31 October 2010

Tearing Down the Walls: IV. Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams

Acts 2:17 & Ephesians 4: 1-6

Reformation/ All Saints Sunday/ 31st October 2010

“There is one body [of Christ], there is one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 4-6).  These two verses are remnants of creedal statements from the early church.  Paul uses them here to remind the Ephesians as they struggle with divisions, that one-ness abounds.  The struggle, the division as we’ve seen these last three weeks in this series is the Jewish-Gentile question.  Do Gentiles have to become Jewish before they can worship Jesus?  Do Jews have to follow every sentence of the Law when they follow Jesus?  As we have seen, Paul knows that the wall of hostility between these two groups is no longer justified in the church, indeed, the love of Christ has torn down the walls of separation, leaving in a new humanity, a new community of people “rooted and grounded in love,” the church of Jesus Christ.  Christ is forming a people, building a “spiritual house,” a safe space for the dwelling place of all God’s children, a space where God’s saints are being equipped with every gift, every resource, everything needed to enable us to serve Christ in the world.

            Paul wants unity in the church – Paul wants “oneness.”  But we must never forget that for Paul oneness does not mean sameness and unity does not mean uniformity.  Actually, the oneness of God confessed by the church is oneness that includes diversity (think of the Trinity).  Because the God who is one is above all and through all and in all and since we exist in God’s oneness, that means God’s oneness permits diversity in unity and maintains unity in diversity.  Because the oneness of God comprehends both Jew and Gentile, the church now has the capacity to comprehend many people, many ministries, many gifts, many perspectives in its service to Christ.  Doesn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 12, “there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit who gives them”?  In his commentary on Ephesians, Markus Barth makes clear, that, “The church cannot be one except when it attests to its God-given oneness by proving unity in diversity, and when it ventures to respect diversity in unity.”[1] Uniformity is, of course, a possibility, but the New Testament never calls us to uniformity.   However, Barth writes, uniformity would be “a form of death which is recommended neither by 1 Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4, nor by any other of the ecclesiastical passages of the New Testament.”[2]   

            The one who pulls the plurality, the multiplicity of people together is God, the comprehensive love of God known in Jesus Christ.  This speaks to the miracle that is the church that such a divergent group of people can come together around Jesus Christ and learn to love each other.  “A multiplicity of persons as persons could never truly share in God’s oneness, be committed by it, confess it – if God had not proven to be the One even in [God’s] Plurality, the unity that permits diversity, the power that holds together, brings together, and guarantees community. Without being bound by the Father, Son, and Spirit, the church could never proclaim that God’s own unity is the basis, the source, the energy, …of her own unity and that of her many members and ministries.”[3]

            As we have seen, the unity of the church is a heavy concern for Paul.   However, it’s not his ultimate concern.  The church doesn’t exist just to exist; its unity is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  The church exists to serve a larger purpose, to serve a larger story, a larger message, a larger mission – and it’s most effective in telling the story and being committed to the mission when it’s grounded in its unity.  The church matters a lot to Paul. Don’t get me wrong.  He wouldn’t have wandered all over Turkey and Greece setting up churches, getting persecuted, beaten, mocked, and ridiculed if he didn’t value the church.  However, the church matters because the church was formed to extend the mission of God that was revealed in a new way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The mission of God is the kingdom of God, God’s good news of salvation, forgiveness, and hope, God’s justice for a world oppressed and enslaved to the forces of death and destruction that hinder the welfare of God’s children.    This is God’s concern for the world, who is above all and through all and in all.  Indeed, these verses affirm that God’s love, power, and mission transcend the confines of the church and calls the church forward beyond its own horizons.  Indeed, Markus Barth believes, “this epistle looks beyond the church and does not suffocate in ecclesiology; it proclaims that God’s kingdom is greater than the church.”[4]

            The reformers knew this.  That’s what I think it was like for the reformers of the sixteenth century.  On this Reformation Sunday, the very day Martin Luther (1483-1536)  nailed his 95-reasons why the church’s sale of indulgences was a really loopy idea, we are reminded of our heritage as Protestants and as heirs of John Calvin (1509-1564) and John Knox 1510-1572).  While it’s true the intent of these truly courageous and brilliant reformers was the reform of the church, we must never forget it was the reform of the church so that church could be about the work of God.  When I read the history of the reformers I am struck and stunned by their level of commitment.  Walk through the streets of St. Andrews, Scotland, and you’ll see in the cobbles the initials of the reformers burned at the stake for their convictions; walk through Calvin’s church, St. Pierre’s, in Geneva or sit in a pew at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and think of their commitment, not to the church, per se, but their commitment and trust in the faithfulness of God.  What Luther (re)discovered in his reading of Romans thus igniting the Reformation was that God is faithful.  Because God is faithful the sale of indulgences is unnecessary.  That’s what Calvin knew too.  God is faithful.  It was their love for Christ that fired their imaginations, fed their determination to follow the Holy Spirit who is forever reforming the world with justice and hope.  While their battle cry was “back to the sources,” back to the Bible, that movement back, as it were, propelled them forward into a new future, into forming a new church, with a new vision for the church and the world. Although they were calling the church back to the way they thought it once was, the result was not the same-old church, but a dynamic, forward-looking church that reflected the dynamic, forward-looking movement of God’s Spirit!  This was a movement that required enormous allegiance and commitment, devotion, dedication—yes, to the church, but more importantly, devotion for Christ, dedication to God, commitment to the vision – not unlike the vision Peter received on Pentecost:  your old ones shall see visions and your young ones will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). 

