This sermon is part of the sermon series "Global Preaching Voices ". See series.
During the summer of 2014, the eyes of billions of spectators were glued to their television screens as they watched the most popular sporting event in the world—the World Cup. I also remember watching the 2010 World Cup played in South Africa. But at both events something struck me as I observed the players. Regardless of the color of their shirt, at key moments many of them took this posture—hands clasped, head bowed, then eyes raised in unspoken pleas to heaven. It's as if these world class athletes instinctively knew that heaven truly is the place of God's dwelling.
Heavenly places, we read in Ephesians 1, are the glorious seat of Christ's powerful rule. So, soccer stories aside, we can celebrate as sons and daughters of the King who reigns from heaven a-high, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (1:21). At the same time, today's passage invites us to consider how that cosmic reign is made visible in daily, tangible, breathing, human life. It helps us answer the question: Where does God live?
Here's some background to help us understand this passage of Scripture. The apostle Paul is writing from prison to fellow-followers of Jesus in the port city of Ephesus and in the broader Asia Minor region. Through time—by conquest, colonization, and emigration—Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Jews had been added to the indigenous inhabitants of Anatolia. Diverse cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, and religious expressions mixed and clashed, forced together by the hegemony of Rome. Traditions were being challenged, identities were shifting, and many felt uprooted, at a loss—especially the people at the bottom of the totem pole.
Of course, according to the official story, peace ruled. Borders were secured by the emperor's legions. Surely taxes and tributes were burdensome—especially when the benefit was mostly seen in far-off centers of power—but then again, they did guarantee security, stronger armies, and taller walls. The slightest disturbance was swiftly repressed; torture was a common practice, and served as a deterrent. Temples were places of worship where the conquering forces imposed their gods on the people forcibly incorporated into their domain. Honor and unquestionable allegiance, naturally, were due the emperor, the self-titled "Lord and Savior," who so effectively imposed peace and kept unity among such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious array of people. Those were the days of the Pax Romana.
God re-creates humankind in Christ
It is into this scene that Paul's words are read to the growing community of Christ-followers, some of Jewish descent like him, but most of them Gentiles. "You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience." Dead, lifeless, dragged along with no say by powers beyond their control, theirs had been an existence of barren striving for personal success and satisfaction, directionless, like a sailboat with no rudder. Pretty strong words Paul has for the Gentiles.
"Ah, this is about them!" the Jewish Christians, might have sighed in relief, "This is not about us, the chosen Israel!" Proud of their lineage and heritage—after all, they were direct descendants of God's people of old—and marked by the "might makes right" imperial culture. They might have rested, assured of their belonging and believed they owned the right to determine who was in and who was out of the new community being forged by the apostles' teaching. "Become like us, the true believers; look at the world through our lenses and organize your experience into our categories. Otherwise you'll only ever be second-class. We can tolerate a little color here and there, a token representative of minority groups. But they must be willing to blend in, to accommodate to our standards and expectations, our jargon, our styles." Yet Paul leaves no room for such smug self-righteousness. He continues: "We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of humankind." Jews and Gentiles alike: all were one in death, bound together by its eternal grip.
"But God," this is the turning point, "being rich in mercy and because of the great love with which we loved us," breaks into this hopeless picture. The one who initially breathed life into every living creature, would not abandon the work of God's hands. In the beginning, out of nothing, God had created and celebrated life as good; so again the community-of-love—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—steps into the deathly scene to grant full life, value, and purpose to God's creatures.
Paul builds his case in crescendo. First, in Christ, God re-creates humankind. "Even when we were all dead in our sins, God made us alive together with Christ." This is good news for those first-century Christians and also for us. Thanks be to God!
Next, in Christ, God re-instates humankind. "God raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ." Believe it or not, Paul reminds the weary, displaced people, you are now above it all, with Christ, in the heavenly places! You have been carried from dust to glory through no effort of yours. This is a fact! Yes, perhaps in the Roman Empire you are viewed as an insignificant handful of Christ followers, under increasing suspicion for contesting the emperor's authority, and barely acknowledged as a tiny cog in the imperial machinery for the taxes you pay. However, in God's gracious economy, you are not dispensable but rather valuable and beautiful. God fashions the community of Christ followers, together, into a poem, God's work of art, God's masterpiece. Value and beauty are granted by our Creator to the Christian community, not fabricated by the symbols of status, prestige, or prosperity of our contemporary pagan, consumer society.
