Primary readings are from Ephesians 2, the Belhar Confession (as embedded below)
I want to pause here… because this is such a beautiful distillation of the gospel.
You were dead.
Alive in the flesh, sure, but dead in spirit
All of us once were, because all humans sin. All fall short of the glory of God.
We were dead.
But God. Such a phrase of promise, of hope…
But God – out of love – made us alive.
Alive in Christ and through Christ
Children of God, Siblings of Christ, worthy of sitting right there next to God at the dinner table
We were dead, but by grace we have been saved.
Made into something new.
Made for a purpose, for the work God has set before us.
Made one, because that work is more than any of us can ever do on our own.
And that is the hard part, isn’t it? That “being one” part.
Hearing the word “You” – not as a personal encouragement or admonishment
Not as a bunch of you’s who happen to be near one another, hearing the same thing
Not you each
And not You every
You all. All of you, together.
The same you as in “all of you” that Jesus used in almost every command he gave,
And when he said “my peace I give to you”
which is why the church must always think of you in terms of an ever-expanding we.
We are what God made us and is making us,
We are the church that was formed and reformed and is always reforming as we come to understand more and more about the height, depth, breadth and width of God’s great love for us in Christ Jesus.
We were dead
But God brought us to life, so that we might know life in the spirit, and so that through our way of living – the Jesus way of living – others might come to know the way, the truth and the life.
In Ephesus, part of the learning to live in the way of Jesus was reconciling two very different communities into one community of faith. This is hard but sacred work, as we see in the next segment of the passage.
By the time this letter was written, there were probably more gentile Christians than those of Jewish heritage. The Jewish Christ-followers would have been accustomed to separation from their gentile peers. Gentiles were not allowed into the inner portions of the temple, so they would have remained physically separated in worship.
Gentiles were not circumcised, so they would have been physically different as well. Not visibly in the course of most interactions, obviously, but identifiably different. The Jews had come up with a pretty inappropriate nickname based on that fact.
The truth is, gentiles were often seen as a separate group within humanity. The Gentiles were the outsiders, aliens and strangers in the land of the insiders – the Jews- the chosen ones in covenant with God.
But this Jewish-Gentile enmity wasn’t all on the Jews
Through the lenses of Gentile life and religiosity, Jews were seen as equally ignorant of God as defined by Gentile history and traditions. The separation between the two groups was not limited to theological disposition — to “belief”; it played out in very real ways in terms of human social relations.
I wouldn’t say that these groups of people had no interaction, but it is important to understand that they did not sit at the same table together; they were not interested in sharing life. They were in many ways in opposition to one another.
But God… those words that promise good news…
But God brought these opposing groups together into one.
Even better news – God’s unification of the two groups did not mean “uniformity.” One group did not fall under the power of the more dominant group.
Instead, we see that God in Christ has made one humanity of the two. Gentiles do not become Jews; Jews do not become Gentiles. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles become united in Christ as Jew and Gentile.
In Christ, all believers are welcomed into the story of God – a story that yes, first played out through the people of the covenant, but then was opened to all. A story in which they all play their own part in God’s continuing story of redemption.
We are separated from one another
But God, in an abundance of love, made a way for us to come together
Christ was and is in the business of knocking down the walls that divide us –
Like the great big old wall between republicans and democrats right about now.
Christ was and is knocking down walls between people who are well fed and living in homes with air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter…. And their neighbors who aren’t sure where they will sleep when rains or find their next meal.
Christ was and is knocking down the walls between immigrants and those who would prefer to see longer and higher fences on their countries’ borders.
Christ was and is knocking down the walls we keep stacking back up between us over gender identity and sexual orientation, and what all that means in the church
Christ was and is knocking down the walls that divide us by the most insidious of divisions – race.
I graduated high school in 1984. I remember it being yet another turbulent time in history…not unlike today.
- US and Soviet relations were awful and the nuclear arms race had me terrified. I laid awake at night wondering who would press the button first, us or them.
- Indira Ghandi was assassinated
- The AIDS virus was finally identified, but precious little was being done about it
- The Solidarity movement was gaining power in Poland, miners strikes in England led other workers to rise up
- Lebanon, Syria, and Nicaragua were among the countries in political upheaval
- The famine in Ethiopia extended into a second year, prompting musicians to raise money via LiveAid concerts
And I remember the growing opposition to the system of apartheid in South Africa.
Growing up in a fairly segregated town (even though our schools were integrated), I imagined that South Africans were separated like we were… mostly by self-selection. After all, people tend to gather with others like themselves.
What I didn’t understand was that the political, legal and social structures in South Africa were built on the framework of Apartheid, a framework of separation and hierarchy that allowed a small white majority to assert itself over the rest of the population.
(following facts shared from Wikipedia)
- The leaders who developed this system determined that South Africa was not a single nation, but was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, coloured and Indian. These groups were further split into 13 nations or racial federations.
