Where does God live? A Church? A desert? A mountaintop? People have always made places sacred. Less intentionally, we have also made places the opposite of sacred by our actions. We don’t consider a strip club or bar sacred space. But we hallow Church buildings. We enter cathedrals with reverence and awe. We stand in the presence of nature in the wilderness and feel the presence of God in the beauty around us. And we are convinced that in some places God dwells, and in others evil lives. And perhaps, to a degree, we are right. I know that at least subjectively I have felt the presence of good and the presence of evil in places. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, but even the most casual of observers often make comments about a place “having good vibes,” or “giving me the creeps.”
Technically, of course, God dwells everywhere, but in some places that is harder to feel than others. I can’t imagine standing in a concentration camp and not being deeply affected by the atrocities that took place there. Evil leaves a scar. And on the rare occasion when I have walked into houses and felt the presence of suffocating darkness I know without a doubt that evil has been done there, but I can’t explain it. But beyond all of this, beyond the residual presence of good or evil, there is somewhere else that God dwells. God dwells in a living Temple. God dwells in us.
When David was king he wanted to build a temple for God. He felt guilty because he lived in a house of cedar while the Ark of the Covenant, believed to be God’s throne, was still kept in a tent. But God said no. God said, “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
Of course Solomon went on to build a physical temple, and when that was destroyed the second Temple was built under Herod. It too was destroyed, this time by the Romans. There is a lesson here. Buildings do not last. But God is not limited to their confines, and the descendent of David whose kingdom will last forever is Jesus.
In the earliest days of the Church the physical Temple still existed. The sharp divisions between Jew and Gentile were extreme. This was a divided world. But the Church was in a crisis, because many of its new members were Gentiles, and they were Gentiles who were not converting to Judaism first. Into this context Ephesians makes a sweeping statement. It’s hard for us to grasp just how radical, and offensive, this statement was. Speaking of Jesus, Ephesians says, “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.”
Ephesians is an affront to traditional Judaism. This statement takes the 613 commandments of the Law and makes them null and void. It removes the distinctive nature of the Jewish way of life. The Law kept Jews separate. Keeping the law and remaining separate was a command from God. And now some Christian upstart comes along and says to just set the law aside! Why? Because the cross fulfills the Law. There is no longer any need for sacrifice. But the law is about more than sacrifices. It’s everything. It’s diet and prayer and lifestyle and devotion. Yet Ephesians states that the only thing necessary is Christ.
While I can say all of this with a straight face, I do have a huge appreciation for just how appalling and offensive such a statement is to our Jewish sisters and brothers. To be told to just abandon everything scripture teaches and trust that a crucified criminal is God’s plan of salvation is absurd! What we perhaps need to remember, however, is that Ephesians was written to Gentiles. The author, Paul or someone else, had no concept that these words would be taken and blasted large across time and space. The original small group of Gentiles who received this letter would have heard in these words hope and welcome from a God they had no relationship with before. Those who were once far off have now been brought near.
Jesus is our peace with God and one another. He came to destroy all barriers, all dividing walls of hostility. There are two different words used here. The first means a middle wall or partition. Houses at this time often consisted of one room divided by temporary partitions put up at night for privacy. The second word can mean this kind of partition, but it can also mean something sturdier, like a fence. Whether the divisions we have erected are flimsy or entrenched, Jesus has come to take them down and to take them completely apart. Not to get political here, but God doesn’t seem too fond of walls. We are told that Jesus came to put the hostility behind the creation of walls to death. This is a strong and strange turn of phrase. He came to literally kill hostility and alienation. The cross puts to death our need to hate each other.
I have never been to Israel, but there are dividing walls in Israel, dividing those in the Gaza strip from the rest of the land, and cutting the inhabitants off from resources. The reason is fear. There is violence back and forth. The walls went up to keep people safe, but they have not kept people safe. Walls are what we build to keep people out. Bridges are what we built to bring people in. Jesus became our bridge.
God’s goal is reconciliation, originally bringing together Jews and Gentiles into one Church, but reconciliation involves significant change. Taking enemies and making them friends is NOT easy! No wonder the hostility had to be literally put to death. But the differences between Jewish and Gentile believers in the early Church was a critical issue. It was something that could have destroyed the Church before it even got established. It is not possible to have one entity made up of two groups not on speaking terms with each other. Ephesians says that instead of being strangers and enemies, the new Gentile believers have become fellow citizens and part of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone. The image is then brought to culmination as Ephesians continues, “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.”
We are the living temple of God with Christ as our cornerstone. Together we form the building blocks and create the space where God lives. This is why Christians were not designed to be lone rangers and why commitment to a local congregation is so important, because it is when we are together that God dwells most powerfully in our midst. We literally fit together like stones carefully joined and function as a whole. Interestingly, we understand this in our team sports. The thing that made the Eagles such an awesome team last year is that there were no prima donnas. Each and every member of the team did his job, and the two quarterbacks did not compete against each other, they formed two halves of a whole. I’m not even knowledgeable about football and I know that! The thing that we like about many of our TV shows is watching a team of people come together and solve a crime or accomplish a goal. We know all about people with complementary skills working together and doing great things. But when it comes to Church, we forget all about this. We go to Church. It’s entirely passive. But that is NOT really what Church is. We don’t go to Church. We are the Church. We come together to BE the Church. And the Church does a lot of things that don’t happen on a Sunday morning.
Jesus came to make us a living temple where God dwells. He came to take away the dividing walls that keep us apart. And he came to call us together to serve God by serving one another. God lives in the joining together of lives for a shared higher purpose. Buildings may hold memories. Places may contain the residual effects of spiritual good or evil, but God lives among God’s people, the living Temple of God. Amen.
2 Samuel 7:1-7; 11b-13
7 After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”
3 Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”
4 But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:
5 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? 6 I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. 7 Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’
“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you:12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
11 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)— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 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, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.