So God, in Christ, re-creates and re-instates humankind as the expression of God's image in God's world. As God did in the beginning, God again grants humankind purpose. "We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." The creation mandates of family and work, responsible relationships, and responsible productivity, are restored in Christ. Our reign with Christ in the heavenly places is to be given concrete, historical expression in our ethical behavior here and now. Good works are a mark of new life and faithful discipleship; their absence, an indication of their lack.
Paul is fully aware of the imprisoning effect of pride and the dead-end street of self-righteous works. Years earlier, as a radical defender of the Jewish faith, he had actually gone on murderous rampages with the pious intent of eradicating what he considered a pernicious sect. But once Jesus had torn off his blinders, and the Spirit had reoriented his will, Paul had recognized that none of that striving brought him any closer to God. Only Christ did. We cannot earn new life, new status, or new purpose. It is God who grants them to us "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus," his undeserved favor. "For by grace you have been saved through faith. This is not our own doing," Paul reminds his readers, "it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." This we, as the Christians in Asia Minor, must remember.
The discipline of remembering constitutes the necessary antidote to blinding, boastful pride. "Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called 'the uncircumcision'"—classed as outsiders—"by what is called the circumcision"—those who consider themselves insiders—"which is made in the flesh by hands … remember that you were at one time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and stranger to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." Remember that once you were dead. We were all one in death. We were all dead and estranged. Alienated from God, from one another, from the rest of creation. That was before, back then.
God speaks peace through Christ
Paul dedicates the following lines, which we read as verses 13-22, to describing the current picture. He introduces the section with the words "But now" to establish the striking contrast brought about by the gracious intervention of the Triune God. "But now in Christ Jesus you who were once 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."
Pax Romana, was fragile, pounded precariously together with cross nails and oppressive taxation. But one night, angels had shattered the repressed silence with joyful songs of "Peace on Earth!" They announced a different kind of peace to a weary people: the long-awaited Prince of Peace had broken into history in the shape of a poor working class baby in an insignificant corner, far from the seats of Roman and temple power.
Once he went public, Jesus' rule was not marked by military nor economic might. Instead, he gave himself away, granting sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, liberating the oppressed, affirming the dignity of women, children, and others who were marginalized in Jewish society. Rather than imposing security by repression and death, Jesus took on the scornful cross in loving sacrifice. In so doing, he unveiled as deceitful the powers of death that held humanity estranged from God, from one another and from the rest of creation. Christ, our peace, effected salvation, giving new life to the dead: reconciled relations with God, healing from enmity to a broken humanity, and restoration to the entire created order. This is surely Good News of true peace, Pax Christi. Jesus is our peace.
Jesus also makes peace. During his life—"in his flesh"—Jesus made peace by doing justice, by restoring to rightful place and right relations those who were being deprived of them by unjust systems—human greed and abuse of power. He put down the self-righteous religious leader and praised the socially despised tax collector. He healed leapers, the HIV-AIDS victims of his day, and restored them to the community. He spoke with women, and called men to account regarding their treatment of them. He called the wealthy to see the economic implications of discipleship. He lived out the historic script of God's prophets through the ages.
Jesus made peace also through his death—"through his blood." When he died, the temple curtain, separating off the Holy of Holies, ripped in half. Now access to God was no longer restricted to certain people or certain times! But the wonder does not end there. The risen Christ sends his disciples to the ends of the earth, far beyond the ethnic confines of Israel. The Spirit capacitates them to communicate the Good News in a plethora of Gentile languages, to relate to "unlikely" people—foreigners, women, pagan governors—and to confront and eradicate exclusionary laws and practices that do not allow full participation of all disciples of Christ in the life and ministry of the Christian community and beyond.
In Paul's case, once the blinders were ripped off his eyes on the way to Damascus, the previously zealous Jew began to live out his vocation as Christ's apostle to the Gentiles. As he wrote this letter he was enduring prison under the accusation of taking non-Jews into the temple, beyond the wall built to keep the "ins" in and the "outs" out. His conviction regarding God's cosmic reconciling purposes in Christ propelled Paul—against all odds—into a life mission marked by sacrificial efforts to breed unity, peace, and justice within the new community.
For example, when both legalistic interpretations of Jewish law and imposed Roman decrees prescribed submissive acquiescence on the part of women, children, and slaves to oppressive relational patterns in family and work, Paul daringly preached mutual submission to all. Particularly to the powerful—men, husbands, fathers, employers—and he acknowledged the anointed leadership of women, young people, and non-Jewish Christians in the early church community. You see, Paul lived by what he taught: Christ has "abolished the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself a new humanity 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." Thanks to Christ's peace making life, death, and on-going ministry through the Spirit, Jesus followers are now one—one not in death but in Christ.