- The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalized racial classification and required everyone over 18 to have identity cards specifying their racial group. Boards were established to assign race for those people whose race was unclear. Sometimes different members of the same family were assigned different races.
- There was a law that prohibited marriage between persons of different races, and another that made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offence.
- The Group Areas Act put an end to diverse neighborhoods and determined where one lived according to race. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act allowed the government to demolish black shanty town slums and remove residents.
We can certainly see some parallels here in the US, especially prior to the Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. But bear in mind that the Apartheid structure was built to support the will of the minority in South Africa, not the majority as it is here.
That kind of rule requires even greater shows of force and power, as well as work to demoralize and separate those who – if united – might rise up to take back their freedom. It was in this millieu that the South African church found itself in the mid-1980s.
South African churches confessed – proclaimed – the same truth that we just read today…
God, in the form of Jesus, has not only made a way for us to reconcile ourselves to our Creator – Jesus is our peace. Jesus has made all of us one – we share one baptism, one bread, one cup, one Lord, one Father, one Spirit. Jesus has brought us from death to life so that all might live in freedom and peace, so that all might know justice
And the reality in South Africa?
No justice, no freedom, no peace.
Not for the vast majority of the people.
The church had reached a status confessionis. A moment at which the church must stand and confess- proclaim what the church believes- to itself and to those in power over the land. In these critical moments, as in the quotidian moments, the church confesses what it needs to remember.
Each week, we confess- we affirm – the promises of God; the identity of God. We confess the actions of God. As we confess our faith, our identity is re-forged. Because… what we choose to remember and speak aloud together – in doctrine and history, in faith and belief, all serves to inform who we are.
It was with this understanding that Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared a state of status confessionis for the church under Nazi Germany. For Bonhoeffer and others, the Nazification of the church was an issue so threatening to the truth of their confession of Christ that no compromise, no coexistence was possible.
Bonhoeffer also recognized that the Nazi persecution of Jews demanded a serious response from the church. But more so, he recognized that the church was called “not only to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke into the wheel itself” and bring the engine of injustice to a halt. The resulting document was the Declaration of Barmen, which is part of our Book of Confessions
Under the leadership of Allan Boesak, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa drafted what is now known as the Belhar confession in 1982. This “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” was the church declaring that apartheid constituted a status confessionis in which the truth of the gospel was at stake.
According to the Belhar Confession, unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church. This unity originally referred to non-segregation between Christians of different races. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted the Belhar Confession in 1986. Belhar’s theological confrontation of the sin of racism has made possible reconciliation among Reformed churches in Southern Africa and has aided the process of reconciliation within the nation of South Africa.
We’ve used some of the words from the Belhar Confession already today, in our Call to Confession. And we’ll read another portion in a few minutes as our Affirmation of Faith. Right now, I’d like to share with you a video that was shown at General Assembly as they were preparing to cast the final vote which added the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.
You’ll hear a variety of voices reading the full text of the confession.
I believe that much of the unrest we are experiencing in our country right now is a direct result of our willingness to remain segregated.
We are ok with allowing people who are not “us” to remain very much “them.” And sometimes, we take that willingness a step further, not just leaving people be, in hopes that they let us be.
We also allow those others to be pressed down, pushed aside or worse.
We choose not to speak on their behalf.
We choose not to act justly, to love mercy.
We stop looking across the divide and begin to rebuild the walls that serve not only to protect us from danger, but also separate us from our siblings in Christ. We build walls so that we can’t even see the neighbors we are passing by as they lay dying in the street.
I wonder what it would take to change things just enough that we could feel safe enough to stop building walls.
I wonder what it would take for us to feel safe enough to attempt to embody the wall-toppling Jesus that we follow…
Michael Kirby – a PCUSA pastor in Illinois was sharing some thoughts along these lines yesterday. He asked (as part of a much longer post on Facebook)…
What if we made it a priority to create a world where fewer people could be convinced that their lives have so little value that they could only achieve “greatness” through a death that brings death to others?
What if we assessed our individual and collective economic, political, social and military policies and practices to see where we contribute to people feeling that their lives, or the lives of others, have so little value?
What if we collectively said that hate disguised as zealotry was no longer welcome in our religious, political, social and other affinity groups, even if it meant some of our most influential and/or engaged compatriots lost power?
I would love to say that I have easy answers and steps to take
But I don’t.
Loving is hard
Reconciling is hard
Trusting is hard
Confessing the fullness of the gospel, from salvation to action, is hard
Confessing the call on the church – on us – to be the good news of liberation, healing, hope and yes, salvation, for people from whom we have long considered ourselves separate?
That’s even harder.
But God, the one who started a good work in you and me and all of us together, will be faithful to complete that work, through Christ Jesus, to the glory of his name.