One day during the Middle Ages, a gentleman was walking through a European village when he came across a large construction site. Being curious about the project, he asked a stone mason what he was doing. “I am laying stones,” replied the mason rather sarcastically.
Not satisfied with the answer, the gentleman approached a carpenter busy at work and asked him what he was doing. Rather preoccupied with his work, the carpenter said, “I am making railings.”
Still not satisfied, the gentleman found yet another worker. He was a boy mixing mortar for the mason. The gentleman asked him what he was doing. The boy stopped what he was doing and looked at the man rather incredulously. “Sir. Can’t you see?” he said. Then making a sweeping gesture with his hand toward the construction site he exclaimed, “I am building a cathedral!”
I have heard countless versions of this story. This is my own rendition. Every time I hear it my mind wanders to Ephesians Chapter 2:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are 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. (Ephesians 2:19-22 NRSV)
What I like about this passage from Ephesians is that Paul alludes to three powerful metaphors for the Church.
First, Paul writes of the “household of God.” Probably the most frequently used metaphor by churches about themselves is “family.” However, what we mean by “family” and what the Paul meant by “household” are not direct parallels. Economically speaking, our twenty-first century families are consumptive. We leave the family environment to go to work and earn an income. Then bring that income back to the family for our consumption needs.
In our families, the husband and wife relationship is considered to be the most intimate of human relationships. The most frequent theme of our literary and theatrical masterpieces is the relationship of a man and a woman. The family is primarily a place of personal sustenance and emotional nurture. The fracture of the bond between husband and wife is the considered the most grevious.
The Greco-Roman household Paul has in mind was headed by a father. He was called the paterfamilias. He was the supreme ruler of the household and technically had the power of life and death over members of the household. (Although some of this was changing during the first century.) The household consisted of the paterfamilias, his wife and children, slaves and their children, and often free persons with their families. It was not uncommon for adult children with families to live in the household.
In contrast to our era, marriage was a contractual arrangement that enabled the paterfamilias to perpetuate the family line. Wives kept their primary allegiance to their father’s household, not their husband’s. Children’s relationships with their fathers were more of reverence and respect than warmth and tenderness, although the later was not necessarily always missing. Their mothers were not fully a part of the family lineage. Consequently, the primary intimate relationship was between siblings. When we want to write a story about tragedy or horror, we write stories about husbands and wives betraying each other. For the Romans, they wrote stories about brothers betraying each other.
The household Paul has in mind would equate to a large villa in the countryside owned by a Roman Citizen. These households were economically self-sustaining enterprises. Everyone worked in the family business. That means they all participated in a common mission. This is far different from our Western twenty-first century family where our common mission tends to be about our common comfort and emotional support. What truly made the Greco-Roman household a community was its focus on the common mission of the family business. Robert Banks notes that all of the uses of the word koinonia in the New Testament, which we usually translate “community,” are all related to the camaraderie realized through engaging in a common activity. Therefore, when Paul writes about the “household of God,” he is not writing about a navel gazing group looking for warm fuzzies. He is talking about a productive close knit community of brothers and sisters engaged in common mission.
Second, there is the idea of an organic growing body in the Ephesians passage. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows…” In our language, we correlate matters of the intellect with the head and matters of emotion with heart. The Greek world associated matters of intellect with the heart and matters of emotion with the kidneys. (Just think what complications that would cause for Valentine’s Day.) The head was commonly a metaphor for the source of life that animated the rest of the body. All the ligaments, bones and organs spring from the head and are held together by the head from which they receive their animation. Paul’s “joined together and grows” is surely alluding to the Church as the “body of Christ” of whom Christ is the head. Therefore, the household of God is a living growing organic body that is growing and coming to maturity.
Third, Paul writes “…and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” The household is morphing into a temple. Before Jesus, God occupied the temple in Jerusalem and the people came there to worship God. After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God came to dwell within each believer. Therefore, the temple, God’s dwelling place, has become an animated growing temple. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” (2 Corinthians 6:16 NRSV)
Peter elaborates on this temple image even more in 1 Peter 2:4-10 (NRSV):
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
"See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
"The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,"
"A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall."
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Not only are we being built into a temple but we are now the priests proclaiming the good news of “…the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are also offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What are these sacrifices?
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 NRSV)
In other words, we are to offer up all that we do and all that we are to God so that we may be transformed into images (or eikons) of the living God, bringing God’s presence into every nook and cranny of the temporal order so that one day, “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11 NRSV) With God’s household fully transformed into an all encompassing temple, the body of Christ having come to full maturity, and with God’s restored eikons "filling the earth," we will then declare, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." Revelation 21:3-4 (NRSV)
God has given us the image of a temple under construction. Referring back to the beginning of this post, God is building a living "cathedral." God invites us to become a living stone in the cathedral and he invites us to become co-workers with him in the construction. As the building rises and we ardently tell others of our work, God will add more living stones and more workers.
The problem is that we have forgotten what we are building. The vast majority of us spend most of our lives just “laying stones” or “building railings” when at the forefront of our minds should be the construction of the cathedral. God's desire is that whenever someone asks us what we are doing as we are plowing a field, balancing a chart of accounts, teaching an English class, doing the laundry, ringing up a customer’s tally, writing a traffic ticket, changing the oil on a customer’s car, changing a dirty diaper, debugging software code, piecing together a public stock offering, cutting someone’s hair, diagnosing someone’s back problem, voting on a piece of legislation, flipping hamburgers at Wendy’s, running from one child’s soccer game to another child's piano recital, making travel arrangements for the boss, and …yes... preaching a sermon, that we answer, “Can’t you see? I am building a cathedral!”