So Jesus is our peace; Jesus makes peace and, finally, in Paul's words, Jesus "came and preached peace." "He preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father." Rhetoric, preaching, speaking, all these are skills practiced and esteemed in the Greco-Roman society to which the recipients of Paul's letter belong. They are highly aware of the power of the spoken word in building personal prestige and swaying public opinion. But Jesus' peace preaching had a far more significant impact: it was grounded in his peace being and his peace-making as expressions of the on-going reconciling work of the God, who declares things into being. In the beginning, God, the Creative-community-of-love, spoke the world into existence out of chaos. In Jesus, the Word made flesh, God spoke redemption and new life into history. Through the Spirit's breath, God speaks community out of distanced individuals. God speaks and it comes to pass.
God speaks the church into being
Paul had begun his letter portraying the grand cosmic scheme of things: everything brought together under Christ's lordship. He now zooms in to the visible, historical expression of that unity and authority. He leads us not to some ancient temple or some opulent modern church building. Instead, he lands squarely on his listeners, on the local community of Christ followers: "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God." What God in Christ has spoken into being is nothing more and nothing less than the church, the body of Jesus' followers, the new humanity woven together out of people from different ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious strands. Citizenship in the Roman Empire depended on lineage, power, and financial means, and it classed people into first, second, and third categories. Belonging in Jewish cultural religion also rested on family line and social status. Membership in the household of God, in contrast, is a gift: Gentile and Jew, slave and free, women and men, old and young, people from South and North, East and West, people without all their limbs or wits and people with them, all can belong—thanks to Christ's reconciling work.
This new household, the church, is built not on money or power, charismatic leaders or individual saints, but on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, on the whole recorded history of God's work in God's world through all God's people. When Rome claims that it is imperial power that holds everything together, and temples become symbols of dominion, and when today we are tempted to place our confidence in nations, big church budgets, or successful business ventures, then, with Paul, we must counter-culturally claim that the piece without which the entire construction would crumble apart is none of the above, but Jesus Christ himself, "the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord."
God dwells in the church
So, where does God live? Paul closes with this amazing and humbling affirmation: "In Christ you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit." We, the church, with all our imperfections, petty concerns, pride and prejudice, are God's holy temple, God's earthly home. Yes, by grace it is here, in the immensely diverse, transnational, trans-ethnic, trans-cultural community that God chooses to live.
God lives in the new humanity created by God, reconciled by Christ, and indwelled and diversely gifted by the Holy Spirit for the building up of that community and for works of peace and justice far outside its bounds. God lives wherever women and men together allow the community-of-love to imprint God's image on them, to speak reconciliation into being in their midst, to tear down all humanly constructed walls and spiritually bolstered exclusions so that unity becomes visible, to remind them that once we were all together in death and that our lives, our value and our purpose depend entirely on God's unmerited grace. God yearns to build the world church today into his earthly dwelling place!
When these words reach us, as they did those original recipients, we cannot but ask: Do we, each one of us, envision ourselves as living stones that must fit together with others in order to compose God's living place? Are we aware that the most powerful testimony of God's love to the world are the reconciled relations between us, regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, political persuasion, financial status? When our families, neighbors, colleagues, communities, look at our local congregation, are they struck by the loving and just relationships between its members, and of these with the broader community? Will we commit to living out the calling to follow Jesus in his reconciling mission of being, making, and boldly preaching peace within and beyond the Christian community? Will we allow God to write a new poem out of his world church today?
Whenever we come together as representatives of the global church, and then we return to our home countries, cities, and towns, may we see ourselves as fruits and agents of Pax Christi. A community brought together by God's reconciling will in Christ and sent as such into the world by the power of God's Spirit to incarnate God's good purposes for the entire cosmos. Let us tear down the walls of self-defense, security, and prosperity that our greed, pride, and prejudice have built, and take the risk of becoming welcoming communities—even to people who are different than us. Let us pledge ultimate allegiance not to the Caesars of the day but to the Lord of history, the only Prince of Peace. Let us celebrate today, in profound and repentant awe and grateful commitment, that we are God's dwelling place. May it be so!
Ruth Padilla DeBorst, a Cost Rican scholar, serves as Director of Christian Formation and Leadership Development with World Vision International.