Primary Text: Eph 2:11-22
For the past month, we’ve been talking about our understanding of the church and it’s work in the world: The Church is the Body of Christ, and all of us are members with our risen Lord as the head. As we come together in the Body, we are to be a community of faith, a community of hope, a community of love, and a community of witness.
By faith, we entrust ourselves individually and corporately to God, even at the risk of losing our life. We place our hope in the new creation that is promised when we place our faith in Christ, working toward the kingdom vision God plants in our hearts, waiting for love’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death.
Today we explore the third aspect of community… The church is to be a community of love…where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The first two statements about the church speak to the corporate nature of being a follower of Christ, what it means to pursue relationship with God together, what it means to place our hope for the Body in the One who draws us together.
This third statement though, it speaks much more directly to the horizontal relationships, the relationships here on this plane, here in this place, between us, so that the vertical relationship – between us and God – can truly be corporate. And in some ways, this is the hardest of the three to maintain… this is the nitty gritty of life in community.
Paul wrote a great deal about what love looks like in his letter to the Corinthians. In fact, that description of the “still more excellent way” of being is so often used at weddings that we forget where it sits in the context of his writings. Paul has just finished telling a church he holds dear that they are the Body of Christ, each member called to and gifted for specific work within the whole. That each member is valued and valuable, not based on what they have to offer, but because of the grace extended to them by God.
Paul exhorts them to live by faith, to honor one another’s gifts, Then he reminds them that love goes far beyond “putting up with” people. Love requires us to go much further, to follow the teachings of Jesus that move us beyond self and toward the needs of others.
The church is to be a community of love… a community in where sin is forgiven.
In a community of love, where we honor all gifts, bear all burdens, endure all things, where we place the needs of others above our own… we make space for authenticity, for being real. We make space for truth and confession.
Week after week, we pray together a prayer of confession. We remind ourselves of the truth that we all sin and fall short of what God has for us, of what God calls us to. And then we are reminded that the work of Christ is the good news of forgiveness and grace that reconciles us to God.
But to be a community of love, we must also be about the business of forgiveness among ourselves. We must be about the business of confessing the ways that we have wronged one another. Openly, honestly, admitting our faults to ourselves and to the person or people we have hurt. And then- humbly and with no expectations and no strings attached – asking for forgiveness.
And when someone comes seeking forgiveness, we must be willing to listen and willing to open our hearts to the work of the Spirit so that we can love, heal and forgive. Love enables us to forgive, perhaps not immediately, but it can, by faith, open the door to forgiveness when the words “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” are offered.
The church is to be a community of love where sin is forgiven, where reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
See, forgiveness is only part of the equation. Forgiveness can be as deep or as shallow as the relationship requires. Forgiving the person who steps on your toes as they go by you in the theater is a pretty easy thing to do.
Forgiving the person who fired you.
Forgiving the person who broke up your marriage.
Forgiving the doctor whose malpractice ended your parent’s life.
Forgiving the big stuff…that requires a different kind of work, work that moves us from etiquette and politeness into the realm of reconciliation.
A community of love is one in which all are committed to the work of reconciliation, of tearing down the walls that divide us and allow hostility to continue.
The church in Ephesus had a problem. An us-them problem to be precise.
The Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians were worshiping together. Attempting to form a community. And the results were, well, let’s say “mixed.” The Christians who came from a Jewish heritage were proud of that heritage. They were God’s chosen people, after all. They were very familiar with the rituals and traditions that Jesus used in his teachings. They had heard the stories of their ancestors, they had experienced God’s blessings, they were even marked as the people God had been in covenant with from the beginning.
They put up with the others, the ones who weren’t like them, but who had heard the apostles preaching about Jesus… and they joined the church. The gentiles weren’t like them at all. They had no connection back to the tribes of Israel. Some of them couldn’t even name the tribes. They hadn’t grown up asking and answering questions at the Passover meal. They didn’t circumcise their babies.
Some of them were so different, in looks and language it was easy to forget that they, too, were part of the community. But sometimes, even putting up with these gentiles was hard. After all, they needed to learn so much about the laws – how to prepare for the Sabbath, what kinds of things were ok to eat, or not…when and how to do pray… it was exhausting. And frustrating.
Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just be separate? Maybe if we make it really hard for them, or just uncomfortable enough… they would go away…
Now if you asked a Gentile, they might tell you it was hard being a Christian when you didn’t start out as a Jew. The Jews who were leaders used all kinds of words that didn’t make sense. There were all these inside jokes and shorthand… things that made it even harder for the Gentiles to learn and understand this new life. While the Jesus they had heard about and fallen in love with felt so very real and close at hand, the people who followed Jesus seemed to make it harder than just believing that Jesus was the son of God.
