Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday before Lent (9 February 2014) by The Reverend Dr Will Lamb, Vice-Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday before Lent (9 February 2014) by The Reverend Dr Will Lamb, Vice-Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge

The Reverend Dr Will Lamb looks at 'ekklesia' and concludes that it is 'an integral part of the mystery of salvation'.

Wandering through the market in first century Ephesus, you might have been rather surprised to be greeted by a relative stranger and invited to come and join the ekklesia. Surprised not because you saw this as further evidence of what you had come to regard as the rather tiresome and inappropriate proselytism of a strange and subversive sect, but because such an invitation would strike you at first as rather odd, even absurd. In the ancient world, an ekklesia was the word for an assembly of adult male citizens which had the ultimate decision-making power in a Greek city state. I think it’s worth being reminded of the more secular origins of this term, ekklesia.We are so accustomed to viewing it through a more ecclesiastical lens, that we have forgotten how the use of this term would have sounded to the unsuspecting listener.

If an ekklesia was the assembly of citizens, a body responsible for the governance and life of the city, then an invitation to join it would have been strange indeed. Strangers, foreigners and immigrants were not welcome at such gatherings. And yet, if you were intrigued by this invitation, and asked about the kind of gathering you were being invited to, you might have been stunned to discover that in this ekklesia women had a voice, slaves were welcomed with open arms, and Jews and others were included as valued members of this body. This was one of the things that made those first Christian communities in major cities dotted around the Mediterranean so remarkable. And in a city like Ephesus, one of the great economic power-houses of the Mediterranean world, situated on a major trade route between East and West, the Church in Ephesus was a community characterized by an extraordinary degree of diversity. It was also a community striving, somewhat precariously, for unity and reconciliation.

The New Testament reading that we have just heard comes from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Scholars debate whether it was really written by Paul. It’s a question that still generates controversy. The style of writing seems different from letters like Romans, Galatians, and the Corinthian correspondence. At times this letter seems to reproduce little extracts from other letters attributed to Paul. My own view is that this letter is a skilful and creative appropriation of Paul’s teaching for a later time and setting. It is in interpretation of Paul’s theology for a new situation. And we should not be surprised by this. Paul is arguably the greatest Christian theologian, and we should not be surprised that it took the Christian Church, the Christian ekklesia, time to work out the implications of Paul’s theological vision.

One of the curious characteristics of the Letter to the Ephesians is the frequency of the term, church (or in Greek, ekklesia). From the beginning of the Letter, the writer draws our attention to the fact that in this newly c configured assembly, the old dividing lines between Jews and Gentiles have been broken down ‘in order that he might create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross’ (Ephesians 2.15-16). His listeners are addressed as ‘no longer strangers and aliens’, but ‘as citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (Ephesians 2.19). To be a member of this assembly, is to be a member of the body of Christ. To be a member of this assembly, is to be drawn into a holy temple, ‘a dwelling place for God’ (Ephesians 2.22). The church is a new creation and this new creation serves to replace the divided humanity of the old order. It is a place where all are welcome and included – and if you want to think about the implications of this ancient letter, then look around you. For here, we gather from many nations to celebrate our shared humanity and our fellowship in the gospel.

But the writer of this letter also knows that this is work in progress. One of the things that is clear to the modern reader is that the Church in Ephesus was ‘a community of differences’. And there were all sorts of tensions within this community. Sometimes these differences turned into open conflict and disagreement.

The passage that we have heard this evening draws out the implications of this conflict and disagreement. It is rather difficult to reconstruct exactly what was going on. There is a sense in which the writer draws a discreet veil over aspects of disagreement, but when one reads this letter, and indeed many of the other letters attributed to Paul, one is struck by the fact that conflict and controversy within the body of Christ is nothing new.

But… the writer reminds us of that vision of the new creation, which lies at the heart of Paul’s theology, and he wants to draw out the implications of that vision: ‘You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Ephesians 4.22-24).

Do not for a moment imagine that the rhetoric of this letter is designed to encourage Christians to be self-righteous and judgemental. Indeed, there are strong words about those who are alienated from the life of God because of their hardness of heart. And if you want to see the consequences of our hardness of heart, then look no further than our Old Testament reading.

The vision of ‘the new creation’ reminds us that as members of the body of Christ, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Through baptism, we are drawn into the whole drama of salvation. In Paul’s vision, we see the first-fruits of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the resurrection, God is transforming and renewing creation itself.

But to speak of a new creation is not a form of hopeless idealism. When we are presented with this vision, we are being invited to rediscover our true vocation, which is to share in the ministry of reconciliation. And sometimes this will be costly. Sometimes, we will discover that, like Jesus, we also have to face the uncertainty and doubt of Gethsemane, even the horror and passion of Calvary itself.And that is why, in the face of such suffering, we must learn to put away all bitterness and wrath and anger. For God’s ministry of reconciliation must be characterized by kindness and by tender-heartedness: ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4.31-32).

In these few words, we learn that it is only in the light of the resurrection that we discover the potential of God’s grace to transform and restore our relationships, only in the light of the resurrection that we discover the beauty of God’s forgiveness. In that gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, we begin to glimpse that vision of a new creation, a restored and redeemed humanity.

All of this is a reminder to us that the Church, the ekklesia is not an optional extra, a convenient way of organizing the proclamation of the gospel. It is an integral part of the mystery of salvation. The church is called to embody the life of Christ. Moreover, we discover in these words from scripture the resources to live with diversity and difference, not by insisting on our own way, or by excluding others, or by evading difference by associating only with those people who are just like us. The scriptures for today teach us that Church happens, that our life together is transformed, when we learn to be kind and tender-hearted, when we discover the mystery of love, and when we learn to embody the ministry of reconciliation, in all its costliness, its vulnerability and its beauty.

One of the desert fathers was once asked: ‘Father, what must I do to pray?’ The old monk was silent for a moment and then he said: ‘Go out into the world and have compassion. And then, you will find freedom of speech before God.’