Our present age glorifies uniqueness. ‘Here I am, this is me, I’m totally unique and special in my individuality’, it cries. It sometimes goes further in self-focussed defiance: ‘Don’t change for anyone – you’re perfect as you are and everyone else must accept that’.
On the other hand, there are certainly spheres where conformity is expected, where deviation from normal practices or particular views are met with suspicion, perhaps even hostility.
I think we feel conflicted: We want to be special, but also don’t feel totally happy with who we are. We want to fit in with others, but don’t want to merely blend in. We seem to want to be both individuals, and also be securely part of a group.
This passage offers a balm to our confused spirits, giving us both individuality and community.
So, firstly, how does Paul say we are alike?
‘There is one body and one Spirit’, that is, all are part of the same fellowship, the same church, and all are empowered by the same Holy Spirit.
‘One Lord, one faith’ – all are joined to one Lord and Saviour, the same Christ, and all proclaim one salvation.
‘One hope… [and] one baptism’ – all have the same future destination, and all have the same entry point.
And how have we come to share all of this? Well, fundamentally, it is because, through Christ, we all acknowledge the one God, and all call him Father – that is, we are all part of the same family.
We all have come to know and love the rule of God ‘who is above all’, and that he is active ‘through all’, and present ‘in all’. This is true of all of creation, but particularly so for those who are members of his family.
Are any too far from him to be included in his family?
Paul’s side note in verses nine and ten may be about Christ’s descent to earth from heaven, his death and descent to the grave, or his descent even to the depths of Hades. In some ways it doesn’t matter – the point is that he has unending authority – he ‘fill[s] all things’. There isn’t anywhere that is beyond his power; from ‘the lowest parts of the earth’ to his ascended place ‘high above the heavens’. Wherever we are, physically or spiritually, we are not too far for him to reach us.
Christ is Lord over all, and we can all be welcomed into his family. Alleluia!
But what about our desire to be unique?
‘But each of us…’ begins verse seven – ah, here we have some individuality. Each are given different gifts – the list here is shorter than others elsewhere in Paul’s teaching, but still: some have this gift, some have that one.
We don’t acquire these gifts ourselves, though. They are grace-given, according to a measure of Christ – not something we have earned. But nevertheless, they do afford individuality within the family of God.
In divergence to the modern view of individuality though, our unique blend of gifts is not for us to like and others to have to deal with. They have a purpose.
When Christ ascended to make ‘captivity itself a captive’ – that is to deliver freedom – he then pours out these gifts. So, the gifts are for continuing Christ’s ministry, empowered by the Spirit.
Also divergent from the cry of our age, is the idea that we aren’t perfect yet. As well as being for the purposes of freedom, the gifts of the ascended Christ are also to aid us in being directional. We are to move, to grow, towards something – to greater unity, to fuller knowledge of Christ and ‘full stature’ – more completely walking in his footsteps. Not to be as children – either blown off-course by a strong but fickle wind of doctrine or distracted by deliberate temptation from others.
I wonder if a metaphor might help:
Imagine us as a family tied together for mutual safety and aid as we undertake a great expedition across an unforgiving landscape. Each has access to the Father directly through a walkie-talkie. Each started from different valleys, but all started climbing from the bottom of the mountain – and we’re all heading to the same place. We all joined the family by being connected to the same rope of salvation. Some of us are great map readers, others can carry vast amounts of provisions. Some can read the weather, others know excellent morale-boosting adventurers’ songs. We need each other on this expedition, we must stick together – as a family, alike in many things, and unique in others – if we are to grow, to reach the end, and to enjoy our freedom along the way.
Do you feel an important part of the church family? Maybe you do – in which case, remember that you can’t read the map, judge the weather, sing adventuring songs and distribute snacks all at the same time – you need your brothers and sisters. The flip-side of this is true too. If you don’t feel useful or connected, remember that you are connected to the family by your connection to the Father, and at some point, we’re going to need you to sing the adventuring song that only you know.
My guess is that even if we looked just at our congregation at King’s, we’d find that almost everyone has felt unconnected or unhelpful at times. I think that is pretty universal – even for those who seem deeply connected and particularly useful. The challenge of this passage is to remember that we are both individuals and members of the family.
Are you trying to undertake the expedition alone, out of pride or fearing to ask for help? Are you withholding your gifts – be they navigation, refreshment or encouragement? Don’t do either of these things Paul says.
Instead, let’s ask ourselves: how might we more fully embrace our identity as part of God’s family, or use the gifts he has given us to support our brothers and sisters in this season of adventuring together across the unfamiliar and unforgiving landscape we’re currently facing?
Let’s pray together.
Heavenly Father, we praise you that you have welcomed us into your family, by your grace. Thank you that you give each of us gifts to bless and build up your church, and those beyond. Please help us to use these gifts wisely, humbly and with kindness. Help us to welcome each other into family together and to support and equip each other in growing towards the knowledge and likeness of Christ.