November 5, 2017

Into a Dwelling-place for God

Passage: Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, Ephesians 2:11 – 3:13, Matthew 23:1-12
Service Type:

In him (Jesus) 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.

In 1979 I had the privilege of travelling with a group to Egypt and Israel—to see the lands of the Bible. It was the first time I had travelled outside North America. I will never forget the bus ride from the airport to the hotel in Cairo. It was my first experience of culture shock. We were driving along a highway approaching a traffic light that was red. I expected the driver to soon apply the brakes and come to a stop. He didn’t—even though my right foot was pushing hard on the floor of the bus hoping to effect a stop. We flew right through the red light. And it became clear to me, as we made our way to the hotel, that I could never drive a vehicle in Cairo; there seemed to me to be no correspondence between what the traffic lights were signalling and the response of drivers.

For the month of July in 2003 I experienced the joy of a ministry exchange with a minister in Northern Ireland. One Sunday a family in this church invited Valerie and me to come for a meal following the morning worship service. There were fourteen people at this meal gathered around a large dining room table in their country home and way too much food. We ate too much but, thankfully, enjoyed a long walk with them in the countryside following the meal. It was later in the afternoon now and time to leave but our hosts insisted we stay for “tea.” Thinking like a Canadian, I pictured drinking a cup of tea and so we stayed. This is when I learned that “tea” in that part of the world is another meal. (I don’t think it was their intention to injure us with food.)

We take our culture with us wherever we go; those customs, habits, and practices that we consider normal. During the days when European powers colonized various parts of the world the culture of the colonizers was imprinted on the colony. The British Empire, for example, made its distinctive cultural mark on all of its colonies, including Canada. When you visit other former British colonies it has the feel of visiting cousins because of what is shared in our heritage. The United Church of Canada, for example, has a British flavour to its governance structure that, in many respects, parallels the parliamentary governance structure of Canada shaped by the British North America Act.

1. “So then,” writes the Apostle Paul, “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.”

According to the gospel every believer holds dual citizenship. Your earthly citizenship is one—the gospel recognizes we are in the world; this letter of Paul’s, for example, is to the church at Ephesus. The congregants are citizens of the city of Ephesus. The second citizenship is “with the saints.” We are citizens of another kingdom. The image used here is of building an edifice. The church is described as a holy temple; a dwelling-place for God.

Another image that speaks the same reality is that of concentric circles. The church as the dwelling-place of God is the place where the circle of heaven and the circle of earth intersect or overlap. The Apostle calls to mind the temple as an image for thinking about this reality. The temple Solomon built was the place where God promised his name would dwell, meaning the promise of his presence. (2 Chronicles 7:16) We remember what Jesus promised the church—“where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

In this gospel sense the believer has a foot planted in these two kingdoms or worlds. And the cultures of these two worlds are very different. As the church our weight in not to be evenly distributed; our weight is shifted onto the foot planted in the Kingdom of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. In a manner of speaking, the church exists to take the culture, customs, and practices of a place called heaven, and live them in a place called earth. The church we know as Central United exists to transform the place of worldly citizenship; leaving gospel footprints that inject into Unionville the culture of our future, eternal, heavenly reality.

The kingdom of heaven is the place of the new humanity that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus risen from the dead is the future human life for all who believe in him. It is the life where sin has been fully cleansed, evil banished, and love gives way to only more love. Thus all the hostilities of this present world are over. In this part of Paul’s letter he insists that in Jesus Christ “the dividing wall of hostility” has been crumbled. In the ancient world the highest wall (so high, in fact, that it could never be climbed over) was the wall separating Jew and Gentile. Because this “dividing wall of hostility” was utterly insurmountable it also represented any lesser wall that separated people from each other anywhere, for any reason (or no reason.) And precisely this wall, humanly insurmountable, God has broken down, says Paul, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now the wall doesn’t exist at all. And in place of the two hostile persons God has created one new person in Christ.

