Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on July 18, 2021, the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B): 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22
You can listen to the sermon here.
Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has . . . broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. . . . He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near [with the result that whoever you are] you are no longer strangers.
What news do we have for the world? More to the point: What good news do we have for the world?
What is the message of our church to the world? I mean both the world at large and the world just outside these doors.
These are urgent questions. Our very survival as a church is at stake. I’m glad that we are taking action to renew our building. But we need also to renew our message, which means first for ourselves and then for the world, because if our message to the world is not grounded in our own experience, it will be good news to no one.
Pauls’ letter to the Ephesians helps us answer these questions, and gain the personal experience of the good news we need, in order to tell good news to the world.
If you read the whole letter, you will find the word “church” used frequently, beginning with a major announcement at the end of chapter 1.
God has made Jesus head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (1:22-23)
I wish sometimes we could erase the English word “church” from our minds. It has become encrusted with all kinds of junk over the centuries, so that when we hear the phrase “Jesus is head of the church,” we immediately think of things like church buildings and church institutions and hierarchies and rituals, none of which Paul had in mind.
King David wanted to build God a special house. Even the prophet Nathan thought it was a great idea. God, however, said “no.” Then God hedges and says that he will allow David’s son Solomon to build a house for God. I’ve often wondered if God regretted that decision. When Solomon does build the Temple, in an eloquent prayer of dedication, he reminds the people that God cannot be contained in a building. But it was too late. The notion that God was at least more present in temples and churches than in the rest of the world was off and running.
When we read Paul talking about the “church,” he’s taking about a gathering, a meeting of people, an assembly. The Greek word is ekklesia; it is an ordinary word meaning any gathering of people, especially people called together for some purpose. In New Testament terms the ekklesia is the gathering called by God, in Christ, held together by the Holy Spirit. It matters not what it is as much as what its purpose is.
In Ephesians Paul sets forth the purpose for the gathering of God. First it is for people to grow in faith. Paul calls it “maturity” or “growing up” in Christ. He will say in chapter four, that gifts are given in the ekkelsia:
That all might come to unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity . . . we must grow up in every way into Christ. (4:13, 15)
It is the first step: the personal experience of good news before we can authentically proclaim it to the world. This experience is about unity and peace: peace within each one of us and peace among us as we gather.
This peace does not happen just because we walk in the door, no matter how often we do that. Peace is work. I can only be at peace with myself and with all of you if I am tending to my own maturity in Christ, in faith, in hope, and in love.
What does that mean? I think it means knowing our own story as a story of God, and a story that can connect with others. I ran across a stray quote this week and said, “Yes, that’s it.”
Humans understand the world through narratives. However much we flatter ourselves about our individual rationality, a good story, no matter how analytically deficient, lingers in the mind, resonates emotionally, and persuades more than the most dispositive facts or data.
And it’s not even the need of a good plot that is important, this writer says. “What makes [a good story] work is not their plot but their promise: Here is an answer to the problem of how to live.
How is my story, how is your story, a story about the promise of God? How is your story or mine a story of hope?
Paul gives us a clue as to what to look for. How is your story a story of overcoming barriers, of having hope because of your experience of the peace that relationship with Jesus brings. What story do you or I have that could end with what Paul offers.
Jesus is my peace. Whenever I feel at odds with myself or with someone else, when I feel a wall being built, when I feel a stranger in this world and sometimes to my own self, Jesus helps me break it down and start again.
Tom Hayes, who was rector of this parish for a short time in the early 1980’s, and who presented me for confirmation as a young man, told me that there is always a fifth gospel, a fifth story of good news. It is our own story of good news.
I thought that was a nice thought at the time he said it, but a bit later on in life, when my world came unglued, it saved my life. Despite what a complete mess I thought my life was, that was not God’s last word with me. God’s story in me goes on.
I won’t extend this sermon beyond your patience by giving you the gory details, although if you want to hear them I am happy to tell them.
My point is—and I think Paul’s point is—that good news, that barriers broken, strangeness overcome, of being gathered in a new household of God, and a new possibility of hope embraced, is the good news we have to tell.
We don’t have to tell someone else’s story, not even Jesus’ story. We don’t have to witness to another person about how they can get right with God and be assured they’ll get into heaven.
We just have to tell them our story. And that as part of our story Jesus is the one who brings us to peace in the present and hope for the future, our earthly future not just our heavenly one.
What good news do we have for the world? What story do we have to tell about the struggle to embrace the peace that is a gift and the hope that carries us from day to day?