisation. The Church at least as much as any other. It is part of the human condition, of human association and indeed humanity itself, to be constantly crying out for healing.
Where does this leave Paul’s image? Is he just romanticising a human body without its intrinsic brokenness? Or perhaps it is me that is wrong? Perhaps human bodies were not meant to be broken, but through our fallenness they are and we can look forward to eternal fixed-ness?
Well maybe… Except that human frailty is exactly what we see in Jesus Christ. Jesus who had to eat and drink. Jesus who got tired. Jesus who had to leave his disciples and get some alone time. Jesus who was beaten and died.
And what is more profound, after the Resurrection, that sublime, unsurpassable act of healing, Jesus still bears in his body the marks of the wounds he died from. At the Ascension, Jesus, with the visible signs of frailty and brokenness he shares with all humanity, was taken up into heaven, where that brokenness is now an eternal aspect of God.
This could all sound a bit pessimistic, that Jesus’ wounds, that our frailty, is in some sense eternal. But if we look a bit deeper, I think we see something of what true healing is.
The healing we receive in Jesus, the healing we draw near to experience today, is not something that is simply prescribed to cure an ill, to alleviate a problem – though there is nothing wrong in praying and hoping that it does. The kind of healing that Jesus gives is the kind of healing we see in his Resurrection – not wounds removed but mysteriously transformed, strangely transfigured. We find a life that is whole despite its wounds – unlimited despite its limitations – eternal despite being subject to time.
So if that is what the body of Jesus looks like, if that is what we pray our bodies may come to be like – then what does that mean for the body St Paul described, humans working together, each part working perfectly.
If we understand our humanity, our need for and the character of God’s healing properly – this suddenly reads so differently. Paul’s image does not describe an ecclesiastical utopia – far from it – for we know that our humanity is intrinsically imperfect – our imperfections and wounds are not things that pass away but things that are transformed. Not things we just have to accept, and not necessarily things we somehow have to rejoice in either, but things we learn to live with – and live a life that somehow is full in and through it all.
And so with the Church, with our society, with humanity spread across the world. God’s healing is not a prescription for utopia, but a promise of eternal life – which really is something quite different.