By Paul Koch –
When I was growing up, my parents took me to church. Church, as we understood it as children, was a place you went on Sunday mornings. It was a place with peculiar furniture: pews and a pulpit and lectern, not to mention the altar and the communion rail. It was a place designed for a purpose; it was designed to hear the Word and receive the sacraments of our Lord. But as we grow in a church, as we learn and broaden our understanding of the faith, we begin to see that the church is not a building. The building is simply a place that houses the church, for the church is the people. When I stand before you Sunday after Sunday and proclaim God’s Word, what I see looking back at me is the church. The church stands around afterward and drinks coffee in the courtyard, the church is the young and old, the men and women who gather around the Word.
What this means is that the church, then, is made up of an incredibly diverse people. Now sure we all live in the same general area, but we are not all alike. There are socioeconomic differences, generational differences, differences in preferences from music to how we ought to eat and exercise. Some of you are in successful if not all-consuming careers, working day in and day out with barely enough time to come up for air. Others are retired scheduling your days around volunteer opportunities and trips to the golf course. Some come from broken homes others from traditional families. Some are bold and outgoing others shy and almost invisible. Some of you are strong and commanding and some feel that they simply don’t belong.
In fact, there are many among the fellowship of the church that are on the fringe. Not that we would know it by looking at them, but there are many who are right there on the edge of things. Perhaps they have been hurt by the church before, and though they are here they are constantly teetering or cautious that they might be wounded yet again. There are the depressed and those who know full well the weight of their own sin. Though they gather here they feel that they do not belong because they are hypocrites and their sin is too defining. Even the arrogant and the proud can be on the fringe, separating themselves from the fellowship by self-righteous ideals. And it all makes me wonder if we can ever truly be one in the church. Can we truly be brothers and sisters in unity?
In St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he deals with issues of separation that are far more profound than the ones we face, or at least they are more pronounced. He deals with the separation between the circumcised and uncircumcised, between the Jews and Gentiles. This separation was built into the very fiber of their identity; it had been an ancient practice. Time and again the Israelites had been called to remain separated from the nations. Time and again their failure to do so had led them towards idolatry and destruction. The dietary, ritual, and aesthetic laws of these people heightened their separation from the nations.
There was no mistaking it; this was not a united church. Some wore special clothes and refused to eat certain foods, others shopped in the marketplaces where they bought meat sacrificed to false gods. It wasn’t that they just looked or acted differently among each other, it wasn’t just that the Gentiles didn’t understand the Jews or vice versa. The problem was one of distrust and even hostility. The Jews stood in the blood lineage of Abraham; they were the chosen people. How could they ever be united to the Gentiles? The law of God had created a division where the other side was viewed with derision and distrust.
But that wall, that dividing wall of hostility, has come crumbling down. The transgression against the Law is embraced in the flesh of Christ as He alone is the perfect sacrifice. He then establishes a new relationship between us and God and between our brothers and sisters. So St. Paul can speak to this divided church and proclaim, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were 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.” In His flesh the church finds unity for there the law is fulfilled. There the Gospel of freedom pours out in great abundance.
Listen carefully to the incredible Word that Paul speaks to both Jews and Gentiles. He says that Christ “came and 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. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
The work and Word of Christ stands at the heart of the church, and it is His Word of peace that stands at the heart of unity. And that Word goes out to you also.
Whether you sit comfortably in the center of the church secure in your confidence, or you sit way out on the fringe doubting if you belong or if you even deserve a place in the fellowship, to you Christ proclaims peace. To the proud who look down on those who fail at holding it all together Christ says, “Peace, for I have died for their sins as well as yours.” To the frightened and timid He says, “Peace, for in me you are strong; you have defeated death and the grave. You will live.” To the depressed and the guilt-ridden He says, “Peace, for you I came. For you I died. For you I rose again. You are forgiven.”
Wherever you are right now, whatever fears or doubts or worries consume your heart, know that the peace of Christ is yours. And in that peace we are being built together. Together we are strong. Together we make our stand and speak a Word of hope that this world desperately needs. Together, in Christ alone, we are the church.
Look around and behold the dwelling place of God!