Recently I was asked to give a talk to a gathering of folks from a particular denomination. As I began to prepare, I realized this is a different venue than I am usually occupying. Although there is some diversity in any denomination, you have to assume quite a bit of similarities. This denomination was not different. The other thing that is true in this kind of audience is the fact that most, if not all, the people would claim some kind of belief in God.
I fit fine within this kind of context. But I realize it is different than the normal context for me in my current position, namely, the classroom of a university. Even though I am teaching a Religion class, I dare not assume very much uniformity in the room. Some students are fairly evangelical and maybe the occasional fundamentalist walks into a class. Some are more middle of the road Christian and others fall into the more liberal perspective. And then, there are always a good number of students whom I label “seekers.” Some of them grew up in a Christian church, but have dropped any active participation. And then, there is always a few atheists scattered in the room. A good teacher is sensitive to his or her context.
So I try to bring that same sensitivity to the denominational context in which I speak. In this particular case they informed me the focus for their gathering and my talk is taken from the New Testament letter, Ephesians. Specifically, the passage is Ephesians 2:22. If you look that verse up, you realize it is actually the second half of a longer sentence. So I give you 2:21-22 in order that the whole sentence is read. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” I invite you to delve into the Ephesians passage along with me.
Perhaps the first thing you notice is the sentence does not make full sense unless we know what comes before this particular sentence. The sentence opens with a prepositional phrase, “in him.” Obviously, we don’t know to whom the pronoun, “him,” refers. I can tell you that “him” is Jesus Christ. So in Christ the whole structure is joined together… We are safe to say that Jesus Christ plays a key role in this passage.
The next unclear issue is the meaning of “whole structure.” In Christ the whole structure is gathered together. I am confident the structure here is not a building, although it very well can be a metaphorical use of a word normally associated with a building. This guess is solidified by the reference to the “holy temple” later in the sentence. I suggest the structure refers to the church. Reading the passages before the one we are looking at, it seems pretty clear this is what the author (Paul) had in mind, even though he does not use the word, “church.”
I am very confident Paul was not referring to a building. But then we know one of Paul’s favorite images for the people as the church is to call them the “body of Christ.” Ever since I was young, I always heard that the church is not the building, but the people. And so it is. Yet I also realize how typically people talk about the church and mean the building over there---St Ann or whatever particular church building being referenced.
A crucial understanding of this passage is being clear that the living Christ continues to bring people together and “structures” them in a way that they grow together into a “holy temple.” Obviously this is a reference to the Jewish Temple that stood in Jerusalem. The people become the Temple---the place of holiness. That is a powerful claim! And this ties in nicely with the second half of the passage. The author addresses the group at Ephesus assuring them they are being built spiritually into this structure.
They too are becoming the dwelling place for God. This is an astounding claim. It is easy to think St Ann or whatever church building is the dwelling place for God. But the author of Ephesians is more audacious. It is not the building; it is the people. And I personalize this. It is I! I can become the dwelling place for God. For many of us it will take some courage and vision to imagine ourselves as a dwelling place for God.
I took my audience in the direction of realizing how much profanity exists in our normal world. Profanity is the opposite of the sacred or holy. By profanity I don’t mean folks running around swearing all the time. Profanity is a life for something other than God---for ourselves, for our attachments, etc. To engage the spiritual process is to become aware that we are a dwelling place for anything but God. And it is a decision to open ourselves to the work of the Spirit to “clean house!”
We were created to be a dwelling place for God. Most of us have chosen another way of life. God’s call is for some renovation. God is searching for dwelling places. Are you open to it?