            Of course, you can hear in my words the language of our pledge campaign for this year: …seeing visions, dreaming dreams.  The Stewardship Committee was very intentional this year in tying our pledge campaign to the vision statement and as we have heard in the very moving testimonies over the last couple of weeks, not moments for stewardship, but moments for commitment.  We heard how our financial gifts allow us to live into the vision God has given us.  We’re hoping this year that we view our pledge card next week as less about money to the church and more about pledging our commitment to God, to what God is dreaming about doing through us; that our financial pledge might be seen as part of our pledge to God’s work among us.  God has a vision for this church that is infinitely larger than we can wrap our heads around.  God is dreaming dreams about Catonsville Presbyterian, because God knows what can be accomplished when people are devoted, dedicated, committed – not to the church, but to God and the calling of Jesus Christ.  When we place our pledge in the offering plate next week, I’m hoping that we can view it as a renewed commitment to God and that our financial pledge might honor the value of that commitment.  If you cannot make a financial pledge – or in addition to your pledge – we invite you to consider other ways you can offer a commitment of self to God’s mission among us.  If you haven’t seen the “Seeing Visions,” bulletin board in fellowship, put up by Barbara Rice, be sure to take a look.  It beautiful captures the spirit of this campaign.

            God has a vision for our lives; God has a vision for this church and calls us forward toward it.  God is dreaming dreams through us, imagining what can be accomplished and realized through this church.  The potential, the reach, the possibilities of this church and every church are expansive and God has every confidence in us – more confidence than we might feel at times.  There is more power and potential and possibility within each of us and all of us together than we often care to confess.  But it’s there.  This is not pop-psychology, but taking seriously the claim that the Spirit and power of the Risen Christ is among us and within us.    Sure, it’s so easy to get down on ourselves in the church, feel like we don’t have enough, don’t have the resources, the energy, the whatever.  It’s why on a day like Reformation Sunday we can look back with thanks, and yet also know that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), the saints above, who cheer us on every step of the way.  Every Sunday when we gather here for worship, we can remember that we are surrounded by all the saints who cheer us on.  We don’t do this work alone.  We’re not alone.  When we gather at the Lord’s Table in a few minutes, we will celebrate the Lord’s presence with us and in us, the unity of all God’s people:  saints above whose perfect sight sees the visions fulfilled, who with the saints below dream dreams through us, forever encouraging us on in the great high calling of Jesus Christ, urging us on with ever greater commitment to him.

[2] Barth, 466.
[3] Barth, 467.
[4] Barth, 472.

28 October 2010

Tearing Downt the Walls: III. Creating a Safe Space

Ephesians 4: 1-6[1]

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th October 2010

 Always pay attention when the word “therefore” is used in scripture.    “Therefore” often signals a decisive shift in the argument or introduces a conclusion of considerable import.   It means, pay attention because this is really important.  It’s easy to miss in the English text; but this is a strong “therefore,” followed by, “I beg you,” or, “I beseech you,” which has a sense of urgency about it in Greek, yet also very warm and personal.  These four words, “Therefore,…I beg you…,”  tell us that this is the turning point in Ephesians. 

Up to this point, chapters 1-3, Paul has made the claim that God in Christ is forming a new humanity, a new people, formed together into a new community.  This community, this church, is marked by its diversity and inclusiveness.  Why? Because both Jews and Gentiles are now worshipping Jesus together under one roof as anew people. The enmity between Jew and Gentile is now healed in Christ.  “For Christ is our peace; and he has broken down the wall of hostility between us, declaring peace to those who are far off and those who are near.”  The church is a people known for reconciliation and welcome, not because they’re nice, not because they’re kind, not because it was the politically-correct thing to do (which it wasn’t in the Roman world), but because through Christ women and men came to see that reconciliation, welcome, and acceptance lie at the core of God’s being.  If they experienced God’s grace and love through Christ, then how can they withhold that grace and love and acceptance of their neighbor?    The love that rules among them is the result of God’s care for them; because God cares for them, they find themselves caring for each other, for their neighbor, even for the alien and the stranger who walks into their community.

            What we find here is a simple and profound rationale for the church.  Because of Christ the walls that separated humanity from God are now gone, this same power, known as love, has the ability to break down walls that divide and alienate individuals from others.  Because of the reconciliation in the vertical relationship (between humanity and God) there can now be reconciliation at the horizontal level, between person and person.  And the individuals who have experienced this kind of love and grace are now pulled together into a new community, a new family, a new race, a new people – into church.  Paul is trying to get the Ephesians to see is that God is at work in them and among them, we are like a beautiful piece of art, as Paul says earlier in Ephesians, created in Christ (Ephesians 2: 10), being formed and reformed into something beautiful and new, into a unity; and he’s trying to get them to see themselves as a people already united by the Holy Spirit, and therefore calls them to work hard to maintain this unity.

