Sunday 22 July 2018

The Household of God

In today’s 2nd reading (Ephesians: 2:11-22), Paul addresses the Ephesian Christians 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 brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

What sort of people were the Ephesians Paul was writing to? In his 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. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited 30 years ago – including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators, and a massive public library!

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 surely Jews like himself. 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 Gentile 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.

Clearly, by the time Paul wrote his letter the Ephesian Christians were overwhelmingly Greek speaking gentiles.

Paul believes in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached with the old faith of the Jews.
He reminds the Ephesians 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. 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 tradition, 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 here 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’.

The Church, ‘the household of God’, is like a building, says Paul.
This lovely, suggestive metaphor is an alternative to the more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in his 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 housing estates 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.

Can we recognise today’s Church 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, a place where the architect’s plans have been ignored? Maybe we need to take lessons in construction!

Even if we can’t feel proud of the Church we see about us today, we should not be fearful for its future. We should listen, to what the prophet Nathan says to King David in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 7:1-14). Nathan advises David that the time is not yet right to build the Lord God a great Temple to live in. God is content to live in the portable tabernacle inside a tent which the children of Israel have carried with them since the Exodus. But, says Nathan, your offspring shall build such a Temple. David’s son Solomon was to build the first Temple in Jerusalem, we are told, but that of course was destined to be destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again.

Perhaps it does not matter so much that the Church does not yet live up to Paul’s vision of the holy temple, because it is what it always has been - a work in progress, one that is being built generation by generation - by us, by our children, by our children’s children, and by generations yet to come.

What does matter, though, is that we are all members of God’s household, whoever we are, wherever we come from, and however we worship. We are the Church, in all our glorious variety, founded on the apostles and the prophets, with Jesus Christ as our corner stone.

Sunday 8 July 2018

How to train apostles

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th July 2018, the Sixth after Trinity

What begrudgery the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus in the first part of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (6:1-13)!
The people of his home town took offence at him when he taught in the synagogue there, saying, ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ So, they could not receive his saving message, ‘and he was amazed at their unbelief’. Begrudgery hurts not just the one begrudged, but the one begrudging.

But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the Gospel reading, about how Jesus sent the Twelve out by themselves, two by two. The same story is told in slightly different words by both Matthew and Luke.

The Twelve have been chosen and called specially by Jesus. They have given up everything to follow him. They have watched as he carried out his travelling ministry. Now Jesus decides the time is right to send them off by themselves, on a training exercise to prepare them for their future role as apostles – the Greek word apostle literally means ‘one who is sent out’.

The story conjures up the memory of the training exercises I took part in as a member of the School Corps – they were called manoeuvres. We went off in a bus, in battledress with boots and spats, with a packed lunch, a map and a compass. We were dropped off in pairs at different grid-references with instructions to march across country to rendezvous at another grid-reference some miles away where we would find our tea. I’m much too bolshy to make a good soldier. But I did learn one useful lesson – a map is completely useless if you do not know where you are!

Jesus gives the Twelve precise instructions as he sends them off.
Their task is to practice what they have seen Jesus do, to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near, to call people to repent, and to heal the sick. And to bolster their confidence he gives them ‘authority over the unclean spirits’, which were then believed to cause illness.

They are to travel light - to take with them just the minimum they need, a staff, sandals and a single tunic – no food, no bag to carry stuff, no money, no spare clothes. They must rely entirely on the hospitality of the people and the villages that they meet. That means of course that they will have to look outward, to constantly engage with others around them.

And they are to avoid any confrontation. If people in a place do not welcome them and offer traditional hospitality they must simply leave, ‘shak(ing) off the dust that is on (their) feet as a testimony against them’. This is what pious Jews did when they returned after visiting an unclean gentile village so as not to pollute Jewish soil. I wonder if Jesus did the same as he left his home town of Nazareth, amazed at the unbelief he found there.

Mark tells us that they did as Jesus asked them. ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.’ And when they came back, they ‘told (Jesus) all that they had done and taught’ – in other words Jesus de-briefed them. No doubt the Twelve learned important lessons from the whole exercise. And no doubt Jesus too would have understood their individual strengths and weaknesses much better.

We shouldn’t forget that one of the Twelve was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus. I wonder which of the others went out with him. And I wonder how Judas scored on the training exercise.

Jesus calls a specially chosen few of his disciples to be Apostles.
Apostles are those that are called to give up everything else to follow Jesus, and to travel light as they continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. They’re not perfect – they share our common human faults and weaknesses, as the Twelve did. The difference between them and us is the gift of their call. The rest of us Christians have other gifts and are called to different forms of discipleship. And as St Paul had the insight to see, our gifts as well as theirs are necessary to build up the body of Christ, which is the Church.

St Paul was called to be an apostle on the road to Damascus, when suddenly he saw a great light and heard the voice of Jesus. Perhaps it is this experience that he recalls in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, when he writes about being ‘caught up to the third heaven’. He refrains from talking about this – it was after all a private vision he received.

Instead he tells us about 'a thorn ... given (him) in the flesh'. We do not know what this was, but it must have been painful and debilitating. Paul believes this thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, was to remind him of his weakness. When he asked the Lord to take it away, the Lord told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’.

‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ’, says Paul, ‘for whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. I think this must be the common experience of all apostles: that when they are weak they are strong. They are given the grace by God to understand that they can achieve nothing through their own strength, but only through God working in and through them. And surely this is a lesson the Twelve learned, when Jesus sent them out two by two without supplies.

At their ordination, the presiding Bishop exhorts every priest ordained in the Church of Ireland in these formal words:
‘We trust that … you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service … that you will devote to him your best powers of mind and spirit’.
All ordained clergy in the Church of Ireland make this commitment to give up other lives they might have led, to follow Jesus and devote their lives to his service. Our Rector made that commitment. It has brought him and Rosemary to minister to us, far away from their family, their new grandchild, and their friends in Northern Ireland.

The ministry of priests is an apostolic ministry which we need to receive. We do not always give our clergy the recognition they deserve. We should give thanks for them and for their commitment both to the ministry of Jesus Christ and to us, often at great personal cost to themselves.

Let me finish with a Collect of the Word:
O Lord our God,
you are always more ready
to bestow your gifts upon us than we are to seek them;
and more willing to give than we desire or deserve:
in our very need,
grant us the first and best of all your gifts,
the Spirit who makes us your children. Amen