Demolition and Renovations

In the opening portion of Ephesians, we were greeted with the most amazing news:  the good news that we have been adopted into God’s family.  

We belong.    

Not just to God, of course, but to one another.  Because as siblings, all of us are family.

We belong.

Not just some of us.
Not even just the us we see right here in this room…

God has always – from the very beginning – desired to see all of humanity, all of creation even, gathered up in harmony with one another and in loving relationship with God.  

All knowing that we all belong.  

Also, Paul tells us, when we come to understand who we are in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are also bound to God and one another in a work of reconciliation that is cosmic in scale.

But understanding who we are in Christ is at the heart of understanding how we can belong to God. That’s why, as we move into the second portion of the letter, Paul digs a little deeper into this concept.  

First, we need to know that our belonging to God has absolutely nothing to do with us;  it has everything to do with Christ.

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

God’s grace is so lavish that it transforms a creation gone astray into a new creation, one alive with the resurrection power of Christ.   

That, my friends is who we are.  

We together are the new creation, a body that is at once broken and restored, fallible and forgiven, messy and beautiful. A body that has been redeemed so that we, too,  might reflect the character and nature of God as we move through the world.      

Like the original recipients of this letter, we are gentiles.  Our only way into the family- into the covenant people of God – is through the work of Christ.   Bearing that in mind, listen for the word of God in Ephesians 2:11-22…

11 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— 12 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.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 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. 15 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,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually  into a dwelling place for God.

You might recall from our readings in Acts this spring that the conflict surrounding the practice of circumcision was really important in the move to truly welcome gentiles into the Jesus way of knowing and following God.

Some of the apostles and many other observant Jews in the early church believed that one must first convert to Judaism to become a follower of Jesus.  That process included, for men and for any male children in the family, circumcision.

Paul and several others who ministered among and alongside gentiles argued that with Christ as the fulfillment of the law, this ritual and physical symbol was no longer necessary.  Baptism in water and evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in one’s life was sufficient. The key to one’s belonging is a conversion of the heart.

But – as you and I know – traditions die hard.

Paul uses some architectural metaphors in this passage to help the church understand the damage this kind of conflict does what could and should be unified faith communities.

See – in some places of worship, there were literal walls that kept gentiles  separated from Jewish worshippers. They could only enter so far into the building.  If Jesus-following communities met in those spaces, these walls would naturally create division, segregation.

Paul believed that too many communities found themselves segregated by the lingering discussions around circumcision.  You can see from our passage today that the word circumcision was used as a shorthand for which group one belonged to.  It could even be used as an epithet, spat out in that particular tone that makes it very clear who the speaker believed was “in” and which group was “out”.  

You might imagine, then, that the division and separation wasn’t limited to gatherings for worship.  It is difficult to be in relationship with someone- much less to gather for meals and fellowship or to serve others in mission alongside someone who thinks of you as being wholly other. Someone who despises you. Someone who has decided they just can’t or won’t trust you.

This letter to the Gentiles is a critical reminder to them – not just the Jewish believers, but the gentiles – of their full adoption into the family and just why it matters.

Yes, at one point they were far off. But now?  

Just look at what Christ has done! I mean… Check out these verb phrases-

They have been brought near
The two groups have been made one
Christ has broken down the wall (the one that represents the hostility between them)
He abolished the law, creating one humanity, and making peace
Christ reconciled both groups to God in one body, putting to death hostility
He came and proclaimed peace

The work of Christ Paul points to here is salvation.
It is absolutely salvation… but not for a heavenly eternal future.
This is salvation here and now.

Honestly, this is the reconciling work of Christ that we are most likely to overlook in our zeal to move people toward a personal relationship with God.

This is the work of Christ that reminds us of the good news for right here and right now:
The news that tells us It doesn’t have to be this way.
The work of Christ tells us
My kingdom can come here on earth
My will can be done.
In and through you.
Life in the Body – my church-  isn’t meant to be this way.

Christ has come to break down the barriers between us, so that we might be one.   

Now, I know that this might make some of you uncomfortable, but I’m going to ask you to help me make this a little more tangible. And it’s going to require some moving around, including for me…

Now… the reason this letter still resonates across generations is the very reason we still need Jesus.  We are not yet the people God created us to be.  We are not yet sanctified, nowhere near perfect. And so, we still find ourselves divided.Not over circumcision, mind you.  

But we can name some significant conflicts that have dogged the church. There have been battles and still are battles in the church over the ordination of women.  As deacons or elders, even as ministers.

I polled some of you over the past week, including our Bible Study group, and it wasn’t hard to come up with a couple dozen things – concepts, issues, ideas… that can cause conflict and division in any congregation, even one as small as ours…

This is where I built the wall, reading off the words on the bricks, asking for examples, agreement, consensus that there is truth to these issues being an issue…

This is what we do.
We build walls.
Unconsciously,  I think, for the most part.

But not always. 

Sometimes, we choose to build walls or allow gaps to become chasms.
And when we build them up high enough… We can’t see one another any more
We can’t reach one another to hold hands

And as we get comfortable with the idea of being on one side or the other…
We choose to withhold our love.
We withhold our gifts.
We withhold our money.
We withhold ourselves.  

