July 19, 2015 – No More Walls
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I almost always focus on the gospel reading each week, but this week I want to look more closely at the reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s not a very long reading, so I hope you don’t mind – I’m going to read it again, so that it’s fresh in your minds.
“Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands– remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he 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, 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.”
Paul is writing to a church that is made up mostly of Gentile converts – non-Jews, people who once for the most part were probably pagan, but who had heard the gospel proclaimed by Paul and believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit, and had now formed a community of faith there in Ephesus. Remember where you came from? he writes. Remember that you didn’t know a thing about the Messiah; remember that you didn’t know anything about God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his descendents. Remember how you worshiped gods of stone – that you knew nothing about the one true God? And even though you were so far from him, God brought you near through the blood of Jesus Christ.
And on our side, we who were the chosen people of God, who grew up carefully observing the commandments and ordinances of the Law of Moses – in Christ, God brought that whole system to an end, so that that impenetrable barrier that existed between you and us came crashing down, all enmity destroyed, and Jews and Gentiles were reconciled to God together – reconciled to God, not through obedience and sacrifices, but in the literal body of Jesus Christ. Paul says it was the creation in Christ of a new humanity. It was earthshaking; the world was never the same again. The whole civilized world of the first centuries felt the aftershock of the cross, from Asia to Britain and Spain and Northern Africa.
It’s hard for us, I think, to realize what an extraordinary thing Paul is saying to them. When we read this we don’t feel the shock in quite the same way as those first Christians, reading Paul’s letter aloud in the midst of the congregation, would have. For those Ephesian Christians it would have been something like the spiritual equivalent of the destruction of the Berlin Wall – only much more so, because the stakes were so much higher – not merely political freedom, but their very identity as human beings. But we need to really hear what Paul has to say, because even though we might not be concerned with the question of circumcision vs. uncircumcision anymore, we live in a time when there seem to be more walls than ever dividing the Church of Jesus Christ.
A study that was done by Gordon Conwell Seminary found that in the year 1900 there were about 1600 Christian denominations worldwide. But now, a little over a century later, there are about 41,000 denominations. To the world, it must look sometimes like the Church is fragmenting into tiny shards like a shattered piece of china. There are a lot of reasons why denominations form – people have different languages and traditions, different styles of music and ornamentation, different doctrines about things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the wearing or not wearing of vestments, and the ordination of women. In many denominations a major source of division right now is the issue of gender identity, and especially the question of same-sex marriage. That was the main focus of this year’s General Convention of our own denomination, and barriers have been raised between one diocese and another over this issue.
The debate over gender has a lot in common with the circumcision debate the Ephesian church was facing, because they both are matters of identity. To a faithful Jew, circumcision was a sign of their chosen-ness as God’s holy people. The Jews in Ephesus it would have been natural to feel that their identity as people of God was bound up with obedience to the Law, and circumcision was the sign of that obedience. It was hard for some Jews to accept that the Gentiles could be welcomed into the household of God without following the Law, without being circumcised. But Paul’s claim was that God had abolished the law, with its commandments and ordinances, in order that the Gentiles and the Jews might become one people. And he was also anxious, as the apostle specially appointed to reach the Gentiles, to remind the Gentile Christians how much God had done for them. In his letter to the Church in Colossi he wrote: “how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
People on both sides of the gender debate are wrestling with similar questions: of obedience, of identity, and of grace. It is really important that we all listen to one another and respect one another. It is really important to hold our own doctrines and beliefs honestly but also with humility. When Christians disagree with one another, it is really important to do exactly what our Bishop and the delegation from Albany did at the General Convention: to express their firm convictions openly but graciously, without condemnation. But the thing we need to hear is that the source of our unity is never going to be doctrine, even if our dialogue did end in agreement or friendly compromise. Jesus is our peace, not a statement of doctrine, not some kind of coalition. If everyone suddenly agreed that I am right about everything, even that could never be the source of our peace and unity, because our peace is in the person of Jesus himself.
Jesus didn’t make an amendment to the Law of Moses, explaining why circumcised and uncircumcised people are now reconciled to God together. Paul says that IN HIS FLESH Jesus made both groups, Jews and Gentiles into one. He broke down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility, between them. I am very fond of good doctrine and reason and sound arguments. But our hope is based on something much more physical, something more tangible and solid and unarguable than any doctrine or reason. Our belonging in God is based squarely on the person of Jesus Christ, who took our humanity on himself and who put all enmity and all hostility and all division to death in his own body on the cross.
The thing we have to remember now, as we navigate all these barriers we have constructed between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, is that they have no eternal significance. Denominations have no eternal significance. There will not be a United Methodist Church of Heaven down the street from St. Barnabas Episcopal Church of Heaven and around the corner from St. Titus Roman Catholic Church of Heaven. There won’t be separate neighborhoods in the kingdom of God, one here for fundamentalists and one here for progressives and another one for charismatics. There is no dividing wall separating God’s people that will survive, because our Lord Jesus put all hostility to death once and for all. Paul wrote this to the Galatian church: “You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female – we might add there is neither rich nor poor, there is neither Democrat nor Republican, there is neither black nor white, there is neither gay nor straight – for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”