So as we shift our weight on to the foot planted in the world where this hostility is gone, we don’t want to reflect the world’s antagonisms back to the world, thereby making everything worse. We want to reflect the reality of Christ’s reconciliation into darkened corners where darkened people continue to think that assorted walls of hostility are still standing. It is with our weight on the foot in our Lord’s kingdom that we see that racial divisions are gone and we are to live that reality.

We want only to hold up reconciliation: God’s reconciliation with us and ours with our fellows – and all of this just because we know where reconciliation was first wrought and how it was wrought: namely, at a cross where the God we had offended and pained absorbed his pain in order to have us home again. In Christ we see our fellow human as someone for whom our Lord gave his life as he did for us. As the gospel makes its imprint in our lives we are to live Christ’s reality that dividing walls have disappeared.

2. It is important to point out that, according to the gospel, this ending of human hostility is in Christ Jesus; people being built into a dwelling-place for God is in Christ. The new humanity is said to be something our Lord creates in himself. There is someone who unites us—it is not unity for unity’s sake as if what we needed was simply to be a little more collegial. It is personal surrender to the one who calls us to himself and turns us to one another.

In our gospel reading today we read where Jesus said to his followers, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” God is to have a special place in our lives. Jesus occupies a role in our lives that is only for him.

I find that it is because my Saviour loves people of every race that I am convicted to jettison racial categorizations and prejudices. It is because I have one teacher that I can listen to my fellow human of different creed and be open to hear something my Lord might want to teach me through my fellow human. As we reflect we can see how the culture of the gospel from heaven informs our living in the present world.

3. Doctrinally speaking the Ephesian letter has much to say about the church. In our text for today we have been focussing on this image of the church as the dwelling place for God. It seems that the only time the church or religion makes the news today is when there is trouble or scandal. Religion is often cast as a problem not a solution to human ills. I was interested to read a recent report by Cardus titled Religion and the Good of the City; a report on the insights of research that could inform people on the socio-cultural good of religion.

One of the contributors was Dr. Ram Cnaan who directs the program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Policy & Practice. I found the opening remarks of his paper intriguing. He put his finger on what believers know as the gospel truth that when Jesus turns us to himself in faith he turns us to one another because we are joined in him.

Dr Cnaan writes, “The question of religion and the common good is not abstract and isn’t only of interest to religious people. My own experience is an important indicator of that. In my academic study of religious congregations, work I have been engaged in for more than twenty years, I have learned to appreciate things I never thought I would. I will begin with a confession. I wish I had faith in me and that I could be part of a community of faith.

I have five best friends, but they live across the globe, not in Philadelphia. Having a nearby community is a great privilege I do not possess. I envy what people of faith who are part of religious congregations have and I don’t. In a real community you know these people will be there for you—at whatever stage of life you are in. And I can’t join a congregation just for those benefits because faith is an essential part of it. Looking from the outside in, as a researcher, I watch and say: “This is beautiful.”

I want to underline for you the word “together” in the text we have been reflecting on: “in whom (Christ Jesus) you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.” Yes, faith is personal but it is not merely individualistic. In the gospel there is no such thing as a churchless Christian. In Christ Jesus walls of hostility that divide and isolate are broken down. Jesus turns us to be for one another. The culture of heaven is to be for each other and to be lived among us a God’s people. This is why, for example, our pastoral care visitation is vital—to keep people connected within the care of the church.

Now about Dr. Cnaan’s confession that he wished he had faith I would say, just say “yes.” Faith, according to the gospel, is encounter with God. Faith isn’t a ticket you need to join. Faith begins by trusting as much of yourself as you know of yourself to as much of God as you know of him. And that is often very little. In saying “yes’ to God’s call opens a world beyond our imagining.

One final note for our reflection. I am well aware that the church is not a gathering of the perfect—that we often contradict our calling as a dwelling-place for God. I point out that it isn’t us who renders the place fit for God. God renders us fit in the Son. Jesus is the one who is “fit” and we are included in him. We are the dwelling-place for God because God won’t abandon his people.

In him (Jesus) 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.