By Paul Koch –
We have often romanticized the image of the lone rugged cowboy who doesn’t need anyone else, who can ride into town and save the day and then ride off alone into the sunset when it is all over. But the reality is, no one does much of anything alone. People need each other, we thrive when we are together. Whether we call it a family or a tribe or a fellowship, the gathering together of people who will care for each other and protect each other and challenge each other seems to be part of the human spirit. It is in our friendships and our families that we learn better who we are and find the strength to overcome our weaknesses. It is together that we endure. There is truth in Kipling’s words when he writes the law of the jungle and says, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
To be cast out of the pack, to be ostracized is to face the uncertain terrors of the world alone. Such a path may be romanticized in our movies, but it is rarely the path of victory. To be found on the outside trying to get in is not where any of us wants to be. All of this gets ramped up in importance if the pack that we long to be a part of is not just a gathering of equals around a common interest, but a gathering of equals around Divine gifts of hope and forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. If the blessings of God are at the heart of the fellowship, then the necessity to be a part of that fellowship is crucial. And this is exactly what happens with the advent of our God. He comes bearing the word of life, but he comes as a part of human history. He comes to a certain pack in a certain way.
The theologians used to call this the scandal of particularity. I like that description. It is scandalous that our faith is not about a human quest for God. It isn’t about an infinite number of paths up the same spiritual mountain, that we are all doing our best to climb. No, it is about a God who comes down to us, and he is selective in his coming. He chooses Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He makes a particular people the bearers of his promises. He dwells in their midst in a particular way with a particular worship, where sacrifices were made and absolution was given. He locates himself in their midst so that they might approach his holiness and receive his gifts. He establishes a law that gives the rhythm to their fellowship and establishes the boundaries that separate them out of the rest of the world.
God’s people worshiped him in the tabernacle where he dwelt in the midst of the camp. There, by adherence to the law they could approach through sacrifice and receive his gifts. And of course, the tabernacle becomes the pattern for the temple in Jerusalem and remains the heart of the people of God. As a structure it is well defined. There are courts that establish where people could and could not go. There was the Court of the Priests, the Court of the Israelites, and the Court of the Women. Gentiles where prohibited from entering the temple proper. In fact, there was a low wall surrounding the temple marked with signs in Greek and Latin forbidding Gentiles to enter on pain of death. They were literally left on the outside looking in.
In a world full of death and doubt and despair they were outside of the pack, outside of the family that could actually provide some hope and assurance in this life. But then comes one who can change this situation, one who provides a way of salvation for those on the outside. So, St. Paul writes, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:13) Through Christ we are now all welcome into the dwelling place of God.
Now it is tempting to think that in Christ we simply have a new location to find God, but all the old rules still apply. In other words, we no longer look to the temple for his presence and gifts, but we look to Jesus himself. Yet we still need to keep the law whole and undefiled if we are to be sure that we are really welcome into his dwelling place. The law still applies, it shows us how we ought to live and tells us what we need to do. You might focus then on your behavior; are you courteous, kind and a joyful giver? Do you speak well of others even when it gains you nothing? Do you not cuss and avoid alcohol? Perhaps then you are well on your way to being sure of your welcome into his presence. Then again, perhaps you focus more on what you know. Do you confess the truth faithfully? Are you a stalwart defender of the faith? Do you mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word of God? If so, then I’m sure you are well on your way to confidently receiving all that God has promised.
But I wonder what happens when things don’t go well. What happens when you stumble and fall? What happens when you have tried to live as you know Christians ought to live, and yet you have not succeeded? What happens when you don’t want to try anymore, when it doesn’t seem to make sense or help in the least? What happens to the Christian that has been caught in some public sin? What happens to the one who is so plagued by depression and anxiety that they actually doubt the love of God? What then? Are they cast out? Has their inability to keep the law, their blatant failures, removed them from the gifts and promises of God? Are they left staring at the church like the Gentiles of old gazed at the temple?
Some would say yes. Some would have you investigate your own heart and try harder, dig deeper, and maybe, just maybe you might feel good enough to be welcomed into his dwelling place. But the coming of Christ is not a continuation of the old. It isn’t simply an application of the old law onto a new location of God’s dwelling. Paul says, “Christ Jesus is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two.” (Eph. 2:14-15) The law is abolished for you in his flesh. He fulfilled it. He was the perfect penitent, the one who suffered and died in your place. And so, he has created a new man, one who is reconciled to the Father and to one another. One who is not left on the outside looking in, where all the gifts of his blessing are given freely to you.
So, then Paul says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19) A household that is built upon the foundations of the prophets and the apostles, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. You are brought together into the dwelling place of God, not by your work or your knowledge or even your faithfulness. You are brought together into this fellowship by the blood of Christ alone. This fellowship stands upon a firm and solid foundation of the Word of God. Christ himself is the source of your assurance. This is how you are confident that this day you are the saints of God, you are my brothers and sisters, you are part of the fellowship of the faithful.
But Paul goes on and says that not only are you welcomed into the dwelling place of God but in fact you are the dwelling place of God. He says, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:22) You are the living, breathing church. You are the location of God’s presence in this lost and dark world. You are bearers of light and hope and life. You bear these gifts for each other, not by establishing laws and ordinances but by forgiving and abiding with one another. You bear these gifts for your children and grandchildren, for your friends and family, for “the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
And this pack has at its heart the cross of Christ. A gift of love that surpasses understanding, that defies our sense of justice and morality. This is a particular and scandalous dwelling place of God. But here he remains so that you might know that you are loved, you are welcome, you are forgiven.