Belonging Now – 22nd July 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

2 Sam 7: 1 – 14a

Psalm 89: 21 – 38

Ephesians 2: 11 – 22

Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56

Imagine always being on the outside. It may be at school when you are the one not chosen for a team. It may be coming into a new job where the routines are unfamiliar. It may be when moving city or country when things everyone else seems to know and take for granted, simply aren’t. It may be finally plucking up the courage to stay for coffee after a service, getting into the hall and, coffee in hand, finding yourself standing alone in a corner. It may be walking into a shop or crowded room and everyone turns to look at you – and you wonder, is it because of your dress, your skin colour, your accent, the shape of your nose or eyes. To be always on the outside is to be lonely, isolated, vulnerable, excluded, longing to be recognized as someone, something, of value.

And then imagine that someone steps out of the crowd and says, Welcome. Come and join us. You are one of us, you belong. Welcome.

Such is the situation into which today’s extract from the Letter to the Ephesians is written. There’s some pretty horrible finger-pointing language in the first few lines – you Gentiles, you were without Christ. The message is loud and clear – you are not part of us, you are different, you don’t belong. It gets worse because the reasons for not belonging, the differences, are clearly articulated in these words – uncircumcised, aliens, strangers, having no hope and without God! Talk of putting someone down!

But then it all changes for, as the author writes, “in Christ you who once were far off have been brought near”, the dividing wall, the hostility that separated, has been broken down. The Law that kept people apart has been abolished. Something new has been created. There is this enormous sea change in attitude to those formerly on the outside. How did it come about? What made the change, the difference?

The author tells us – Christ Jesus. It’s to do with the blood of Christ, his death on the cross, his offering of himself, his flesh and blood. It is this incredible, quite extraordinary offering of one man’s life which breaks down the dividing walls, the hostility. And a new humanity is created. Note it is not a case of being accepted in to one way of life, not about becoming one of the ‘in crowd’ – no, it’s a new humanity that is created. And that’s really important. The outsider is not simply grafted on to the old in-crowd. Rather the former outsider and the former insider become the ingredients for something new altogether. What is available to one is available to all in this brave new world. There is a whole new definition now. Look again at the last few lines of today’s reading from Ephesians. Those who were considered outsiders, and those who thought of themselves as insiders, are made into something new – citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, built upon the common foundation of apostles and saints, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone – this is a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling-place for God. Wow!

How did all this come about? What was it that led to this extraordinary piece of writing and the quite radical insights into what God has brought about in Jesus Christ? Let’s take a brief look at the other readings we are offered today.

For several weeks now we have been reading snippets of the story of David – and we will continue to do so over the next few weeks. Today’s reading from 2 Samuel 7 offers a brief recap of his life to date. It’s a rags-to-riches story – a shepherd boy, the youngest of a large family belonging to the smallest and least significant tribe, snatched from the pastures and made a prince. In the narrator’s eyes David can do no wrong – at least not thus far. Following his epic battle with the Philistine giant Goliath, David becomes the favoured son and heir apparent. A brilliant military tactician he outmaneuvers his former champion, King Saul, and takes his place – king, not only of Saul’s former kingdom, but of a much larger united kingdom of all the tribes of Israel. Having established his headquarters in the city of Jerusalem, henceforth to be called the ‘Holy City’, David wishes to honour the god who brought him fame and power by building a temple. Nathan, a prophet who has the king’s ear, advises him against it, and suggests there is something else God has in mind for him. (Incidentally, we should note the name of the prophet – for he will feature significantly in a week or two in relation to David’s shameful conduct with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah.) It’s not a physical house, temple or grand palace that David must build, but rather a dynasty that God will build – to be known as the House of David.

Segue into Psalm 89 and listen to David’s praise-singer. “I have found my servant David and anointed him with my holy oil … I will make him my first born son and highest among the kings of the earth … I will establish his line for ever and his throne like the days of heaven.” It doesn’t get much better than that.

Sadly this ‘house’ of David did not last forever – though it did go on for hundreds of years until the Babylonians arrived on the scene. But the story, the myth if you like, was not lost. Perhaps through the continual recitation of Psalm 89, and other similar psalms, a thousand years after David the story was still told. A nation was formed around the idea that they were God’s chosen, special, selected out of all the peoples of the world to be better than any others. They looked with disdain on people of other nations and had a physical mark to prove their difference – circumcision. Their Law specified a peculiar way of living, and, at least to their neighbours, an even more peculiar set of beliefs focused on a god who advocated justice and love of neighbor, rather than ritual sacrifice and offerings.

Oppressed over centuries by powerful neighbours, the belief arose that God would send God’s own special envoy – the Messiah – to establish God’s kingdom on earth. It would, of course, be focused on Jerusalem and those who called themselves God’s Chosen. All other people were treated like dirt, and given that most derogatory of names – “Gentile”.

Move your focus now to the Gospel of Mark and an itinerant teacher from a provincial backwater – known to us as Jesus of Nazareth. He and his followers were stirring up the crowds, attracting attention by the extraordinary claims made about him. Such were the stories of healing and exorcism that people flocked to hear him, travelling into inhospitable places to get close to their super hero and a chance just to touch the hem of his cloak. We know how the story unfolds; how Jesus came to the attention of the authorities and was betrayed by one of his own, arrested by the police and executed on a cross; abandoned by those called Disciples or Apostles. If the stories are to be believed it was only a handful of women, among them Mary Magdalene, who stayed close and watched him die.

All four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was among those who discovered the empty tomb. John’s Gospel gives us that most beautiful encounter between Mary and the risen Jesus, whom she took to be the gardener, and the charge to go and tell his disciples that “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20: 17) Mary Magdalene is honoured with the title, Apostle to the Apostles.

The saga evolves through the Book of Acts and the writings of St Paul. Whether or not it was Paul who wrote Ephesians, the enormous leap of understanding of what God has done in Christ is consistent with Paul’s teaching. No longer was Jesus of Nazareth, descendant of David and born in Bethlehem, king simply of the Jews, the Chosen people of God with their prized mark of circumcision. No longer were those labeled the ‘uncircumcision’ by those who are called the ‘circumcision’ (Ephesians 2: 11), the despised hated Gentiles – no longer were they aliens and strangers, without hope and without God.

No – in an extraordinary piece of insight the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians, building on all that has gone before, the apostles and the prophets, claims that through the blood of Christ, through the death of Jesus on the cross, a new creation has come into being. It is nothing less than the household of God, a holy temple in the Lord, the dwelling-place of God.

And guess what? You and I, just as we are, warts and all, are included in this new creation. Week by week, as we gather together to worship God, to renew our baptismal faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, and come forward to receive the precious Body and Blood of Christ, we proclaim this incredible piece of news. We are not outsiders. We belong – to God and to each other. We have a place to call home. And we have a task to perform, a Gospel to proclaim. For, in the words of one of our Easter hymns, “He broke the power of death and hell that we might share His victory.”

We have a Gospel to proclaim.