July 22, 2018, No Wall! – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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It’s been a little over a week since the General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended. Pretty much all of the delegates, bishops and priests and deacons and lay people, from all of the Dioceses in the United States should be back home by now and getting back to Diocesan business-as-usual. From what I have read and heard, it was kind of a grueling time for all those involved: for the 12 days of the Convention their schedule ran from about 7 in the morning to 9 in the evening. All told, they had more than 400 resolutions to deal with, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you what they were. But the overwhelming takeaway from the 2018 General Convention, in our Diocese and many others, seems to be the fallout from a Resolution cleverly titled “B012” on the issue of same-gender marriage in the Church.
Now, I am not going to say anything at all about the Resolution itself, or about the controversial issue of same-gender relationships. What I want to talk about is the ever-present danger, a danger that has certainly grown in the wake of this year’s General Convention, of constructing dividing walls of hostility between ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree. We know that the Church of Jesus Christ, of which the Episcopal Church is just a small part, is already fractured in so many ways. We Christians have fragmented ourselves by nationality, by language, by worship style, by race, by economic status, by theological interpretations, by moral standards, by gender preferences. And now, as the delegates of our various Dioceses settle back into their home churches and deal with the ramifications of this divisive issue, the Episcopal Church is almost certainly in danger of settling further yet into our preferred side of the liberal/conservative divide. We are almost certain, in our conversations and blog entries and facebook posts in the coming weeks and months, to continue in the process of cementing a few more bricks in the wall that divides us from the “other side” – whichever side that might be.
My brothers and sisters, this is not the will of God for his Church.
In the passage we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul was writing to Gentile Christians, at a time when the Church was very much in danger of division. The first Christians had nearly all been Jews. Jesus was a Jew, the early Church was established by his Jewish apostles, and for a brief time, the Church itself was seen as just an odd sect of the Jews who followed this man Jesus, who had claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. But then Paul, who was a Pharisee born and bred, was suddenly ordained and instructed by the Holy Spirit to go out and convert Gentiles. And to the amazement of everyone and the consternation of many, his mission was a huge success – so much of a success that it wasn’t very long before there were more Gentiles than Jews in many of the new congregations. It was unavoidable that this would cause some serious problems.
There was a faction at that time within the Church, of Jews who were truly Christians, but who were still dedicated to the faith they had grown up with and loved, to the Law of Moses and to the traditions of their ancestors. One of the most well-known members of that faction was James, the half-brother of Jesus and the author of the book of James. Their position was that all Gentile converts must be required to convert to Judaism as well. The men must be circumcised as God has commanded, and they must all be required to keep the Law with all its dietary regulations, rules about keeping the Sabbath, and all the other rules. The passage in Ephesians that we read today is Paul’s way of confronting that very issue – of confronting those people who were holding on to the centuries-old divisions between the Jews and the surrounding nations: not only walls of difference, but walls of hostility, walls of judgment, walls of non-acceptance.
And what Paul had to say was that those walls were gone. He wasn’t saying that they should be gone. He wasn’t saying that they had better do something about it. He was saying that Jesus ALREADY did something about it. The walls were down.
The Jewish faction of the Church was defining itself by its obedience to the sign of circumcision, and by default the other half must be defined by its lack of obedience, its uncircumcision. No, Paul said, physical circumcision is and always was just a sign of the flesh made by human hands. The Jewish half of the Church still clung to its identity as the holy, Chosen ones of God, the people of the Law, people who were not even allowed to enter the home of a Gentile lest they become unclean by contact. No, Paul says, Jesus Christ abolished the Law with all its commandments and ordinances.
You Gentiles, Paul says, you were far off, but now you have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ. You, Gentiles, and you, Jews, you were made into one single people in the one body of Christ, offered up on the cross to put to death once and for all the hatred and pride and suspicion and lack of understanding that divided Jew from Gentile for so long. Now, no one called into his Church is an alien. Everyone called into his Church is Chosen. All are equally citizens of the same kingdom, heirs of the same promise, living stones together in the one holy Temple of Christ’s Body.
The wall is broken down, like the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. But the challenge, for the Jews and Gentiles of the first century, and for the modern Church in all its fragmented-ness and polarity, the challenge is to live with that truth.
