Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Ephesians 2:11-22
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. (Ephesians 2:19-20)
This will come as no surprise to any of you, I’m sure …
Friends, our world is a mess. In fact, things seem messy just about any place you care to look: Palestine. Israel. Syria. India. Afghanistan. Washington, D.C. … Calgary, Alberta. British Columbia is on fire. The COVID-19 pandemic still rages out of control in the developing world, while many in rich nations stubbornly refuse vaccination. Where church-run residential schools once stood, unmarked graves belie our supposed devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are problems everywhere—problems on the ground; problems in the air we breathe; problems in the ocean. Political tension. Racism. Sexism. Rottenness at the core of our most cherished institutions.
Have you ever heard of the “Doomsday Clock”? It’s a symbol representing the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. The clock has been maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and it displays their opinion about the threat of human extinction. Today, it is set at 100 seconds to midnight.* Midnight being … well … doomsday.
We have war, famine, plague and pestilence. We have discord within our society and conflict between nations.
In every major city, we have gang warfare in the streets and homeless people on the streets. Concurrent with the lingering pandemic, we have an ever-metastasizing opioid crisis—and our health care systems are staggering under the weight of it all.
Yep. This world of ours is a mess. Many believe that things will only get worse. Some commentators have observed that the troubles in this world—be they environmental troubles, or people-related troubles—have intensified in recent years, and they see no indication that things will improve.
Then, there are other people who will argue that the world has always been a mess, but that people do find ways to cope and carry on. We may not be able to fix our problems, they say, but education and diplomacy will prevent our problems from overwhelming us. And keep the Doomsday Clock from striking twelve.
However, there is another perspective. It is suggested in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: this world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan.
This world of ours is a mess, but God is offering a solution—and the solution is us! This world of ours is a mess, but we can make things better. We … being … the Church.
Yes. The Church. Us. We can make things better. Given our institutional history, that’s hard to believe. But God tells us it is so. We are the Church, and the Church is the means whereby Christ functions in this world.
Moreover, the Church is not “Plan B”—it has always been “Plan A.” As Paul reminded the Ephesians, God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). God has always had a purpose for us. We are part of a grand, cosmic plan. As the Church, we are the channel through which Jesus Christ is to be glorified in this world.
One of Paul’s favorite metaphors is the Church as “the body of Christ.” As the body of Christ, we have a unique relationship to Jesus, who is our Head.
And here’s the thing: all of the power that belongs to the Head has been made available to the rest of the body. With this divine power at the Church’s disposal, surely we can make a difference in this world!
It’s a pretty good analogy: as the head directs the human body, so Christ directs his body, the Church. And now, here—in Ephesians, chapter two—Paul introduces a new group of metaphors to make this point. Paul relates the identity of the Christian: first, to a nation; secondly, to a household; and thirdly, to a building.
Prior to entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ, you and I were contributing to the mess in this world. Paul says that we were “strangers” and “aliens” (2:19); that is to say, we had no concern for the nation—or kingdom—of God. But now, Paul says that we are “citizens” of God’s kingdom—we are a part of God’s plan to transform the world.
Moving the analogy further along, Paul identifies us more intimately with God by explaining that we belong to God’s “household” (2:19).
This progression is significant because, if we were merely citizens, we might imagine that our participation in God’s purposes was based entirely upon duty.
As citizens, we might abide by the laws of God because that is our duty as loyal subjects. However, belonging to God’s household is an entirely different matter. That makes us members of God’s family! And as family members, we soon discover the privilege and joy of working for our heavenly Father.
The third metaphor—that of a building—may initially strike us as a rather impersonal comparison. But we quickly realize that this is no ordinary building.
Paul explains that this building is comprised of individual Christians who are connected to one another. Paul says we are being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:20).
Now, Paul is not saying that “the apostles and the prophets” themselves are the foundation. He is saying that the apostles and prophets—through their proclamation of Christ—have laid the foundation. Christ himself is the cornerstone.
What is a cornerstone? In the sense that Paul means it, the cornerstone is that one stone that binds all of the other stones together. In the same way that the body depends upon the head, the strength of the building—and the usefulness of each stone—depends upon the cornerstone.
The imagery in this second chapter is so rich! Here’s something else to notice: the Church is not a completed edifice, but one that Paul says is “joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21). Hear that? We’re growing! We’re a building that grows! Even though Paul has moved from the metaphor of a body to the metaphor of a building, he does not want us to lose sight of the fact that the Church is like a living organism. We are like a temple that is alive.
You know, I think Paul must have had a conversation about this with the apostle Peter, because this was one of Peter’s favorite images. In his first epistle, Peter says we are like “living stones” that are being “built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). The reason the building can grow—the reason the building is alive—is that it is built from “living stones.” And so, it is as “living stones” that we are “growing into a holy temple.”
“A holy temple.” A house for God. That’s what we are—a dwelling place for God, the place where God’s glory is revealed and made apparent. Wow! That’s amazing, isn’t it?
God’s plan is to build us into his temple. God’s presence is not contained within a church building. No. God’s presence resides within the living stones that have been fitted together and connected to the cornerstone, Jesus Christ. God’s presence resides in us!
To put it another way, the Christian Church is the vehicle for God’s presence. The Christian Church is the means whereby the spiritual Christ functions in a physical world.
We do not go to church; we are the Church! Church is not someplace we go; Church is what we are.
This new identity of ours begs the question: if you and I, as living stones, comprise God’s holy temple, what should we be doing?
First of all, as living stones, we must stay connected to Christ. We find our proper place and usefulness within the building only in relation to Christ’s position as the cornerstone. As Jesus said, using yet another metaphor, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me … bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). For this reason, we must make every effort to remain connected to the Lord.
Secondly, as living stones, we must stay connected to one another. Many so-called Christians today believe that they can get along just fine without ever belonging to a community of faith. This is a huge mistake. If you believe that, then you have fundamentally misunderstood God’s purpose for us.
As living stones, we are not meant to exist in isolation. A stone in isolation is useless. In fact, a living stone, detached from the rest of the building, is not only useless, but it is also a tragic waste. It makes a travesty of God’s purposes.
The grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God has positioned you and me to be living stones, fitted into a spiritual building. And, again, this building is changing.
This building … that we are … is growing. Together we are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” Therefore, we must make every effort to remain connected to one another. And finally, since we are no ordinary building, since we are meant to be “a holy temple,” since we are meant to display the glory of God within this troubled world, we must make every effort to lead holy lives. If we, as living stones, comprise God’s holy temple, let us not defile it—either with our words or through our actions.
One of the implications of being fitted together in this way is that your sin is not just your sin; your blemish is the Church’s blemish. The defilement of one part defiles the whole body. We’ve seen that truth demonstrated many times in our history: crusades, witchcraft trials, sex scandals, genocidal complicity … The misbehaviour of even one member can harm the reputation of the entire Church.
This is a sober message Paul is giving us—and a profoundly challenging one. How we behave matters because the Church is the means whereby the spiritual Christ functions in this world. As someone has said, Jesus has no hands and feet but ours. And you and I … we really might just be the only gospel someone else ever reads.
Yes, this world is a mess, but God has a plan—and we are part of it.
If we stay connected to the Head of the Church, which is Jesus Christ; if we are joined to the cornerstone; we can make a positive difference. United with Christ—and with our fellow Christians—we can be a blessing to the world which Jesus loved and for whose people he gave his life. Let us resolve, this day, to do exactly that. Through the power and presence of God within us, we surely can … as we move forward into the future.
Let the people of God say, “Amen.”