Swallows and Amazons and the Church

Is our experience of church more like an untutored 12 year old on the verge of capsizing a catamaran? Or is it more like the skilful competence of the children of Swallows and Amazons? And what on earth does this have to do with the Letter to the Ephesians?

A sermon preached on Ephesians 4:1-16 for Preston High Street UCA on 28/7/21 for the Tenth Week after Pentecost Proper 13 (8) Year B

When I was young – perhaps ten or eleven – my family went on an activity holiday with some other families in the street. We did all the sorts of things one does in that sort of situation – rode horses, shot bows and arrows, drank milk fresh from local cows delivered in enormous metal vessels. And we sailed boats. My father is an experienced sailor, with his skipper’s licence. But it wasn’t my dad who was with me on the catamaran shooting across the lake – it was my mother shouting “slow down! We’re going to capsize!”

It must have been around that time that I was reading a very old series of books called Swallows and Amazons – did anyone else read them? The basic idea was a bunch of children having sailing-based adventures in the Lake District in the UK. I can’t remember many of the details now, but I do remember that they really knew their way around a boat.

Paul, would, I think, have liked that contrast. He spent a lot of time aboard ships, including being shipwrecked, which the Swallows and Amazons children would have found incredibly exciting. I reckon he has a strong memory of some terrifying moment at sea  – darkness falling, the sails all ahoo, people arguing about what to do as the sound of waves crashing onto an iron-bound cliff on a nearby island draws closer and closer.

What, asks Paul, does it mean to be the church? How do we get to be like the Swallows and Amazons, rather than like me, careering across the lake one fault in the wind away from capsizing?

I’ve been struck by the very dense way Paul writes. He grabs a metaphor, gives it a bit of a shake, then pounces on another one, all at lightening speed. I reckon this is one of those cultural differences between Paul’s audience and ourselves. The Ancient World was much less literate, but that doesn’t mean that people were stupid. You would have needed a much more retentive memory, for instance. I can’t successfully go shopping without a list, I can’t remember what I’m doing day to day without writing it on my calendar. It’s like I’ve outsourced a large portion of my brain to bits of paper and computers.

Non-literate cultures are much better at speaking and hearing. We need a single image worked to death – but for Paul and his audience good style apparently looks like throwing as many dazzling metaphors into a sentence as possible, trusting that everyone would keep up.

I wonder if an equivalent in our culture might be in movies and TV when different cut-shots and scraps of dialogue and timelines are woven together to create a satisfying whole. The Ancients would probably find it as confusing as we find attempting to read Paul’s letters.

Tonight we’re going to spend a little time looking at the text in a little bit of detail, to see what we can make of it.

Paul writes as “a prisoner in the Lord.” We aren’t sure where he is in gaol exactly, but we might think of it as meaning “a prisoner for Jesus’ sake.” It is based on this status as a prisoner that he pleads with his audience – rather than orders, which might be more expected. It’s a funny way to claim status when you think about it – become a Christian and go to gaol feels like a bit of a hard sell. But there are echoes here of the way in which Jesus “did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.”[1]

Paul is saying that to be a disciple of Jesus is something to do with humility, not with lording it over people. This is part of what it means to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

What is this “calling” precisely? Paul is about to tell us. But whatever it is, it requires humility, long-suffering-ness, patience, and all those other qualities which you need to be in long term relationships with a load of people with whom you may not have much else in common. We talked about the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians in previous sermons, but even beyond that large scale conflict, there is always plenty of opportunity for getting on one another’s nerves.

Whoever wrote the letter to the Ephesians, they certainly understood what it meant to be church – in all its good and bad aspects. We have all seen it, and probably participated in it as well. Conflict is, frankly, inevitable when human beings, with all our limitations and selfishness and general sinfulness try to do something together. Especially when that something takes our whole lives.

We need to work hard to maintain our unity – something which, frankly, the Christian Church has failed at these last two thousand years.

What, asks Paul, is this unity? What makes us more like the crew of the Swallow than Mum and I shooting recklessly across the lake?

