This morning’s Epistle lesson is from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians. He was writing to a group of churches that he had established, and, like some of his other letters to other churches, this one addresses some of the conflicts that were tearing the young churches apart.
Likely written 45 to 55 years after Jesus ascended to heaven, it speaks to the churches internal disagreements that were apparently sparked by some traveling missionaries, who had taught that Gentiles wishing to become Christian, and even the churches looking to welcome them should put into place some of the traditional Jewish rites like circumcision, food observances, Sabbath, and festivals.
The section we’ve read today is the final section of a fairly short letter, and it summarizes and encourages the churches in Galatia to address their conflicts with mutual responsibility. Having made his detailed argument earlier in the letter, Paul uses his concluding words to focus on Jesus, and on our Lord and Savior’s commandment that we love each other as he has loved us.
Although this letter was written to a specific set of churches for a specific reason, one of the miracles of our Holy Scriptures is that we can apply these sacred words to many other areas of our own modern lives. The approach Paul exhorts his churches to take is an approach that we, too, would be wise to take, should we ever encounter serious conflict in the church, in our community, or in our family.
Now, those of us gathered in person and on-line can count ourselves blessed that there are not existential threats looming in our worshiping community. We aren’t torn as to how we might go forward in faith. Our Mission, Worship, Congregational Life, and combined leadership are all of one accord, and since we began working together to be one worshiping community, our time has been marked by a deep, mutual respect and an abiding love; for each other, for God, and for Jesus. God is good.
Even though both congregations may have experienced serious conflict in the past, and that is not uncommon for churches, our present is relatively conflict-free.
On the other hand, the conflicts that have arisen in our political and cultural lives is a clear and present danger to the very foundational principles upon which our country has been founded. There are only a few times in our nation’s history when it’s people have been so polarized, so divided, so entrenched.
This most recently concluded Supreme Court Term has simply thrown gasoline onto a fire that was already burning with red and blue flames over the legitimacy of our last presidential election.
Vilifying, demonizing, and ridiculing each other over what freedom means, our country is as divided as the churches in Galatia were back in Paul’s day. And while my own personal understanding of freedom is that we can’t mandate how another believes, or what sacred text they must adhere to, it seems to me that Paul has a pretty good strategy for lowering the temperature on what ails us these days.
For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, Paul’s advice to the churches in Galatia is clear: if we detect any of our neighbors in a transgression, we should treat them with a spirit of gentleness.
That’s right, as angry and as frustrated and as confused as we may be, no matter which side of the culture wars we stand, we are called to treat the one’s who oppose us with a spirit of gentleness, with respect. In fact, Paul would say that we should be working with those with whom we disagree with mutual respect and care, because our very existence as a community depends upon it.
That doesn’t mean we can’t protest, that doesn’t mean we can’t vote for our political leaders that we believe will lead us best, that doesn’t mean we can’t resist unjust oppression, in all its forms. It means that when we encounter each other in those activities, treating each other with a spirit of gentleness will help us focus on what’s really important.
I know some of you will say that in our current climate, a spirit of gentleness is inadequate in the face of such intense disagreement, but what seems to be fueling our entrenched partisanship is our finger pointing and our dismissal of those with whom we disagree as evil.
How is it that we, as a faith community, seem to be able to put aside our private, political differences, and focus on being God calls us to be? I mean, we can’t all believe the same things, we must represent the political diversity that is present in our country today, and yet, here we are, today, focused on God’s Holy Word, intent on worshiping together, sharing a sacred meal together, and we seem to be able to leave our political and cultural differences at the door. Paul would be happy about that.
So what are we to do, in this climate of burning partisanship, when the foundational concept of keeping our faith separate from our politics is under attack?
Can we take what we do here, and apply it to our wider culture? It’s hard, because here, we put that stuff away in order to worship. In the wider culture, the voices can be public, strident, insistent, and often caustic, and there isn’t a unified focus at all.
Can we apply our faith principles to how we approach these political and cultural clashes? Of course we can! We can seek comfort from the one who calls us on the way, and who has given us a spirit of gentleness as a guide along the way.