            We’re only looking at six verses here in Ephesians and yet they contain a whole new world, a different way of being, a still more excellent way.  It’s a way marked by mutual forbearance, of “bearing one another in love.”  The meaning of this Greek phrase suggests, to bear, to bear up, to hold oneself up, responding with patience to the other until a sense of provocation is past.  That’s what love does, it bears all thing, it endures (1 Corinthians 13).  To love is to bear, to bear is to love.  They are tied together; they interpret each other mutually.  “If to love includes bearing one’s neighbor, then love is not just an emotion, [or feeling,] or ideal of the individual soul.”  It isn’t love except in relation to neighbors.  The Christians doesn’t love in general, we love in particular; it’s always specific, it’s often costly and often, then, miraculous.[2]

            Then Paul says, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  “The unity of the Spirit is maintained, [not attained] as the members of the body function together harmoniously for the well-being of the whole.”  “Make every effort,” means “take pain, haste,” with passion, work to fulfill this responsibility.  The Greek here means to use your will, your senses your reason, your physical strength, your total attitude, to give it your all.   It means don’t be passive about this, there’s nothing quiet about this, there’s no space for “let’s wait and see” attitude.  You have the initiative.  Do it now.  I mean it.  You do it.  I mean you![3]

            And what do we have to do?  Maintain…the bond of peace.”  The Spirit is forming a bond.  This doesn’t mean the Spirit is some kind of super-glue.  The metaphor is more dynamic than that.  The Greek word Paul uses is from the world of construction, carpentry; it refers to that which holds a house together – the wooden beams, the fastenings, the ligaments.[4]  With these bonds in place we have a structure, a structure that houses the people of God.   We are being built into the household of God, Paul says, built upon the foundations of apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone.  “In him,” we heard last week, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple…, a dwelling for God.”  The church, then, is a place where God’s people live and breathe and move and grow.  It’s the space, the sacred space where God’s children are invited to live in freedom.  This is Paul’s image of the church.  The church is a people, yes, a community, but we become the people, know we are children of God from living in a particular space.  The church carves out a space in the world for us to embody the gospel, a sacred space for this new way of living and loving and bearing one’s burdens. 

            The last two weeks in this series I’ve been talking about tearing down the walls of separation and division, the “walls of hostility,” erected in fear between people, particularly fellow-Christians.  There is no place for these in the church.  Christ came to tear down walls that divide in order to establish in their place a new space in which to live.  The church can or should be that safe space where God’s children are allowed to live in freedom.  In order to say this space is different, set apart, requires boundaries, walls of a different kind, something that defines the dimensions of this space.  The church is called out to be different, that’s what ekklesia means, to be called out and set apart.  Our walls can be high or low, but they’re broad and wide, and permeable, and within them there is safety – or should be.

            What makes a space safe?  What makes space sacred?  Perhaps they share a common answer.  Theologian Pamela Cooper-White suggests that sacred spaces, whether it’s a sanctuary or a religious community, have a maternal quality to them.  Think of “mother Church.”   It’s the place where we are held and loved, where we feel the embrace of God, and feel the embrace of God in the way we are held by others in the community.  It’s the space where we know we are being held by someone larger than ourselves.   A sacred space is a kind of “maternal holding environment.”[5]  In this matrix we know ourselves reconciled to God and to our neighbor, we know ourselves loved unconditionally, we find ourselves welcomed and accepted.  A sacred space is a holding space, a space where we know ourselves to be safe.

            Of course we know this is not always the case.  Some have experienced the church as anything but safe.  Assuming it to be so, this sacred trust has been violated by religious leaders – Roman Catholic, Orthodox,  Protestant, Jew, and Muslim alike – who have abused their power and violated the rights of God’s children.  People come to church for healing from domestic violence, only to discover the dysfunction of churches.  On Thursday this week I attended the presbytery’s  all-day Healthy Boundaries workshop (Dorothy took the same class several months ago).  It’s a requirement for all clergy.  We shared stories of people who one time trusted of all places the church could be safe, only to discover the place and the people were toxic.  Once this trust is lost, it’s very difficult (not impossible), for it to be regained.  When the church segregates and discriminates it has stopped being a place of safety.

            And, of course, bullying has been in the news a lot this past month.  There was probably never a time without it.  The word was first coined in 1693.  It’s become more lethal in this world due to online social networking.  My guess is we’ve all been victims of bullying and maybe, dare I say, we at one time might have been the bully.  Webster’s dictionary from 1828 defines a bully as, “a noisy, blustering overbearing fellow, more distinguished for insolence and empty menaces, than for courage, and disposed to provoke quarrels.”  Most bullies I’ve met are full of fear.  And they project that unacknowledged fear on to others who remind them what they’re afraid of, but can’t admit.  Though they may be cowards, the damage done, as we know, can be costly.  Four teenagers last month took their lives because of the bullying they received, primarily because they were either gay or perceived to be so.  Seth Walsh and Asher Brown were 13, Billy Lucas was 15, and Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped from the George Washington Bridge, was 18.  These are tragic. This is a wake-up call for the culture and the church.

