Sunday, September 13, 2015

Christ the Cornerstone - a sermon for Evensong and Cathedral Praise. Ephesians 2:11-22

Walls, borders and boundaries.
The news is full of them at the moment – human devices created to keep what we call “civilisation” in order.
After all, if people simply had the right to wander freely across God's earth – anything might happen.
We might, heaven help us, discover that strangers and aliens were actually parents and children, teachers, hairdressers, nurses, taxi drivers,  - people just like us.
And we might be tempted to repeat the radical transformation we saw in Berlin in 1989, to tear down the barriers we have imposed upon ourselves and make fresh efforts towards peaceful co-existence, trusting that there are sufficient resources for all, if we work from a position of need and not greed.

We might.

But perhaps we might not...because, you see, we humans remain anxiously small-minded and often small hearted.
We find it much easier to organise the world along the lines of “them” and “us”...
And that has been so since time immemorial.
As Paul writes to the Ephesians, those divisions are constantly in his mind.
His readership, Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, were very much outsiders from a Jewish perspective...excluded by law and by custom.
Even the very fabric of the Temple was designed to keep Gentiles at a distance, as a structure of several barriers. Outside the Temple there was a yard, called the court of the Gentiles, and a wall. On the wall at intervals was placed a warning for a Gentile not to go a step further on the penalty of death. On the other side of that wall, the next court was reserved for Jewish women. Another barrier kept them from penetrating further. Inside that barrier only Jewish men were permitted, but they too were excluded from an inner zone for the priests alone. But even then, a final barrier existed where only the high priest could enter the sanctuary of the holy of holies, and that only once a year!
"KEEP OUT" was pretty much the motto of the place, expressed in its every stone.

Writing this on Heritage Open Day, when our doors have been freely open and visitors have streamed in by the hundred, it’s tempting but facile to make a comparison. Buildings can shout so loudly that sometimes it is just not possible to hear the message of those who speak from within – and sometimes those buildings need to be interpretted, to make sure that architecture does not accidentally subvert purpose.

For the 1st century Jews, though, architecture and purpose were as one and the message was clear. The Temple was a statement of the identity of the Jews as God’s chosen people…and God stayed secure behind the curtain that ensured that the holy of holies remained just that. Sacrosanct. Holy. Set apart…

It worked like this – in order of holiness...
Jewish men
Jewish women
and then – firmly outside, the Gentiles, non Jews – that is to say EVERYONE ELSE….- which would, of course, have included US.

And, says Paul, those Gentile outsiders were a very sorry lot, with nothing to look forward to at all.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggested that the coming of Messiah would bring only destruction for them. They had, after all, no place in the “commonwealth of Israel” - Paul's shorthand for the elect, the people defined by their relationship as God's chosen since the days of Abraham. And worse of all, these non Jews existed “having no hope, and without God in the world” - not, perhaps as atheists (the ancient world tended to believe in some sort of god for sure ) – but as those who found that the religion they practised made little difference to a life that was nasty, brutish and short.
As a rather cheesey Wayside pulpit (is there any other kind? Discuss) put it quite well
No God, no hope"..and then, adding a “k” and a “w” 
“Know God, know hope”

No God. No hope.
The situation for centuries. A world in waiting.
But – something incredible happened...that something that made it possible to add the "k" and the "w"....
Something that tore the temple curtain apart and changed everything for always.
The crux of this passage – and the crux of our faith.
The cross – the ultimate expression of God's solidarity with God's creation, of his all inclusive love for the world.

Yesterday at the Reader's Service I found myself silenced by some words in a hymn that I otherwise love; words that suggested that, at the moment of Christ's death, a mighty righteous anger at the heart of all things was finally extinguished.
On the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”, the author wrote – and everything in me longed to shout out “NO! At that moment God finally proved to an awestruck humanity that God is totally FOR us...that there is nothing that God will not do and has not done to communicate God's love for us."

And the power of that love broke down all division. Matthew tells us that it split the curtain in the Temple so that suddenly there were no outsiders at all. Everyone was included. Everyone could have access to God – all the time. Including people like us.

He [Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father

Where there had been divisions, there was now a new community of faith and worship...founded on that utterly compelling love which the world saw – and sees – in the person of Christ.

If that sounds exciting – it should do – though it's easy to lose sight of the excitement amid the familiar ways of life and of worship.
But, you know, it is what brings us here...
WE are not simply the constant beneficiaries of God's love at work in the world, but we are also inheriters of that new way of being, that new humanity reconciled to God and to one another – though that might not always be as obvious as it should be.

Last week, as we celebrated our Queen's long reign, there were many memories shared of her visits to Coventry, and to this place where, of course, she came to lay a foundation stone. A corner stone is similar, but not identical in purpose. It was the first stone to be placed at a construction site when a building got under way,its function to set the pattern for the building as a whole.
So if Christ is our cornerstone – not only is he the one on whose love we build our lives, but also the one whose life provides the template, sets the standard for all of us who follow after.
This new community of love founded at the cross is now the place where God dwells on earth...not in a building but in a people.
The Church.
The household of faith -where those who were once excluded are now part of the family,

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

That's our genesis as a community of reconciliation...but it's important to note that the Church's potential as a dwelling place for God depends on COMMUNITY – on being joined together.
The Church to whom Paul wrote stood for the overcoming of those deepseated divisions that had split his first cenutry world into Jews and Gentiles...Today that Church MUST stand
for the overcoming of divisions forced on the world by tradition, class, color, nation, for only in our unity can we represent God's presence in God's world. The cross of Christ, lifted up and proclaimed, draws all people to our loving God, and speaks of an end to all division. And that is what we must show to the world, where the pain of division continues to hurt and destroy.

It's part of our calling to welcome and hospitality...which won't mean automatic assimilation...
When we speak of those who have joined the church as having experienced “conversion” - this won't automatically turn all who enter our doors for worship into people Just Like Us. Paul recognises this as he explains that unity comes through the blood of Christ...
The idea of blood shed to achieve conquest was very much part of life in the Roman world...and those conquered were quickly brought into conformity and uniformity with Rome's ways.
In the upside down world of God's kingdom, blood shed in apparent defeat brings diverse peoples together and invites them to share in God's mission in Christ...
So – nobody can be excluded.
We are asked to be reconciled with all people...not just those who fit in with our notions of what a church (small c) should be like....because actually, the point of Church (capital C) is that it is a community for all. It won't always seem that way (though look around at your neighbours at "Later" and you might feel more optimistic) - but that's our calling. 
Not a club for the likeminded but a home for the excluded...

We will all struggle with different kinds of people.... It may be people of other faiths, or alternative lifestyles. It may be those of a particular political hue...For me, I'm conscious of the very real danger of being illiberal in my liberalism...of wanting to exclude those who see the world in terms of black and white, “in” and “out”.
But...I'm not called to exclude them. 
I'm called to love them.

In case you're still not sure what you can do to practice reconciliation yourself, someone online suggested a quick route to discovering those groups with whom you most need to make peace. Try praying for yourself the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple – and fill in the blank.
O Lord, I thank you that I am not like ___________________.”
Then change your prayer
Ask God to help you to recognise His image in that group of people...and to enable you to work with them in the service of his kingdom, that together you – we – may be built into a dwelling place for God...and a sign of God's kingdom on earth.
Because that, after all, is what we are for.

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