SJF • Proper 10b • Tobias S Haller BSGBeginning today and for the next few Sundays, we will be hearing a course of readings from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a joy to leave the troublesome Corinthians behind! For while Paul’s letters to those folks are full of the problems of a divisive and fractured community, his letter to the church in Ephesus shows us the church as it is meant to be — a church not without its tensions, but in which the tensions combine to strengthen the whole structure, as in a building the stresses of weight and pressure are what hold it together. One of the great wonders of architecture is the skill that allows an architect to use the weight of the structure pushing down to make it rise even higher. In the great gothic cathedrals of the middle ages, the weight of the vaulted roof is transferred down the columns and into the walls and the buttresses — the whole thing in a wonderful dynamic tension that allows the structure to stand tall and proud.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Even in our own little Saint James Church, you can see how the weight of the high central roof over the nave is transferred down the ribs along the ceiling, supported by those pointed arches running east and west, down into the columns and off to the side aisles, through those arches running north and south, into the walls and the buttresses that you can see from outside. It is in the balance of those forces pressing down and pressing in that allows the church to rise and stand — much as your pushing down on the arms of a chair lifts you up!
In his letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul takes up this sort of imagery: the language of balanced tension, of mutual submission, which is the cornerstone of the church’sstrength and which allows it to stand.
Now like any good architect, God had a plan in mind before the construction began. And what a construction this was to be! Not just a simple earthly structure, but one which would gather up all things in heaven and earth, each element to find its place in the final finished masterpiece. And the amazing thing that Paul attests to in the opening of this letter, is that we are not just elements in the construction, but are to be let in on the plan itself: the mystery of God’s will, which God set forth in Christ, who in some marvelous sense is the plan to be completed in the fullness of time. We have been, as Paul insists, chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, destined for adoption as his children, redeemed, forgiven, and having gifts lavished on us all out of keeping with what we deserve.
Thus Saint Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians by reminding them that God has chosen them. To use language more reflective of Paul’s time, God has elected them. Or to use the language of our Gospel today: God has called them.
Now it is quite natural that when one is going to set about a task, the first thing to do is to assemble the ingredients. Whether you’re working in the kitchen or in your garden, whether you’re building a model airplane or a house, you want to have all the tools and supplies within arm’s reach. There are few things more inconvenient than being stuck holding a mixer or a paint brush or a trowel — or a plumb line — only to discover that you need the sugar that’s up on the top shelf, or that you run out of paint or cement, or left your marking pencil on the other side of the room.
I’m sure not a few of us here have had the experience of buying a piece of furniture from IKEA or similar store. I say “furniture” advisedly, because what you’ve actually bought is a box containing all the parts you need to make a piece of furniture, with a picture of what you want on the outside of the box, along with the instruction sheet inside. Fortunately each and every part is marked and labeled with little sticky labels saying “A” or “B” so that you can tell the top of the shelf from the bottom of the shelf, and the front from the back. And if you follow the instructions, the plan that is laid out, you will, with some skill, end up with a piece of furniture that looks more or less like what was shown on the picture on the box.
Well all of us, like the Ephesians, are like those bits and pieces that God is going to put together to make the church, following the plan that has been kept in reserve from the beginning of time. And each and every one of us is marked, marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, and each of us has a place in the finished construction, according to the plan which is about being carried out. Everyone is gathered together and is about to be assembled.
It is no accident that the earliest name for the church is “the assembly.” It is the group that is called together, assembled to become something greater than each of its individual members could be alone.
But there is more to this church, this assembly, than simply being assembled. And we see that in the opening words of today’s Gospel: “ Jesus called the twelve to him, and began to send them out two by two.” Jesus calls, he assembles — but then he sends. And here the imagery shifts from an architect constructing a building to that of a commander with his troops. Jesus assembles his forces and prepares them to be sent forth with their marching orders: to travel light and to live off the generosity of those to whom they go — not to take extra food or extra clothes or extra money, but to rely instead on the generosity of the people they will encounter in their mission.
As with so much else in the Christian faith, this presents us with a paradox — but it is that same paradox of tension in unity that holds a building together. We are called, we are assembled, we are brought together — but not simply to be together. Rather we are called together to receive our marching orders: to go out into the world that God has made and that God has redeemed. For he has revealed his plan to us, and most importantly has revealed that it is not just for us — but for everyone who will receive it. This plan for the fullness of time was meant to gather all things up into him, things in heaven and things on earth — beginning with those he first called together, but growing year by year and decade by decade and century by century as the word went forth, carried by those apostles and their successors, who traveled light, lived off the land, and spread the word of peace.
It is a high calling, my friends. It is an even higher sending. We have not simply been honored by being chosen for the team — we have been equipped to play the game. We are not called together simply to be but to do. At the end of our worship today, here in this place to which God has called you, keep in mind that your going forth is as important as your coming in: for you too are marked with the Holy Spirit, and charged with a task, sent to spread the good news, the redemption promised in Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glory. Glory to God whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine; glory to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus our Lord.+