            Now, as Presbyterians, we generally don’t have a lot in common with Albert Mohler.  He’s the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.  Mohler is an extreme-right conservative Southern Baptist, he reads the Bible literally, he’s against legalizing same-sex marriage, and argues that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin.  He wrote an article recently and found myself in agreement, “I am haunted by the one question that seems so obvious and clear in the account of Tyler Clementi’s tragic death.  In those days of crushing anguish, humiliation, and confusion, was there no one who could have stood between that boy and that bridge?”  Mohler asks his fellow-conservatives, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church?  …would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?”[6]  Was there no safe space for Tyler Clementi or these others?  I don’t know if they were Christian or not.  It doesn’t matter.  Did they not know there are safe spaces?  Did they not know that the church could and should be such a place?  Regardless of belief, we are to provide sanctuary for the hurting and broken and scared. 

            It seems to me that creating safe space for people is what it means to work out our salvation.  Salvation does not mean my soul is safe and I’m going to heaven when I die.  Nor does it mean simply all my sins are forgiven.  It includes these, but, really salvation, from the Hebrew, yasha, means to be placed in a vast, broad, space where there is no cramping (Job 36:16).[7]  It means to have a wide, open space in which to live in freedom, to not be closed in.  It’s the opposite of being confined, restricted, or oppressed. Salvation is liberation from confinement, constrictions, and limitation.  It’s a place where one is free to grow and expand.  That’s the sacred space, I believe, that God gives us when we are in Christ and it’s what it means for the church to preach salvation and live it.  That’s what God desires for God’s children.

We can’t be responsible for the world.  We can’t take care of everyone.  But we can start with ourselves, take responsibility for ourselves. What is the nature of this church?  What does this sacred space look like and feel like for our members and everyone who enters here.  May it be said of us, more and more, that we care for one another, that people know here they are safe, young and old alike, that people can bring who they and all that they wrestle with here, we will cry with those who mourn and rejoice with those who are happy, that we share hopes and dreams.  That we see ourselves as a safe space, that we work to maintain this, and that we become even more passionate about it.  It would pain me infinitely (and I know Dorothy feels the same) if someone, particularly our youth, could not bring their fears to the church, their concerns, that some subject or issue was perceived to be off limits, that people would not feel safe to bring this to the church, particularly their pastors.  We can’t solve every problem, we won’t have answers to every question, we can’t extend healing (that’s God’s job), but we can bear and love and hold one another, and remind one another that God bears and loves and holds us too.

[1]Ephesians 2, along with 1 Corinthians 10, were the two texts at the center of the assembly that wrote the Belhar Confession from the Reformed Church of South Africa, denouncing the sin of Apartheid (meaning separateness) and the sin of racism.  Belhar rejects “any doctrine which…sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color [and by implication any other category] and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.”  Throughout the Belhar Confession there is an emphasis on the unity of God’s people who have “one calling, are of one soul and one mind, have one God and Father, and are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, … confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens,….”  You can hear here the language of Ephesians, especially 4: 1-6.
[2] Markus Barth, Ephesians:  Translation and Commentary on Chapter 4-6 (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, 1986), 427-428.
[3] Barth, 428.
[4] Barth, 428-429.
[5] Pamela Cooper-White, “Sacred Space and the Psyche:  Reflections on Potential Space and the Sacred Built Environment,” in Kathleen J. Greider, Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, and Felicity Brock Kelcourse, eds., Healing Wisdom:  Depth Psychology and the Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2010), 78-80.
[6] Albert Mohler, http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/10/04/between-the-boy-and-the-bridge-a-haunting-question/
[7] This is also an experience of the Spirit: ‘Thou has set my feet in a broad place.’ (Psalm 31:8). ‘You also he allured out of distress into a broad place where there is no cramping.’ (Job 36:16). According to Kabbalistic Jewish tradition, one of God’s secret names is MAKOM, the wide space. If God’s Spirit is experienced as this broad, open space for living conferred on created beings, then it is easy to understand the spatial designations which declare that people live ‘in’ God’s spirit, and experience God spatially as ‘breadth.’” Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress Press, 1993), 42-43.

22 October 2010

Tearing Down the Walls: II. More Than Tolerance

Ephesians 2: 11-22

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 17th October 2010

 “We who worship God in a new way, as a third race, are Christians.”  These are the words of Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215), written near the early third century.  We are “this new race,” a new people, he said.[1]  If the Christian emergence on the world-scene denotes  the arrival of  a third race of people, then who are the other two?   To which Clement would have said, Jew and Gentile. 

            In the early church, before Christians started to worship on their own (around 90 AD), Jews and non-Jews worshipped Jesus together.  In fact, the most divisive issue that confronted the early church, long before the church became divided theologically over the humanity and divinity of Jesus, was the Gentile question.  Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian.  His followers were originally Jewish and only later in the gracious providence of God were Gentiles included into the Jewish congregation.  This posed a problem for both Jew and Gentile – did one have to first become Jewish in order to be part of the community to worship Jesus?  If not, then what about the Law and its dietary regulations?  What about circumcision?  What happens when Jews and Gentiles gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which was more than just a tiny piece of bread and a sip of grape juice, but a meal?  What if a Gentile brought a side of beef?  And what if the beef had been purchased from a butcher who slaughtered the cow in a pagan temple ritual?  What then?  What do you do if the Gentiles bring crab cakes? (These would also have been on the forbidden list.  Sorry Marylanders.)  The Jew and Gentile division was deep and wide.  We see it throughout the book of Acts, and all of Paul’s letters.  It’s the back-story to this text here in Ephesians. 

