A Gift to University Hill Congregation
| Ephesians 2:19-22
||Sun, July 14, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Given to University Hill Congregation
to mark our shared completion of the
Doctor of Ministry degree
from Columbia Theological Seminary
July 14, 2002
This text is my gift to you. For a long while now I have been pondering an appropriate way to say thank-you to you and to mark the shared learning of these past four years. I wanted to find something that I could give to each one of you - personally - as well as to all y’all. At some point I realized that the old tradition of giving a biblical text as a gift would be worth recovering. So I went in search of just the right one. Of course, when it comes to texts the Bible has no shortage of possibilities. I wasn’t sure where to begin. On second thought, I knew exactly where to begin but it seemed too obvious. I remembered that first trip to Columbia Seminary in October 1998 and the two week intensive entry into the ‘Gospel & Culture’ specialization of the Doctor of Ministry degree. One of the surprising discoveries of that initial journey was the letter to the Ephesians. Now, four years later, I returned to Ephesians looking for a text. Oh, I kept looking elsewhere, too. Just to be sure. But Ephesians seems to recapitulate our mutual learning and to beckon us forward. This is our convocation. Do you hear it there - con/vocation? It is our commissioning to vocation - to a calling in the world. And my gift to each of you and to all y’all on this day of our mutual calling are these three verses and two sentences from Ephesians.
“So then you’all are no longer strangers and aliens, but you’ll are citizens with the saints and also member s of the household of God”. The text is all about identity. It is about gaining clarity about who we are. It reminds me of a quotation from “Missional Church, a seminal book in these D.Min. studies for us: “The purpose of missional communities is to be a source of radical hope, to witness to the new identity and vision, the new way of life that has become a social reality in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The persistent problem is not how to keep the church from withdrawing from the world, but how to keep the world from distracting the church from its purpose of cultivating the people of God” (p. 153). That’s what we’ve been seeking - the new way of life that is to be lived in the household of God. We have been slowly but surely learning that here we do not welcome newcomers to “our church.” Instead, we have been discovering that all of us come as strangers and aliens, foreigners and immigrants to the ways of God’s kingdom come. This is not “our church.” We do not possess it. This is the household of God, the realm in which God’s peculiar ways are to be revered and practiced. Here we invite each other to a life no longer as strangers and aliens, consumers and achievers, outcasts and despairers. At the font and table we are given a new identity. Here we die to the measuring sticks of the world - success, education, income, status - and are born again as citizens and members of the Lord’s household where the last and the least are first. This happens person by person, story by story, year by year. Each of us comes to this new identity differently. Each has our own testimony about the ways in which we discover that we belong in the household of God. Yet that testimony is, finally, not so much a personal as it is a communal story. The ‘you’ in these texts - as we have learned - is always a plural “you’all”. Christian identity is not singular, it is communal. In the relationships of community we discover the truth about ourselves: that - for all our differences, for all our troubled pasts and presents - we are not a collection of individuals who happen to worship in the same place at the same time. No. We have become a people when we are together and when we are apart.
“...built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Notice how different this text sounds when we don’t own a building. We have seen the construction of many church edifices, many cathedrals - even our own new church in the middle of the last century. And those buildings have often deluded us into trusting that the church rests on concrete, on financial reserves, on the hard work of our hands and on our bake sales and bazaars and programs and meetings. But Ephesians is written before anyone has ever imagined a church as a building. It assumes that a church is a social movement, an underground alternative to the status quo. Its foundation is not bricks and mortar or budgets and programs. Its foundation is a surprising and daring message. The church rests on “the apostles and the prophets.” Apostles are messengers. Prophets are truth-tellers. Apostles and prophets dare to open their mouths and risk their status, sometimes their lives on a counter-cultural message called “gospel”. This “good news” is not a generic version of what life is all about. It is not an intuitive spirituality or a universal language of love. We have seen what happens to the church when it is tempted to believe otherwise. We have seen the church unable to resist the temptation of relevance. Rather than being grounded in the strange message of the messengers and truth-tellers, the church has often placed its trust in the accepted wisdom of its age. Soon the gospel has been reduced to a kind of warm and fuzzy niceness. It loses the high voltage shock of its claim that the God revealed on the cross calls a people to die to the ways of the world in order to be born into the new ways of God’s household. Go to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and they will tell you that the church rests on apostles like Papa and Mama King and on prophets like their boy Martin. Go to the Open Door Community in Atlanta and they will tell you that the household rests on the daring witness of Murphy and Ed. Go to the L’Arche home in Burnaby and they will tell you that Jean is the messenger and truth-teller who is the ground of their life. Yet in all of these communities they will also tell you that the key is not Martin or Murphy or Jean but Jesus Christ.
“... with Christ Jesus himself as the keystone.” Actually most English translations of the Bible call Jesus the “cornerstone”. So I was a bit surprised to discover that the word in Greek is “keystone”. Both terms refer to an essential piece of the building. Perhaps since we rarely use “keystones “ - the final stone in an archway - the translators assume that substituting “cornerstone” - the stone from which the walls take their bearings - makes good sense. But, do you see, if the foundation of the community is the daring and provocative message of the apostles and prophets then Christ is not the base ... he is the key that holds everything together. Without Jesus at the crucial centre of the life of a Christian community the whole thing collapses. It seems so obvious to say and yet the church often imagines that it can live without Jesus as the keystone. For some churches that means hardly every mentioning Jesus ... and certainly not his death and resurrection. For others it means talking a lot about Jesus ... but not much about the new ways that his disciples live. For us the centrality of Jesus is critical. As the Official Board met this week it discussed our hopes for the future of this congregation. At the heart of the conversation was a desire to grow as a living disciple of Jesus Christ. This is key, it is what holds all our differences together.
“In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord: in whom you’ll also are built together in the Spirit ...” In him ... in the Lord ... in whom you ... in the Spirit. The text says that to be a member of the household of God, to be in the church is to be a participant in something that is being joined together and growing into something and being built together. This has not always been the case. We have known times in the church when the whole structure has been falling apart and been deconstructed and been absent of the presence of the Lord. In fact, that seems to be the case these days in plenty of churches in North America. The edifice of the church may still be standing, but the community of the church seems to be disjointed, uninspired, coming apart. Yet there are signs - increasing signs - that we are entering a period of growth. The Spirit seems to be coming back into the church, even as the structures that we have come to know crumble. We feel that here. There is something intangible and yet no less real about the energy and enthusiasm and commitment that flows in our communal veins these days. We are, to our surprise, being built together in the Spirit. But for what purpose, being built for what?
“... into a dwelling place for God.” Here is the mystery at the heart of our life. We are growing into a “holy temple in the Lord”. The temple, of course, is the resting place of the ark of the covenant - the presence of the Holy of Holies - a dwelling place for God. The church is being built together in Christ so that God might dwell in it. One suspects that the current emptiness in many church pews is directly related to the sense that God is absent as well. We come hoping - praying - that we might find something more here than the same old same old. We hope and pray that we will enter a place where we hear and see, taste and touch the presence of God. Notice this about the gift that I am giving you - this text has a wonderfully ambiguous ending. You’all are being built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God. You’all are to make room in this community for the one who is regularly ignored and forgotten in a world that idolizes that which is not holy. This making room for God begins with the act of making room to wait upon the Word - to be built upon the truth of the astounding message. Then this making room leads to the practice of hosting those who are regularly ignored and forgotten. In offering hospitality to strange texts and to the lives of strangers we find, to our continued amazement, that we welcome the presence of God into the church. May it be so. Amen.