Violence, either physical, emotional, or verbal, flies in the face of what Paul, and ultimately Jesus, calls us to be. Even if those whom we oppose don’t reciprocate, striving for mutual respect and using the spirit of gentleness as a guide may be our best tool for affecting change.
While we need to resist the powers that oppress, and while we need to oppose the acts that strip freedoms away from the vulnerable, Paul tells us that we must take care not to get carried away in the rhetoric of argument. That when we approach conflict with the intent of using a spirit of gentleness, it will have its own rewards, just as those who don’t will have their own consequences.
But even as all this is going up in flames, the real victims are those who do not have a voice, those who do not have access to power, or financial resources, who have impossible decisions to make in their lives.
I know it sounds naïve, I know some of you could say that this is an unrealistic and ineffective approach to such big conflicts. I know that some will come to realize that Jesus took the ‘resistance with a spirit of gentleness’ approach to the culture wars of his day, and look where it got him.
But if our resistance to oppression, if our resistance to the systemic ills in our government and society, and if our resistance to those in power who would seek to limit or even eliminate freedoms from some of our neighbors, if they aren’t based on a spirit of gentleness, if they aren’t based in love, and instead are based on anger and hate, well, we’ve then become that which we despise.
Katherine Lee Bates, author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, had a spirit of gentleness, and a wider view of our country. In her refrain from the second stanza of her hymn, she writes: America! America! God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
A gentle way of saying that as a country, we aren’t perfect, and that we need God to help us get better.
These are big issues, and I will admit that I feel wholly inadequate in trying to address them theologically or biblically. But our faith has a powerful role to play in the way that we live. Our faith has a role in the way that we resist oppression, and the abuse of power. And in spite of the intensity of the conflict, Paul’s advice to a church in conflict is that they take on a spirit of gentleness when addressing one with whom they disagree, even if the ones with whom they disagree won’t join them.
Our country is best when its glorious diversity is celebrated, not squelched. Our country is best when its freedoms are respected, not rolled back. Our country is best when its citizens act on its behalf with the very best of intentions, based on the very best of their own faith impulses or philosophy.
May God mend our every flaw, and may the spirit of gentleness guide our journey that as we live our faith lives, we become hope for the hopeless, comfort for the uncomfortable, joy for the joyless, and a voice for the vulnerable. These are the things Paul would consider important. And so should we. Amen.
by Elder Mary Browne
The temple shows up in two of our scriptures today. We are not much into temples in 2022. Why should we care about a building that was destroyed almost two thousand years ago? What was it good for? Why was David not allowed to build it? How did it get mixed up with the early church in our Ephesians passage? We have a lot of questions if we are paying any attention.
So let us begin with the easy questions first. Why did David want to build a temple in the first place? David explains that he has a nice new palace built of cedars from Lebanon and he feels that God deserves at least as good a dwelling. The idea that God deserves the best seems obvious. David consults with his spiritual adviser, the person thought to be closest to God and most aware of what God wanted. Nathan the prophet's first reaction is – go for it. Having watched God bless David's endeavors over and over again, Nathan assumes that David is God's favorite. Whatever David wants to do will get the green light.
Nathan must have been a bit surprised to hear God's reaction in his dream. ' Have I ever said that I needed a house of cedar?' asks the Lord. 'I have been doing just fine in a tent, going wherever my people have gone. I will build David a house. It is David's son who will build me a house.' The Lord is playing with the word house. In saying that he will build David a “house,” God is referring to a dynasty, a long, long parade of people who will flow from David into the future to continue his kingdom and his service to God. Of course the “house” that David envisioned and Solomon eventually built was a physical building to shelter the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites believed that the Lord God sat enthroned in splendor. That temple lasted roughly a thousand years. It was magnificent. It endured good times and bad. When the people were sent into exile, the temple fell into disrepair. It was rebuilt after each bad time in the same spot, using many of the same stones. In at least one bad time, the temple preserved the scrolls of the law, which had been lost, to be found again by those rebuilding the structure.
