Embracing Mystery: Work in Progress

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Ephesians 2:17: “Christ came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Given the way we divide ourselves up, in a denomination or by race or as voters, I bet most of us read that as We’re the ones near; I guess he came for those far off too! – a bit like when we ask Why do bad things happen to good people? – assuming we’re the good people.

Paul had been a law-abiding Jew. After meeting Christ, he saw how the Law, so beneficial, from the hand of God, became an instrument of judging others and division. Our goodness so sneakily twists us into judges, doesn’t it?

This whole section of Ephesians 2 is Paul saying Remember your past – and in a new way. We are ambivalent about the past. Stories of heroes, family genealogy, inheriting money: we love the past. But then if someone wants to talk slavery or Jim Crow, we shun such talk, saying it’s ancient history. When you go to the doctor, they will not treat you until you record your medical history, including parents and grandparents. When you buy a house, you become responsible for cracks way down in the foundation of the place. Moses reminded the Israelites to be kind to strangers, aliens – because they once had been strangers (Deuteronomy 10:19). Paul echoes this: “You are no longer sojourners, but fellow citizens” (verse 19). Weren’t Americans immigrants once upon a time?

Gentiles knew the derogatory label hurled at them: “Uncircumcised!” We label people, clumping them into groups, like “haters,” “illegals,” “deplorables,” “looters.” Paul urges us not to clump people into groups, not to assume all who look a certain way are the same. He reminds Jews and Gentiles not to define themselves in relation to one another, but to Christ. Same for us: I’m white (not black), I’m conservative (not liberal), I’m a Gamecock (not from Clemson). Repentance, metanoia in Greek, means a change of mind. “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This is lovely: Paul suggests to those young Christians that they are a building, “Christ himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 20-22). 1 Corinthians 5:17 says your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here Paul names that all of our bodies together are stones constructed into a temple to holy that Spirit! And his verbs imply continuation. It’s an ongoing building project – maybe like Sagrada Familia, that fabulous Gaudi church in Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, and maybe it will be completed in my lifetime. Maybe.

Church is like that. You, me, those who came before us, some not here yet, building, higher, stronger, flaws detected and repaired, innovations in what is possible, fresh ideas emerging. Gaudi’s vision is still visible. Christ’s vision for church still has a pulse, I hope. It’s about being transformed in our minds, not other-ing others, being the Peace of Christ, his Body now on earth. Like you and me, church is a work in progress. Thankfully.