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20th December 2020

The People

Passage: Ephesians 2;14-22


Back in AD 60, St Paul wrote a letter to the new Christian church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a centre of trade and industry and boasted a huge multi-cultural population. You got all kinds there. And the Christian faith was attracting people from Jewish, Greek and Roman backgrounds. In a world where a person’s religion was determined by their birth and upbringing, the Christian church, as a multi-cultural faith community was the first of its kind.
This is what Paul wrote to that congregation. (Ephesians 2)
Christ is our peace, making us one. In his own person he destroyed hostility. He made us one people, reconciled to God. …..
Now then, you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of 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 place in which God lives by his Spirit.

Wow! People need community. We need the loyalty and support of other people in order to live safely and happily in this world.
We need faith communities if we are to grow in our faith and share our faith. Some people say they can be perfectly good Christians all on their own, but I have never known this to work very effectively.
And faith communities can reach across the boundaries of race and history. After World War Two churches in the UK set up links with churches in Germany in the cause of healing and reconciliation.
So, “Amen” to St Paul- the Christian church in Ephesus was indeed a community in which all kinds of people came together to grow in faith, to nurture faith and to share faith with the world. It was-as he said- in the process of becoming a holy temple- a place where God himself was to be found.

Wow again… but no-one said that this awesome community building was going to be easy. In the first place, human beings are individuals with ideas of their own. Put them into a community with other people whose ideas are totally different, and the community starts to crack. St Paul was forever writing to churches whose members were falling out. It was a high challenge to mingle at least three totally different cultures into one faith community.
It is not surprising that over the centuries the Christian church has divided and sub-divided. The herd instinct in us is very strong. We want to be with our own kind especially in a dangerous and frightening world.

But then I thought of a church youth group I ran some years ago. It had sixty regular members, which was great. Then I noticed that the vast majority of those members were all in one school year group. They were seventeen-year olds. What was going to happen when they all left and went off to college? I did try to tackle the problem. I remember an agenda item entitled, “The Mystery of the Missing Fourteen-year olds.” Where were they? Then I realised that it would take a very brave fourteen-year-old to put her nose round the door of a hall filled with sixty seventeen-year olds. Next, I saw the same situation in that church as a whole. The membership was almost entirely white, middle-class. They were incredibly kind, friendly people but again, it would have taken a very brave unemployed bricklayer to put his nose round the door on a Sunday morning. And an even braver black unemployed bricklayer…

It can feel wonderful to be in a community where everyone thinks the same and comes from roughly the same background but outside the world is perpetually changing and people are changing with it. And the very unity and like-mindedness which helps to create a strong faith community can become the very thing which then destroys it. I could see that both youth group and church would more or less have to die in order to be re-born. And that is a painful process.

So no, it is not that easy to be a true and living temple of God’s Spirit in the world. It was not easy in Ephesus AD 60. It is not easy in Orpington 2020. You may be wondering why we are lighting a candle for an organisation which appears to be born into trouble?

It was not easy in Ephesus or Corinth or Jerusalem AD 60 to create a multi-cultural faith community but it did happen. Of course, there were challenges, but the first Christians rose to them. They asked questions of each other, they listened to each other, they learned from each other’s experiences, they got excited by the new ideas and fresh encounters with God which came their way as a result of tackling rather than backing off from challenge. They helped each other to think again about the social systems which were unjust and corrupt; they supported each other in reaching out to the neediest and most vulnerable in every culture, not just their own. And yes, they changed the whole course of world and faith history. Alleluia! It was not easy. It was never easy. But it happened.

There was an article by a young writer in this month’s Reform magazine in which she quoted that, “the irony of the human condition is that we are so focussed on reaching some point in our journey, some happiness, some goal, that we seem to forget that the journey itself is where life happens.”
There never was going to be a point when the Christian church as a whole settled down happily and peacefully as a cosy faith community. Because cosy is not what the church was ever meant to be. Inclusive, yes; welcoming, yes; nurturing, yes; healing, yes. But these are things you are whilst on the journey, whilst learning and growing and facing challenge together. Once you reach “cosy,” you are doomed to die.
And that, although sounding morbid, is actually good news for a church like ours-and many others in Britain 2020. The challenges are high and the future uncertain but there is still a faith journey to be taken and the journey itself is where life happens.”

Take another look at the Nativity Scene…….
There is quite a mixture of people in the stable. Rich and poor, young and old, locals and foreigners. There would probably have been a few more in the background: the innkeeper wondering what is going on and whether his bill will ever get paid; a few servants slipping in to take a look, locals hearing about this baby born in a stable and offering help, Roman soldiers on patrol making sure there was no trouble brewing.
All of this was reflected in the people who came to Jesus as a man.
Rich and poor, old and young, locals and foreigners, farmers and publicans, soldiers and peasants- they all came to him.

Do you notice in the Nativity Scene that none of those people are looking at each other? They are looking at Jesus. And the same was true of the people who sought him out when he was grown up. They did not stop to look at who else was there- they wanted to get to Jesus and bring whatever was on their mind.

Which is why Jesus Christ is our peace. Not because he offers a theology set in stone nor because he lays down the best rules for conducting a contentious church meeting but because he draws eyes and hearts to himself. And whilst different people are focussing on him, they are being shaped into a growing and diverse faith community.

Our need of Christ is what we have in common. Our need of him is what we have in common with churches of different traditions. Our need of him is what we have in common with people who have never entered a church and use the word Jesus only in order to swear. When we look at the Nativity Scene, we are looking at the very first church- people of all kinds coming together to gaze on the face of a child which would become to them the face of God.

So, it is back to Walking the Way- one more step. Because Jesus called his people to journey with him and the journey would never come to an end in this life. Many of us have described this past year as a learning curve and the learning curve will go on through 2021, 22, 23 and, by his grace, we shall be all the better for it.
As a church we have challenges ahead but so long as we are focussed on Jesus, the strength to face and to work through those challenges will remain in us. Hold onto this promise.
I double-checked the Greek of St Paul’s original letter and it did say,
“In Christ you are being built together to become a place in which God lives by his Spirit.” It is a continuous process, not a finished one.
The candle for the church burns as a sign of our hope in Jesus Christ. Stay on the journey with him.