We Are His House
A 2016 episode on NPR’s “StoryCorps” interviewed Francois Clemmons, who played the role of friendly Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for over 25 years. Clemmons was the first black actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series. Surprisingly, Fred Rogers was clearly going out on a limb to cast Clemmons as a police officer. Clemmons knew this and expressed his reservations: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policeman were sicking police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.” Still, Clemmons eventually agreed to take on the role. Over the decades he spent on the show, there’s one scene in particular that Clemmons remembers with great emotion. It was from an episode that aired in 1969, in which Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day. “He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
He says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped he walked over. Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” “Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” “But you heard me today.” “It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says. “That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”
You belong. Those are two of the most powerful words in the English language, if our behavior backs it up. The old TV sitcom “Cheers” got it right with its theme song: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came; You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same; You want to be where everybody knows your name.” When Christ Church held its first service on October 6, 2013, “you belong” were the words we used to describe the culture we were creating. This week I went back and read Becky’s Facebook posts inviting people to come. “Bring who you are and be ready to be loved.” The next week: “You fit in. Stop by tomorrow.” And then: “Everyone won’t know your name, but I will.” When I was a youth pastor (the first time), I used to tell kids that if they brought a friend to youth group and introduced me to them, if I forgot their friend’s name either later that night or the next week, I’d give them both a free pop from the pop machine. I did that as a way of holding myself accountable for getting better at learning and remembering names. It’s not something I’m naturally good at. I did give myself a little grace when we first merged, because I had like 50 new names to learn, and fast, all at once. It wasn’t just one or two or three or four. I hope you gave me the same grace too. But I used to do that because we all really do long for that place where everybody knows our name. Where they’re always glad we came. Where we can know that we are not alone in our troubles. We all long … for home. This doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t transform you, that the Spirit of God won’t go to work in your life shaping and changing parts of you. Jesus meets every one of us where we are. But he doesn’t leave any of us there. He invites each one of us on a journey with him that transforms us from the inside out, peeling away layers of bitterness and anger and unforgiveness, pouring his healing presence into wounds that go right to the core of our being, using our woundedness and scars to bring his healing to others. An authentic journey with Jesus Christ changes us. We live in a world that says if you love me, if you like me, you’ll accept me as I am. And that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything you do or with every part of who you are. But I can love you anyway, because I’m being transformed just as much as you are. We’re on this transforming journey together. And we all long for a place to call home.
Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 2:19-22. In this passage, St. Paul describes the church as that place. Now, don’t get up and walk out on me. That often isn’t our experience in church, I know. It certainly hasn’t been mine, and I’m a pastor. But that’s how Paul describes the church. In fact, in this text, he uses three different analogies to describe the church as he drives his point home. Read text.
Look at the first half of verse 19. “Strangers and aliens.” Fellow citizens. Those are political words. Paul doesn’t use the phrase “Kingdom of God” here, although it was Jesus’ primary analogy for us as the people of God, but the Kingdom of God is exactly what Paul is describing. The church is the Kingdom of God. This language has often been used, but the meaning behind it has virtually always been misunderstood, for this is no earthly kingdom. The Kingdom of God has no political or geographic borders. It is not a territorial kingdom. And it is not a spiritual kingdom, a reality in another realm but not here. The kingdom of God is simply God ruling God’s own people, wherever we are, however we gather, bestowing upon us all of the privileges of citizenship in His kingdom and asking of us all of the responsibilities of citizenship in His kingdom, which are to love God and love others, and thus to go into all the world carrying the good news of Jesus’ love wherever we go. And this kind of international, intercultural kingdom recognizes no political boundaries and so it isn’t limited to one part of the earth. Wherever the people of God go, there is the kingdom in their midst.
And Paul wants his Gentile readers to understand that they are just as much a legitimate part of this Kingdom as their Jewish brothers and sisters in the faith. No one who is in Christ is an stranger, that means a foreigner, a tourist using a visa or temporary student or worker on a green card or passport. And no one is a resident alien, living among the people but not the real thing. Rebirth in Christ gives all who are in Christ an authentic birth certificate. A passport is no longer needed. There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, regardless of color, or ethnic background, or gender, or place of origin, or the way you dress. In the kingdom of God, those boundaries, those walls that so often divide us as human beings, are not recognized. Yes, there is a boundary. All who are in Christ are a part of this kingdom. All who are not in Christ are not a part of this kingdom, but the invitation is open to join. No other walls are recognized.
The second image Paul uses is of a family. Look at the second half of V. 19. “Members of the household of God.” Paul goes right from Kingdom imagery to family imagery. This imagery is more intimate. We are, again together, no boundaries, children of God. Members of the household of God. That means that we enjoy his welcome, his bounty, his presence, and his protection. The word brethren, which actually means “brothers and sisters,” although we don’t usually translate it that way, is the most common word for Christians in the New Testament, by far. We are a family of faith. Our church should have the feel of family, not of a club. Our worship involves all of us in a family experience, not most of us watching the performance of a few.
So the first image Paul uses for the church is the Kingdom of God, the second is the family of God, and the third is the temple of God. Look at Vv. 20-22. We are together growing into a holy temple in the Lord. And the cornerstone of that temple is Christ himself. Scholars disagree on what type of stone exactly Paul was referring to. The cornerstone of a building was the first stone laid. The base of the foundation. And it had to be laid true because it served as the orienting point for the rest of the building. Everything else had to align with one of the sides of that one stone. It’s exact placement was critical. And it might be this type of stone to which Paul was referring, or he could have been referring to the top cornerstone of a corner, which ties two walls together. It is likely that he allowed for both, although in this context the second meaning was probably forefront in his mind, because he’s talking about the bringing together of diverse peoples into the people of God. Christ himself is the orienting point for the church, regardless of where we find ourselves or what we find ourselves doing. Our point of orientation isn’t a building. It isn’t a program. The church is made up of people who are connected to Christ. That is why we call ourselves Christ Church. Christ is the driving force of all that we do, whether it be paving a parking lot, or making the sanctuary more livable in the summer through air conditioning, or feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless, or comforting the lonely, or growing together as apprentices of Jesus. “Christ alone is our cornerstone”, as the song says. Not our denomination, or lack of one. Not our organization. Not our name. Not our style of worship or preaching. Not our food pantry or community meal or youth ministry. Christ alone is our cornerstone.
