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A Sure Foundation

Today’s blog contains the sermon manuscript and video for a message preached July 19, 2015 at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church, Richmond, VA.   You can also find an audio of this sermon by visiting the church website and subscribing to our podcast.  The sermon is titled:  “A Sure Foundation”

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You can watch the video below and/or read the manuscript.

 

A Sure Foundation   – Ephesians 2:11-22

 

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

 

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

 

 

 

A “masonry” building is a structure comprised of individual units (bricks or stones) which are bound together by mortar. The first stone laid in such a building is called the cornerstone. It is of the utmost importance because every other stone in the building will be set in reference to this stone.

 

Paul used this architectural metaphor in today’s scripture lesson to point toward Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of the church. Paul is saying that everything in the church should be set in reference to the foundation set in Jesus Christ.

 

William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells of being the keynote speaker at a clergy gathering. He took a student with him who was thinking of attending seminary. On in the drive back to the university, the student asked, “Did you note that, if it hadn’t been for your sermon, Jesus’ name was never mentioned in that whole worship service?”

 

It was true. The prayers and contemporary hymns all spoke about “God.” They spoke of God as the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and so on. But nobody, except Willimon, made reference to Jesus. Mark Twain once observed, “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” That’s what we do. We give God a makeover so that “God” fits better into our personal preferences, racial heritage, nationalistic ideals, economic sensibilities, and political opinions. We imagine that God thinks, looks, and acts just like us. We fashion an image of God and then project that image onto the cosmos, saying, “This is what God is like!”

 

If we hold to the notion that God is simply a big, vague idea, we can make God suits our wants, whims, and wishes. But when we see God through the incarnation – through Jesus – we discover that this God revealed in Jesus is not as pliable as we’d like God to be.

 

The “general god” that we mold to suit our preferences is no big deal. But the peculiar particularities of Jesus is a big challenge. The God revealed in Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the needy, house the homeless, welcome the foreigner, and bless our enemies. The God revealed in Jesus calls us to live as peacemakers, turn the other cheek, offer forgiveness, declare good news, and bear the cross of discipleship.

 

The only way to avoid dealing with these particularities is to avoid dealing with the flesh and blood, incarnational presence of Immanuel – God with us as one of us. It means we avoid dealing with Jesus.

 

Paul teaches us that Jesus as the cornerstone of the church. Everything is built in reference to Jesus. Now what many church’s do is lift that word “cornerstone” out of its context. They will speak glibly of Jesus as the cornerstone of our doctrines. They might laid a stone at the foundation of a new building and scribble the name “Jesus” on it. But that is not dealing specifically with the peculiar particularities of Jesus in the scriptural context. Paul is speaking specifically of Jesus uniting in His church all different kinds of people.

 

Paul references Jesus as the cornerstone of two walls united as one building. He is speaking of Jesus as the cornerstone that unites the Jews and Gentiles.

 

Here’s the situation: as in many Greek cities, Ephesus had a longstanding Jewish community. Many of them had become followers of Jesus. They had converted to Christianity. These Jewish Christians welcome their Gentile neighbors to study the scriptures and learn about Jesus. Still, they maintained a social barrier or wall separating the Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles were never to be fully accepted Christ followers until they submit to circumcision.

 

In other words, “You Gentiles need to become like us before can be accepted by God.”

 

When Paul arrives at Ephesus he starts out among the Jews in the synagogue. Then we was surprised to learn of the most ardent followers of Jesus were not Jewish converts in the synagogue, but rather the Gentiles who were being kept at arm’s length.

 

Stubbornly, the old-timers demanded that the old rules of inclusion and exclusion should still apply. If you want to be on the inside, you have to become just like the insiders, submitting to their old-time religious rituals.

 

As this conflict became magnified, Paul comes down radically on the side of full inclusion. That’s what Paul was writing about in today’s section of scripture. He writes:

 

  • “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13)
  • “he (Jesus) is our peace” (v. 14)
  • “he (Jesus) … has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14)
  • “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (v. 19)

 

Paul is saying that those who references Jesus their cornerstone cannot hold to exclusionary attitudes. In Christ, there is no longer “us” and “them.” There is only “us.”

 

Have you ever felt excluded?

 

Carl Sagan was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language. As he thought to himself for a few moments, Sagan kept repeating that phrase: “the ugliest word”, “the ugliest word”, “the ugliest word.” Then his eyes lit up as he said, “The ugliest word in the English language is the word “exclusive.”

 

Have you ever felt excluded?

 

Paul teaches us that in Jesus those who were far away and has brought near and made them a part of God’s household.

 

I wish I could have found a way to communicate that to certain people I have meant in my ministry.

 

In my first church after seminary, there was a woman in the church know for her “in-or-out” judgments about who could have a place in the church. The longer you were a member, the more important your opinion and the greater your power. Newer members and younger families had little voice, explaining why they usually did not stay long as members.

 

If your ancestry connected you to one of those 17 who started the church in 1778 (like her ancestry did), you were considered a part of the “first families.” You should granted even more influence and power. This woman was very exclusive. We started a parents day out program for families with mental and physical disabilities. She complained that we would be known as the church that catered to “those kinds of people.” You don’t even get me started on what she thought of black folks. One day Jeana and I had a fellow pastor and his family from a neighboring African-American congregation over to our home for dinner. When she heard about this she complained that we’d had a “colored preacher” over to the “church’s parsonage” for dinner.

 

There are all sorts of criterion that those in the “in-group” use to determine who is to be included and whose to be excluded. Paul is teachings that exclusionary attitude and actions are fundamentally at odds with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. His aim is to root out these attitude and actions from the church.

 

We all do not all share similar political opinions in this church! Some of us are democrats, some of us are republican, and some of us are independents. Some of us actually voted for “the other guy” in the last election – and we are proud of it.

 

We are not all a part of the same socio-economic class. Some of us are well connected while others are not. Some of us have plenty of money; others struggle just to get by.

 

We do not all have the same personality and disposition. Some of us calm and content. Some of us are a bit high strung. Some of us snapped a long time ago.

 

The point that Paul is trying to make is that our unity is NOT based on politics, appearance, nationality, skin color, language, economics, or even doctrines and beliefs. Our unity is built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ himself.

 

In the church of Jesus Christ, there is not wall between…

… the haves and the have-nots.

… the children’s group and the seniors’ circle.

… the powerful and the powerless.

… the eloquent and the hesitant.

… the well-educated and the illiterate.

 

In the church of Jesus Christ, there is only one humanity, one body, one peace.

 

When Paul talks about unity in the church, he is under no idealistic assumptions that everyone must think, act, look, and believe “the same.” What he is advocating is that despite all our differences, we share in the unity of inclusion through Jesus Christ. We should never let our differences tear us apart.

 

Yes, there are walls among us, but not the kinds of walls that divide. They are the kinds of walls that come together and unite us under one roof – under God’s roof. They are the kinds of walls that have a common reference point in Jesus Christ. As Paul writes: “In (Jesus) the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in (Jesus) (we) too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

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