            It’s vividly represented with the reference to the “dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2: 14).  What is this wall?  It’s a powerful, multi-dimensional symbol.  It represents the separation between Israel and the nations; it points to the wall of the law and its many statutes and interpretations; it is the wall of enmity between Jews and Gentiles; and it also refers to the wall of enmity between both Jews and Gentiles, alike, in their enmity against God.   This division between Jew and Gentile was vividly portrayed by the vertical barrier that stood in the temple precincts in Jerusalem, “preventing Gentiles from proceeding from the outer court,” known as the Court of the Gentiles, “into any of the inner courts,” especially the Holy of Holies.  The historian Josephus (37-c.100), writing from just after Jesus, tells us “how this barrier encircled the higher ground [of the temple] that contained the inner courts and had attached to it at intervals notices in Greek and Latin [, note, not Hebrew, but Gentile languages so that no one would misunderstand], warning Gentiles not to proceed farther on pain of death.”  Two of these signs have been discovered by archeologists, one in 1871 and another in 1934. Whether or not the wall in the temple is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Ephesus, it probably wasn’t far from his thoughts, given the fact that we know from Acts 21 that Paul was arrested in Jerusalem because he was “charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry by a Christian gentile through the temple barrier.”[2]

            For Paul as a Jew, that middle dividing wall in the temple separating Jew and Gentile had to come down, or at least it had to become, literally, immaterial, for it did not matter ultimately.  Why?   Because of what he came to know about Jesus and what he discovered about God’s plan to incorporate and include Gentiles into God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of the world.  There was a time, of course, when Paul did not believe such things.  He did everything he could to keep that wall strong and secure.  That was until Jesus knocked him off his high horse (Acts 9) and blinded him with the truth and completely turned his life inside out and God said in time, “Now go – and preach the gospel of Yahweh to the Gentiles.  And no, you don’t have to first turn them into Jews in order to welcome them at the table.  If they arrive for worship and stay for a meal, then you better make a place for them at the table – because I have invited them. Oh, and don’t treat them as guests.  They’re more than guests.  They’re now members of my family, so treat them as members of the household, because in this new people that I am creating through Christ, they’re now your sisters and your brothers.” 

            Of course, I’m paraphrasing God here (if you hadn’t guessed!) – but that’s the gist of what Paul discovered.  Paul came to see that the enmity separating humanity from God received a decisive death-blow on the cross; Jesus’ victory over death signals God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and welcome of humanity.   Paul realized that God was trying to show him something new, that both Jesus’ cross and his resurrection reveal that reconciliation is at the heart of God.  It always has been; always will be.  The core of God’s being is reconciliation.  As Paul later said to the Corinthians, “[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ For in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us,” (2 Corinthians 5: 18, 19) “us” meaning the church.   The realization of reconciliation at the center of God’s being was like an earthquake for Paul that shook the foundations of his life and tore away at the fabric of his being, shaking everything he thought was true and strong and firm and lasting.  That’s what resurrection does.  With the tumbling of the wall of separation between God and humanity, nothing was solid or sure, and then walls began to tumble everywhere in Paul’s world, one after the other, walls that hinder reconciliation between and among God’s children, as well as walls that hinder God’s children from knowing who God is, from knowing that they too are reconciled to God.  “For [Christ] is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14), bringing together those who were “far off” from God and those who were “near” to God.  It’s why Paul could later say to the Galatians from a mature, theological viewpoint – this is what the earthquake taught him, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28). 

            It’s very difficult for us to grasp how revolutionary it was for Paul and other early Christians to tear down the barrier separating Jews and Gentiles.  It was revolutionary, especially when we hear this verse from Galatians regarding the relationship between males and females in the community and remember that the same faithful Jew in Paul’s time, who daily thanked God that he had not born a Gentile, also thanked God that he had not been born a woman.  It gives us some indication of the extraordinary spiritual journey Paul was on, to hear him living out the implications of the resurrection and his own encounter with the risen Christ.   Paul and others could be so bold and take enormous risks because that’s what the gospel frees us to be and do.  Paul and others were being faithful to the reconciliation with God they experienced in their own lives and could not, therefore, withhold reconciliation in those places of enmity, division, and separation, because reconciliation is God’s will.

            It still is.  The church was formed to embody God’s will.  God still needs agents of reconciliation.  Because it is the world that has been reconciled to God.  And the world needs to know this.   And because in the world there are all kinds of wonderfully beautiful and bizarre, diverse, wacky, and, at times, really scary people in the world –  it’s astonishingly kaleidoscopic – and if they are here in the church because Christ has called and calls them here, then they are our brothers and sisters and we are called to love them.  When the walls come down, new communities are formed. Strangers – all are welcome, people from whom you might be alienated due to differences of race or gender or belief or sexual orientation or because they’re just plain different or you think they’re odd, the way Orioles fans might consider Yankees fans, or maybe the way a Colts fan is thought of in a city that bows to the god Ravens – whoever the other happens to be – all of these differences are transcended by the presence of Christ who is forming us into a new people.  We are all citizens with the saints, as Paul says, and members of the –oikeoi tou theou – the household of God!

