3 JULY 2016
EPHESIANS 2: 19 – 22
JOHN 20: 24 – 29
Just like today, in every Greek city in Paul’s day there were strangers and aliens. And their life was not easy. They were regarded with suspicion and dislike because they were foreigners, resident aliens.
I remember when I was in the Philippines we had to register every year as Resident Aliens. Believe it or not, that was what was written on the form! We were, in my experience, welcomed in that country and treated with wonderful hospitality, even though in 1762 Britain had occupied the capital, Manila for two years. So they had every reason to not like the Brits. People have long memories but also an amazing capacity to forgive.
But we didn’t really belong; it wasn’t home – in fact we talked about returning to the UK or wherever our home country was, as ‘going home’.
The Ephesian Church
Foreigners in Ephesus in Paul’s day would have gone for the work there. Then they would set up home, get married, have children, and pay their taxes for the privilege. But ‘home’ was somewhere else. They were outsiders, on the fringe, never fully accepted and often made to feel like resident aliens.
Perhaps what attracted them to the Christian faith was Paul's inclusiveness, he was a Jew and yet he preached this new message to Gentiles as if they were equally welcomed by God. Then they discovered that other churches that were mainly Jewish were not quite so generous hearted. The Jewish churches felt this new faith was theirs. Jesus had been a Jew after all and they were shocked when Paul welcomed Gentiles and treated them as if they had equal status.
Even though the story spread about Peter the apostle having had an extraordinary experience which convinced him that God didn’t have favourites – even though the leaders in the Jerusalem mother church said they had to put prejudice aside, there was still the feeling in many Jewish hearts that God preferred them to Gentiles.
Prejudice among the ‘in crowd’ is hard to break through; the walls we build to keep out people who are different from us, are very difficult to pull down.
And so Paul writes his letter which includes these lines. He is determined that the people in these new Gentile churches will not feel inferior to the Jewish churches. As far as God is concerned they are of equal value. They must not be part of God’s church out of sufferance. They are all together citizens of the society of Jesus, full members of the family of God. They are, through Jesus, at home with God, there is a place at the table for them.
It’s not only race and religion that can make us feel left out. Just thinking for a moment about our gospel passage: I wonder if part of the problem for Thomas on that Sunday after the resurrection was that he felt left out. Why hadn’t Jesus waited till he was there to meet with the apostles? After all, he was one of the closest – he’d been with Jesus since the early days of His ministry. Why did Jesus have to turn up on the one Sunday evening Thomas had something else in his diary?
I wonder how Thomas felt to be left out. But I also wonder: did it help him to identify with others who felt left out? Maybe this is why Thomas went to India and founded the church there in Kerala State, and where he was martyred for the faith.
When I was in Abu Dhabi last year there was a church of St Thomas, Mar Thoma, meeting on the same compound as the Anglican Church. The church Thomas founded has lasted all this time - often persecuted, and also with many rifts and divisions down the centuries. They also needed this teaching of St Paul to learn to live together in peace and mutual understanding and respect.
The Temple image
The picture Paul uses to illustrate this, is that of a building – but not just any old building; he uses the Temple as a template. He takes the most important symbol of Judaism and turns it inside out.
The Temple was not just a religious place of worship; it was the political, social, cultural, musical heart of Jerusalem and it was the place of pilgrimage for Jews from all over the world - because they believed it was the place where heaven and earth met, where God had promised to take up residence in a special way.
Now Paul is declaring that God is replacing this Temple with a new Temple – a Temple consisting not of stones and arches and pillars and altars but of human beings. No one had ever said anything quite as radical as this.
God was going to build a community that would be more permanent, longer-lasting, more beautiful than any Temple they had ever seen. And it would include anyone and everyone, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slaves and their aristocratic owners, residents and refugees.
What this community has in common is Jesus – who came to us as a stranger into a world that would reject him, who became a refugee in Egypt; who befriended all the outsiders he came across: Gentiles, women, the mentally fragile, the physically disabled, and finally who was condemned by the religious elite and crucified outside the city wall with the foreigners.
God had come to us as an outsider in Jesus and he wasn’t going to leave behind a community that excluded people.
The stones of this new Temple, the Church, would be laid side by side, rubbing the sharp corners off each other. They would often be supporting other stones and the weight would feel heavy; at other times the stones would need to be leaning on other stones and they themselves would be carried. There's no room for judging or criticising the other stones; you might need them one day soon. And Jesus the cornerstone would hold it all together – in fact without him the whole building would collapse.
God would take up residence in this 'building'; it would be his dwelling place where heaven and earth meet. It would be his home, where all the residents would be at peace and no one would feel a stranger or a foreigner. This is Paul's vision / dream for the church – may it be ours too.