July 25, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for July 30, 2017. From an ongoing series, “Sitcom Theology: Watching the Classics With Ephesians.”
Text is Ephesians 4.1-16.
If you read Paul’s letters and his Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17, you’ll find him using pagan poets, playwrights, and prophets to preach the Gospel. Paul used classic Greek literature to help people understand God’s plan for saving the world.
In this series, we’re using vintage sitcoms to illuminate Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Even one of Paul’s fellow apostles, Peter, admitted: Some things Paul writes are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3.16). Like a lot of things Paul wrote, Ephesians can be difficult. But it’s an important part of understanding how we live out the Gospel as a church. Well, Paul can be hard to get. But the old sitcoms were easy. Everything got sorted out in half an hour. Today, we’re about to sort some things out in Ephesians—hopefully in less than half an hour. We’re going to read Eph. 4.1-16 with the classic ‘80s sitcom, Cheers.
The sitcom Cheers ran from 1982 until 1993. Named for a famous Boston bar, the show focused on a strange community of bartenders and barflies who’d come to know each other through years of hanging out over drinks. And the whole concept of the show is simple: You wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.
At least, that’s what the theme song says.
Everybody needs space to fit in, be themselves, feel comfortable, and contribute. We really do want to go everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. And we’ll get that connection wherever we can find it. And people who don’t find that fellowship and connection in a church may very well go find it in a bar.
Cheers featured a stellar ensemble cast, playing weird, wacky, wonderful characters. Like Sam, the former major league baseball player, ladies’ man, and recovering alcoholic who owns the bar. His old coach, now bartender, Ernie Pantusso—a simple, absentminded, whimsical old man who somehow always knows the best thing to do in a crisis. The waitresses, Diane and Carla. Diane is a perpetual graduate student who started waitressing at the bar after being jilted by her professor boyfriend. She often clashes with the working class single mother, Carla. Local mailman, and the bar’s resident know-nothing know-it-all, Cliff Clavin. And Norm, a chronically unemployed loser who hides from his wife every night at the bar. Whenever he shows up, everyone in the bar yells, Norm! It’s literally the one place on earth where everyone knows him, and is glad he’s there.
If it weren’t for that bar, none of these people would know each other. They wouldn’t be friends. But as different as they are, they find a way to fit together and contribute. They each bring a gift. Like Coach’s random bouts of wisdom. Or Diane—who can be awfully self-righteous—but also serves as Sam’s moral compass. Then there’s Carla’s sharp-tongued wit, which allows her to express unpleasant truths through jokes. Throughout the course of the show, you also get to know more about who the characters are. The know-it-all Cliff actually still lives with his mother, whom he’s supported financially since his father abandoned the family. Cheers is the only real social interaction he has. Norm hides from his wife at the bar, and makes insulting remarks about her. But you learn he’s really hiding from his sense of failure as a provider. And he loves her deeply, but doesn’t know how to express it.
So you have a community of weirdoes you learn to love. Who all bring valuable gifts, wrapped in strange packaging. Who’ve found a place to fit in. Who know each other and are glad to see each other. That’s Cheers—a bar. But in many ways, it resembles Paul’s vision for the church in Eph. 4.1-16. God meant the church to be a place where everybody knows each other by name; and we’re actually happy to be together.
Putting up with each other
The drama and comedy of Cheers comes from watching these very colorful, and very different, personalities learning to put up with each other to maintain order and fellowship in the bar. In Ephesians 4, Paul wants the same for the church. He knows it’s made up of loud and colorful and sometimes downright messy people. But he calls them to peace and fellowship for the sake of God’s mission for the church. We heard last week, from Ephesians 2, God’s plan is for the church to be a reconciled people for the healing of the world. So Paul called on the churches he served to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.
Paul says we live worthy of our calling from God when we conduct ourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. And when we accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. That means we’re a people who preserve the relationships among us, and who work to mend them whenever they break down. This requires effort on our part. Sometimes it’s hard and painful work. Yes, Paul says the Holy Spirit gives us the peace that ties us together. But he also says we have to make an effort to preserve [that] unity.
Paul says we do this by being patient and accepting each other in love. Another way of saying it is we put up with one another because we love each other. Paul knows whenever we’re dealing with other people, we’re going to hurt them and be hurt by them. We’re going to disagree about big things and small things. We’re going to disappoint each other. We’re going to get on each other’s nerves. Frustrate each other. Make each other mad. Let each other down. This happens in our homes, schools, sports teams, and office places. And it’s no different in the church.
The truth is, Jesus has given us high ideals to live up to. Read the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5 – 7—sometime. He tells us to be peacemakers, but he also calls us to tell the truth without apology. He tells us to be patient with others, not to judge them, and forgive them when they hurt us. He tells us to love our enemies and welcome strangers. None of that is easy. And we humans are so complicated, so messy, and we can be so weak. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we often don’t live up to those ideals.
But they’re hard so we can work toward them. And a good way of doing that is by starting with the Beatitudes, Matt. 5.3-12. There, we hear Jesus say God welcomes and honors the hopeless, the hurting, the helpless, and the hungry. That means being the church requires welcoming all those messy, complicated, weak people. People just like us.