Paul says, remember that we are all one: We are one body, there is only one Spirit, and one hope in our calling which we all share. There is only one Lord, to whom we owe unconditional loyalty. There is only one faith – I’ll come back to this in a moment – and one baptism. And, finally, one God and Father who is “above all and through all and in all.”

Everything else which divides us is secondary and cannot become the primary things about us.

The “one faith” thing – what does he mean? Does he mean some basic doctrinal point? Maybe, but it seems more likely that he means something more like Abraham’s faith in the promises of God[2]. It is God we have faith in – the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead – not an idea about God.

This, Paul concludes, is Christ’s gift to us. Grace, given to us by God, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but because of Jesus’ love for us and his sacrifice on our behalf.  

Which is just as well, frankly, because I’m far from convinced that the last two thousand years of church history give much evidence of our ability to actually live this unity out very successfully.

Next, things get a little… complicated. Paul takes Psalm 68:18 and, frankly, really goes to town on it.   There’s a lot of debate about what’s going on here[3] but here are two thoughts I found helpful.

Firstly, the gift Jesus gives is in fact primarily Jesus himself. Jesus “fills all things” in the same way that God “is above all and through all and in all”. It’s a way of trying to explain the relationship between Jesus and God and the Spirit.

To put it another way: when we talk about Jesus, we talk about God.

Secondly when Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” Paul seems to be saying something like there is nothing in our experience, nowhere we can go, where Jesus is not. Even when things are at their absolute worst, Jesus is with us.

Jesus gives us the gift of himself in every circumstance.

Next, the topic changes. Paul moves from his general theological ethic to how it should work out in the lived experience of being church.

He begins with structure. Some people, he says, are called to be apostles, others prophets, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and some teachers.

This reflects the organisation of the early church, where the systems were still in a lot of flux. We won’t get into the details, which aren’t particularly clear in any case. But there is an important point being made which is still relevant to us. The role of all these people in the church is clear: they are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

When Paul says “saints” he means Christians. He means us.  If the different roles he named before – the apostles and so on – could be understood as the equivalent of ordination – then he is making two points.

Firstly: Everyone is involved in the work of ministry. It isn’t just the “special” ordained people.

Secondly: The role of the ordained is “to equip the saints.” That is language is picked up in the Uniting Church Basis of Union when it talks about ordained ministry, and then again in the order of service for the ordination of a Minister of the Word.

Specifically, the aim of this service is for all of us to get to the “full stature of Christ.” To really know Jesus, and God through Jesus. Not just as a collection of ideas, theories, and opinions about Jesus, but to know right down in our heart of hearts. To know Jesus, and to know that we are loved by God – to really grasp and live into the completely unmerited gift of grace from God.

The metaphors get even more exuberantly mixed. Paul makes it sound a bit as though we grow “into” a head – as though our heads are sort of suspended in mid-air until our bodies grow tall enough for our necks to finally reach them. I think he is getting at something more like becoming recognisably Christ-like as the aim of our growth, as the purpose of all this building up in faith.

And now, we finally get to my naval metaphor from the beginning of the sermon. We are not to be children doing a bad job of sailing a boat. There are people who, out of misunderstanding or bad motivation, or some horrible combination of both, who will try to pull us away from our core loyalty to God, to the unity of faith which we talked about earlier – one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

But we are supposed to be like the Swallows and Amazons – who really knew what they were doing with their sailing dinghies. We need to be able to navigate the difficult waters of life in this context in which we find ourselves. We need to be like the crew of a ship who know what they are doing. Everyone has a role to play, none of us are just along for the ride. We have to not allow our internal divisions – real as they are, painful as they are, to distract us from our fundamental unity. We are not to be distracted by “every wind of doctrine” but to stay committed to what binds us together in the first place.

We need to hold fast to that grace, that completely unmerited gift of God through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, to that faith in the utter trustworthiness of God. We are called by God, individually and by name, to live with this faith as the central fact about our lives.

As Scripture says:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

[1] Philippians 2:6-7

[2]  Verhey, Allen; Harvard, Joseph S.. Ephesians: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Location 2963.

[3] See e.g.  Verhey location 3138,  Allen, R. Michael. Ephesians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Pp 93ff  and Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone). SPCK. Kindle Edition. p. 44.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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