And the foundation, based on that cornerstone, is the “apostles and prophets.” Now, the way in which Paul uses these specific words means that he is speaking explicitly of the original apostles, those who SAW Jesus, the disciples and James and Paul and a few others, and the prophets in this context were those who were preaching the good news of Jesus in the first days of the church. In other words, people like Mark and Luke. They were the people writing what we now know as the New Testament, the people through whom God was completing his Word. With Christ as the cornerstone, the foundation is the Word of God, first presented in the Old Testament and then fully revealed in the New Testament.
And upon the foundation of the Word of God, with Christ as the cornerstone, we are each stones being formed TOGETHER into a holy temple in the Lord. St. Peter wrote that “…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house …” The temple of God, the house of God, is made up of living stones, each stone a person who follows Jesus. Together we are the house of God. Do you feel the sense in which Paul is hammering home the words “all,” “together,” “unity,” “no walls” in Ephesians 2? That’s because this is exactly what he is doing. Here he had to remind the Gentile believers that they were as much a part of the house of God as their Jewish brothers and sisters. In Romans, he had to remind the Gentiles not to look down on their Jewish brothers and sisters. “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:17-18). The root was the Jewish believers, and the wild olive shoot was the Gentile, non-Jewish believers. Same problem, just the other direction. Because we like to build walls. But Paul dealt with it in the same way. We are either in Christ, or not in Christ, a part of the house of God, or not a part of the house of God. And to all of those not yet in Christ, the invitation is open to become a living stone in the house of God. This means that every person you have ever met, know now, and will ever meet, whether you are here worshipping God, or downtown on the street, or in a prison, or a hospital … every person is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. One pastor said that every other wall we build is an offence to Christ, who brings us together as one in him, and to the world, which is supposed to see our unity in Christ alone as the strongest evidence of the power and love of Christ at work in our midst. It is our ability to be a racially, politically, ethnically diverse community united in Christ that will draw the world to Christ.
Beautiful imagery pastor. I’d love to be a part of something like that. But my own experience has been nowhere near that. If you are looking for a place where everyone at all times lives out the love of Jesus Christ perfectly, including the pastor, yes, you will be disappointed. At one point in his journey towards Christ, Nathan Foster (the son of author Richard Foster) was living “a ragged attempt at discipleship.” He was afraid to share his honest thoughts about God and his disillusionment with the church, especially with a father who had given his life to serve God and the church. But one day as Nathan shared a ride with his dad on a ski lift, he blurted out, “I hate going to church. It’s nothing against God; I just don’t see the point.” Richard Foster quietly said, “Sadly, many churches today are simply organized ways of keeping people from God.” Surprised by his dad’s response, Nathan launched into “a well-rehearsed, cynical rant” about the church: Okay, so since Jesus paid such great attention to the poor and disenfranchised, why isn’t the church the world’s epicenter for racial, social and economic justice? I’ve found more grace and love in worn-out folks at the local bar than those in the pew … . And instead of allowing our pastors to be real human beings with real problems, we prefer some sort of overworked rock stars. His dad smiled and said, “Good questions, Nate. Overworked rock stars: that’s funny. You’ve obviously put some thought into this.” Once again, Nathan was surprised that his “rant” didn’t faze his dad. “He didn’t blow me off or put me down.” From that point on Nathan actually looked forward to conversations with his dad. It also proved to be a turning point in his spiritual life. By the end of the winter, Nathan was willing to admit, “Somewhere amid the wind and snow of the Continental Divide, I decided that if I’m not willing to be an agent of change [in the church], my critique is a waste … . Regardless of how it is defined, I was learning that the church was simply a collection of broken people recklessly loved by God … . Jesus said he came for the sick, not the healthy, and certainly our churches reflect that.” Spurred on by his father’s acceptance and honesty and by his own spiritual growth, Nathan has continued to ask honest questions, but he has also started to love and change the church, rather than just criticize it.[i]
The 1992 film A River Runs through It, based on the autobiographical novel of Norman MacLean, chronicles two brothers coming of age in early twentieth-century Missoula, Montana. The boys grow up under the stern tutelage of their minister father, played by Tom Skerritt. This preacher teaches his sons about life, grace, and love through the art of fly-fishing. But as the boys mature and follow very different paths (one straight-and-narrow, the other wild) they find that fishing is the one bond that still draws them together as adults.
Thus the title A River Runs through. It was not a description of the land as much as it was a description of a recurring theme in their lives. When all else failed, they could always go back to the river and bond around their love of fly-fishing. If I had to pick a title for the Christian community experience, it might be “A Cross Runs through It.” When all else fails, we go back to the cross and bond around our love for the One who died for us there.[ii] And so to each one of you, and to those who are not yet here but will be, I say “welcome home.” Welcome to the kingdom. Welcome to the family. In Christ, you are a part of the house of God. You are a part of the new humanity, defined by Christ, that God has formed, is forming, and will continue to form until Christ returns. Welcome home.
[i] Nathan Foster, Wisdom Chaser (IVP Books, 2010), pp. 85-89
[ii] from movie review of Robert Lane and Leonard Maltin at Amazon.com