05 October 2014

He Came and Proclaimed Peace

Ephesians 2: 11-22

World Communion Sunday/ 5th October 2014

World Communion Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  As a child, I assumed that “World” really meant world and that on this particular day Christians everywhere celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It used be to called Worldwide Communion Sunday, which probably formed this impression. I had this vision of billions of Christians sharing this meal, an event that powerfully binds every Christian together. 

All of this was shattered twenty-four years ago this weekend. It occurred on the first Sunday in October.  I arrived for worship at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I served as an assistant minister. It was my first Sunday with the congregation. It was Harvest Sunday, a kind of Thanksgiving celebration.  The Table was full of the fruits of the harvest, but the Communion elements were no where to be found; no bread, no cup. I asked the minister, Lawson Brown, “Isn’t this World Communion Sunday?”  And he said, “What’s that? Never heard of it.”  And that’s when I discovered that World Communion Sunday is an American thing.  It had its origins at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in 1933, later adopted by the entire denomination in 1936, and then in 1940 endorsed by the National Council of Churches for all of its members.[1]   So, no, all the Christians of the world are not sharing Communion today.  Many are, but not everyone.

I still like the image of a true World Communion Sunday. It’s the vision of a particular church sharing in the larger work of the Church.  It’s an event that lifts up the global Church and acknowledges the wide diversity of the body of Christ.  Communion celebrates real community.  We celebrate our connection with Christians around the world, united by the Holy Spirit.   North and south and east and west are here at this Table. It’s a vision of unity that we give to the world.  Think of it:  diverse people and cultures united in their worship of Christ, demonstrating to the world that it’s possible to share a meal together, to eat and pray and work and worship and serve together.  Communion implies multiplicity and difference, diversity.  Everyone is invited.  Isn’t this a word that the world desperately needs to hear?  Actually, we need more than words, we need to see words enacted, embodied, which, if you think about it, is exactly what’s occurring here when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Here is God’s Word of grace enacted, embodied, real and tangible in bread and wine, for the entire world to see. 

Communion. Eucharist. Lord’s Supper. Mass.  We have different names for this essential meal.  It’s a symbol of Christ’s unity with the Church and the Church in unity with itself.  And yet we know that this meal is also a painful sign of the disunity and division within the Church.  This meal is supposed to be a symbol of peace.  But we quarrel over what occurs in the bread and wine.  Who is allowed to receive the elements?  Who can come to the table?  Is it a table or an altar?  And who is allowed to be its celebrant, who is allowed to say the words of institution? Can a woman?  What do we call those that do preside, priests or ministers?  You know the drill.  We’re so divided.

 It was Robert Frost (1874-1963) who said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  Walls can be good.  Boundaries are good, especially healthy boundaries.  “Good fences make good neighbors.”[2]  Often, though.  Not always.   It’s tough to a have relationship through a wall.  It’s tough to be in community with your neighbor when there’s a wall going through the middle of it.  Think of the wall that divided East from West Berlin, separating German families for decades.  

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9th November 1989.
Consider of the so-called Security Wall or Separation Barrier, whatever you want to call it, which stretches for 430 miles, cordoning off the West Bank from the rest of Israel, a wall designed to separate, divide, and split people apart, particularly Palestinian families.

The Church has never been immune to division.  One of the first flashpoints for the Church was the enormous Gentile-Jewish division. This tension is found throughout the New Testament, both explicitly and implicitly. Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to worship Jesus?  If not, then how can Jews share a meal with Gentiles, particularly Communion?  The Gentile-Jewish tension is explicit for the Ephesians.  It’s tearing the community apart, just as it did in Corinth and Rome and elsewhere, wherever Gentile and Jewish followers of Christ tried to worship together in community.  How can there be peace in the Church when there are struggles like this?

The author of Ephesians, probably Paul (or least someone heavily influenced by him), being a consummate pastor-theologian, knows that Christ’s death and resurrection has created something new in the world.  Where before there was alienation between God and humanity, now there is peace through Christ.  The first eleven verses in Ephesians 2 speak to this vertical relationship, of peace between God and humanity, of an end to enmity.  The next eleven verses speak to the horizontal relationship.  Because the vertical relationship is true, the horizontal relationship changes accordingly.  Because we know peace with God, peace with our neighbor, can follow, must follow.  There was a time when Israel was alienated from God.  There was a time when Gentiles were alienated from God.  There was a time when Jews and Gentiles were alienated from each another.  “But now”—but now!—“in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.”  Why?  How?  “For [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one (Jew and Gentile), and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; …” (Eph 2:14-18).

