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).

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