Saturday, July 21, 2018

"Us" Versus "Them" --- A Never-ending Story: Reflections on Ephesians 2.11-22 (RCL Proper 16B, 22 July 2018)

“Us” Versus “Them” --- A Never-ending Story
Reflections on Ephesians 2.11-22

RCL Proper 16B
22 July 2018

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ephesians 2.11-22

            2.11So 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 — 12remember 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.  13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14For 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.  15He 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, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Who’s calling who ‘foreigner’?
         When my father retired for the second and last time, he took up an interest in genealogy.  It’s easy for me to understand why our family history became so important to him.  He had, in effect, been an only child who was often left on his own as he was growing up. Most of his friends came from larger families and I think exploring our family history gave my father a sense of being part of just such a larger family.

         One branch of the family come to the New World in the early 1600’s from Anglesey in north Wales.  For whatever reason this Welsh connection resonated with my father and with me.  I began to learn bits and pieces of the Welsh language and, in the process, learned something that helped me years later when I was teaching in the Native Ministry Program at Vancouver School of Theology.

         I learned that the word ‘Welsh’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘walesc’ which means ‘foreigner’.  Now it seems a bit rich that the Anglo-Saxons, arriving a thousand or more years after my Welsh ancestors settled in Britain, called those who were already living in Britain ‘foreigners’.  The Welsh word for themselves is ‘Cymry’, something akin to saying ‘us’ or ‘my extended kin’ not ‘you’ or ‘your strange lot’.

         And thus, a never-ending human story about ‘us’ versus ‘them’ gained another chapter.

In Christ God bridges the gulf between Jew and Gentile.
         Before the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians goes more deeply into his reflections on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, he addresses head on the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ story of his day:  the relationship between Gentiles and Jews.

         In the Mediterranean world of the first century Gentiles viewed Jews as being eccentric.  Jews only worshipped one God and had no time for the many gods of non-Jewish people.  Jews followed a covenant that frowned on inter-marriage, promoted living within tight-knit Jewish communities in the major cities and avoided participation in most non-Jewish community events and practices.  Some Gentiles were attracted to Jewish belief and practices, but they were a very definite minority.

         On the other hand, Jews viewed Gentiles as people with lax moral characters who permitted ‘easy’ divorce, who were known to leave unwanted children to die in rubbish heaps and who had a nasty habit of conquering and occupying other peoples’ territories.  Their gods were as bad as those who worshipped them.

         But in Christ, our unknown writer proclaims, God has broken down the ‘dividing walls’, the ‘hostility’, that has Jew and Gentile apart.  For the disciples of Jesus there is the possibility of reconciliation and respect. From the Jews Gentile disciples learn a way of life in covenant with the living God.  From the Gentiles Jewish disciples learn that God has given Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter’ of God’s eternal commitment to humanity, first made known in creation, reaffirmed in God’s promises to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and now, embodied in Jesus.

         Rather than write another chapter in the never-ending human story of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, God is writing a whole new story, one in which there is only ‘us’.

In us God is reaching out to the ‘other’.[1]
         I believe that you and I live in a culture and society not so different from the culture and society of the writer to the Ephesians.  On the one hand, there are many non-religious and even anti-religious people who think that you and I --- or any religious person --- is not only odd but potentially a danger to society.  Our rituals and our beliefs seem ‘other-worldly’ or ‘archaic’.  True, some of these folks love to visit holy sites or ancient churches and other places of worship --- but actually to belong to such a community? ‘Not my thing.’

         On the other hand there are religious people, some Christian, some belonging to other faiths, who so distrust contemporary society that they close themselves in, sometimes physically, sometimes intellectually, sometimes both.  Some even perpetuate violence against ‘unbelievers’, whether through the political process or through actual acts of physical violence.

         But you and I, my friends, have been called by God into a community who has at its heart a vocation to those who have been far away and to those who are near.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us . . . . ‘ [2]  We exist, as a community of faith, primarily for those who, in one or another, are alienated from God.  Our gatherings to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer our intercessions, thanksgivings and petitions, to break the bread and to drink the cup strengthen us, console us, empower us to be a people for others.  But it is not an easy task God has set before us.

         No way :  Some of our neighbours have had deeply negative experiences in their encounters with God and those who claim to be God’s friends.  There is ‘no way’ these neighbours will draw near to us. But that does not free us from the responsibility to draw near to them and face their hurt and anger.  By drawing near we may begin the process of healing.
         No longer :  Then there are our neighbours who, at one time or another, have been part of the Christian community.  For one reason or another, they have simply slipped away and are ‘no longer’ active.  But it just may be that a word from one of us, an invitation extended with no strings, might be the gentle tug that will re-unite them to this community of disciples.

         Not yet:  Among many people I meet are ones whom I might describe as ‘not yet’ disciples.  They have some connection with the Christian faith through their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their friends.  They’re not against belonging; they’ve just never seen it as a ‘value-added’ part of being a person.  Just like our ‘no longer’ friends, the ‘not yet’ folk may only need an invitation to join us in God’s work of renewal and reconciliation.

         Never:  Then there is the ‘never’ group.  They walk by Holy Trinity but have never entered the door.  They buy crosses in jewellery stores but do not know the story behind it.  They are interested in participating in meaningful action to better our world but don’t immediately connect being part of a community of faith with that kind of activity. What they need is our openness to their questions and our interest in their hopes. 

We reach out by ‘turning inside out’.[3]
         So what are we to do?  We could encourage one another to be active in civic affairs and charitable groups but keep what we learn and experience in those activities separate from what we do here.  Here, we might say, our walls give us a safe place from what is going on outside.  But that’s not our way.  Every Sunday we offer our prayers for the world around us, we wonder what the Word proclaimed in the Scriptures is calling us to be and to do.

         We are called to turn inside out.  What God is asking each one of us, lay and ordained, to chip away at the walls that divide people:  the walls divide people of one faith from those of another faith, the walls that divide one community of Christians from another Christian tradition, the walls that divide those who ‘have’ from those who ‘have not’, the walls that divide people of religious faith from those who claim to have no religious faith.

         We break down these walls by proclaiming the ‘mystery’ of faith:  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  We break down these walls by daring to speak to others of our faith 
·      that creation is not an accident but an act of love, 
·      that every human being is made in the image of God which is love, 
·      that every human being is called to grow into the likeness of God which is to love and be loved and, 
·      that every human being is invited to work with God in secure the freedom and dignity of all God’s creatures.

         My friends, there are no ‘foreigners’ here. Our story is not one of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.  Our story is about offering to others the welcome and hospitality God has given us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  While some voices in our world will try to arouse our fear of the stranger, of the other, we will sing our song, a song about the love of the stranger, of the other, the song sung by the angels, the song sung by Jesus, the sung bequeathed to us.

In Christ there is no east or west,
in Christ no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
whose service is the golden cord
close binding humankind. [4]

[1]These four groups come from the work of Lillian Daniel.

[2]2 Corinthians 5.20a.

[3]Thomas Schattauer, Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission(1999).

[4]Common Praise#484, vv. 1, 2.

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