The Unity in the Body
“Peace to those who are far off and those who are near. You are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God…a holy temple in the Lord, with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone” (elements of verses 20-22)”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks in lofty words about the Church, and how it is the community of all God’s People, seeking to live into God’s plan for peace and reconciliation in the world.
We’re going to dig into this Ephesians passage a bit this morning, and to start us off, I’m going to reread the Ephesians passage that (___) read this morning, in a different translation… here from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s dynamic paraphrase of the bible.
11-13 But don’t take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once “out of it” altogether are “in on” everything.
14-15 The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.
16-18 Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.
19-22 That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
I find this passage rather fresh to my ears, especially in a world right now where people seem so far apart from each other…. Where we speak of Aliens and exiles. Where different cultures clash and where we are wrestling with who is an insider and who is an outsider.
Here, we find Paul speaking about how God is taking insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, and knitting them together into one Body. As Christians, we have often heard the language that the body is the temple of the holy spirit, or that the church is the household of God. But you’ve got to remember how radical this sounded to people in Paul’s day. The temple had been, up until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ad, the primary sacred location of Jewish faith. Most of the temple area was set aside for Jews alone, who had to go through purification rituals to enter. It was a place you travelled to on pilgrimage. It was a sacred space. Wholly Other and Outside. Not to be defiled by gentiles or strangers. It was the primary place where God dwelt.
What Paul is saying here in this passage is extraordinary. Because of what Jesus did, in breaking down the walls between Gentile and Jew, we are, together, ourselves, being built into a temple for God. Jesus is the cornerstone, and built on the foundation of the apostles – Jesus’ followers, and prophets- the Old Testament teachers, we form a household where God is pleased to dwell now. We don’t travel TO God, God comes and lives IN US and WITH US. Not just individually, but as a community.
Paul makes it sound easy, but it was not. Gentiles and Jews were radically different in so many ways. Language, custom, eating habits, ways of looking at the world. Both groups had been conditioned to think down on the other. There were major prejudices, suspicion, and even hatred between the groups.
Have we, as Christians gotten over everything that divides us? Unfortunately, no. Over the centuries there always seem to be things that divide us both as people in society and in churches. Race, Culture, Political viewpoints, theological interpretations. Divisions and disagreements continue in the church today, ranging from worship style to different viewpoints on social issues, to which ministries get funded and pursued.
But God’s plan is to bring peace. Not a tense peace, but a peace where even in our differences we are brought together, and together, build strength.
Each of us is a sinner redeemed by grace. When we understand the radical nature of Christ’s salvation and love, Christians know that we are not in a position to judge.
In fact, because we all fall short of God’s ideal, we know we need each other. Others in the household of God, and even those in the secular world, can help open our eyes to ideas and needs that we are blinded to, and find a way forward in peace. If we all thought the same way, the church that God is building stone by stone would look more like a square cinderblock building…. No personality. Grey and plain. But God is a much better architect than that.
Paul says that Jesus has brought peace and reconciliation. Peace to those who are far off and Peace to those who are near to God. And Peace between the two.
The earliest followers of Jesus looked so different from other faiths and groups because they were a radically inclusive community, bringing together race and gender, custom and language, rich and poor.
There’s a song we sometimes sing in church, called “One Bread, One Body.” It sums up this idea well.
“One bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many, throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord.
- Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more.
- Many the gifts, many the works, one in the Lord of all. One bread, one body..”.
One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that it is a “Big Tent” church, where we bring people together of many different backgrounds and perspectives. And as I heard at our Strength to Strength Strategic Planning session this past Wednesday, many of you would love to have even more visible diversity here at St. Michael’s… We may be diverse in ages and political views and in economic status, but we’d love St. Michael’s to be more racially and ethnically diverse, to reflect the growing diversity in our neighborhoods.
Still, such radical inclusion is not easy. We know it can be difficult in the world. But sometimes it can be difficult within the church. How can we be built together in a household of God when you might not agree with ideas and perspectives of the person sitting next to you in church? How do you really love someone even if you disagree with the choices they’ve made or the lifestyle they live?
Unfortunately, our world teaches us to settle for a tense tolerance, avoiding conflict. Either that, or blasting people or ideas with Facebook or Twitter rants. But assuming none of you are ranters, the problem with muzzled tolerance is that we don’t share the fullness of our thoughts and beliefs, nor do we really try to understand others’ ideas. In such incidences, it’s hard to get knit together, or to fully engage with the other in common mission because of suspicion or wariness. If we don’t engage each other, we don’t offer each other the opportunity to grow.
But there can be another way.
I had a woman at my last church pray every Sunday during the prayers of the people that “a spirit of compassion grow in our country and in the world.” Compassion is a way forward.
Compassion literally means to “suffer with”. To seek to be with someone in such a way that you can empathize with them, not agree with them, but get to a point where you can see how they, with their experience, and world view, might hold their ideas, and you can see what causes them concern. More importantly, compassion is being with someone in a way that you can exude God’s love for them.
Compassion is a love and caring that goes beyond ideas or viewpoints.
Practically, compassion is lived out in community in several ways:
First – In Prayer. Pray for those you feel the furthest from – not that they change their mind, necessarily, but that God bless them. As I’ve shared before, one of the most powerful prayers in human relationships is “God, Bless them, change me. Bless them. Change Me.” I know many people who have prayed this prayer when dealing in a conflicted relationship, and they have found themselves more open, more loving, and the other person no longer is a source of pain or discomfort for them. When we pray God’s best for others, and we realize that God knows the ways we, ourselves need to be changed, we find our hearts are less hardened towards others.
Secondly – Unashamedly, when we find ourselves thinking differently about something, present your own ideas and your own positions, from a place of conviction AND humility. What does that mean? Don’t shy away from your own ideas, even if you know others don’t agree. Use “I” language to state your ideas or feelings, Avoid “You” language or absolute language that marginalizes others. (You always this, or You Never that), for example. In compassion, seek to understand others points of view, without being dismissive or combative. It means being open to hearing others as well, and maybe finding you learn something.
Sometimes, we’re not in a position where we really can engage in a full blown discussion of a difference… the timing is not right. But, if we keep quiet, our friend or conversation partner may think we agree. Our silence speaks consent. Brian McLaren, author and theologian, offers a way forward. He says, when you hear someone – whether a co-worker, or friend, or neighbor, or even someone in the church, say something that you disagree with, especially about another group of people, like those of another faith tradition, or another race or culture, simply jump in long enough to say, “I just want you to know, I think differently about that.” If they try to engage you at that point, you don’t need to go down that path right then. You can say, “we can talk about that some other time… I’m enjoying being with you and listening, but I just wanted you to know that I think differently about that issue.” You are staying in relationship, but also being authentic to your values.
Thirdly – Compassion is shown as we Impute the best motives to others. Each of us carry a mix of motivations for our actions and beliefs. Some are self-centered – we are all sinners after all – but many of them are because that is what we legitimately feel is best for the church, the country, or the world. We can say such things as “help me understand…” Understanding that we may approach the same issues in different ways, we can still be open to hearing and seeking to understand those different ideas and approaches.
Compassion is the mortar that holds each brick, each stone, each person together into the Holy Temple God is building. There are no strangers or aliens in God’s household. Each brick builds on the others or serves as a foundation for the other. The variety of our experiences and our ideas make the architecture of God’s temple beautiful and soaring. Person by person, community by community, stone by stone, God is building us all into His temple, founded on his Son Jesus, where God’s Spirit dwells.
*Eph 2:11-22: Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 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. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.