I admit that I am curious about why God decided not to have David build the temple. David was a great favorite of God's, but God did not choose to grant his desire in this case. Perhaps God wanted to remind David – gently – that God was the one in charge, the one actually making the decisions. Perhaps God wanted to show the people of Israel that David's special relationship with God extended to the son who would rule after him. Having God love and bless he king was very good for the nation, but would it end when the king died? By building David's “house” for him and designating his successor to build the physical temple, God was reassuring the people that they would not lose the blessings or the favor of God when David died.
We did not read the part of Second Samuel that shows us David's reaction to the news that he was not to be the one to build the temple. David went to talk to God and thank God for caring for him and for the people of Israel. He thanked God for promising to care for his descendants. David praised God at length for all the many blessings he had received, all the times God had protected and guided him. Not once does he complain or say he could build a better temple than his son would build. David valued his relationship with God. He valued it more than his own status or glory as king. David may have enjoyed being king, with all its benefits, but he did not think that he “deserved” to be king or that he had accomplished everything by his own intelligence and power. David made mistakes during his reign and did some bad things, but he always accepted God's judgment on his deeds and worked to repair his relationship with God. I think that is the reason that God never turned away from David, as he had from Saul, the former king. It also explains God's willingness to promise that he will always love David's descendants. God counted on those descendants continuing to value their relationship with God.
Part of David's desire to build God a temple in Jerusalem was as a way to honor God. Another part, however, was to keep the main center of worship in the new capital. The Ark of the Covenant, wherever it was, was the center of the Jewish religion and the heart of the nation. David wanted the priests and the chief prophet close at hand, both for advice and for the legitimacy they offered his government. He realized that a people whose identity came from their God and their shared experience of God's care needed a center of worship. He hoped that a magnificent temple would act as a focal point for all the people, helping to establish the capital as the center of life for the people and the nation.
What part did the temple play in people's lives, once it was built? The temple was not the local place of worship for most of the people of Israel, that would have been their synagogue. Most of them could not get to the temple regularly because it was too far away in a time and place where most travel was by foot or, if you were well off, by donkey or horse. Devout people tried to get to the temple once or twice a year on special occasions. Of course, if you lived in Jerusalem, you could worship there much more often. Even nearly two thousand years after the destruction of the temple, the Jews still end the Seder which celebrates Passover with the phrase, “next year in Jerusalem,” the site of the temple.
Let us think for a minute about what the temple meant to the Jews over the centuries. The Jews saw the temple as the center of faith and life. It was where God “lived” and where you could be sure to find God. Their faith was too sophisticated to think that God was only in the temple, but it was their primary place of worship and relationship, both as a people and as individuals. The temple was a symbol of Israel's relationship to God, of God's promises to Abraham as well as to David. It was the primary place of learning. The rabbis there ran what amounted to the college level course in their religion and in everything that was felt to be most important. The local synagogue taught basic reading, writing and religious studies. The temple taught those who were recommended for advanced work. It was also the place of spiritual rest and refreshment, a place to get away from business and concentrate on more important things, like your relationship with the Lord and the Law of Moses which governed that relationship.
For centuries, conquerors tried to destroy the Israelites by destroying the temple. They rightly guessed that, if they could sever the relationship between the people and God, they could actually absorb these people or render the Israelites a harmless non-people. What they could not understand was that the temple was only a symbol of the relationship. Every time invaders destroyed the temple and carried off the leaders of the people, those invaders were actually spreading the faith and planting new communities of Jews in far-off kingdoms. They did not grasp the idea that the people of Israel carried the temple in their hearts. Left to their own devices, the Israelites might never have gone far from their beloved temple in Jerusalem. But when they were forced to live far away, they did not forget to sing the Lord's song in a new land. They remembered who they were and whose they were and incorporated the temple in their liturgy as a symbol to remind themselves. Notice that it was not the great palace or the governmental structures that assumed a place of importance in their hearts and lives. It was the temple, always the temple, the “house of God.”
