The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity, 2018

An upbuilding discourse that was said on August 26th, 2018. A contribution to a summer sermon series that was being done at my parish.

Lectionary: 1 King 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

As we come to the end of the “No Longer Strangers” series, I would like us to look back at where this saying comes from earlier in Ephesians, as keeping in context what St. Paul laid out in the first half of his epistle is crucial for us in interpreting the writing of St. Paul that we just read. So, in the last verses of Chapter 2, St. Paul says:

So then you are no longer strangers and [foreigners], but you are [fellow] citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

How are we no longer strangers and foreigners? Because we are “fellow citizens” with the saints in a structure that grow into a holy temple, with Christ as the cornerstone. And without this cornerstone there is nothing and we are nothing, “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works”.[1] We are no longer strangers not by our ethical concepts or individual social efforts but by the objective reality of the unity and oneness of the household of God with Christ as the cornerstone. It is only by keeping this in mind front and centre that we properly understand how it is that we can “stand against the wiles of the devil” and “struggle against the principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.

Lets us here return even a little earlier to Ephesians, where Paul first talks about the “principalities and powers” that we must struggle against. In the last verses of Chapter 1, St. Paul says that God put his glorious power, which is our hope and inheritance, “to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Christ as the Lord is above all worldly power and authority, for all time, and the Church is the body of this Lord who fills all in all. Here, then, we can now examine what we read and heard from St. Paul earlier today. Who is it that gives us the “whole armour of God”, and what is its content, and how is it that this armour allows us to “stand against the wiles of the devil” and “wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world”? The one who gives us the armour is Christ, and the armour is Christ himself who is one with the Father in the Spirit, and we can only put on this armour and make known the mystery of the gospel as an “ambassador in chains” as St. Paul calls himself. In other words, as St. Paul calls himself in other letters, as “servant of Christ”. Or, in a more accurate translation of the Greek: slave of Christ. We must be able to affirm this if we are to truly call Christ our Lord.

So what is this church that is the objective body of Christ? The Church is the people Israel that Solomon intercedes for in his prayer to God at the dedication of the Temple. The Church is the house whose pleas God has promised to hear, whose sins God will forgive when we confess and pray. And it is because the Church is this objective body of Christ, because the Church is the people Israel, that a foreigner too may find the glory and grace of God—when they come and pray towards this house.

But what was left incomplete in Solomon’s Temple, and left unfinished in Solomon’s prayer of dedication, is the incorporation of the foreigner into the house of God no longer as a stranger, grafted unto the Tree of Israel.[2] It is only by this grafting of the Gentiles into the people Israel that we can say, objectively, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek”, “no longer slave or free”, and “no longer male and female”, for “all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus”.[3] For we were, as St. Paul says, “Gentiles by birth, called the uncircumcised… foreigners to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise”. But by the blood of Christ we were brought near, and “in his flesh [Christ] has made [the people of Israel and the foreigners] into one”. And that we may be reconciled Christ put his one body through the cross, and by the Crucifixion he put to death the hostility between Israel and the Gentiles. [4]

Here we must stress here the radicality of the Cross, the heart of the realization of St. Paul that became the understanding of the Church Catholic. Even at the greatest heights of the Old Testament witnesses seeing the Lordship of the God of Hosts as extending beyond the borders of Israel, from Solomon to the Psalmist, from the prophets Ezekiel to Jeremiah, the foreigner remained foreigner. And to this day, the highest proclamations of human unity in secular conceptualization remains in the abstract language of universal human rights. Can we really say that the idea of human equality as we speak of so often and easily in our societies today have true reality? Are we still not divided by borders, by the power jockeying between self-proclaimed sovereign states, and are not even our proud and cultured liberal democracies built upon the premise that citizens are more equal than others?

I don’t wish to say that such concepts of human rights are unimportant. They are vital, helpful, and are indispensable for us, and they are even important for us in providing the Church with tools for the Church’s self-interpretation. But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that such concepts with save us, as if we can save ourselves with our human thinking and human action. If we deceive ourselves in such a way even when we have been confronted numerous times in this very city over the past few years with the return of the hostile warcry of “Blood and Soil”, then we prove ourselves to be little more than a conceited and complacent people, our words exposed as hollow platitudes.

Our worldly ideas will not save us, nor will they ever truly invite the foreigner to be one with us because we are sinners. It is only in the objective body of Christ that we are brought into one, and this is what distinguishes the Church. The Church is not merely one human community among others, one to be counted among various religious faiths that are somehow equivalent in some abstract sense. The Church Catholic is the one and only objective body of Christ in this world, and it is only in this body of Christ that we can see each other truly, face to face, in unity, not by our merits but by the manifold grace and mercies of God. It is only by the blood of Christ that our natural human divisions are truly dissolved and by which we are no longer strangers.

How can we know this? How can we have confidence that this is true, that this too isn’t just an abstraction of ideas? Where is this supposed objectivity of the Church made manifest? As St. John the Evangelist recalls to us:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.[5]

We who together build up the Church, the Temple of God, are the body of Christ not merely symbolically, but in reality by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, by which we abide in him and he in us. Even here too, in faith, we Christians are not brothers and sisters merely because we share similar ideas and beliefs. We, here and now, are one body, objectively, not just in spiritual but also in fleshly reality, by the common reception of the Eucharist that is made open to us by the spiritual circumcision of the waters of Baptism.

And we might reply as did the disciples of the time: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” How can this bread and this wine be flesh and blood? Why does this mean that it is only by the Church that we can see truly? And these are all reasonable questions. But as reasonable as they might be, we are rebuked by Christ: “Does this offend you?” And we might, at this juncture, turn back and go away as many of the disciples did at this strange teaching. But here we might also reply, as St. Peter did before us: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

After we receive the Eucharist and shuffle back into our pews, when we look at our fellow communicants we really ought to be struck with awe. For the person next to you has received the living body and blood of Christ and they are, in an objective and mystical sense, one body and blood with you in Christ. It is because of this profound mystery that we traditionally kneel when receiving the Eucharist. This isn’t because of some ritual excess that expresses a saccharine piety—how can you not be brought to your knees in awe in front of this mystery? We can trust in the Lordship of Christ because he isn’t just a more powerful being than the worldly rulers and principalities, because his power lacks arbitrariness and comes in justice and loving condescension, the proof of this being made manifest to us every time we come in front of the altar to be fed his flesh and blood. It is here, in this mystical communion, moreso than anywhere else, and truly, nowhere else, that we become one body objectively, in spiritual and bodily reality. It is only in the Temple of God, the mystical body of Christ, that we truly are no longer strangers. For unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, we have no life, and we are not in one body.

This teaching is difficult—can we accept it?

Do we trust it?

We must.

 

[1] Ephesians 2:10

[2] Romans 11:17-24

[3] Galatians 3:28

[4] Ephesians 2:11-15

[5] John 6:53-56

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