Proper 11, Year B July 22, 2012
Sermon preached in St. Michael’s-Litchfield by Rev. Estelle Webb
There is a tendency among religious people to mentally separate our spiritual and physical lives. When we do that we are able to justify erecting barriers between ourselves and those with whom we would rather not associate – physical and psychological barriers.
In today’s letter from St. Paul the people of Ephesus and we are reminded that through Christ all of us are one and our lives are an integrated, incarnational whole. That idea was a difficult one for the people of St. Paul’s time and it is also a difficult one for us to wrap our minds around. For them it was clearly a religious question, for us it is more a cultural one.
Ancient Israel was a theocracy. In their belief system, they and they alone were God’s people. Because of this they were a holy people and others were aliens. Anyone who was not part of their community, the Hebrew community, was considered “far off”. If a person wanted to become a Jew they would need to word their request to the Rabbi in these terms: “bring me near.” The Hebrews had the hope of a Messiah, the Gentiles had no hope. But, that was before Christ came, as Paul tells them in today’s letter to the Gentile community in Ephesus. He writes: “so then 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.” Remember that St. Paul is a Jew.
Even the Jewish temple was built to reflect the belief of separation between the Jew and “the other”. The temple consisted of a series of courts, each one a little higher than the one that went before, with the Temple itself in the inmost of the courts. First there was the Court of the Gentiles; then the Court of the Women; then the Court of the Israelites; then the Court of the Priests; and finally the Holy Place itself. A Gentile could only come into the first of the Courts and between them and the women was a wall, a screen of marble, actually. Historians say that it was beautifully wrought and at intervals were placed into the walls tablets which announced that if a Gentile proceeded any further he was liable to instant death. Paul knew this barrier, and it is written that it was that barrier that led to his final imprisonment and death. Because he was falsely accused, it is believed, of bringing an Ephesian Gentile, into the Temple beyond the barrier. So, essentially, according to the custom of the Jews, that wall shut out the Gentile from the presence of God.
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul is trying to explain the radical change that has occurred through Christ. No one who believes in Jesus Christ is far off anymore; all have access to God through Christ. He also writes that we are saved by God’s grace in Christ, not by any works that we do.
Throughout this Epistle it is made clear that all are welcome in the church of Christ, all who believe in Christ as their risen Lord and Savior. No one need be far off. In Christ all are equal.
The great twentieth century spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill wrote that we cannot make the distinction between our practical and spiritual life because, if God is All to us, then he is in reality the grounding principle of all that we do. We are “creatures of sense and of spirit” she wrote, “and must live an amphibious life.” “Christ’s whole Ministry was an exhibition, first in one way and then in another, of this mysterious truth.” When we live a spiritual life, all that we do stems from our center in God. To quote her again: “It is through all the circumstances of existence, inward and outward, not only those we like to label spiritual, that we are pressed to our right position and given our supernatural food.”
This beautiful building is filled with spiritual significance and symbols so that we might not forget that we are the church, Christ’s body, who worship inside this place. This altar is the place where heaven and earth meet as we celebrate the offering our Lord made for us and announce His glorious resurrection.
In Ephesians 4 Paul also wrote this:“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Unlike the Jewish temple, our doors are open to all. But it is our duty, our calling, our responsibility, to welcome all in the Name of Christ, and if they do not know or believe in him, to help them come to the understanding that it is He, and He alone, who brings us here and motivates us to the good works that we do.
A life centered on God and given to God through Christ will help us remember that both the spiritual and the practical life needs to be lived as one life, not two separate realities.
I close with this prayer that St. Paul offered to the Gentiles in Ephesus:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”