Reading Ephesians 2.19-22
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
A few weeks ago at the 9.30am Parish Eucharist we had a little quiz: on the rim of a two pound piece, what words will you find? The phrase you’ll find there was first used, we think, by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, but it is more famously associated with that genius of science, Isaac Newton, who said, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
A modest thing to say, and honest. It is true of all of us. What do you know? What experience and wisdom do you have? Whatever it is, it’s partly to do with you and partly to do with all those who came before you and have affected your life – parents, friends, teachers, neighbours. Whose shoulders do you stand on?
The letter to the Ephesians has a different picture for the church: not (as we might picture it) a pyramid of acrobats standing on top of each other, but a building resting on foundations. When the letter was first read, the church was a one- or two-storey building, so close were they to the foundation events of the Christian movement. Now, however, the building is much higher, as each generation has built upon (sometimes dismantled) what the last left. But it is the same building, built upon the same foundation, and underlying it all there are still those first friends of Jesus whom we call the apostles, two of whom – Simon and Jude – we give thanks for today.
What do we know about these men? Hardly a thing. The gospels of Matthew and Mark say that Simon was called ‘the Canaanite’, Luke and the Acts of the Apostles that he was nicknamed the ‘Zealot’. Why was that? Was he a political radical? Did he hope that Jesus would be the leader of a liberation movement to take on the Romans who controlled their country? We can only guess. Luke and Acts mention Jude. They actually call him Judas, but we usually use the name Jude to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot, who handed Jesus over to his enemies. They say that Jude’s father was called James. Matthew and Mark don’t mention Jude but do mention someone called Thaddaeus, who might be the same person.
And that, more or less, is that. They are just names to us. Yet they mattered, Jesus chose them, he wanted them to be with him, so the letter to the Ephesians pictures them as foundation blocks nestling around Jesus their cornerstone. And our being here, you and I knowing what we know of God, living with what firmness of faith we have, is partly (and by an indescribably complex course) due to them. So let’s be grateful.
When you want to describe something vividly, you often use metaphor: an image, a picture. You talk about ‘windows’ of opportunity, or you call someone ‘a real star’. In each case the picture helps to give an impression of one aspect of what you are talking about, but if you push it too far it stops being helpful. When I call you a ‘star’ I mean that your helpfulness has shone out in an otherwise dark day, not that you resemble a giant ball of hot gas.
Today’s image of the church as a building, the apostles as foundations and Jesus as its cornerstone, is like that. It’s an image, not a definition: it sheds light on some aspects of Jesus and the church but it will mislead if you push it too far. For one thing, foundations are static, they don’t move, that is the whole point of them. But when we first meet Simon and Jude in the gospels they are with Jesus and they are on the move, going about teaching and healing. We must never be seduced by the idea that the Christian life (this side of heaven) is about arriving, about ending a journey, about everything falling finally into place. It is sometimes the opposite, and we have to keep reminding ourselves of that, especially when in oh, so static buildings like this one: God wants us to travel, probably without changing our address. Tricky. Another thing about foundations and cornerstones is that they are down there, not just down there as the things that make it possible for us to be up here, but down there in the sense of buried. There is a remoteness about them. And Jesus is not buried; he is not remote to us. If he were, he’d be no use to us. Through his Spirit he is with us now, he speaks to us through the voice of scripture, and we know his real presence as we break bread.
We matter to him. As with Simon and Jude, so now with us: Jesus chooses us, he wants us to be with him. And if we say Yes, if we follow, if we gather now at his table as his first friends did and let him nourish is, we shall affect for good those who will stand on our shoulders and build on what we have left, though to them we might each be just a name, or even less than that.