It is into this context, this setting, that the letter from which we read this morning arrived. It was written to a community divided into us and them.
It is to the Gentiles that this selection speaks, even as the Jewish Christians listened in. The Gentiles were once far from God, aliens and strangers, without hope. But now, in Christ, they have been brought near. Jewish Christians should have been able to hear themselves in those sentences, their ancestors having spent decades in exile, aliens in foreign lands, feeling like strangers to the God who had distanced himself because of their disobedience.
They were perhaps not without hope, but they were certainly lamenting and crying out “how long oh Lord?” when at last the messiah arrived. And now, in the new covenant, Christ has drawn God’s own people near.
Christ is the one who brings all people near. He has created in himself one humanity – no longer us and them, no longer the ones inside and the ones outside, no longer an exclusive covenant, but one in which all are redeemed, all are called, all are welcomed.
Why? So that both the us’s and the them’s might be reconciled to God.
Grace abounds, God is good and near.
It would be easier to stop here than to go on. The next part of Christ’s mission requires so much more of us – all of us.
Listen again to these words:
He (Jesus the Christ) 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.
Jesus came not only to reconcile humanity to God, but to create the space for humanity to be reconciled within itself. That all who come to God might also come to one another in love and peace. That we might set aside the labels, set aside the differences in tradition, in interpretation, and seek the power of the Holy Spirit.
Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation – no longer alien, no longer a stranger, but a citizen of the kingdom and a member of the household of God. This means there is no them, just a great big us. With all the rights, privileges and responsibilities to go with it.
Chief among those responsibilities? An end to the hostility and the start of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and of shalom. Practically speaking, what does that look like?
If we read the remainder of the letter to the Ephesians, we see a pattern develop, a pattern that feels fairly common in Pauline theology – the pattern of mutuality. We are to love one another – not as a quid pro quo arrangement, scratch my back – I scratch yours… but by truly honoring each other. In a mutual relationship, each person is honored. Not in sequential order, but always. Person A honors person B above herself; Person B honors person A above herself.
In a marriage – well at least in my marriage – it means that I am listening and watching to see what is going on in my husband’s world. I am looking for opportunities to lift him up. I am looking for ways to assure that he knows I love him. When I have choices and decisions to make, I am thinking about how it affects both of us, not just me. When I’ve been hurt, I speak up, rather than keeping score or putting all the pain into a bag So that I can dump it out all at once when I can’t take it any more.
As a community of 75-80 people, we have multiple layers of relationships to honor, like an onion… and there is even more work to do.
Some of it happens face to face – Asking the question, “How are you doing?” then actually listening to the answer
Talking directly to the person with whom we are frustrated, rather than talking about it elsewhere
Allowing for the possibility that someone’s criticism of me might actually be based in fact…AND THEN considering how I might change
Allowing for the possibility that someone else might have a different “right way” of doing things
Believing the best about someone – rather than assuming the worst
Sometimes it means leading differently – Sometimes it means following differently. But always it requires seeing the interactions between ourselves and others as holy moments, moments in which Christ himself is present.
In the last 10 days, this the news has been filled with violence and vitriol that must shatter God’s heart. Shootings, arson, beheadings, plenty of doomsday rhetoric… And yet, if you watched closely, there were also individuals and groups stepping out in faith, pointing to hope.
We saw thousands join in as our president sang and spoke of God’s Amazing Grace. We saw couples who had spent lifetimes together finally at the courthouse, able to solemnize vows and covenant to love one another in marriage. We saw a woman climb a flagpole and pull down a symbol of oppression, knowing that she would go to jail and another flag would fly in its place. But still, by faith, she climbed.
These moments show not only the fractious nature of humanity, our ability to build walls and divisions, and to see other people as deserving less than what we expect for ourselves…
These moments show just how much we need someone to sing grace over our pain, to honor the love that we share and to soar above the crowd- They remind us that walls and divisions and inequity are not ok just because they have become common and comfortable.
Jesus didn’t come with chore chart and class rules to give out stars when we manage to finish a day together without argument. Christ has broken down the wall and said- look, you are not alone, they love me, too. Get to know those people and love them as I loved you.
Jesus didn’t come wearing a referee shirt so that we could cry foul or fake an injury to keep the others at a disadvantage. Christ has broken down the wall and said, you are all on my team. The work you are called to requires all your skills, all your knowledge, coordinated and made to look effortless by practicing the work together
And Jesus didn’t come with a parliamentarian’s manual so that we could establish and further complicate a means of determining who gets to do what and when. Christ has broken down the wall, destroying the law, calling the oppressed to come out and shine, calling the oppressors to humility and expecting all to stand together on a foundation of love for God and love for one another as we build a temple with room for still more to come on inside.
May this church embody that community of love…where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.