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“So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.”—Eph. ii. 19–22.

Not unfrequently it is the last word or phrase of the paragraph that gives us the clue to St Paul’s meaning and discloses the point at which he has aimed all along. So in this instance. “For a habitation of God in the Spirit”: behold the goal of God’s ways with mankind! For this end the Divine grace has wrought through countless ages and has made its great sacrifice. For this end Jew and Gentile are being gathered into one and compacted into a new humanity.

I. The Church is a house built for an Occupant. Its quality and size, and the mode of its construction are determined by its destination. It is built to suit the great Inhabitant, who says concerning the new Zion as He said of the old in figure: “This is my rest for ever! Here will I dwell, for I have desired it.” God, who is spirit, cannot be satisfied with the fabric of material nature for His temple, nor does “the Most High dwell 144 in houses made by men’s hands.” He seeks our spirit for His abode, and

“Doth prefer

Before all temples the upright heart and pure.”

In the collective life and spirit of humanity God claims to reside, that He may fill it with His glory and His love. “Know you not,” cries the apostle to the once debased Corinthians, “that you are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Nothing that is bestowed upon man terminates in himself. The deliverance of Jewish and Gentile believers from their personal sins, their re-instatement into the broken unity of mankind and the destruction in them of their old enmities, of the antipathies generated by their common rebellion against God—these great results of Christ’s sacrifice were means to a further end. “Hallowed be Thy name” is our first petition to the Father in heaven; “Glory to God in the highest” is the key-note of the angels’ song, that runs through all the harmonies of “peace on earth,” through every strain of the melody of life. Religion is the mistress, not the handmaid in human affairs. She will never consent to become a mere ethical discipline, an instrument and subordinate stage in social evolution, a ladder held for men to climb up into their self-sufficiency.

The old temptation of the Garden, “Ye shall be as gods,” has come upon our age in a new and fascinating form, “You shall be as gods,” it is whispered: “nay, you are God, and there is no other. The supernatural is a dream. The Christian story is a fable. There is none to fear or adore above yourselves!” Man is to worship his collective self, his own humanity. “I am the Lord thy God,” the great idol says, “that brought 145 thee up out of animalism and savagery, and me only shalt thou serve!—Love and faithful service to one’s kind, a holy passion for the welfare of the race, for the relief of human ignorance and poverty and pain, this is the true religion; and you need no other. Its obligation is instinctive, its benefits immediate and palpable; and it gives a consecration to individual life that dignifies and chastens, while it calls into exercise all our faculties.”

Yes, we willingly admit, such human service is “religion pure and undefiled, before our God and Father.” If service is rendered to our kind as worship to the Father of men; if we reverence in each man the image of God and the shrine of His Spirit; if we are seeking to cleanse and adorn in men the temple where the Most High shall dwell, the humblest work done for our fellows’ good is done for Him. The best human charity is rendered for the love of God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul, and strength. This,” said Jesus, “is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” On these two hangs the welfare of men and nations.

But the first commandment must come first. The second law of Jesus never has been or will be kept to purpose without the first. Humanitarian sentiments, dreams of universal brotherhood, projects of social reform, may seem for the moment to gain by their independence of religion a certain zest and emphasis; but they are without root and vitality. Their energy fails, or spends itself in revolt; their glow declines, their purity is stained. The leaders and first enthusiasts trained in the school of Christ, whose spirit, in vain repudiated, lives on in them, find themselves betrayed and alone. The coarse selfishness and materialism of 146 the human heart win an easy triumph over a visionary altruism. “Without me,” says Jesus Christ, “ye can do nothing.”

In the light of God’s glory man learns to reverence his nature and understand the vocation of his race. The love of God touches the deep and enduring springs of human action. The kingdom of Christ and of God commands an absolute devotion; its service inspires unfaltering courage and invincible patience. There is a grandeur and a certainty, of which the noblest secular aims fall short, in the hopes of those who are striving together for the faith of the gospel, and who work to build human life into a dwelling-place for God.

II. God’s temple in the Church of Jesus Christ, while it is one, is also manifold. “In whom each several building [or every part of the building9191   Πᾶσα οἰκοδομή, according to the well-established critical reading. For πᾶς without the article, implying a various whole, compare πάσης κτίσεως in Col. i. 15; πᾶσα γραφή, 2 Tim. iii. 16; ἐν πάσῃ ἀναστροφῇ, 1 Peter i. 15; and Θεὸς πάσης χάριτος, 1 Peter v. 10.], while it is compacted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”

The image is that of an extensive pile of buildings, such as the ancient temples commonly were, in process of construction at different points over a wide area. The builders work in concert, upon a common plan. The several parts of the work are adjusted to each other; and the various operations in process are so harmonized, that the entire construction preserves the unity of the architect’s design. Such an edifice was the apostolic Church—one, but of many parts—in its diverse gifts and multiplied activities animated by one Spirit and directed towards one Divine purpose.

Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome—what a various scene of activity these centres of Christian 147 life presented! The Churches founded in these great cities must have differed in many features. Even in the communities of his own province the apostle did not, so far as we can judge, impose a uniform administration. St Peter and St Paul carried out their plans independently, only maintaining a general understanding with each other. The apostolic founders, inspired by one and the self-same Spirit, could labour at a distance, upon material and by methods extremely various, with entire confidence in each other and with an assurance of the unity of result which their teaching and administration would exhibit. The many buildings rested on the one foundation of the apostles. “Whether it were I or they,” says our apostle, “so we preach, and so you believed.” Where there is the same Spirit and the same Lord, men do not need to be scrupulous about visible conformity. Elasticity and individual initiative admit of entire harmony of principle. The hand may do its work without irritating and obstructing the eye; and the foot run on its errands without mistrusting the ear.

Such was the catholicism of the apostolic age. The true reading of verse 21, as it is restored by the Revisers, is an incidental witness to the date of the epistle. A churchman of the second century, writing under Paul’s name in the interests of catholic unity as it was then understood, would scarcely have penned such a sentence without attaching to the subject the definite article: he must have written “all the building,” as the copyists from whom the received text proceeds very naturally have done. From that time onwards, as the system of the ecclesiastical hierarchy was developed, external unity was more and more strictly imposed. The original “diversity of operations” 148 became a rigid uniformity. The Church swallowed up the Churches. Finally, the spiritual bureaucracy of Rome gathered all ecclesiastical power into one centre, and placed the direction of Western Christendom in the hands of a single priest, whom it declared to be the Vicar of Jesus Christ and endowed with the Divine attribute of infallibility.

Had not Jerusalem been overthrown and its Church destroyed, the hierarchical movement would probably have made that city, rather than Rome, its centre. This was in fact the tendency, if not the express purpose of the Judaistic party in the Church. St Paul had vindicated in his earlier epistles the freedom of the Gentile Christian communities, and their right of non-conformity to Jewish usage. In the words “each several building, fitly framed together,” there is an echo of this controversy. The Churches of his mission claim a standing side by side with those founded by other apostles. For himself and his Gentile brethren he seems to say, in the presence of the primitive Church and its leaders: “As they are Christ’s, so also are we.”

The co-operation of the different parts of the body of Christ is essential to their collective growth. Let all Churches beware of crushing dissent. Blows aimed at our Christian neighbours recoil upon ourselves. Undermining their foundation, we shake our own. Next to positive corruption of doctrine and life, nothing hinders so greatly the progress of the kingdom of God as the claim to exclusive legitimacy made on behalf of ancient Church organizations. Their representatives would have every part of God’s temple framed upon one pattern. They refuse a place on the apostolic foundation to all Churches, however numerous, however 149 rich in faith and good works, however strong the historical justification for their existence, however clear the marks they bear of the Spirit’s seal, which do not conform to the rule they themselves have received. Their rites and ministry, they assert, are those alone approved by Christ and authorized by His apostles, within a given area. They refuse the right hand of fellowship to men who are doing Christ’s work by their side; they isolate their flocks, as far as possible, from intercourse with the Christian communities around them.

This policy on the part of any Christian Church, or Church party, is contrary to the mind of Christ and to the example of His apostles. Those who hold aloof from the comity of the Churches and prevent the many buildings of God’s temple being fitly framed together, must bear their judgement, whosoever they be. They prefer conquest to peace, but that conquest they will never win; it would be fatal to themselves. Let the elder sister frankly allow the birthright of the younger sisters of Christ’s house in these lands, and be our example in justice and in charity. Great will be her honour; great the glory won for our common Lord.

“Every building fitly framed together groweth into a holy temple in the Lord.” The subject is distributive; the predicate collective. The parts give place to the whole in the writer’s mind. As each several piece of the structure, each cell or chapel in the temple, spreads out to join its companion buildings and adjusts itself to the parts around it, the edifice grows into a richer completeness and becomes more fit for its sacred purpose. The separate buildings, distant in place or historical character, approximate by extension, as they spread over the unoccupied ground between them and as the connecting links are multiplied. At last a point is 150 reached at which they will become continuous. Growing into each other step by step and forming across the diminishing distance a web of mutual attachment constantly thickening, they will insensibly, by a natural and vital growth, become one in visible communion as they are one in their underlying faith.

When each organ of the body in its own degree is perfect and holds its place in keeping with the rest, we think no longer of their individual perfection, of the charm of this feature or of that; they are forgotten in the beauty of the perfect frame. So it will be in the body of Christ, when its several communions, cleansed and filled with His Spirit, each honouring the vocation of the others, shall in freedom and in love by a spontaneous movement be gathered into one. Their strength will then be no longer weakened and their spirit chafed by internal conflict. With united forces and irresistible energy, they will assail the kingdom of darkness and subjugate the world to Christ.

For this consummation our Saviour prayed in the last hours before His death: “that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me” (John xvii. 21). Did He fear that His little flock of the Twelve would be parted by dissensions? Or did He not look onward to the future, and see the “offences that must come,” the alienations and fierce conflicts that would arise amongst His people, and the blood that would be shed in His name? Yet beyond these divisions, on the horizon of the end of the age, He foresaw the day when the wounds of His Church would be healed, when the sword that He had brought on the earth would be sheathed, and through the unity of faith and love in His people 151 all mankind would at last come to acknowledge Him and the Father who had sent Him.