            In other words, they’re all part of the family. Gentiles are not servants in a Jewish household.  The Gentiles are not guests at a table in a Jewish household.  The Jews are not guests in a Gentile household.  They are both members of the household, part of a new family.  There are no second-class citizens in this household.  It’s not hierarchical, neither is it patriarchal.  Each is given a rightful place at the table. Each is honored and respected and loved as the individual he or she is.  That’s how Christians live in community.  That’s what it takes to live in community.

            The Jews didn’t just put up with the weird Gentiles at the table.  The Gentiles did more than simply tolerate their peculiar Jewish companions.  Once the walls come down, true communion can take place.  It was said to me after last week’s sermon, where I touched upon the sin of racism, that one should try to look at a person’s heart, not anything thing else.  That’s a good way to live in community, but until the walls (usually put up in fear) that separate us one from the other are torn down, then it’s very difficult to see that the persons who live on the other side of that wall or fence or division even have hearts.  However, once we discover or admit that he or she has a heart, we are called in Christ to not only tolerate them, but to love them into the kingdom.

            Jesus didn’t call us to tolerate our neighbor, but to love.  He didn’t say, just get along.  He didn’t say put up with one another, but to love, even your enemies.  He didn’t say, just be civil.  He didn’t say put aside all of your differences.  Instead, Jesus showed us that you can bring who you are, all that makes you different, distinct, and unique, or as James Loder (1931-2002) used to say at Princeton Seminary, all of your “particularity,” bring it all into the household of God; which means we can then make space so that she can bring all of her difference-ness, and he can bring his uniqueness, and she can bring her particularity and together form a community “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3: 17).

            This is why contemporary journalist and writer, Gustav Niebuhr, claims that “tolerance is a floor, not a ceiling,” for us.  Former religion editor for The New York Times, Presbyterian, and child of the Niebuhr theologian dynasty; his great uncle was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and great grandfather was H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962); Gus Niebuhr argues that in our age, “outside of dangerous situations, tolerance is a low bar to clear.”  In his book Beyond Tolerance:  Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America (Viking Press, 2008), Niebuhr argues that “appeals to tolerance are inadequate to our dealing constructively as a society with expanding religious diversity,” as the recent flap over the construction of a new mosque in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero has shown (new, because there’s already a mosque there).  But he also believes the same “argument applies to other types of diversity, including race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”  What’s so wrong with tolerance?  Tolerance can live with walls.  Tolerance can live with separation.  I can tolerate you better when you live on the other side of the fence or the wall or the tracks or the river.  “Good fences,” said Robert Frost (1874-1963), “make good neighbors.”[3]  Or so we think.  Tolerance means I grant that you exist and put up with you, but I don’t have to really talk with you, listen to you, get to know you, try to understand your story, know how you feel, know your hopes and fears, discover your pain and your joy, or how you view the world.  “Tolerance,” Niebuhr says, “requires nothing more than passivity as a response to others.  It is not active, but signifies a state of intellectual and moral repose.”[4]

            In fact, Niebuhr claims, “tolerance should never be mistaken as radically different from intolerance.”  We might pat ourselves on the back for being tolerant, but it’s not really far from intolerance.  Thomas Paine (1737-1809), back in 1791, referred to this common error in his book, The Rights of Man, when he wrote, that “tolerance was ‘not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it.  Both are despotisms.’  The one, Paine wrote, assumes the right of withholding liberty, while the other assumes the right of granting it.”[5]  Tolerance and intolerance have a way of rendering invisible the uniqueness of our neighbor, which means we really can’t say we see them, and if we can’t see them, then how can we say we love them?

            Christ is always calling his church to something more than tolerance.  That’s the minimum requirement for the church.  He calls us to go deeper and extend ourselves wider and broader and reach higher, to that “still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 13).  If God is love (1 John 4:16), and God is, then love must be about reconciliation (s) because God is the Great Reconciler who sends us to do the same. He calls us to love one another and love involves a deeper communion with and connection to our neighbor, it requires empathy, radical acceptance, and it’s tough and sometimes it really hurts.  We cannot be truly concerned about our neighbor unless we believe our neighbor has inherent worth and dignity.  And to assume that is to do more than simply tolerate him or her.  It is to extend to them recognition of their uniqueness in the world, their status as full members of the household of God and a safe, welcoming place at the table.

[1]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies) and Epistle to Diognetus, cited in F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 1984), 296.
[2]Bruce, 297-298.  The sign found in 1871 is now in the Archeological Museum, Istanbul; the one found in 1934 is in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.
[3] Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall” (1915).
[4] Gustav Niebuhr, “Tolerance is a Floor, Not a Ceiling,” talk given at the Covenant Network luncheon at the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Full text may be found at:  www.covnetpres.org/2010/07/tolerance-is-a-floor-not-a-ceiling.
[v5 Niebuhr at Covenant Network Conference.