Just the other night, we caught a rerun of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. As usual there’s a complicated setup… but the central conflict led to both Raymond and Deborah withholding intimacy from each another, all while trying to tempt the other to say “yes” first.  

They start out acting flirty, wearing provocative pjs… but pretty soon, they’ve moved to t-shirts and boxers, reading books and flat out snoring with the lights on…

After almost a month, Ray breaks the silence at the breakfast table.  I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but it went something along the lines of…

Ray: Look at you… I know what you’re doing.
Deborah silently eats her cereal
Ray: Don’t play coy… you know what you’re doing.
Deborah raises an eyebrow
Ray: Oh Come on… I can’t take it any more.
Deborah: What are you talking about?
Ray: It’s been 26 days…  I’m tired of pretending. How are you ok with this?
Deborah thinks a moment, then remembers:  “Oh that!  Psshh… I forgot all about that.”

I forgot all about that.

Now, this is a TV show – a sit com… so of course there was a cute and happy resolution

But that response- I forgot all about that.  

Honestly? It pierced me.  It pierced my heart.  Because it is so true.

We start out by playing a game.  A manipulative game…
We hold back so that we can get someone’s attention.
So that we can hurt someone else.
So that we can get our way.

Deep down, we want someone to call our bluff.
To move toward us, seeking some kind of  resolution.
But then it goes on too long.

For Ray and Deborah, the lack of intimacy became a new pattern.

In real life… this is how marriages, friendships, even congregations fall apart

When we choose not to talk about what we want or need, even just to get someone’s attention… Just for a short time.
A new pattern can develop and then calcify
A brick gets added to the wall.
Relationships suffer.

And while any relationship loss is worth grieving and working to fix, our relationships matter on an extra level. Because when relationships within the Body of Christ suffer, our witness to the world is diminished.

John’s gospel records that beautiful priestly prayer, in which Jesus prays that we – the generations of followers that he trusted would come after the men and women he knew personally – people like us!

Jesus prayed that we would be one, so that others might see our love and know that God sent Jesus out of deep love for all of us.

I don’t like this wall.
I really don’t.  Do you?

This is where people agreed and even asked if I want them to knock it down. No… because that’s really not our job.  I kicked the lowest brick subtly as I make clear it’s not my or anyone else’s job who is in the room.

Christ has broken down the wall.

Christ has broken down the wall and is here to break it down again and again.
Every time we come up with new bricks and begin to stack them up. .

Because only Christ has that power.  The power to transform.
The power to love us into being one family.
One body.

This is where I hang the poster from the table, placing the cross at the center.  The quotes and the heart are to reinforce for us the centrality of peace and love in the life and work of Christ. I begin moving the bricks from a pile of rubble to create a  new structure on either side.

See, the wall that Christ has destroyed is constantly being recycled. Building on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus himself as the cornerstone, we are transformed and then joined – in Christ.  Peace and love transform our hearts and actions, so that we now become the bricks – living stones – in a new structure.  

A sanctuary from the conflicts that would divide.

A temple.  A dwelling place for God.

All to the glory of God.  

Absolutely essential to all of this is love.
God’s love imparted to us through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Love for one another that defies logic.
Love that defies cultural expectations and norms.
Love that flows directly out of the love that God has lavished upon us.

See – hearts that are at peace are able to love.
The peace of Christ is found in Christ himself.
He is our peace, and thus he is our capacity for love.  

And truly, love is the only thing that can overcome the myriad bricks we stack up and separate ourselves into us and them  

Jesus was pretty radical in his focus on love as key to connection with God. He not only taught the primacy of love, he modeled it.  

Theologian Brian McLaren writes  The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else. [1]

He goes on to consider how closely Paul follows Jesus’ teaching… Early in his life, Paul (then known as Saul) had no time for this kind of love talk. He was a religious-correctness man, not a love man.

To guard the purity of his code, he was even willing to kill (Acts 9:1). But Paul was converted, deeply converted, and he migrated from religious correctness to love. In fact, in his writings he not only echoed Jesus’s radical proposal but made it even more explicit.

There were nearly nine hundred rules identified by his religion, but you could trade them all up for this one, he said (in Galatians 5:6) “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love”. [2]

It’s not that this is new concept in Judaism… Love was part of the Jewish tradition from the get-go.  Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy when he spoke of loving God as the first and greatest commandment. What he and Paul were saying is that love is the most important part of the tradition.   

Faithfulness matters.
Obedience matters.  

But without love?
Well, Paul told the Corinthians that without love, nothing we say or do matters.

Love knocks down walls
Love heals.
Love forgives.
Love trusts.
Love overcomes.
Love shelters.
Love rebuilds, remodels, renovates
Love unites.
Love can and will make us one.  

Love brings peace.

Now, with all that in mind, look at your neighbors. And as an act of worship, let us once again offer one another the Peace of Christ this morning.

 

—-

NOTE Brian McLaren references are thanks to the daily email from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation dated July 17, 2017:
[1] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (Convergent: 2016), 41-42. Please visit brianmclaren.net to learn more about his work.
[2] Ibid., 44-45.
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