III. To appearance, we are many rather than one who bear the name of Christ. But we are one notwithstanding, if below the variety of superstructure our faith rests upon the witness of the apostles, and the several buildings have Christ Jesus Himself for chief corner-stone. The one foundation and the one Spirit constitute the unity of God’s temple in the Church.

“The apostles and prophets” are named as a single body, the prophets being doubtless, in this passage and in chapters iii. 5 and iv. 11, the existing prophets of the apostolic Church, whose inspired teaching supplemented that of the apostles and helped to lay down the foundation of revealed truth. That foundation has been, through the providence of God, preserved for later ages in the Scriptures of the New Testament, on which the faith of Christians has rested ever since. Such a prophet Barnabas was in the first days (Acts xiii. 1), and such was the unknown, but deeply inspired writer of the epistle to the Hebrews; such prophets, again, were SS. Mark and Luke, the Evangelists. Prophecy was not a stated gift of office. Just as there were “teachers” in the early Church whose knowledge and eloquence did not entitle them to bear rule, so prophecy was frequently exercised by private persons and carried with it no such official authority as belonged in the highest degree to the apostles.

It is thought surprising that St Paul should write thus, in so general and distant a fashion, of the order to which he belonged (comp. iii. 5). This, it is said, is the language of a later generation, which looks back with reverence to the inspired Founders. But this 152 letter is written, as we observed at the outset, from a peculiarly objective and impersonal standpoint. It differs in this respect from other epistles of St Paul. He is addressing a number of Churches, with some of which his personal relations were slight and distant. He is contemplating the Church in its most general character. He is not the only founder of Churches; he is one of a band of colleagues, working in different regions. It is natural that he should use the plural here. He sets his successors an example of the recognition due to fellow-labourers whose work bears the seal of Christ’s Spirit.

These men have laid the foundation—Peter and Paul, John and James, Barnabas and Silas, and the rest. They are our spiritual progenitors, the fathers of our faith. We see Jesus Christ through their eyes; we read His teaching, and catch His Spirit in their words. Their testimony, in its essential facts, stands secure in the confidence of mankind. Nor was it their word alone, but the men themselves—their character, their life and work—laid for the Church its historical foundation. This “glorious company of the apostles” formed the first course in the new building, on whose firmness and strength the stability of the entire structure depends. Their virtues and their sufferings, as well as the revelations made through them, have guided the thoughts and shaped the life of countless multitudes of men, of the best and wisest men in all ages since. They have fixed the standard of Christian doctrine and the type of Christian character. At our best, we are but imitators of them as they were of Christ.

In regard to the chief part of their teaching, both as to its meaning and authority, the great bulk of Christians in all communions are agreed. The keen disputes 153 which engage us upon certain points, testify to the cardinal importance which is felt on all hands to attach to the words of Christ’s chosen apostles. Their living witness is in our midst. The self-same Spirit that wrought in them, works amongst men and dwells in the communion of saints. He still reveals the things of Christ, and guides into truth the willing and obedient.

So “the firm foundation of God standeth”; though men, shaken themselves, seem to see it tremble. On that basis we may labour confidently and loyally, with those amongst whom the Master has placed us. Some of our fellow-workmen disown and would hinder us: that shall not prevent us from rejoicing in their good work, and admiring the gold and precious stones that they contribute to the fabric. The Lord of the temple will know how to use the labour of His many servants. He will forgive and compose their strife, who are jealous for His name. He will shape their narrow aims to His larger purposes. Out of their discords He will draw a finer harmony. As the great house grows to its dimensions, as the workmen by the extension of their labours come nearer to each other and their sectional plans merge in Christ’s great purpose, reproaches will cease and misunderstandings vanish. Over many who followed not with us and whom we counted but as “strangers and sojourners,” as men whose place within the walls of Zion was doubtful and unauthorized, we shall hereafter rejoice with a joy not unmixed with self-upbraiding, to find them in the fullest right our fellow-citizens amongst the saints and of the household of God.

The Holy Spirit is the supreme Builder of the Church, as He is the supreme witness to Jesus Christ (John xv. 26, 27). The words in the Spirit, closing the 154 verse with solemn emphasis, denote not the mode of God’s habitation—that is self-evident—but the agency engaged in building this new house of God. With one “chief corner-stone” to rest upon and one Spirit to inspire and control them, the apostles and prophets laid their foundation and the Church was “builded together” for a habitation of God. Hence its unity. But for this sovereign influence the primitive founders of Christianity, like later Church leaders, would have fallen into fatal discord. Modern critics, reasoning upon natural grounds and not understanding the grace of the Holy Spirit, assume that they did thus quarrel and contend. Had this been so, no foundation could ever have been laid; the Church would have fallen to pieces at the very beginning.

In the hands of these faithful and wise stewards of God’s dispensation, “the stone which the builders rejected was made the head of the corner.” Their work has been tried by fire and by flood; and it abides. The rock of Zion stands unworn by time, unshaken by the conflict of ages,—amidst the movements of history and the shifting currents of thought the one foundation for the peace and true welfare of mankind.

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