12 October 2010

Tearing Down the Walls: I. Divsions Among Us

Ephesians 2: 11-22

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 10th October 2008

          “For [Christ] is our peace” (Ephesians 2: 13).  Last week on World Communion Sunday we made our Peacemaking Offering, and throughout the service we heard allusions to this verse.  “For Christ is our peace.”  This declaratory sentence is the center of Paul’s glorious hymn to Christian unity.  It’s more than a pious platitude.  It might appear idealistic, given the amount of dissension we’ve witnessed throughout the history of the Church. But he’s serious, very serious.  It’s not some, far-off future hope or dream, not “someday” Christ will be our peace.  It’s a present reality for Paul, here and now, both real and possible.  “For [Christ] is our peace.”  And the meaning of this peace might make more sense when we know something of the nasty division that plagued the Ephesian church.

            It’s pretty obvious there are two parties at odds with each other in the church:  we have Jews who are worshipping Jesus as good and faithful Jews and we have Gentiles worshipping Jesus with other Jews, but who are not Jews, all under the same roof.  Jews understood themselves special, set apart, different from the rest of the world.  “The pious Jew was ever conscious of the privileges which he had inherited:  daily he thanked God that he has not been made a Gentile.”[1]  Millions of faithful Jews still make the same prayer today, “Blessed are Thou God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a Gentile.”[2] God revealed Godself to the Jewish people in a special way and gave them a special role among the nations.  The pious Jew had a special relationship with God and a heavy responsibility.    Jews received the scorn of the Gentile world as a mark of honor and a sign of the Gentile’s estrangement from God.  “The religious privileges inherited by the Jews were substantial:  they were entrusted with the oracles of God, they were children of God, they received the covenant, the glory, the law of God, and all the promises of God,” including the land.  “From all those privileges the Gentiles had been cut off.  They were foreigners, not members of the chosen people.”[3] 

            Jews in Paul’s time divided up reality into two groups:  Jews and Gentiles.  Separating these two groups was thick and impenetrable barrier.  This wall did more than keep two faiths apart, it was religious, but it was sociological.   These were two, distinct cultures, traditions, religions and even races.  Jews had all kinds of dietary restrictions, rules regarding the preparation of food designed to make them different, to set them apart.  This meant you could not sit down for a meal with a non-Jew; you could not share a meal with a Gentile.  You had to be kept separate.  In addition to a religious and sociological wall, there was also a deep psychological barrier between these two groups because among the Jews there was a sense of superiority. Even Paul says to the Gentiles here they were strangers to the covenant, with “no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).  “Blessed are Thou God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a Gentile.”  But now both Jew and Gentile are seeking to follow and worship Jesus.

            If being separate is more important than being together, how can there be community?  If one looks down upon the other with an air of superiority, how can there be love in a community?  If the boundaries of a community are defined by exclusion (who is in and who is out), then how is such a community little more than a club?  If you cannot step outside of your position of privilege, set it aside, and make space for the one who has been denied a place at the table, because of your privilege, then how does one care for the needs of one’s neighbor?  If you cannot share a meal together, break bread, share a cup, with all your differences, then how can you claim the name of Christ, because Christ is not divided?  How can a community claim the name “Christian” when its beliefs and practices, all its cultural and historical and even theological baggage erect walls and divisions and barriers that hinder communion, obstruct reconciliation, and tear apart the body of Christ?  It can’t.  It can’t claim to be “in Christ.”

            Unless, says Paul, you realize who you are in Christ.  “But now in Jesus Christ you who once were far off,” —that is separate, ostracized, separated, excluded, alienated from—“have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [—Jews and Gentiles —] 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 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; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2: 13-18, emphasis mine).

            This is a remarkable theological passage; at the center is Paul’s theology of the cross.  Paul knew that Jesus’ death on the cross achieved a new relationship between humanity and God, where the former enmity and alienation of sin separating humanity and God had been forever nailed to a cross, put to death, forgiven, thus yielding reconciliation between humanity and God.  Now all those who live “in Christ” live lives that bear the mark of the cross.  Lives that bear the sign of the cross are marked by reconciliation.  Former enemies and hostilities are mended and new relationships are formed, something new is formed, a new creation is born.  Peace between humanity and God yields peace between Jew and Gentile.  What this then means is that when people come together through Christ separate entities, ethnicities, separate peoples, even enemies and strangers can become, by grace, friends and formed into a new community – that new community forged by the peace of Christ is called church.  Reconciled to God now means we can be reconciled to one another.  It’s not surprising, then, to learn, according to Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215), writing around the early third century, that early Christians no longer defined themselves as Jews or Gentiles, they didn’t divide up their reality that way.  Instead, Clement spoke of “we who worship God in a new way, as the third race, are Christians,” we are “this new race.” [4]

            Now, the implications of Paul’s words are quite obvious – and radical – or maybe they’re so radical they’re not immediately obvious.  Because if Christ is our peace through the cross, if a new reality is offered in Christ’s resurrection, if Christ’s people are now living in a new day where being Jew and Gentile now means little, then that means for members of the body of Christ in Ephesus—or in any community of Christ — all the rules have changed.  If Christ is our peace who pulls us together, then this means any and all divisions in the church that keep people separate, every wall that segregates and isolates, every barrier that hinders true, authentic communion and connection among and between all God’s children must come down – because all these divisions and walls and barriers are an affront to Jesus Christ.  They make us liars and they turn the truth of the gospel into a lie.

