Preached April 28, 2013
Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
The Story, Ch. 29 & 30 (we’re doubling up this week to stay on schedule!)
The Story continues this week with more from the book of Acts, centered now on Paul, and on his writings in the New Testament letters. In many ways, the most important part of the Story for us, because it is the part that we live within – these are the stories of the beginnings of the church – it is our identity that is being shaped and formed in these chapters.
Two central themes emerge, both of which are highlighted by Paul in the second chapter of Ephesians:
- The way that Jesus reunites, or reconciles, us with God
- The way that we are to be united as God’s people, Christ’s body
United as God’s people. We say that. We sing about it. But it isn’t always easy to live.
Perhaps you have heard the tongue-in-cheek story about the man who found a woman standing in the middle of a bridge, about to jump. He ran up to her, begging her not to jump.
“God loves you!” he said.
She stepped back a step and turned to look at him. He asked carefully: “Are you a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or what?”
“I’m a Christian,” she replied. “Me too!” the man said with a smile.
Protestant or Catholic? “Protestant.” “Me too!”
What denomination? Baptist. Me too!
Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist? Northern Baptist. ME TOO!
Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist? Northern Conservative Baptist. Really? ME TOO!
Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist? Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist. Well that’s amazing – me too!
Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region? She answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
At which he shouted: “Die, heretic!” and he pushed her over the rail.
We laugh, because isn’t it ridiculous? But it’s true too, isn’t it?
Several years ago, I was leading a Disciple Bible Study, and had a retired United Methodist Clergy named Gerry person in the class. We got along well the first week of class, and the second. We learned that we were neighbors in the city, colleagues in ministry, and attended the same congregation on Sunday mornings. And then in the third week, a side conversation after class led him to ask where I went to seminary. And I didn’t see him for the next three weeks. In time I learned why – he leaned far left, theologically and politically, and he was suspicious of my right-leaning seminary education. He eventually came back, but we both felt wary of the other. Trust was hard.
Maybe you don’t care so much as we did about the doctrinal minutia that theologians like to debate. But turn the argument to a politics or social issues, and most of us are quick to draw lines in the sand. We quickly decide who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t. We use the language of “us” and “them.” We put one another in categories, and then assume those categories define us: liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, heterosexual and homosexual, rich and poor, black and white, immigrants and citizens. It is even creeping into our conversations about the future of our church family: Moon vs. Coroapolis, us and them.
It is nothing new, this dividing and categorizing. In the earliest church, the lines were drawn between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. They separated themselves out based on what foods they ate, what holidays they celebrated, and what clothes they wore.
In fact, the human tendency to divide goes back even further. It goes all the way back to the beginning of the story, or almost the beginning. It goes back to sin – sin is what separates us from God, and from one another. Sin leads us to draw lines in the sand, point fingers at others, and distinguish between “us” and “them” – all so that we have someone – other than ourselves – to blame.
And then Jesus enters into the story, and he steps across all those human barriers that we erect. He eats with sinners. He invites women into men’s conversations. He touches unclean people and talks with the mentally ill.
And then we fast forward to the early church, and we find the first Christians trying to figure out what in the world it means to follow Jesus in crossing barriers and tearing down walls. What does it mean to be one in Christ? What does it mean to say that “you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” and “Christ Jesus is our peace, who has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us…” (Eph 2:13-14)
What does it mean that Jesus Christ “might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace”? (Eph 2:15)
I think we sometimes assume that it means we manage to put aside differences long enough to sit side-by-side in the pews for an hour on Sunday morning. That’s a start, but it isn’t really peace. Peace in Christ also doesn’t mean that we badger one another into agreement because, come on, this is the new and exciting thing, won’t you just get on board already. Nor does it mean that call a cease-fire in political debates when we walk through the doors of the church.
The kind of peace and unity that Paul speaks of in Ephesians means, I think, that we learn to acknowledge and recognize differences among us without hostility. We learn to respect one another even when we disagree. We learn to listen to one another – really listen, not just to form a retort but to hear the heart of another. We learn to look beyond our snap judgments and first impressions to really get to know one another.
Jim Walker – if you were here two weeks ago, you will remember his dramatic presentation of the Gospel – he argues that rather than seeking out common ground with other Christians, the church ought to be the place “where we experience uncommonality.” Christians, he says, “aren’t called to find common ground with others; we’re called to love even those with whom we share no common ground at all.” (in Dirty Word by Jim Walker)
It is that kind of unity – unity that honors difference and listens respectfully to disagreement and seeks to grow together – that attracts the attention of others and witnesses to God’s love. It’s that kind of unity – that is much more about the way we treat one another than it is about the beliefs we hold – that speaks of God’s Spirit at work within us. It’s that kind of unity that the familiar song speaks of: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
So how do we reach that kind of peace and unity, in a world that teaches us to divide and separate? How is it that we join together as one family of God?
The short answer is, we don’t. We can’t, really. Sin will continue to creep in between us; pride will keep insist we are right and they are wrong; fear will keep us from true honesty.
We can’t, but God can. And has, and will. “Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens…and members of the household of God.” It is through Jesus that we are “joined together,” “built together spiritually” so that we may “grow into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:17-22)
Our job is to seek God together, and allow God to work among us. Our job is to be in prayer together, and then listen carefully and humbly to one another as we discern together what we are called to do. Our job is to trust God together, and then take a step forward – even if it isn’t the step we, personally, expected to take
Last week, Jessica Regotti shared her piece of the vision for the future of our church – a place where children and families were welcomed and nurtured.
My own vision – rooted in Paul’s story in Acts and his teaching from Ephesians 2 – is that we would be a community that shows the peace of Christ in everything we do. We can practice through the conversations we are having about our future as a congregation – not insisting that we agree on everything, but treating one another respectfully in our disagreement. Not going-along-to-get-along, but having the courage to raise questions and challenge ideas and engage in honest conversation.
But it goes beyond those conversations. I hope and pray that we will become the kind of congregation that can engage important social issues and wrestle with hard questions of faith while still trusting and loving one another. Perhaps more than anything else, I think that kind of honest, open conversation – done respectfully, with genuine humility and care for one another – will attract others to us – and through us, to God. I think we could have no stronger witness in a divided world than to allow God to “break down the dividing walls between us” so that we might be at peace with one another.
I trust that God can do it, because I have seen glimpses of it. Remember the clergy colleague who left Bible Study because he distrusted my theological background? In time, over cups of coffee, long conversations and shared ministry around the city of Chicago, we found common threads that united us – and he became one of my greatest mentors, though we remained miles apart theologically. We learned to trust one another, to argue respectfully, and to continue to love.
I saw glimpses of the same kind of unity in the Wednesday night Bible studies last fall, when people from different theological and political positions engaged in deep, honest conversation…
My prayer, that God would continue the work of “reconciling us to himself through the cross, and putting to death hostility” between us, so that we might be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”