When my grandson Cameron was about 5, he was a quirky little guy, and he had an imaginary car. When they came to our house one day, Nicholas pulled into the driveway and then Cameron pretended to park his car right behind his Dad’s car. And for the rest of that day, if anyone wanted to go out to the car or walk down the sidewalk, we had to be VERY careful to walk way around the place where Cameron had parked his imaginary vehicle, or risk his 5-year-old wrath.
That was cute and funny. But it isn’t cute and funny when God’s people live as if our imaginary walls run through the Temple of God, cutting off those brothers and sisters we disagree with, or feel uncomfortable with, and especially those we think are absolutely wrong. Sometimes we seem to forget, or we never understood, that each and every one of us is reconciled to God purely by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and by no action or righteousness or understanding of our own. By nothing other than the grace and power of our Lord, through his saving blood, we are all members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. But no wall.
There is a story in the book of Joshua that I like very much, and the Daughters of the King will have to excuse me for bringing it up two days in a row. It begins where all the men of Israel have been circumcised in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Joshua has just led the people of Israel through the Jordan River miraculously, on dry land. But as he goes in, he meets a scary-looking man with a drawn sword barring his way. And Joshua asks the man, “Are you with us, or with our enemies?” It’s a natural question. They are the Chosen people of God, going into the Promised Land, which is inhabited entirely by people hostile to the nation of Israel. So he needs to know about this man, “Are you for us, or are you against us?” And the man, who it turns out is the angel of the Lord, answers him, “No.” In other words, you’re asking the wrong question, Buddy. I am not with you or your enemies. I am the commander of the army of the Lord. I have come.”
And then the angel of the Lord commands Joshua to take off his shoes, as he commanded Moses at the burning bush, because he was standing on holy ground, in the presence of the Almighty God. And Joshua falls on his face and worships the Lord.
It is our human tendency, even in the Church, or maybe especially in the Church, to think that if we are on the right side – of a theological debate or a moral issue or a political viewpoint – that if we are right, then surely God must be on our side. But that isn’t the issue at all. That is never the issue. The issue is, whether we are on his side. And if we are his people then we are brothers and sisters and fellow citizens and co-heirs with all manner of other Christians with whom we possibly have nothing else in common besides the one thing that matters – that we are all sheep of the one good Shepherd, who has set us free by his blood from the sin that enslaved us all, and who has destroyed forever on the cross every hostility, every wall that separates us from one another. And if we are are his people, we are on holy ground.
And all that is not to say that it isn’t important, that it isn’t essential for us to try to understand the Bible to the very best of our ability. It doesn’t mean that the differences and disagreements between Christians are necessarily sinful or trivial. It doesn’t even mean we are not supposed to wrestle with one another about our differing ideas – “iron sharpening iron” as it says in the book of Proverbs. We are to love God with all our mind, as well as our heart and our strength. As long as we are in this world there will always be differences in interpretation, as well as upbringing, and preferences of style, just like there will always be the obvious distinctions between people of language and nationality. But none of those things divides us. None of those things has any effect on our status, on anyone’s status, in the household of God.
It is significant that in the last prayer Jesus prayed for his Church before he died, he prayed that we might all be one, in the same way that he and the Father were one. That was a monumental thing to pray. Because even though he was about to tear down the divisions between us in his body on the cross, he knew that there would always be so many divisions that his people would erect to divide his Church. He prayed, “…for all those who will come to believe in me through the word [of my disciples], I pray that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
And notice that it is in our unity, in our love for one another, that the Church becomes a witness to the rest of the world of the love of God. “All the world will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you love one another.” As far as I know, there is nothing in the Bible that commands us all to be in agreement on every point of doctrine and style of worship. But the Bible is crystal clear on this, that our Lord’s will for us is that we love one another as he has loved us. And that is the one thing on which our witness to the world most clearly depends.
There is an old hymn that we are going to sing at the end of the service today, written by a woman hymn-writer, Frances Havergal, in the 19th century. It asks “Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be His helpers, other lives to bring? Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who for Him will go?” And the chorus is our answer, “By thy grand redemption, by thy grace divine, we are on the Lord’s side, Savior, we are Thine.”