            And it also means that all the divisions and walls and barriers that keep people separate and isolated in any given culture, “out there” beyond the walls of the church, must have no authority or influence in the community of Christ.  For he is our peace; in him every divisive wall of hostility comes tumbling down.  And when these walls are allowed to exist within the body of Christ they make a mockery of Christ and become an anti-gospel, preaching not good news, but the worst possible news. 

            It doesn’t take much to see just how far the church across the ages has fallen.  Not only have we allowed divisions and walls to make their way into the church, sometimes we actually helped to build them, in the church and in society.  We live in a divided world.  While I’m certainly not naïve enough to believe we will ever live in a world without divisions, the amount of divisiveness in our age is alarming.  This week I drew up a list of all the divisions I can think of both in the world and in the church, sometimes they overlap; it was depressing!  Theological, sociological, psychological divisions are deep and real. 

            Walls go up and we know walls come down and yet more walls go up.  The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Iron Curtain melted away.  I remember being in Berlin about six months after the wall came down, with my hammer and chisel chipping away portions of the walls (which I still have), believe a new day had dawn.  It many ways it had.  But today a new wall is being built in Israel around and sometimes right through Palestinian communities, separating families.  There’s something within the human psyche that prefers separateness, to be kept apart, that loves to build walls around people who are different.  The Nazis were known for creating massive Jewish ghettos, but they were simply extending the way Europeans treated Jews for centuries, forcing them to live in separate communities. The first Jewish ghetto was organized in 1516 on an island in Venice.  Even the Pope Paul IV in 1555 forced Jews to live in a squalid neighborhood of Rome, built a wall around them, and locked them in each night.[5]

            This morning during adult education we began a study of the Belhar Confession that was written by the Reformed Church of South Africa confessing the sin of apartheid – the Afrikaans word that means literally separateness.  And although Grand Apartheid (as it was called) was formally instituted in 1948 (lasting through 1994), the seeds of separateness were actually sown by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1857 when they allowed the celebration of separate Communion services for separate races.  The idea of racial separation was birthed in the mind of Reformed Christians.  They developed a theology of apartheid and soon saw the separation of the races as part of God’s will and God’s will for the nation of South Africa.[6] 

            And in the United States we have our own sin of racism to confess, racism that continues to plague our land and pollute the psyche of our people.  Separate but equal” was a legal doctrine in United States Constitutional law, from 1890.  It justified systems of segregation. Under this doctrine, services, facilities and public accommodations were allowed to be separated by race, on the condition that the quality of each group's public facilities were to remain equal.  As we know, they weren’t equal.  This helped to legitimize Jim Crow laws.  From colonial times we have had churches for blacks and churches for whites; full integration has yet to occur.  I know of Presbyterian churches in Chicago that had a brown paper lunch bag hanging from the ceiling of the narthex.  If you were darker than that brown paper bag you were not welcomed in the church. 

            Segregation, divisions, walls of hostility.  In the church, in society, in both there are people, like us, who know the power of sin.  The theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) defined “sin as separation” – sin is everything that separates us from God, it’s everything that separates from our true selves, and sin is everything that separates us from our neighbor who, too, bears the image of God.[1]  And often the church has led the way and taught us how to sin.  This is the shadow side of religion.  The Indian essayist and Nobel Prize winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) said, “Those institutions which are static in their nature raise walls of division; this is why, in the history of religions, priesthood has always maintained dissensions and hindered the freedom of man.  But the principal of life unites, its deals with the varied, and seeks unity.”

            Tagore wasn’t a Christian, but he indirectly points to the way of Christ.  Jesus embodied a different way, what Tagore called “the principal of life that unites.”  Jesus tore down walls of separation.  He took on the religious establishment that was erecting walls between Jew and Samaritan, between Jew and Gentile, between humanity and God.  When he died, we’re told the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two.  Salvation means no more separations.  That’s what salvation mean, no more separation.

            Yes, there’s something within us that prefers walls, but the good news is that there’s something about the human psyche, when it’s empowered by the spirit and presence of Christ who is our peace that works to tear down the walls that separate God’s people, all people from one another, that works for reconciliation, and healing, and an end to injustice, allowing us to embody a still more excellent way (1 Corinthians 13).  Even though Apartheid was instituted by an apostate church, it was the true church of Jesus Christ that was instrumental in its undoing and offering reconciliation.  The untold story of the fall of the Berlin Wall is the fact that for decades churches in both West and East Germany prayed without ceasing that on both sides of the wall that the wall would come down, they worked toward the day when every division might be healed.

            The true church of Christ doesn’t erect walls of separation, but engages in tearing them down: every wall, every barrier, every division of injustice that destroys and dehumanizes God’s children, in order that we might be brought together, forged into a new community, a new humanity, a new race, into God’s people, a church.  In Christ:  when we are in him, for him, through him we find our unity. “For Christ is our peace.” 

Image:  The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9th November 1989.
[2] A prayer of the Berakhot (or Benedictions) from the Talmud.
[3] Bruce, 293ff.
[4]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies) and Epistle to Diognetus, cited in Bruce, 296.
[6] Eunice T. McGarrahan, A Study of the Belhar Confession and Its Accompanying Letter, Office of Theology and Worship, General Assembly Council, Presbyterian Church (USA).
[7]Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153ff.  See also Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of Tillich in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963).