So was Paul just another Jew who loved the temple when he wrote to the church he had founded at Ephesus? We know that Paul had done advanced study at the temple. He probably had friends there. He had made enough of an impression on the temple leadership to be given a task requiring both passion and some diplomacy in dealing with the Romans. He had been commissioned by the temple authorities to track down Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. This was before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, which changed everything. Was this just nostalgia? Or was there something much more important that Paul had in mind? Why did he think that new Christians, who were not even Jewish in background, needed to know or think about the temple?
Paul begins our passage by reminding the Ephesian Christians of their own past. They had been Gentiles, knowing nothing of God or God's ways. As he says, they had been “excluded from the community of Israel, strangers to God's covenants and the promise that goes with them.” Paul portrays this in the words: “Yours was a world without hope and without God.” How bleak can you get? For Paul, as for the other Israelites, without God there is no hope, no future worth living in.
When the Ephesians became followers of Jesus Christ, everything changed. They were no longer outside the covenant or the community. Their inclusion had nothing to do with how much they liked – or even whether they liked – the Christians who were Jewish. It had nothing to do with whether those Christians who were Jewish liked or felt comfortable with the former Gentiles. God had sent Jesus to be the Christ for both groups. In shedding his blood and giving up his life for them, he had made them kin in a way that had nothing to do with who they were and everything to do with who God was in Christ. This must have been a shock to both groups.
One of the major disagreements in the early church was over whether the new Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and become good Jews before they could be baptized as Christians. What looked like it was shaping up to be a major fight between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem led by Peter and the Gentile Christians throughout Asia Minor converted by Paul became a peaceful pact when Peter and Paul met in Jerusalem. They agreed that the Gentile converts did not need to become Jews to become Christians. Circumcision was not required. The new Christians would, however, “remember the poor of Jerusalem” by contributing to the care of the poor Jewish Christians who were being persecuted in Jerusalem. What actually diffused tempers and set up the peaceful agreement was the dream Peter had in which God showed him three times all the animals that the Jews considered unclean and told him not to call unclean anything that God had created. In other words, the fight was headed off by divine intervention. God had better things in mind for the church than to fracture itself over technicalities at the very beginning.
Now, the Ephesian Christians had little knowledge of and no experience with the temple in Jerusalem. They may have been familiar with temples to idols there in Ephesus, or in nearby towns. Many places had dominant religions with centers of worship, but most places had a variety of gods associated with different natural functions and places. There would be a mother-type god who granted children and safety in childbirth. There would be a warrior-type god who lead the army and gave victory in battle. At times, the various gods would contend for the hearts and minds of the people. This usually revealed itself in a political showdown between the leaders of the cults involved over power and money. None of these experiences would have prepared the Ephesians for the kind of temple that Paul had in mind.
I do not mean to imply that the temple in Jerusalem did not have factions within it or that there were no power struggles in Jewish religious circles. But no matter how much fussing and disagreement there may have been, there was only one God that everyone acknowledged and obeyed. Everyone read the same Torah and writings, the book of the Law and the ancient prophets. Everyone took all their concerns to the same God for help and judgment. There was a theological center to Jewish life that held it all together and that center was symbolized by the temple.
So Paul has to explain this way of working to the new Christians in Ephesus. He does not tell them to build a physical temple in their city. He does not tell them to journey to Jerusalem to the temple there to worship. He tells them to become the temple. This is an amazing idea. How could these people far from the Jerusalem temple in both physical distance and cultural experience become the temple? And why would Paul tell them to do so?
We believe that Paul probably wrote to the Ephesians from prison in Rome. That dates the letter very close to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans. Whether the temple was actually gone when Paul wrote the letter or whether the situation was just so precarious that travel to Jerusalem was very dangerous, we do not know. We do know that Paul used the image of the people as stones that God built into the temple as a way to show the Ephesians that they were as necessary and important as the Jewish Christians in the church. Christ might be the cornerstone on which everything else depended, but one stone – no matter how important – does not make an entire building.
