Citizenship that Really Matters
The paraments are green during the Season of Pentecost because it's a time of growing for the Church. That's why Paul wrote the letter to the people around the major metropolitan area of Ephesus. Paul doesn't address any particular heresy or error. He writes to expand the horizons of his readers. In this particular passage, he writes to expand their understanding of a citizenship that really matters.
Ephesus was thee place to live. It was one of the jewels in the belt of the Roman Empire. As a market place, it had few equals in the world. It was located on the most direct land and sea routes, so much commerce passed through it. But you know what Ephesus was proudest about? Not her impressive numbers; not her impressive trade, but her impressive temple for the goddess Diana. This structure was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was 425 feet long, 220 feet wide with 127 marble columns 62 feet tall and only 4 feet apart. The coins of Ephesus proudly had the slogan Neokoros which means "temple warden." This city was the keeper of the worship of Diana. 100's of silversmiths made little silver statutes of Diana and sold them to tourists. Sort of like New York city sells replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
There. That's an image for you. Think of New York City or any major metropolitan area. Think of Dallas, Houston, or even Austin. You know how a person says to someone not from here, "I live in Austin," even if they live in Pflugerville, Manor, or Ceder Park? We do that not just because an outsider wouldn't know where these little cities are, but because there is prestige with having your citizenship in Austin as opposed to Buda, Kyle, or Neiderwald. Likewise there was grand prestige with being able to say, "I'm from Ephesus." It was the happening place. It was hustle and bustle. It was sophistication and swank. Moreover, a certain aura of holiness came with being part of the city that housed the great temple of Diana.
Paul is writing to people who knew the value of having your citizenship in a famous city. You can relate to that because we all have it, not just because we're connected to the growing and glowing City of Austin but because we're Americans. I know that there must be people who long to be citizens of Canada, but I don't know any. I don't know of any Puerto Ricans getting on rickety boats to try to become citizens of Cuba, and I doubt Mexico has a Border Patrol to stop Americans from crossing illegally into Mexico. There is a certain pride, prestige, and preening that goes with being an American.
This pride of place we have as Americans can help us understand how the congregations Paul is writing to feel. He is keying off the prestige they all felt from being citizens of Ephesus. He uses the terms "citizenship," "foreigners," "aliens," and "members." These words were as charged with meaning to the Ephesians as phrases such as "illegal aliens," "revoking citizenship," and "foreign national" are to us.
Yes, being a citizen of Ephesus was a noble thing even as being an American citizen is, but what does it matter if you're cut off from God? Don't you get the impression sometimes that there are people who believe if they die as Americans they'll be saved? Isn't there the perception that if you die for this country, die defending freedom, or fighting for the oppressed you somehow automatically get a pass into the kingdom of heaven?
Paul tells the Ephesians that though they have the grand, noble honor of being citizens of a distinguished city, without citizenship in the Church they were doomed, damned, lost. He says being outside of the Church they were separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship with the people of God, foreigners to the promises, without hope and without God in the world.
Can you imagine writing this to people who were at the top of the world? O how it stings the pride, how it humbles the honor, how it disgraces the grace of living in thee place everyone else wanted to live. Trying telling Americans that unless they are in the Christian Church on Sunday Morning they are not only without the promises and hope of God in Christ, they are without the true God, without Christ and therefore doomed, damned, and done for. But that's how it is.
Noble citizenship doesn't get you any closer to God. What gets one close to God is Christ. After telling the Ephesians how miserable they were, how cut off from God and His promises they were, how excluded from God and His kingdom they were, Paul brings in the joyous, happy, freeing "but" of the Gospel, "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ." Through the blood of Christ they were brought not just near to God but into His holy City as citizens.
Have you who were far away been brought near through Christ's blood? Yes, you have in your birth, rather in your re-birth through Holy Baptism. That's when and where you were first plunged into the blood of the crucified Christ. Have you been brought near enough to be a citizen of heaven? In America, a judge declares a foreigner to be a citizen. In the Church your citizenship is renewed, affirmed, sealed to you, when in the instead and by the command of the Lord of the City of Heaven I forgive your sins. In America you know for sure you're a citizen when you get to partake of the rights and benefits of being an American, like voting. In the Church, you know for sure you're a citizen when you get to partake of the Body and Blood of the Ruler of the City of God.
