Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Near and Far
I had a hard time figuring out where to go this week in my sermon. When I sent the bulletin in to Linda this week, I told her to leave the scriptures and sermon title blank – I would figure it out by Sunday. Usually I preach right from the lectionary, but this week, I just couldn’t make my mind work with the scheduled passages. So I went in a different direction, and chose a passage that perhaps reflects the dynamics we find at work all around us.
I have been thinking about what a tumultuous busy year this has been. I decided to look for a timeline of 2011 online to confirm my feeling that a lot has happened already, and here is what I found. In January, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, along with several others, at a public meeting, by a young man who was just declared incompetent to stand trial. Protesting in Egypt began, and Southern Sudanese people voted in droves to become a separate nation from Sudan. By February, protesting in Egypt had spread throughout the region. A significant earthquake hit New Zealand. In March, violence in Libya increased with the government launching attacks on its own people, and coalition force in turn launching attacks on government targets. Also in March, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the nation of Japan. In April, President Obama realized a copy of his birth certificate, after Donald Trump’s claims that he had very serious reasons to believe that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Also in April, a string of tornadoes struck the South, and Prince William married Catherine Middleton, in a ceremony I will admit to watching, although I certainly did not watch at 5am. Thank God for DVR! May started with an announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, and the question: does his death make us safer or not? Later in May, we experienced extreme flooding in the South, and more incredibly destructive tornadoes. We also, apparently, avoided the rapture, although the prediction surely caught our global attention, didn’t it? All that, and we aren’t even ½ way through the year yet.
Sometimes we seem drawn together as a global community – responding to the tragedy in Japan – the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster – sometimes we can really act as one people, and we catch glimpses of what we could be. But more often than not, what makes headlines is what divides us – our families, our communities, our nation, our world. In this midst of this chaos comes our text from Ephesians. Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, most of whom, in this context, were not born Jews, but Gentiles, converts to Christianity, but not to Judaism. Whether new converts had to become Jews before they could become followers of Christ was a matter of heated debate in the early Church. Peter and some other apostles thought that new Christians would of course follow the law and be circumcised, just as he and the rest of the Twelve were faithful Jews who were also disciples. But Paul argued adamantly that if Christ’s message was about grace, then his disciples weren’t under the law in the old way anymore. They are made righteous by faith, not law.
So Paul, writing to the Ephesians, writes to encourage them, to ensure them that they can draw as close to God as those children of Israel who already knew God in a different way, through the law. He says, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” In other words, for Paul, no matter your starting point, no matter your beginning context, God wants you to draw near, and will encourage you, lure you to do so, lure you into relationship. That’s good news for all of us! Wherever we are now, wherever we started, wherever we’ve been in our life to date, God is luring us closer, calling us to draw near.
But the problem comes when our human nature gets involved. For Peter, and some other leaders in the early church who were Jewish in their starting points, there was sense of priority given to the children of Israel when it came to relationships with God through Christ. They probably wouldn’t put it that way, but some of them seemed to feel very much like their brand of faith was better, and that everyone else who didn’t do it that way couldn’t possibly have a truly good relationship with God, and couldn’t possibly be right about their approach, and couldn’t possibly be part of the community. They weren’t going to be welcoming, unless people could meet certain standards, unless people completed certain rituals, unless people met certain membership requirements, you might say.
Paul writes convincingly, eloquently, and firmly against this mindset. He says, “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [both Gentiles and Jews] 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, 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.” Peace, near and far.
In some senses, Paul’s message sank in and pervaded the early Church, making it what it is today. Of course, we know, his inclusive view became the dominant view. Today, we do not have to adopt the Jewish faith in order to become disciples of Christ. And eventually, Peter and other leaders began, like Paul, to work with non-Jews in spreading the gospel as well. In fact, it was only a century or two later that the emperor became a Christian, something that would never have occurred if the Jewish/Gentile divide had remained embedded in the Christian movement. In fact, if the baby church hadn’t decided that we were one body in Christ, most of us today would not be Christians – the message would have never been meant for us, but only for a small, chosen few. So that’s the upside, the effect of Paul’s message.
