07/19/15 Sermon (July 19, 015) “A Strange Reconciliation”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 2:27 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 2:11-22

So then, 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, so 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.

Sermon: "A Strange Reconciliation"             Rev. David Hawkins

Last week, we explored the difficult topic of predestination, the idea that God is the one who chooses, not us. This week, we move into another tricky discussion, this time about what it means to be reconciled.

The book of Ephesians is a letter that was written to a church, or perhaps to a group of churches in the vicinity of Ephesus, which was a large, wealthy port city in what is today part of Turkey.

Ephesus was famous for being the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt. The church in Ephesus was wealthy, worldly, and consisted mostly of former pagans, what Paul calls, ‘Gentiles by birth’, former worshippers of the Greek and Roman Gods, as well as members of the Emperor Cult.

And so, even though members of the church had forsworn their previous religious affiliations, the cultural influence of their former worship practices was still strong, and this letter to the Ephesians discusses some of the problems this influence is causing.

And one of the problems was the tension that existed between those in the Christian community who were what we might call Jewish Christians, and those who we might call gentile Christians, or as Paul puts it, the ‘circumcised’ and the ‘uncircumcised’.

Now, as we saw in our discussion of the letter that Paul to the church in Corinth over the last few weeks, there were already some problems between these two groups. You may remember that there was pressure from the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to convince the Gentile Christians in Corinth that they needed to become Jewish in order to be good Christians. In fact, for some of the members of the early church, if you weren’t Jewish, you couldn’t even be Christian.

And so there was a sense of exclusion emanating from part of the early church, a definite sense of being in and being out of the circle of faith. And being circumcised, that is, observing the rituals and laws of the Jewish traditions, was a big part of what it meant to be in that circle.

But there was another kind of pressure against the Jews as well, and this had to do with the fact that the Romans suspected that the Jews were not patriotic enough, because they didn’t worship in the same way that the rest of Rome did. The Jews didn’t worship a bunch of different Gods, and they certainly didn’t worship the emperor.

And so, from a purely civic standpoint, it seemed to mainstream Roman culture that the Jews were actively working against the good fortunes of the Roman people. After all, if the Jews refused to worship Diana, or Jupiter, or Mars, then it only stands to reason that if there was an earthquake, or a fire, or a flood, or any other of a thousand weather related catastrophes, then it must have been the Jews’ fault.

Of course, that sort of superstitious blame game still goes on today, but now we blame the hurricanes and droughts on atheists, or the Muslims, or the gays, or some other group of people that don’t toe the line, theologically speaking.

But back then, it was the Jews that were causing all the problems. And so, you can understand that if you weren’t ethnically Jewish, it would be very tempting to distance yourself as far as you possibly could from anything that seemed to be Jewish. This presented a bit of a problem for early Christians, because early Christianity was generally seen as an outgrowth of Judaism.

And the church in Ephesus was no exception. I’m sure that they did everything they could to make it clear that they had nothing at all to do with those “Jewish” troublemakers. After all, they weren’t circumcised. They didn’t follow kosher dietary laws. They didn’t fret about silly things like working on the Sabbath. They were Gentiles. Don’t lump them in with those Jewish traitors.

And so, we have a situation in which there are divisions between Jews and Gentiles, divisions between Romans and Christians, divisions even between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And this is the situation Paul is trying to address in his letter today.  

For Paul, the use of religion in order to create division runs against the very of idea of what Jesus came to earth to do. He reminds us that Christ died for all of us, not just some. For those far away, and for those who are near. For those who are in the covenant, and those who are not. It’s not matter of who is more in the circle than others. We’re all in it together, as members of one family, citizens of one nation, created and united by God’s love, which has been freely given to us.

But all too often, we humans use religion as a weapon, rather than as a welcome. If we really want to start a fight, lead off with a theological right hook. We cite chapter and verse as a reason to suspect, to separate, to denounce. Religion justifies our need to label, to categorize, to determine who is in or out, who we want to associate with, and who we don’t.

And usually, the  tool we use to do this is the rigorous application of God’s law. It’s simple: those who follow the law are ‘in’, those who do not are ‘out’. And the more closely the letter of the law is followed, the more holy and right and ‘in’ one is. And the more uncompromising one is, the more righteous one feels.

