September 19, 2006
Peace be with you.
I chose the text you have just heard from the fourth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians because two of its themes strike me as important ones for all of us to reflect upon as we begin a new academic year at our college, whether we are new members of the community – first-year and transfer students, new faculty and staff, the new president – or whether we are returning students or Village Elders. These two themes are: What kind of community are we to be? And, how should we shape our lives together in order to become that community?
The early chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians challenge us with a view of the kind of community we should aspire to be. The Letter begins with a brief theology of redemption, reminding Christians that we have been saved by Grace freely bestowed upon us, we who are sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ. In the fullness of time all things in Heaven and upon earth will be gathered into God. This is our inheritance — we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, we live to praise God’s glory.
This theology of redemption then leads logically to a vision of the unity of the church. If we are all saved by the free gift of grace through the sacrifice of Jesus, then the old distinctions that separated believers lose their relevance. The old Law has been abolished, with its “commandments and ordinances” that separated the circumcised from the uncircumcised. Instead, in Christ Jesus “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21). In a magnificent passage, the Letter declares: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:19-20).
This vision of the unity of the early church at Ephesus provides direction for all of us in Northfield, Minnesota today, in 2006. It is our distinctive strength at St. Olaf that all of us – students, staff, faculty – and indeed the larger St. Olaf family consisting of alumni, parents and friends, are interconnected. Our work and our lives are interwoven. We are invested in one another, and in our college. We exemplify the “one body” (2:16), which is another of the key metaphors for the early church employed in the Letter to the Ephesians.
What is the source of this unity? Certainly it is a shared commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education, a shared appreciation of the beauty of our campus, a shared experience at the college. But surely the source of our unity lies deeper than that. We are a community of faith, brought together as was the early church at Ephesus, by our conviction that we are “members of the household of God” (2:19). You feel this unity most strongly among students. I am so impressed by, and proud of, the student culture our college. The good will, the affection, the respect, and the relaxed humor with which students treat each other here is truly remarkable.
Chapter 4 of the Letter to the Ephesians, our text for today, represents a turning point in the overall Letter because it moves from the conceptual portrait of the unity of all believers that I have just been discussing to practical instruction on how the members of the body of Christ should carry themselves towards one another. That instruction offers a guide to us as we begin this new academic year and as we work together to shape the future of our college.
“I therefore… 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.” Our text begins with an inspirational call to be worthy of our vocation. Lutherans, of course, enjoy a rich theology of vocation which directs us to think of our daily work, together with all of the other things that comprise the totality of our lives, not merely as labor but as a gift pleasing to God, as the proper use of our gifts towards God’s ends. Many of us think of our work at the college precisely in these terms: it acquires meaning and dignity and is pleasing to our Creator because it is directed, whatever our role here, towards the fulfillment of God’s will. The Letter to Ephesians calls upon us be worthy of our calling by preserving the unity of the Body of Christ in our day-to-day interactions. We do that by approaching one another with humility, gentleness, patience, peace — by making every effort, in short, to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Now, this is a challenge. In fact, academic culture tends to train us for precisely the opposite environment. In the case of faculty, our training tends to isolate us rather than bring us together (in this respect the sciences tend to be more collaborative than the humanities, and interdisciplinary disciplines such as women’s studies have provided new and more collaborative models). But fundamentally we are trained to argue, to specialize. Let’s face it; most of us growing up were accustomed to being (or thinking we were) the smartest person in the room. We have organized ourselves into groups of other people with similar interests and training that we call departments, and from those enclaves we maintain a posture of vigilant trepidation with respect to other departments whenever resources are being distributed. How does one get out of that mode? New students have just completed a college selection process that was, in many ways, all about you. Your test scores, your high school GPA, your college choice, your move-in day. Now that you’re here, how do you keep from getting locked into a mode that focuses you inward, that sees the world through the lens of the past, that limits your options and your vision for the next four years? If you’re the new president of the college, how do you resist self-importance, pomposity, impatience? How do you keep from getting distracted by a whirlwind of correspondence, travel, donor meetings, and the trappings of office? If you’re an alumnus or a friend of the college what frees you to let go of that old quarrel with a decision the college made some years ago that resulted in your brilliantly crafted and stinging letter to the president or to the chair of the Board of Regents expressing your displeasure?.
You listen to the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians. That writer doesn’t tell us that, as they say, we have to spend all of our time together holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” But today’s text admonishes us to “speak truth in love,” (4:15) to focus in our speech on what “is useful in building up,” (4:29) rather than to indulge our gift for merciless ridicule honed in graduate seminars, to refuse another form of self-indulgence which is nursing a grudge. We are exhorted to put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, and slander and in their place to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). We treat one another this way if we walk the earth with a healthy sense of the humility, gentleness, and patience evoked at the beginning of today’s reading. At the end of the day none of us is the smartest person in the room. Rather, just as we are members of the body of Christ and citizens with the saints, we are interdependent members of our college community, and our ability to be worthy of our vocation depends upon our ability to live up to the instruction of the Letter to the Ephesians.
So, I call upon us at this time of new beginnings to commit ourselves as individuals and as a community to the vision for our life together of the Letter to the Ephesians by focusing on our interdependence, by striving for unity of purpose, by embracing humility and patience and exercising forgiveness. I aspire to exemplify these spiritual gifts in my role as president of the college. We are children of a fallen humanity, and doubtless I will fail at times. Nevertheless, I invite you to join me in this aspiration, and I ask God to guide and help us.
David R. Anderson ’74