Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
July 22, 2018
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 of God.
My dad did not learn to speak English until he went to school. Kids used to tease him and called him a Krout. He was eight-years old when American entered World War I. His father was tared and feathered, and he was considered part of the enemy. He was also a Mennonite and registered as Conscientious Objector during World War II. That did not win him friends within the neighborhood. Whose side was he on? Was a he a traitor? Was he a coward? Could he be trusted?
I was born at the close of that war. Dad wanted me to experience life very differently than he had. I was to be the all-American boy. No trace of the Fatherland was to be found coursing through my veins. Among other things, he refused to teach me to speak or read German. As a result I struggled for years to pass my German comps to do my Ph.D.) Languages would have been so much easier for me had he only known and enabled me to grow up bilingual.
That bit of personal history came floating back to me as I reflected on today’s New Testament reading. Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus that he had established some years before. In writing to them now, he reminds them of the occasion when he first came to their city. Then he goes on to state something that I would never dream of saying. He reminds them of their differences rather than of their similarities. And he does so in a most unflattering way.
Listen again to what he said: “Remember, at that time you were gentiles. You were uncircumcised. You were alien from the commonwealth of Israel. You were strangers to the covenant. You were without God. You were without hope.”
Now to our ears today, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But we miss something in the translation. Let me put it in another historical context. If Paul were addressing my father’s church when he was a small boy, he might have said something like this: “When I first came among you, you were Mennonites. You refused to learn our language or adopt our ways. You felt it was ok to ignore some of our laws and you refused to fight for our country. If you attempted to enter our country a hundred years from now, I would have stopped you at the boarder and sent you back to your Fatherland.
Paul was placing himself in complete contrast to the Ephesians prior to his conversion. In another letter to another church he had established, the church in Galatia, he spelled out those differences in great detail. “I am a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people. Not only was I born to a nation of privilege, but I was among the elite of that people, I was a Pharisee. Indeed, I sought to outshine even this special ground by my absolute adherence to the law of god. I sought to be the Pharisee of the Pharisee’s, the most righteous person in all of Israel.
I can see him there. So often what a person sees as righteousness, most people see it for what it really is, “self-righteousness,” one of the seven deadly sins, the one we know as pride.
But something happened to Paul. His traveling companion, Luke, describes it in the Acts of the Apostles. In seeking to outdo all of the Pharisees in his righteous work for God, Paul set off for Damascus with a letter from the leader of the Pharisees. The letter authorized him to arrest the pesky Christians who had caused so much trouble in Jerusalem. They had fled to Damascus to avoid imprisonment. Paul was now going to arrest them and bring them back to stand trial.
(A good friend of mine tells a story of his preaching from this story while he was studying for his PhD in Belgium. He was attending a small French speaking Protestant church. One Sunday the pastor asked him to give the sermon. It was the first time he attempted to preach in French.
When he came to the point where Paul saw a blinding light from heaven and fell off his horse on to the ground in terror, the congregation burst into laughter. Startled, he stopped and asked: “What did I say that was so funny?” Someone replied, “you just told us that Paul fell off his ass unto his ass!”)
This incident was the turning point in Paul’s life. Laying on his backside, looking up into heaven, he saw things from a new perspective. He suddenly had a new identify. Differences between people were no longer something to be feared but rather affirmed and embraced. What he came to understand was—to put in the words of a children’s chorus we all learned in Sunday school--“Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”
In today’s epistle, Paul reminded the Ephesians of their former status to make a point. “That is what you were when I first came to you. But now you are no longer strangers and aliens. You are citizens of heaven. You are members of the household of God.”
What made the difference? Was it simply Paul’s coming among them? Of course not. Paul knew, and the Ephesians came to understand, it was the work of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is not to say their differences disappeared, or that our own distinctive histories and heritage no longer matter. Rather it is to say that in Christ we discover that what is unique about you, what is special about me, can be celebrated together.
Our special gifts are transformed by the power and love of God’s Holy Spirit. It is His spirit that knits us together as His body here on earth. As Paul concludes: “To Him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple of the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ. Think about that. As we gather together each week, we become God’s holy temple, His dwelling place! We come from a diversity of backgrounds and from all over the continent and here at St. Paul’s we have been molded in to God’s Holy Temple. Through us, God’s majesty, his grace, his love is made real. And then we are sent out to share this reality with those we meet so that they can come and experience living in the presence of the Holy.
Back in my senior year of Bible College I took a class in which each student chose a book of the Bible and gave a lecture that summarized the whole book. My best friend chose the Epistle to the Ephesians. At the end of his lecture he summed up what he had said like this. Ephesians is comprised of six chapters and is divided in two parts of three chapters each. In the first section Paul tells us who we are in Christ: we are God’s Holy Temple. The last section can be summed up like this: “Now go act like it!” Amen.