At the bottom of the Word document on which I am typing this sermon there is a facility that offers me the number of words typed (31 so far including a heading). Word counts are handy. They are used frequently by teachers and lecturers at University to guide students as to what they need to produce – how much or how little, and what is manageable for lecturers marking purposes (imagine reviewing 300 scripts!). Job applications also ask for word counts – no room for waffle, cut to the chase.
Which this morning is this: we have just three verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as our first reading –68 words in English, 51 in Greek – but you could fill books with what they mean, and people have.
What to do then? This morning I thought I’d simply pull out a few of Paul’s words and comment on them and then it’s up to you.
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens’. Who is Paul writing to? The Ephesians. And who are they? Well, they are primarily what Judaism would have called ‘gentiles’. The ancient distinctions were important. As far as Judaism was concerned these were the goyiim, the foreigners. But the distinction cut the other way too: for most of the Roman world the Jews were a bizarre nation that few could understand. As far as Jews were concerned Gentiles were definitely not God’s chosen people (with their strange ways and practices He wouldn’t want them anyhow) and ‘good’ Jews kept their distance. But, for Paul, these people (previously ‘beyond the boundaries’ of the Jewish Law through which God’s grace was known and experienced) these people had been brought into the household of God ‘through Jesus’. All divisions between people had been broken down and everyone approached God on equal terms: an incredible message for those who felt excluded, or unwanted but a hard message for those who felt that what they regarded as their privileges had been offered too freely to others.
You are no longer strangers and aliens? We often regard ‘the other person’ as a threat. Hard wired into what it is to be human is the need to feel safe: the unknown the different, threatens that. We teach ‘stranger danger’ to our children. Aliens? Well, the clue is in the word – they are unknown to us. But Paul goes on to say that these people (people formerly excluded) are now members of the household of God. They have rights: they are citizens in God’s kingdom. I say ‘they’ as if we here are the bona fide real deal Christians. But, of course, we’re not. We are newcomers to the people of God. We have a long heritage of our own but God had been at work with Israel for a thousand years and more before the faith came to our shores. So the lesson for us is ‘don’t deny others what you yourself have received’. Make room. Make room in the church of God for the unlikely, the unexpected, the person who does not ‘fit’ – others have already done the same for you.
This ‘household of God’ – let that phrase sink in…you’d feel ten foot tall if you worked in the Royal Household! Christians have been granted something even more precious – we belong in God’s household. This ‘household’ is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. Jesus Christ directs and shapes the church community which here Paul envisages as being like a living breathing building. I read something earlier this week that suggested that when the Christian faith found its way into the Roman world of the 1st century it had to find a way to inhabit culturally different understandings of what it meant to be a believer. Judaism, this author stated, is more concerned with what you do than with what you believe. The 1st Century Roman world was more interested in codifying and listing how society might operate. The result?- a church with statements of faith that Jesus himself might not recognise for all that they contain truth. But whilst you ponder that difference between cultural expressions of faith my point is this: I have always read those words (‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets’) in fairly static terms – the apostolic faith as being something you could write down and pass on, swear allegiance to. But we don’t know what the faith of ‘the apostles was’ do we? We have Paul’s writings, some bits and pieces from others. And as for the prophets? Who are they? Is Paul referring to the prophets at the back end of the Old Testaments – possibly? But what does it mean for the household of God to be built on their words? – or is Paul referring to the more dynamic activity of the prophets of his day, the people speaking words of prophecy that he mentions to have existed in the early church (and we might say still exist within the church now) ?
In our readings after Pentecost you might recall John’s gospel offering us Jesus’ words to his disciples where he told them that there was much they couldn’t grasp or understand but that the Spirit would lead them into all truth. Maybe that’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets? To be open to God’s leading in mission (after all, the apostles are by definition those ‘sent out’) and to be engaged with the community (the prophets’ role being to discern what God is up to in the present and how to respond). There’s a challenge for us here isn’t there?
And then on we go into verse 21 where we are told that ‘in him (Christ)’ everyone who is part of the church grows together into a holy temple in the Lord. We are always in the process of ‘becoming’. The person you are today is not the same as the one you were this time last year…or ten years ago. There is continuity but always, always change. As the church of God we, in these verses, are caught up in the creation of something new, always alive, always shifting as new members join, new gifts are discerned, new opportunities seized. This all takes place ‘in Him’ – this can’t be emphasised enough. He is the one that connects us. Many of us may have similar interests or outlooks in life but these things are incidental to us being church: we would still be church even if we disagreed about everything other than this one thing ‘that Jesus is Lord’. Jesus acts as the ‘oil in the machine’. He is the one that holds us together – like the mortar of a building he is the one that creates a separation between us that actually enables us to live together in community. We always meet one another ‘in Christ’.
And what is God doing? He is building a ‘spiritual temple’, a dwelling place for God. Imagine that. This community, the local church, the worldwide church with all of its strangeness-es is being formed into a place in which God dwells. The ancient world knew all about temples. In Ephesus there were plenty. In Jerusalem there was one. These places were places where the divine could be encountered. But in Jesus, God dwells in the church community – our purpose is to show this. Yes, we meet him in this place…but Paul isn’t talking about church buildings – the whole idea of a church building would have been alien to him. Yes, we can meet him in each and every place: there is no place where God is not…but Paul is not here talking about ‘’geography’ but rather, he is talking about a divinely inspired ‘community’. Whether we realise it or not, that is what God is doing with us- building us into a ‘dwelling place’ for God.
So much in just a few verses. 68 words in English…and the word count says 1461 now, so maybe it is time to stop.
‘No longer strangers and aliens’ – that’s good news: we are now known, we belong…and we are called to help others belong too.
‘Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’: ours is a faith that is living, is dynamic, is outward looking and seeks to explore what God is doing in the here and now amongst us and around us. Ours is a gospel for the whole world, no area of life falls outside God’s concern.
‘Built into a holy temple in the Lord’ – set aside (that’s what holy means) to become a dwelling place for God. We have a very high calling and we all have a part to play in fulfilling it…in Christ.
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