Paul tells the Ephesians that:
“You are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner-stone. In him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also are being built with all the others into a spiritual dwelling for God.” (Ephesians 2: 20-22)
Their new-found faith in Christ is not something that has no substance. It grows out of thousands of years of relationship with God. All those prophets who spoke God's word to the people over several thousand years formed a deep-laid foundation, a relationship that endured and informed the people about who God was, what God was like, and what God expected of them. All the apostles who knew Jesus in human form, who watched him live and die, who met him after the resurrection, built their faith on the foundation of the prophets and Israel's relationship with God. To that foundation they added what they had seen and heard as witnesses. All of this is what under-girds the faith of the new Gentile Christians in Ephesus. Those Christians do not need to be afraid that the foundation will crumble, that someone will prove them wrong, that some new trend will sweep it away.
What kind of a temple is God building here? It must be strong, obviously, to endure whatever weather – physical or human – it encounters. It will have a great variety of “stones” to accommodate all the various types of people who believe in Christ and who will come to believe in Christ. This temple is to be holy, sacred, special to God. Another way to say it is that this temple is to be set apart for God. It is to be separated from the common, the impure, the ordinary so it will be fit for God. For the temple to be holy, the stones also need to become holy, dedicated to God. This holiness, this dedication to God does not mean that the people who are the stones of the temple are not human. They will still need to do common things, like eat and sleep, and clean up after themselves and their children. They will, however, need to do them with uncommon patience and love. They will need to live both very much like everyone else and very differently from everyone else. They will do many activities that participate with others in their communities, from games and sports to voting or serving on the PTA. In addition, they will make time for worship and bible study and prayer. Those “extra” activities will flavor everything they say and do, making them holy people set apart for God.
If the temple was important for those early Christians, is it still important for us? Are we still being built into that spiritual temple to be God's dwelling-place? Paul would certainly say that we are. He would be sure that God is building all his people into place to produce the strength and variety that will be beautiful and holy. Please note that God is doing the building. We are not. We are not responsible for the architectural drawings or the grand design. We do not get to select the stones – or to reject any of them. We do not even have any say about which ones will reside in our local communities or attend our local church as part of our congregation. That is hard for us to deal with. We like to think that we are in charge. We like to think that we “make a difference.” But we want to choose what type of difference we will make.
Remember the prophets that helped create the foundation. They did not get to choose where they would go or what they would say. “Thus says the Lord” is a whole lot different from “in my opinion.” I am sure that prophets had opinions, but we know very little about what they were. We do get one glimpse in our scripture about David. Nathan feels sure that David can go ahead and get started on the temple. After all, God has declared his love for David and given him victory after victory over his enemies. Instead, God instructs Nathan to tell David that God disapproves of his plan. So even prophets can be led astray by their opinions. Nathan does not get to choose what will happen or even what he will say.
As much as we may dislike it, our job is not to choose for God or to tell God how to build the Body of Christ into the temple for God to dwell in. We can make our plans and explore our ideas. But before we really get started, we need to check with the Lord to see if that is what God is planning or wants us to be planning. We all have a strong tendency to feel that we know how things “ought “ to be. Sometimes it is based on what we learned as children, either at home or at church. Sometimes it is based on the experiences or insights we have gained during our lives. Often it is based on the ideas and prejudices of the people with whom we spend time. It is difficult to stretch ourselves to see the needs of everyone around us, to imagine how life looks to people from very different backgrounds. This is what Paul is asking of the Ephesians. If they are to be stones that God can use to build a great and holy spiritual temple, they must stretch themselves to become like Christ and to fit with the other stones God is gathering. Those stones are believers from every time and place, not just the known and familiar.
Our job begins to reveal itself as becoming good, solid, usable stones. I admit I never really wanted to be a stone. But as a metaphor, I can begin to understand what Paul is suggesting. Stones are dependable, reliable. Stones do not give into pressure. Most stones do not crumble easily. They have great integrity and remain what they are through all sorts of conditions. We do not need to all be the same type of stone, just the best of our own type that we can manage. We will never be perfect; we will still need God to shape and polish us, to make us fit into the great structure. There is a place for each of us, the perfect size and shape for each particular person to fit into. All we must do is to copy Christ as the corner-stone and trust God for the rest.