The downside? If we managed to let Christ break down that dividing wall of hostility between Jewish and Gentile disciples, we apparently took the pieces of the broken wall and used them to build other dividing walls. We acted as if the message Paul shared was helpful only in that context, and not to be applied elsewhere in our lives, in our faith. And so, in our story of Christianity, in our human story, we have a long history of building dividing walls between us and other.
It wasn’t long after Christians grew in numbers that they actually turned on the very faith they’d once been so anxious to protect, and anti-Jewish sentiment has been a struggle ever since. A wall between us and them, new and old. It was only in 1968 when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged together that segregation in the church was taken off the book – little more than 40 years ago – 1983 that Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church reunited. A shameful history of racism, of building walls to keep people of color out, right in our own denominations. Today we can think of literal walls that have been built – the Berlin wall, torn down just 22 years ago. The walls built in Israel/Palestine. Proposed walls between the US and Mexico. Walls of hostility that divide us. And we have walls today in our churches too. These walls usually aren’t advertised. They aren’t named aloud. But they are there, the walls we put up between us and whoever it is we really don’t want to share our lives with. But people can sense when they aren’t welcome somewhere. When there is a boundary preventing them from being included. Sometimes our walls are more personal. Perhaps you’ve built a wall a between yourself and a particular person. With our walls in place, it means we never really see each other, never see face to face that we are both, are all created in God’s image. The walls allow us to make sure we always know the difference between us and them.
So here we are, today. We live in a time of wall-building at an amazing, speedy, skillful, aggressive pace. We build walls seen and unseen, figurative and literal. We always work out the best excuses and arguments and intentions when it comes to wall building. We do it because – it will keep us safe. Because we’re afraid or in danger. Because we feel threatened. Because we’ve been hurt by others. Because we’re protecting what is ours, what we have. But all of our reasons add up to very little grace.
To move beyond this, to learn to live as builders of the household of God, and not builders of dividing walls, we have to change the way we look at everything that is not us and ours. In today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus reuniting with the disciples after their time sent off two by two to preach and teach. Jesus himself is recovering from the loss of his cousin, John the Baptist, who was beheaded by King Herod. And so they want some time away. Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For, Mark tells us, with all the coming and going they had not time even to eat. They need a day off. A Sabbath. We can relate to that feeling, right? But the crowds, so anxious for Jesus, follow on foot and arrive ahead of Jesus and the disciples. Can you imagine, on your day off, getting called into work after all? Finding you had responsibilities that meant you couldn’t get time to yourself after all? You can probably feel the expression your face would make. Probably the disciples were making this face too. But Jesus – Jesus sees something else, as he always does. Sees more than we see. We read, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” His eyes see need, and he can’t look away. In fact the word compassion here is from the Greek word splanchnizomai, which means literally to "feel bowels of pity" - it is a physical, gut reaction of the insides - your stomach literally turning over in compassion. That's what Jesus feels when he sees the crowds. He sees not other, or enemy, or threat, or danger, or stranger. He sees them, the people, the ones in need, the names, the lives. He sees the creations of God – the sheep that need a shepherd.
We can only build walls between us and others if that is all we see – someone who is Other. That which is not us. Not-me. Not-us. Not-one-of-us. As long as we define everything else in the world as not-us and not-ours, we can go right along building walls and throwing bombs. But if we see what Jesus sees – if we see with compassion, if our stomachs literally turn over with love for who we see, if we see God’s face instead of no-names, then we won’t be able to build walls that divide. If we see the names, the hearts, the lives that struggle to be as we do in the world, if we see face to face, then we can’t make the other less than us, less than God’s precious children too.
Paul reminds us that he’s not advocating for a wall-less world. We need walls. We need to build. But instead of building to divide, we can build together. We can build to strengthen, build to serve. Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens . . . and 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.”
Christ is our peace. He has broken down the dividing walls of hostility between us. Let us pray for a world that lives in this truth. Amen.