God the builder
In September and October, we’re exploring what it means to be the church, with the help of the letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 1 reminded us that through Christ, those who follow Jesus have been chosen and adopted as beloved children of God. Ephesians 2 encourages us to see the church as God’s people and members of God’s household, a diverse family united in Christ. Now right at the end of chapter 2 comes a “building” metaphor …
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
The temple in Jerusalem was the religious heart of the Jewish people, where they believed thay God had promised to dwell. Around the time of Jesus, Tom Wright says “It was, many believed, the place where earth and heaven met.” However, in 70AD, the actual physical temple building was destroyed. The author of Ephesians, almost certainly writing after that event, teaches that God had been working on a new building project.
In Christ, God was constructing a very different sort of temple in which to dwell. This was a metaphorical temple, the community of people who follow Jesus, no longer limited to one place. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 1:16-17) God is not distant. God chooses to make his home with those who follow Jesus all around the world. It’s worth noting that the “you” in that verse is plural, not individual. God’s presence is most revealed in the community of people who follow Jesus, in our relationships with one another, and especially in our love for one another. It is by this, above all else, that others will know that we are the disciples of Jesus.
It’s important to remember that this does not limit God’s presence to the visible church – whether the people who are the church or the buildings in which we gather for worship. Scripture teaches that the Spirit of God is at work throughout the world, bringing to birth God’s new creation. The church must keep watch for the signs of God at work in the world so that we can join in. I wonder what signs of God’s presence and God at work have you noticed lately in the life of the church and in the wider world?
Our bible reading speaks of God putting in place some good foundations for his new build - the teaching and example of the apostles and prophets. In part, this seems to echo Jesus words to Peter:
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
God is building this temple around Christ Jesus, as the “chief cornerstone” (v20). “In him the whole building is joined together” (v21). This phrase may have actually been alluding to Jesus as being like the keystone in a stone archway. This is the stone at the top and in the centre which keeps the two sides of the archway together. That would certainly fit with the context of Ephesians chapter 2 talking about how Jesus is bringing Jews and Gentiles together as one people, in God’s new creation.
However, the cornerstone is traditionally the first stone laid for a structure, with all other stones laid in relation to it. This ensured that remains of the original building were preserved with the structure throughout its life. This is the sense in which the term is used in another passage of Scripture which uses the metaphor of God’s people as a building. 1 Peter chapter 2, puts it like this:
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
Here the reference is to Jesus as “the living Stone”, rejected and killed but raised to life as God’s chosen saviour, and to the church as “living stones”. Peter goes on to refer to two Old Testament passages, about a cornerstone: Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22, implying that Jesus is that cornerstone. So, in God’s building project, we are each ordinary stones, nothing special in themselves, and not all the same. But God is choosing us, placing us, building us together around Jesus the cornerstone. We become more than the sum of its parts, a people who reflect his glory.
In this new temple made of living stones, Jesus is the first building block in God's new creation. Everything else should be related to him. Indeed, without Jesus at the centre, the church ceases to be Gods people. I wonder what practices help us to keep Jesus at the centre of our life together?
Another building analogy which I find helpful is to imagine that Jesus is like the cement that holds his people together. In these challenging times it’s easy to retreat into cliques of like-minded people. Instead let’s all keep our eyes on Jesus, through the teaching of the Scriptures. We hope that the weekly St Andrews podcast and blog will help with this.
Passive or active?
Of course, every metaphor has its limitations. Are we to be passive stones, just cemented into position? Is there nothing for us to do? Will we just get weathered and deteriorate over time? If you read the rest of Ephesians, you will be in no doubt that following Jesus is a way of life, that God is wanting us to grow to become more like Jesus, and that we all have a part to play in that.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) and instructs his followers to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20). Actually the two are intertwined. God often works through people. But perhaps in this bewildering time, we need to trust God with the big picture, as architect of the church. Lets put our energy into making disciples, encouraging each other to keep following Jesus and inviting others to join us on the journey.
In practice, how about committing to stay in touch with 4 or 5 other people on a regular basis? Use whatever ways are permitted and practical (online, on the phone, or in person). Let’s pray, read the Bible and learn from it together. Let’s care for one another and encourage one another to keep on following Jesus, to tell, serve and give. Then, as we seek to be faithful disciples, let’s trust God to build the church.
Questions for further reflection or discussion:
1. What signs of God’s presence and God at work have you noticed lately in the life of the church and in the wider world?
2. What practices help us to keep Jesus at the centre of our life together?
3. How does this metaphor of the church as God’s building speak into your life and into the life of St Andrews?
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – The Prison Letters, 2nd edition, SPCK: London, 2004), p.30