And honestly, it really doesn’t matter if that law is the torah, or public opinion, or cultural expectations, or some sort of moral code, or religious obligations, or a star stamped on our bellies. We humans will find a whole host of ways to divide ourselves along ethnic, racial, political, social, sexual, educational, and economic lines.

We see this division between countries, between languages, between East and West, Protestants and Catholics, between denominations, even among denominations. In our own Presbyterian denomination we are seeing the disintegration of unity, with churches leaving, fellowships breaking, relationships ending, congregations splitting over issues like whether or not the church should use a screen in worship, or play the music with drums and guitars, or whether or not it is appropriate to bless same sex marriages.

In so many cases, the decision to split up is made with the firmest religious convictions. We wear our stars proudly. Over the last couple of years, I have heard all too often the Bible quoted to support schism, but rarely do I hear it used to foster relationship. It seems like we are quicker to look for the scriptures that allow us to turn away from each other rather than look for those that encourage us to turn toward each other. We gravitate to  those Bible verses that give us permission to walk away when times get hard.

But Paul tells us today that we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to walk away from each other. We don’t have to be suspicious, we don’t have to judge, condemn, we don’t have to separate ourselves from each other. The life-giving gospel of this letter to the Ephesians gives us permission to let our anger and our disagreements go, to look for ways to stay in relationship, rather than to shun one other.

But, if we do decide to split from each other, if we do decide that we just can’t be with those people over there, today’s scripture also reminds us that we can't use Jesus Christ as our reason to do so.

For Paul, the work of Jesus Christ was and is, and always will be the work of reconciliation, not division. The work of the cross was the work of bringing us together, bringing us together with God, and bringing us together with each other. It was not just to put sin to death, it was, as the apostle says, to put hostility itself to death, to obliterate the hostility that separates us from each other. The work of the cross was to create unity among God’s people.

And Paul makes it clear that it’s not the law that creates this unity. It’s not our shared understanding of God’s expectations that makes us one. It’s the only grace of Jesus Christ. In fact, what Jesus has done for us makes the law obsolete, useless. Paul tells that Jesus has abolished the law, he has nullified it, it is no longer binding or effective.

And that is what is so strange to us. It’s hard for us to imagine religion without law. What’s the point? we might ask. If religion is not about the law, what is it about? If we can’t point to the law as the final judge of our own sense of righteousness, what can we point to?

And even more importantly, if the law has no meaning for us, if it has been abolished, what standard do we use to judge others? How can we know whether or not we should accept others, forgive others, welcome others, if the law has been rendered inconsequential?

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what reconciliation is. When we longer have the law as our judge, we can finally see others in the light of Christ, in the same way that God sees us. When the law can no longer tell us who is righteous, and who is not, we can only depend on the judgement of Christ. When our righteousness is no longer based on the law, but rather is based on the righteousness of Christ, when our salvation is not based on our works but on the grace of him who died for us, well, this means things. It means big things.

When the law can no longer be used as a weapon, we can longer speak of those who are inside and outside, those who are righteous and unrighteous. Those distinctions are no longer available to us. The ancient divisions are gone, at least, the rationale for them is gone. Whether or not we decide to keep using these tools of exclusion and division and hatred is up to us. But we can’t blame it on God anymore.

There will always be those who are just sure that their God requires them to hate, to shun, to condemn, and to separate themselves from those they deem to be unrighteous. Paul knows this, and we know this, from centuries of anti-Jewish persecution, from decades of sectarian violence, from reading the headlines from today’s newspapers, or just by going to a Presbytery meeting here in Palo Duro. Religious suspicion and hostility was a part of Paul’s world, and it’s still a part of ours.

But, for our part, we don’t have to continue down that path. We have a choice, Paul says, to put aside the divisions that exist between those who share the faith, but who practice it in different ways. We may have to be creative. It may mean searching for common ground, rather than staking out the higher ground. But we do have permission to do that sort of creative work, if we want to. And if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame.

Christ died for all of us, not just some. It’s not about who has stars upon thars, and who doesn’t. We are the house of God, knit together, a spiritual dwelling place for those far off, and those near. Those with whom we agree, and those with whom we do not. The peace that Jesus offers is right here in front of us, beckoning, inviting. He gave everything he had for this peace. Maybe, just maybe, we can give an inch or so of ourselves, if we are willing to trust what God has already done for us on that cross so long ago.  

To the Lord who speaks to us,

and strengthens us,

and blesses us with peace,

be all glory and honor forever. Amen.