How do you build a house? For most of human history the answer has been, stone by stone, brick by brick, log by log. You have to start at the bottom and build up. Or you start with a frame and fill it in. Or you start with a plan and make it happen.
How do you build a house? I think this is the image that the Apostle Paul is playing with in the section of the letter of Ephesians that we read today. Look at the words he uses. Christ is the cornerstone. The apostles and the prophets are the foundation. You are members of the household. In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord—a dwelling place for God.
How do you build a house? You have materials that are put together—brick and mortar, stone and cement, logs and filler. You can’t have materials that are like oil and water if you are trying to build something that lasts. And it seems that the church at Ephesus was behaving as if they were made of oil and water—or worse, oil and vinegar. There were certainly two sides. Those who had been Jewish before becoming Christian, and those who had been Gentile before becoming Christian. And one thought they were better than the other.
But Paul says no. Paul thinks that in Christ the dividing wall between Jewish and Gentile has come down; the dividing wall between circumcised and uncircumcised has come down; the dividing wall between being an alien and being part of the family has come down. It reminds me of the famous quote from Paul’s letter to Galatia “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)
As a writer for Seasons of the Spirit says, “The church is called to be an extraordinary place, a place of inclusion and reconciliation, where divisions are demolished, strangers become family, aliens become citizens, a place where the excluded and disenfranchised are welcome. That’s a tough call, but through the redeeming love of Christ and the powerful reconciling spirit of God, it is possible.” (p. 112, July 22, 2018 Seasons Fusion)
I believe this is exactly what Dr. Migliore, my Dad, was talking about last Sunday with his sermon on Micah 6:8 “Do Justice” (with kindness and humbleness thrown in for good measure). How do we create this household of God? And does it extend into the world sphere that we inhabit?
The answer to the first question—how do we create this—is with hard work. With recognizing the walls that separate us, and then working to not have US and THEM, but WE. With holding fast to the belief that we, each one of us, we are a beautiful creation made in the image of God. In realizing that we will stumble, we will fall, we will make mistakes, we will veer from the building plans—BUT by the grace of God, and our work of reconciling with one another, we can keep on building, keep on working, keep on shaping this dwelling place for God in our world.
Now Paul isn’t picturing just a home, a safe haven from the evils of the world (although the church can be that). Paul, I believe, is picturing a home base from which we can venture into our world with confidence. Paul is using inflammatory language in this passage. Ephesus was a part of the Roman Empire. And Rome made much of who was a “citizen” and who was an “alien.” Paul counters that with his vision of ALL becoming “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
Paul also contrasts the “sacrifice” (rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s) due to the Emperor, and the “sacrifice” made by Christ to break down all the dividing walls, to end the racial, cultural, and religious animosity that existed, and build a new community, a new household, even the highest possible building—a temple, a dwelling place, for God.
And although Paul does not explicitly push the image of this new community, this new household, into the image of a new world at this juncture—we know that he believed the church wasn’t meant to turn a blind eye to injustice outside of its bounds.
This week I was bombarded by reading or hearing stories about children not being welcome at pools for one reason or another.
Last month Darshaun Simmons was hit and threatened because he and his friends had been invited to swim in a pool in Summerville, South Carolina.
Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel and her summer camp children were asked to leave the public Foster Brown pool in Wilmington, Del. because a staff member told her that the modest swimming attire and hijabs that they were wearing would put a strain on the pool’s filtration system.
I was reminded about these two stories, as I watched the movie “Won’t you be my neighbor?” about Fred Rogers, beloved child programmer, and Presbyterian minister. Fred believed that he had to “teach” young children the golden rule, often leading by example. So in the years that saw many public pools off-limits to those of color, Fred’s programming included inviting his “make-believe” neighborhood police officer (Officer Clemmons), played by the African-American Francois Clemmons, to join him in his backyard. Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and socks and put his feet into a baby pool with Mr. Rogers, so that they could cool off, black feet and white feet, in water, together.
That was 1969. Shame on us that we have not learned the lessons from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood yet. Shame on us that we live in a country that may claim many followers of Christ, yet not be able to act in ways that create the new household of God envisioned by Paul so many years ago.
Sara Agnew, a contributor to Seasons of the Spirit, writing from Edinburgh, ponders how we might live in the world, doing justice, and creating a wider manifestation of that temple, that building, that household of God. She says,
Gandhi observed (and I paraphrase): there is one word in the English language worth saying more often—“no.” …Jesus also says, say no. Do not accept the diminishing of your humanity.
Gandhi went further. For there is another word in English, we must also say: yes. Say yes to the dignity of all human beings. What would it be like, Rev. Ali Newell asks, to say no to violence and persecution from the position of that fundamental YES to the dignity of each human being?
That is not a resistance of violence that becomes revenge.
That is not a subverting of abuse of power that becomes an abuse of power itself.
This is strength. This is empowerment. This is claiming my dignity as an act that does not diminish the dignity of the other. (from sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com 1 March 2017)
We are called to do justice, to speak out every time we see the dignity of others questioned. We are called to live our lives as a testament to our membership in the household of God. We are called to work to bring in the kingdom, to build a world, brick by brick, stone by stone, word by word, action by action, that will truly be at peace.
And remember that when Paul says, “Christ is our peace,” and “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…” that word, PEACE—is the Hebrew Shalom. Peace, Shalom, doesn’t just mean the cessation of war. Peace, Shalom, means the coming of the reign of God—where there will be justice and kindness and all will walk humbly with their God.
How do you build a house? How do you build this household Paul has in mind? Yes with justice as its base. Yes with peace, Shalom, at its midst. Yes with the breaking down of dividing walls, and the reaching of hands across what appear to be the deep cracks separating us.
Why is it important to build this house, this household of God? Because this is where God IS, this “building” is the manifestation of God in our world. As Paul put it, “we are built together spiritually into the dwelling place for God.”
The plans are dreamed up and made.
The cornerstone is laid.
Now it is time to place our individual bricks into the holy structure.
And may God dwell with us and in us,
now and forever more. Alleluia, Amen.