Sermon: Stone by Stone

July 22, 2018
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 2:11-22

British author L. P. Hartley opened his novel The Go-Between with these words: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

And I would guess that you had some sense of the foreignness of the first century as Gloria read these words from the letter to the Ephesians. We know what words such as “Gentiles,” “commonwealth,” “reconciliation,” “cornerstone,” and “peace” mean. We know what “circumcision” means, even if it makes some of us cringe. The apostle, however, has taken all these words and strung them together in a way that clearly made sense to him, and to the people he addressed.

Let’s see if I can unpack this a little.

Christians endured a number of struggles in the first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The growth of the movement concerned the religious and civil authorities. Early Christian leaders were arrested, beaten, and sometimes executed by temple guards, the soldiers of King Herod, and by Roman magistrates. Paul himself had been one of those seeking to curb the spread of what he thought was a dangerous new version of the Jewish faith.

He changed his mind about that.

Relatively few of the first Christians were people of wealth and power. During Paul’s traveling ministry, in fact, he engaged in a major financial campaign for the support of the church in Jerusalem. New members of “the Way,” as they called themselves, were also poor more often than not. Daily life was a struggle.

But not all of the pressures came from the outside. Some came from within. Jesus and his earliest disciples saw themselves as a movement that would reform Judaism: the only faith they’d known. They hoped to do so with a message of God’s radical forgiveness and wide-open welcome. A number of Jews joined the movement.

What they hadn’t expected was that the word would also attract non-Jews: Gentiles. They didn’t have much positive experience of foreigners in Galilee and Judea. Every once in a while, someone would be drawn to the Jewish faith and convert, but that was rare, in great part because there was a high bar for entry into Judaism: circumcision.

The prospect of surgery makes anyone pause.

The new version of Judaism preached by Jesus’ followers reached deep into the hearts of far more Gentiles than anyone had imagined. They started showing up. They started worshiping. They started asking if they, too, could join “the Way.”

So now what?

For millennia, circumcision had been the entryway to the Jewish faith and the sign of devotion (for men). Was this new religious movement prepared to demand it of a growing crowd of potential devotees, most of them understandably reluctant? I grant you that making admission more demanding tends to increase loyalty, but would others who might be faithful followers of Jesus be turned away by too high a demand?

And… Was that consistent with the message that Jesus had preached, and that his disciples had learned, and that Jesus’ apostles now preached?

Paul, who had resisted movement, now became one to push it even further from what he had so ardently defended. He urged the end of circumcision, and of other requirements of the law that also kept people away. That’s what it means here to say Christ has “abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.” It’s not that Christ has ended morality or ethics. There are still standards for how people should treat one another.

But there is nothing that can keep people from the love of God, the embrace of Christ, and the welcome of the Church.

This is usually the point at which I’d start talking about the barriers we might be placing between other people and God, between others in our community and full welcome in our church. Mind you, those are still good questions, and if we don’t ask them we risk turning people away without realizing they are welcomed by God.

But I’m not in the mood for that today. Instead, I want to give thanks for this astonishing welcome that you, that I, that we have found in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church.

When I think about it, I’m stunned.

My own story is far less dramatic than the apostle Paul’s was. I didn’t persecute the Church, though I did exercise my adolescent rebellion by refusing to attend Confirmation Class as a freshman in high school. As rebellions go, that’s fairly mild, though it certainly caused a lot of grief for my parents at the time.

Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that resonates with these words, “…you who once were far off have been brought near…” I was far off, if only in my own head. And the wonder of sensing God bringing me near fills me with awe.

What is your story? It doesn’t have to be a sin-and-redemption story, but it might be. It doesn’t have to be an adolescent rebellion story, but it might be. It doesn’t have to be a “I’ve always had a sense of the nearness of God” story, but it might be. It’s your story, yours and God’s.

And as different as they all are, I tell you this: yours is wonderful. Awe inspiring. Precious. Filled with grace.

Now: Look about you. Just look (we’re not going to do the Hokey Pokey this week). But take a good look.

Now think about this: Every single person you see here has a story as wonderful, awe inspiring, precious, and grace-filled as yours.

Now: Look at those windows. There are people out there. You know this, even though you can’t see them because, well, they’re somewhere else.

Now think about this: Every single person you don’t see has a story as wonderful, awe inspiring, precious, and grace-filled as yours. Some of them know to connect that story to God. Others don’t. But they’ve got a story.

“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.”

You and I. Those who aren’t here, but might be. Each of us, part of the structure, the temple, the Church. You and I. Stone by stone. Story by story. Life by life. Love by love. Grace by grace.

How wondrous. How awesome. How precious. How filled with grace.

How beautiful.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

The reason the recording is not identical to the text is that Pastor Eric nearly always thinks he can do better than what he’d prepared. Is he right? You decide!

The photo is a self-portrait of Pastor Eric looking stunned.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on July 22, 2018

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  1. by Gordon Bates

    On July 23, 2018

    Fine sermon Eric. Good to see you briefly last Sunday. Stay well.

  2. by holycrosshilo

    On July 23, 2018

    Thank you so much, Gordon! Peace to you.

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