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.
Beginning last Sunday, Episcopal churches started reading through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the green season, ordinary time, our lectionary gives us epistle readings that go more or less straight through the book week by week. This was designed, by the folks who put the lectionary together, to give congregations the chance to study the New Testament Epistles a bit more deeply in context. The rest of the year, in the great Easter and Christmas cycles, all three readings are connected thematically, but in the green season we step out of that pattern, and the Epistle reading is its own thing. Fr. Caleb started us out looking at Ephesians last Sunday, and your clergy have decided to preach straight through it in the way our lectionary suggests. So we’ll be in Ephesians for a few weeks.
One of the things Mark and I love about going to Europe on vacation is seeing the ancient buildings, places that may house a cell phone store now but have been in use for one thing or another for centuries. We carry a very old GPS with Europe maps on it with us for navigation, and though every once in a while there will be something like a new interstate interchange that confuses it, basically, you know, the road you’re on has been the road to Avignon since 900AD, so the maps still work. It’s the same with churches: the building we went to Mass in one Sunday dated to the mid 1300s, although the site has been a church since the 7th century, and we spent a fair amount of time in silence at Senanque Abbey, where the church was built in 1148 and the overwhelming weight of nearly 900 years of daily prayer hangs palpably in the air.
Spaces like that, though, always undergo a lot of changes over the centuries. A bell tower gets added a century later, or the cloister collapses one day and a new wall has to be built. More people start coming and the nave is widened; after 200 years, fewer people start coming and the nave is shortened. You can also see architectural fads come and go: when the work started Romanesque was all the rage, but by the time they got to the choir they did that in Gothic, and later somebody shoehorned an over-the-top wooden Baroque backdrop with gold angels into the altar area, and then in the 1960s everyone got excited about putting in a clear glass lectern, and right now they’re working on restoring the Lady Chapel which was a stable for a couple centuries.
Church buildings are always in development, and the longer they endure, the easier it is to see that. Paul points out that the church (we’ll say a little more about what the church is in a second) is always building on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Building on something that God unleashed into the world not last month or last year, but a few thousand years ago. Within the space of the tiny slice of history that is one human’s lifetime, it may seem like nothing really changes, but in fact as God works his purpose out in the lives of individuals, the lives of their Christian communities, and the life of the global and universal church over centuries, there is tremendous growth and change. It just doesn’t happen at the pace we late-moderns are used to.
And this principle is true in your life, as well. If you have let God bring you into the structure Paul is talking about, which is not a beautiful Gothic building or an organization, but the invisible life of Christ working in whoever says yes to it, you will grow. You won’t grow overnight, but slowly and surely, God will change you and you will grow, as long as open yourself in concrete ways day by day to the invisible life of Christ at work in you,. That’s what the church is: those in whom the invisible life of Christ is active and at work. Paul writes, “In [Christ] 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.” As soon as you say yes to having the life of Jesus inside you and acting in you, you are a perpetual divine construction project. Your life is under construction, and you are not your own. You are a stone, or a plank, or a pane of glass, or any piece of the whole, whose call is to let go and let God shape and design and then place you. And as he does that, as he works directly on you, God has two main things in mind.
The first is shaping you into the image of Jesus. To borrow a phrase from Fr. Caleb last week, God is working to narrow the gap between heaven and earth in you. To narrow the gap between the broken and limited person you are in yourself, and the flourishing, whole person you are in Jesus Christ. Fully yourself, utterly dedicated to Jesus, living every moment in him. If your goal in life is anything less than this, if you prioritize anything at all above belonging fully to Jesus, you are selling yourself short and basing your life on something that’s not worth the effort. So the first thing God is working on, once you have agreed to be a carrier of the invisible life of Christ, is shaping you into the image of Jesus, slowly but surely, in the most ordinary ways. Making what you used to think of as “you” into the real you, the you who can only exist in Christ.
And the second thing he’s working on is shaping you into the most useful possible member of your Christian community, available to be deployed by God at a moment’s notice for his work. This community aspect of God's work is vital, because Christianity is a team sport. It is, I think, the one major religion that cannot be practiced alone. It only exists as an expression of Jesus Christ at work in his Body, through the sacraments and through our ministry to and with each other and for the world. You can’t do it via podcast or on the golf course. Other spiritual paths, yes, but not historic Christianity. If you want to be a Christian, you have to give yourself over to a community. That’s one reason why the minimum standard of being at Mass every week has held over all these centuries – trying to follow Jesus alone eventually turns into following something that isn’t actually Jesus.
I don’t know how many of you have had the chance to experience a church where a really solid chunk of people are totally committed to both aspects of this building project that Paul in Ephesians tells us God is working on. Where a real quorum of people are dedicated both to letting God have full control of who they are, and to letting him use them however he wants in the life of the church. It’s a beautiful thing, the life of Christ being expressed in a community in full flower. It’s elusive, too; churches often can’t hold onto it for more than a few years, because so much of human nature goes against it and frankly the forces of evil hate it and will do anything to undermine it. But that kind of life in Christ, both individually and together, is what Paul is holding out in front of us this morning. And it’s what, if we want to be all that we could be as Emmanuel parish, we need to at least gaze upon as a possibility for each other. It actually could happen. You could, I could, we all could, be living this way by God’s grace.
I think working with this summer’s book, Prayer for Beginners, so much of which is actually about why knowing God in Christ has to be our ultimate priority, could be very helpful to many of us. I hope you’ll read it, at a minimum, or come talk and pray with your clergy about it at the events that are being offered. God, his truth, his activity, his agenda, has to come first. Jesus Christ has to be allowed to live his life in us as individuals and as a church, and therefore do whatever he wants with you and with us. And again, seeing that Ephesians reality Paul describes here, seeing Christ building people up actually happen in the living members of a living community is more beautiful than the most beautiful church building, in Europe or here or anywhere.
Let me take this Ephesians passage, then, and speak it back to God, let him use his own Word to help us ask for what he knows we need most of all. Let us pray. Teach us, O heavenly Father, that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. Speak in our hearts the truth that we are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Join us together in your life and your mission, that we may grow into a holy temple in the Lord, each of us and all of us a spiritual dwelling place for God, by the power of the Spirit, through your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.