Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 19, 2015
“God’s Building Project” (Ephesians 2:11-22)
“Built on the Rock the Church shall stand.” “Christ is our cornerstone.” “The Church’s one foundation.” These hymns that we’re singing this morning–they’re all drawing on the imagery of our text today, the Epistle reading from Ephesians 2, specifically, from verses 19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” In other words, the church is “God’s Building Project.”
The fact that the church is God’s building project–that makes a big difference. The church is not some manmade creation. Rather, it is a divine institution, founded by Christ himself and central to God’s plan for the ages. God will not abandon his church. He will not abandon us.
This is very encouraging to us, especially at this time in our culture and in our world. Right now the church looks to be in dire straits. We in the church are worried about the future of the church. Will we make it? What about our numbers? People outside the church, most of them, don’t even care about the church. They basically ignore the church and turn a deaf ear. Then there are those who are aggressively opposed to the church, very hostile to it. And they have friends in high places these days. It looks like the church will be coming under increasing persecution very soon, and, in fact, it’s already started. So whether it’s anxiety, apathy, or active aggression, the church seems to be in for some hard times these days. We could use a little encouragement.
And that’s what God’s word gives us today. Encouragement. Encouragement for us in the church, at a time when anxiety, apathy, and aggression are swirling all about us. It’s good to know we are God’s building project.
Paul is writing this text to the Ephesians, to the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was located on the west side of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and it was one the largest cities in the first-century world. The church there at Ephesus was made up mostly of Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, people who had come out of pagan idolatry. And so Paul reminds them of what they had come out of when they had come into the church: “Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands–remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Friends, this describes where we would be apart from Christ and outside of the church. You and I would be aliens and strangers with regard to God and his people. We would be outside the kingdom of God, not knowing the precious promises of salvation. That’s a terrible place to be. Think of it. To have no hope–no hope for the future, no hope for what lies beyond this life. To be without God in the world. That’s pretty scary. But most people in our world, the unbelievers–they don’t even realize what a terrible situation they are in.
We were that way. Ours sins alienated us from God. We were far off. We had drifted away, turned away, run away from God. You and I would be included in that sorry lot. We too have sinned. It comes easy to us. It comes natural to us, according to our sinful nature. We do things, we think things, we say things, that go against God’s commandments. We are not eager and zealous to do God’s will. We mainly just want to do our own will, and who cares what God says? Other people are there to please us and do things for us–that’s the world we create in our minds. That’s the sinful nature that inheres in us and produces such bad fruit in our lives. And it separates us from God, and it puts up walls between us and other people. That’s where we would be on our own, apart from what God has done for us in Christ.
But what has God done for us? That’s where Paul goes next, to how God has made us his people, a church made up of both Jews and Gentiles, now united in Christ. He writes: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
Now we have been brought near, near to God and near to one another. Now we have peace, peace with God and peace with one another. How? How did this happen? Because of what Christ has done. “In Christ Jesus,” Paul states, using that “in Christ” phrase we heard so many times last week. It all happens in connection with Christ. We have been brought near “by the blood of Christ.” It is the blood of Christ shed on the cross, the blood he shed for our redemption. We have forgiveness of sins because the Son of God willingly paid the price that sets us free. He took our place, dying in our place, so that the burden of our guilt would be lifted from us. And it is. Now we are at peace, reconciled, brought back to God, restored to a right relationship with him, all because of what Jesus did for us by his death and resurrection.
This is good news! This is the best news! It doesn’t get any better than this! To know that we are at peace with God. To have access to God, to be in his good favor. What a joy! What comfort and security and encouragement this gives us!
And once he forgives us and saves us, God doesn’t just leave us to be wandering around on our own. No, be brings us into his flock, his family, the church. Use whatever image you want–and the Bible uses several of them, including flock and family–the bottom line is, we are now God’s people. We belong to him. He gives us our identity as his children. He gives us our purpose in life, in our daily vocations and in our life together as church.
And so this is where Paul uses this building language to talk about the church. Of course the picture he has in mind is the temple, that physical building in Jerusalem where God set up shop, so to speak, in the midst of his people Israel. The temple was where God dwelt in the midst of his people, to guard and guide and protect them. The temple was where the Lord forgave the sins of his people, through the various offerings he prescribed to be offered there, all of them pointing ahead to the forgiveness and the peace we have now in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And so the church now is the dwelling place of God on earth, the place where God does his business, his saving and forgiving, his guarding and guiding business. Yes, it happens right here, in little old St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Missouri. We are one little corner of God’s great building project, and God will not abandon us. God is doing his thing here, his gospel thing, through Word and Sacrament. We are open for business, and God is the owner and builder and proprietor.
How we worry about the church, as though we were the ones who make it go! But God will have his church. He is busy saving people here, forgiving our sins and strengthening us in our faith, building us up for lives of service in our various vocations and in our life together. God is greater than our anxiety. He will provide what we need. God is greater than the apathy of the people outside. His word still will reach people and turn them to repentance and to faith. God is greater than the hostility of the world. No persecution will stop the church or put us out of business. Christ is building his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Fear, worry, be gone! Faith, confidence, come in and fill us! The promises of God declare the truth we can stand on. We belong to the household of God. The foundation for our faith is laid in the prophetic and apostolic Holy Scriptures, Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. We are joined together, brick by brick, into a holy temple of the Lord, growing stronger and firmer, held together by the mortar of God’s word. In Christ, we are being built together, as Paul says, “into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” How Trinitarian, and how true!
This past week, I attended a classical Lutheran education conference in Dallas. On the night of the banquet, the local Lutheran school there had a group of children come out and sing for us. These were children ages five through nine, and one of the things they did was to recite the 23rd Psalm, which they did beautifully. But as they spoke that psalm, I began to think about the world and the society these children will be entering. It is a society that is becoming rapidly hostile to God’s word and to the church. What kind of a future will these children be facing? But then I saw the joy on their faces as they repeated the promises of God: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Yes, I learned a lot from those children that night.
And so this is the thought I want to leave with you this morning: The church is God’s building project. He will not abandon us. He will provide us with everything we need. God is building us up right now, through his word, and we are his dwelling place. It all happens in Christ. Christ is building his church, he’s right here with us, and we have his peace and his promise.
Grant then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know my own; My own know Me.
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”