We've been brought near to God, into His very City by the blood of Christ. He is our peace. This peace goes in two directions. First Christ made peace between us and God. How? By reconciling us to God through the cross. God was angry. Hell hot angry at us for our billions of sins and our inborn sinfulness. He was angry enough to toss us into hell to roast for eternity, but instead of doing that He tossed in His Son Jesus instead. The sufferings of Christ appeased, atoned for, propitiated the wrath of God. God the Father showed He was satisfied with the payment His Son made on our behalf by raising Him from the dead on Easter morning. God has no reason now in heaven or on earth to stop you from entering into His City where forgiveness, a clear conscience, and abundant food for the soul are.
First, Christ made peace between God and us. Second, He made peace between us. In Ephesians Paul is talking about how Christ unified Jews and Gentiles by abolishing in His flesh the law that condemned them both and making out of the two one new man. Friend, the point for us is that the differences between us - age, race, socioeconomic status, and education - are nothing compared to the gulf separating Jews and gentiles. There are differences between us but they hardly amount to barriers; certainly they are no "dividing wall of hostility."
Many of you, if not most of you sense what I'm talking about. There is a joy among us that flows from the certainty that our sins have been put away by Christ. It's delightful to rub elbows with those who don't claim to be sinless but forgiven. It's a treat to come here and celebrate, with all that the word means, the Holy Communion. It is a feast; it is a banquet; it is a celebration fit for heaven which we poor sinners get to have here on earth.
But here is where the real wonderment, the real awe, the real point of Paul's words are going: being joined to God through the blood of Christ sprinkled on us in Baptism, smeared over us by the words of Absolution; drank by us in Communion, being joined to one another by these same means of grace, we have a much more noble citizenship than any city on earth could give.
We at Trinity are members of the Holy Christian Church. We are a jewel in the belt of Jesus Christ as He is shown in Revelation 1, the Cosmic Lord of all. You know how earthly cities are famous because someone famous slept there, ate there, was born there, or died there? Psalm 87 says that's not how it is with the Church. People don't give the City of God it's fame; the City of God gives them fame. "Glorious things are spoken of you, O City of God...Behold Philistia and Tyre and Ethiopia: "This one was born there. But of Zion it shall be said, "This one and that one were born in her."
This small gathering of Christians, huddled here around the Body and Blood of Christ each Sunday, doesn't look prestigious, important, or impressive. The world doesn't regard Trinity as moving or shaking anything. The world may eye are property greedily, but thinks what we do here to be no big deal. But we are God's House. We are fellow citizens with God's people that stretch back to Adam.
And we are members of a City that lasts forever. We are built upon things that cannot pass away: our foundation is the apostles and the prophets, God's holy Word. Friends, earthly cities are built upon things that do pass away: rocks, wood, steel, iron. We are built upon Words that don't pass away. That's seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? Because words do pass away. It you have vinyl records, tapes, even CD's, they get scratched, weathered, broken and the words get lost. Even such things as constitutions, bills of rights, laws of the land, pass away with the civilizations that were built on them. But the Word of God endures. When He says you're baptized and reborn, that's what you are for all eternity. When He says, "I forgive you," that forgiveness remains forever. When He says, "Take eat My Body; take drink My Blood the immortal Body and Blood become yours eternally.
With Jesus in us and us in Jesus, Paul says we "become a holy temple in the Lord...You too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit." The "you" here is plural. This tiny Church, we who gather around and in the Body and Blood of Christ, are a temple for the true God. Don't you get it? Ephesus' big boast was that their city had the temple of the great goddess Diana. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians: "Big deal; you folks are a temple for the true God who dwells in you by His Spirit. And you're no dead temple of rock and stone. You're a growing one." We're more than a an earthly temple built with human hands; we're more than rock and stone. We're flesh and blood that has been redeemed by Christ, filled with His Spirit, and therefore ever growing toward Him.
Friends, no one likes to be a citizen of a declining city, but the truth is that every city of men will eventually decline into nothingness. People like to be associated with a growing, going, glowing city. This describes the City of God and this is where we have our citizenship. May we revel in, may we rejoice in, may we grow in the privileges, the joys, the wonders that are ours as citizens of this holy City. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost IX (8-10-03), Ephesians 2:11-22