Then and now, before and after!

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Then and now, before and after!

Preached by Revd Keith Underhill on 19th July 2015.

Ephesians 2:11-22

If you read my letter in last week's notice sheet or on the church website, (all the 'w's and then altonmethodist.org.uk — under the title of 'Open Wide!') you will be aware that I had undergone the ordeal of 2 hours in the dentist's chair whilst he worked away on my teeth and fitted two temporary crowns — age is catching up with me.

Well, last Thursday, I returned for another session, in order that the temporary ones could be removed and my permanent ones fixed in their stead — it was all done and dusted in a mere 25 minutes.

Like the first time, it was all pain and discomfort free, for which I was and am very grateful.

There is, of course, nothing to see. I could stand before you with my widest grin, teeth showing, and it would be very difficult for you to know which two teeth are now crowned.

That though, is a sign of a good dentist doing a very good job. You shouldn't be able to tell the difference between before and after.

In fact my dentist told me that if people noticed and said anything to me about my 'new teeth', then he would have failed and done a bad job.

However, with the most painful part of the whole experience being the cost of it all, part of me almost wants to say (whilst pointing to the offending teeth) — look, look, look at these, see what I have had done — how good are these beauties!

We are surrounded by the notion of transformation.

It seems that every time you turn on the television, especially during the day, there is some kind of property renovation programme, where after weeks of blood, sweat and tears the project is finally completed and we are shown the pictures of before and after.

We marvel at the total transformation of what once was, and 'ooh' and 'aaah' as we take in what now is. The before and after pictures of the property that has been renovated, speak volumes.

The format that is used for property is, of course, also used for the human body — as individuals go through cosmetic surgery and radical make-overs that transform how they look and appear.

Unlike my two teeth, in the cases of bricks and mortar and of human tissue, it is the final appearance, the final look that is crucial, in order that the transformation can make the biggest impact and have the largest wow factor.

The letter to the Ephesians, from which we heard Chapter 2, verses 11- 22 read for us a few minutes ago, was written around A.D. 60. It is a letter of encouragement to the church in Ephesus that Paul founded around 7 years earlier.

The writer, whether Paul or someone writing in Paul's style (it doesn't really matter), is reminding those in this young church of their own transformation; of how they used to be, of who they once were, as opposed to who they now are.

And, like the spectacular and amazing transformations that are revealed on our television screens as we follow builders, architects and designers, or surgeons, hairdressers and make up artists, the transformation of those in this fellowship in Asia Minor is, as equally remarkable.

"Remember," he writes, "that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world".

This is powerful and emotive stuff, the words and phrases that are used here are hard edged and hard hitting; separate, excluded, foreigners, and without hope.

A lonely place, on the margins; not with the 'in crowd', the chosen, the elect.

That's where they were, that was their experience, their lot, and their daily round. This is the 'before' word picture that we are given.

Then comes that change, that transformation, "But now", he writes..... "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ."

He goes on to remind them that; "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

These new descriptions, these words of inclusivity and acceptance are just as powerful as those that were hard hitting and hard edged; fellow citizens, members, holy, together.....

Then and now, before and after, was and is, far away and close at hand; the difference is startling and is a complete and total transformation and turn around.
So, how has this happened, what has caused this to take place?

The answer is simple: God's grace and God's love.

For the events of that first Easter, of all that took place that Good Friday, Christ's crucifixion upon the cross, and bearing the sins of the world alongside the events of Easter day and resurrection, mean that absolutely nobody can be alienated from Christ's love or from His people.

Before Jesus turned the world, the universe, and the cosmos upside down and inside out — there was a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. With hatred, fear and antagonism rooting and anchoring its foundations.

The Gentiles were considered by the Jews to be outside and beyond God's saving power and therefore without any hope. Which is why the arrival of the Magi, the wise men in Matthew's Gospel (Gentiles, foreigners, strangers) who came to celebrate and recognize Jesus' birth was such a shock and outrage for the Jews — but a sign of hope for the Gentile nations.

For their part, the Gentiles resented the claims of their Jewish neighbours with all their talk of favouritism and the scandal of particularity.

Yet through the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, those barriers that divided, that wall that separated and all that which brought antagonism and division, was brought crashing down just as the curtain in the temple was torn in two.

So those who were formerly separate, far away, outside and without hope, now found themselves through God's love and grace in Christ Jesus, transformed, and they were now able to participate in that from which they had so long been denied.

St. Clements Church in Leigh-on-Sea is a place I know well. Having grown up in Leigh and with my parents still living there, Leigh was home for the formative part of my life.

St.Clements is a high Anglican Church, (Anglo-Catholic) a bit like All Saints, here in Alton. St. Clements also uses incense and the people of Leigh Wesley Methodist Church, do from time to time, gather in St. Clements for united services.

Situated on the Broadway, the steep steps by its side take you down to the old town, to the Thames and the cockle sheds and the haunts of former smugglers and customs avoiders.

I have fond childhood memories of racing my Dad up these steps from the bottom all the way to the top.

St. Clements has a poster on their door, (a copy of which Christine Hindle posted on Facebook last weekend) that has got me thinking these past few days — it has been buzzing around in my head, and it fits in very well with today's set Epistle from Ephesians 2:11-22.

By the way it is written and phrased it is obviously American, and some attempt has been made to Anglicize it, but I feel it still needs some more tweaking. I'd like to have a play with it, and then having done so, print it out and put it on our notice boards!

Yet even as it is, it is a forceful and powerful reminder of two things, the universality of the gospel — that the Gospel message of God's love and grace is for all and for everyone and that it is not for us to say who is welcome and who is not.

It is also a reminder of the fact that we face the same danger and can fall into the same trap that the Jews found themselves in pre — Jesus, considering those who are not like us to be outside and beyond God's saving power and therefore with hope.

This is what the poster says;

"We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, gay, confused, filthy rich, comfortable, or dirt poor.
We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds.
You're welcome if you are Old Leigh, New Leigh, Not Leigh, or just passing by.
We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or can't carry a note in a bucket. You're welcome here if you're 'just browsing,' just woke up or just got out of prison.
We don't care if you're more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven't been in church since little Jack's christening.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters.
We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you're having problems or you're down in the dumps or if you don't like 'organised religion.' We've been there too!
If you blew all your money on the horses, you're welcome here.
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, 'work too hard,' don't work, can't spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both.
We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost on the London Road and wound up here by mistake.
We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts... and you!"

So says the poster on the church door of St. Clements Church Leigh-on-Sea and no doubt on many other churches of all kinds of denominations.

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ."

"Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

Amen indeed!

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