The church has high ideals, but a very low bar in terms of entrance requirements. And Jesus looks at all of us needy, messy, hurting people and says: God destined [you] to be his adopted children through [me] because of his love (Eph. 1.5). And stunning as it is—knowing what a hot mess humans can be—God chose us as his children to share his love, grace, and mercy with the world. God called a heap of broken people to help him heal the wounds of the world. Or as Paul puts it in Eph. 1.10: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.
I have to tell you, my greatest healing has come through the church. But so have some of my deepest wounds and ugliest scars. I wish the only hurts we had to heal were the hurts of a hurting world, without God. If the church could just be a place to get away and take a break from all our worries, it sure would help a lot. But we’re human, and to be human is to fall short of the glory of God. We will annoy, frustrate, confuse, and wound each other, often without even meaning to. That’s why we must learn to accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties [us] together.
Paul says we can do this because we’re all members of one body, with Christ as our head. And that the body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. Each of us has a specific function in Christ’s body, working together to build up and strengthen and grow that body with love. Accepting each other with love is so much easier when we remember that we’re part of the same body. When your back hurts or your nose runs or you burn your finger, the rest of the body puts up with it, and you find a way to heal it because you need it. It’s the same with each of us in the church.
Paul also said Jesus has placed strategic members in his body, as gifts to everyone:
He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers ideally aren’t faceless bureaucrats who come from outside to discipline the body. They’re parts of the body. You know their name, and they know yours. You know each other’s stories. You know—and share—each other’s burdens. You’re glad to see them, and they’re glad you came. Also, they’re not the ones who are supposed to be doing all the work, making all the decisions, seeing all the visions, and bossing the rest of the body around. Their work is to equip each member for their own ministries. Because Paul also said: God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. Each one of us is a member of this body for a reason. Each one of us brings something special that is useful to the rest of the church. When we recognize that each of us is a necessary part of Christ’s body; each person not only has a gift, but is a gift; it’s so much easier to accept each other with love, with all humility, gentleness, and patience.
From Cheers to the church
So I think we see that the church has plenty to learn from Cheers. I also mentioned before, if people don’t find a fellowship in church where everybody knows your name; and they’re always glad you came; and where you can see our troubles are all the same; they may very well go find it in a bar. So how does Ephesians 4 help us find and preserve that kind of fellowship?
Eph. 4.1 encourages us to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. The Cheers theme song describes a place where: Everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. And where you can see our troubles are all the same. Here’s a secret: living worthy of our calling from God basically means being people who bring the Cheers theme song to life whenever we come together. If you can pull that off in a bar, surely you can pull it off in a church.
Sam, Coach, Diane, Carla, Cliff, Norm, and the other employees and patrons of Cheers came from very different backgrounds. They didn’t always agree, and sometimes they annoyed and even hurt each other. What bound them together wasn’t their personal feelings for each other at the moment. It was the life of the bar. It’s the same in the church. We’re working together for something outside of ourselves. Our common ground is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. The unity of the Spirit [is] the peace that ties [us] together.
One thing that becomes apparent when you watch Cheers is, even though Sam owns the bar, he doesn’t actually seem to be “in charge.” Coach, Carla, and Diane do most of the hands-on work of running the bar, but even they’re not “in charge.” The bar is what it is because of all the people who are there. Not just the owner or the staff. But also the regulars, the barflies. If it weren’t for Norm and Cliff, Cheers wouldn’t be what it is. It wouldn’t work. The folks on the barstools are just as necessary to the life of the bar as the employees and the management. It’s the same with the church. Jesus gives the church some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. As the minister of the Word here at Central, I kind of fit in there somewhere. But my job isn’t really to be “in charge.” It’s to equip [all of you] for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ. You want to know who the ministers of Central Church of Christ are? Look around. It’s you. All of you.
We’re all ministers in some way because God has given his grace to each one of us as a gift that is given by Christ. On Cheers, each bartender, waitress, and patron brought some gift that improved the life of the bar. It’s the same way in the church. But here’s where that gets messy. See, every gift comes with a corresponding drawback or weakness. On Cheers, Diane is often Sam’s conscience and she keeps him sober. But she’s also incredibly self-righteous sometimes. Carla calls people out when they’re not being honest, but her words are often sharp and biting. Here’s the thing about that—in the church, the things that we find most obnoxious or frustrating about each other are often just the downside to our spiritual gifts. Maybe the person who’s a bit of a control freak is also the one God sent to keep us organized. Maybe the person who’s good at coming up with ideas isn’t as gifted at organizing and implementing them. But guess what? We’re not going to get their gifts without also getting the dark side of those gifts. That’s why we all must learn to accept each other with love—or put up with each other because we love each other. If you’re having a hard time doing that, put up with them because Jesus loves them. On the flip side, each of us also needs to do our part to preserve the unity of the Spirit. That includes checking ourselves when we’re acting out of the dark side of our gifts.
Like Cheers, God calls the church to be a place where everybody knows your name. Not just your name, but your story; what you mean to the body of Christ. God wants the church to be a place where they’re always glad you came. And you’re glad you came, too. That’s why we make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties [us] together. And God envisions the church as a place where we all know our troubles are all the same. Or at least, we all have troubles, hurts, and weaknesses. When we acknowledge that, it’s easier for us to treat each other with all humility, gentleness, and patience; and accept each other with love.
When we begin to embody those values—knowing each other, being glad to see each other, giving each other grace and space to be ourselves—the church will find fellowship at least as colorful and compelling as Cheers. And it won’t even give us a hangover.