Sunday 20 February 2011

Members of God's household

The 3rd of 5 addresses I am giving on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 20th February 2011, the 3rd before Lent.

Today we take the 3rd of 5 bites at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Taken as a whole the letter is, I think, the finest expression of Paul’s vision for his churches. It is an answer to the question, ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s Church’.

In the 1st and 2nd bites we reflected on the themes ‘We must start with Christ!’, and ‘In Jesus Christ, God is saving us by grace through faith for good works’.

This Sunday we look at the 2nd half of chapter 2, and a bit of chapter 3 (Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:8-13). The theme is ‘We are all members of God’s household, which is Christ’s church’.

What sort of people were the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote?
In Paul’s time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city is. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited it 20 years ago, including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators - still used for concerts.

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were Jews like himself no doubt – Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

By the time Paul wrote his letter it is clear the Ephesian church was overwhelmingly Greek.

Paul addresses the Ephesians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’
Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were traditionally brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

Paul believes absolutely in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached, with the old faith of the Jews. He reminds the Ephesian Gentiles that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the staggering change that Christ brings to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or traditions, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us in Nenagh today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our town, our country, is increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.

Paul goes on to describe the Church as being built like ‘the household of God’.
The Church as a building is a lovely, suggestive metaphor. It is an alternative to the slightly more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in the letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘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’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new Dublin housing estates have recently discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrites rock swelled and cracked. The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Is today’s church recognisable in Paul’s description? Or do we see instead a building site with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, where the architect’s plans have been ignored? I rather think we all need some lessons in construction!

We are all members of God’s household, which is Christ’s church - whoever we are, wherever we come from!
Paul believed that by God’s grace he was chosen ‘to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God’.

God’s plan, in Paul’s words, is ‘that through the church’ – through God’s household, of which we are all members – ‘the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known … in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

This is the heavy responsibility we bear as Christians, as members of God’s household, built into Christ’s church – to make known the wisdom of God in all its rich variety.

Let us pray through ‘Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him’, that we may together play the parts God has given us in his plan as he intends we should play them.

Eternal God and Father,
whose Son at supper prayed that his disciples might be one,
as he is one with you:
draw us closer to him,
that in common love and obedience to you
we may be united to one another
in the fellowship of the one Spirit,
that the world may believe that he is Lord
to your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There are printed copies of the first 3 addresses at the back of the church, if you missed any or want to look back at them. But there’s no substitute for reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself, so you might like to read a chapter or so of Ephesians each week to keep pace with me. If you want to read ahead we will be looking at Ephesians 4:22-5:14 next Sunday, with the theme ‘In God’s household we must be kind and forgiving and live like children of light’.

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