Reconciliation between God and humanity, when it’s fully understood—that is, personally, psychologically, existentially—will inevitably yield reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, indeed reconciliation between any disparate groups.   Peace is a sign of the presence of God.  Peace is holy.  It’s what God desires for God’s children.  Making peace is therefore holy.  Peace is a sign of God’s goodness and blessing (Matthew 5:9).  Peacemaking is a divine act.[3]  Jesus calls us to be peacemakers because he is, himself, a peacemaker, and because he knows that God is the ultimate peacemaker and therefore the peace-giver.

“So then,” Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners to one another, you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

When Christ is at the center of a community, there is space for everyone Christ calls into that community.  We’re free to make space for everyone.  And this is crucial, because the Spirit is continually drawing people into the Church, all kinds of people. People who think like us and look like us and smell like us—and plenty who don’t!  Because the Spirit is drawing people toward Christ, the Church will always have a wide and wild diversity.  It’s supposed to be this way.  And the Church is always healthier and stronger and more effective in the world when it’s diverse.  If you have investments and work with a financial planner, you know that portfolios are healthiest when they’re diverse.  We need bio-diversity in order to survive.[4] The same is true for the Church.  Our love for Christ, Christ’s love at work within us allows us to embrace difference, such love yields diversity.  When we worship Christ, when we know of his love for us, we’re free to really see and then love and then welcome everyone else—without fear. Christ loves diversity.

Christ might love diversity, but that doesn't mean his Church always does.  The Church might have long-ago solved the Jewish-Gentile question, for which, as a Gentile, I am grateful.  But there are plenty of other divisions and factions ripping the Church apart these days.  Writing back in 1935, the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) said, “The crisis of the church…is not the crisis of the church in the world but of the world in the church.”[5] Niebuhr wasn’t saying that the Church should become a monastic community and retreat from the world.  We need to be in the world, Jesus said (John 17:14-15). But as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) lamented, sometimes, “The world is too much with us.”  He wasn’t talking about the Church here, but it works.

Divisions in society have always made their way into the Church.  Just look at how the Church split over slavery.  But these days the increasing polarization of American society, spurred on by the political divides in the country, broadly defined as conservative or liberal, is wrecking having upon this country, and the world suffers as a result; it’s also tearing the Church apart.  But we’ve been here before.

The Jewish-Gentile division within the early church is eerily similar to the conservative-liberal divide in the contemporary Church.  The Jews are the voice of tradition and are therefore, by nature more conservative; the Gentiles, well they’re just being Gentiles, but from a Jewish perspective, they are the liberals, ignoring the traditions of the Jews, ignoring the dietary regulations, for example. Paul was originally on the side of tradition; after his encounter with Christ, he changed. He became something new. In many ways, Paul is a liberal Jew who loves the Gentiles. As a result, people don’t know what to do with him—both Jew and Gentile alike. The Jews are furious with him and the Gentiles don’t trust him. So, is Paul a Jew or a Gentile? 

Is he conservative or liberal? 


From Paul’s perspective, being either a Jew or Gentile is always secondary to being found in Christ.  To be in Christ means the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has crumbled away because Christ has come to make peace. 

When we are in Christ, therefore, all labels and categories and factions—all of which have their origins in the world!—can dissolve away.  When we are in Christ, conservative and liberal become meaningless.  They were never biblical categories in the first place—you’ll never find these words in the Bible. If conservative or liberal remains one’s primary self-designation, then that means Christ is secondary. 

Personally, I wish we would stop using these words in the Church.  As I’ve said many times, I can’t stand these labels—all of them, liberal, conservative, progressive.  They’re insidious.  They might be useful classifications outside the Church, but they don’t have a place within the Church.  A church shouldn’t have a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda; it should worry whether or not it has Christ’s agenda, God’s agenda, the Spirit’s agenda—pick one, because they each share the same agenda.  Maybe if the Church was more obsessed with its divine agenda, there would be fewer disagreements and divisions in the Church.  Sometimes God’s agenda will appear very conservative; sometimes it will look very liberal or progressive; sometimes it will appear to be nothing less than radical, radical to both a conservative and liberal—and all of these perspectives, whether it’s conservative, liberal, or radical, are all imposed by us upon God’s agenda depending our point of view, where we’re coming from, depending upon where we were raised and when and what our family of origin considered important, depending upon our life experience, our race, how much money we have in the bank, how much suffering we have endured in life.  All of these—and more—will shape our perspective. But the only thing that really matters in the Church is that we are here to worship and to serve Christ. It’s the source of our peace.  We can be at peace because Christ is at work in us.

Labels—Jew and Gentile or conservative and liberal—become barriers between us, they separate us from one another.  There’s nothing holy about them.  In fact, it’s the opposite of what God desires for the Church.  What Paul came to know, personally, and then gave his life to, was the profound and dazzling idea that in the end, these categories are meaningless in the Church and will, in time, devastate the Church. 

It’s significant that Paul never says that Jews should become Gentiles or that Gentiles should become Jews.  Instead, Paul’s experience in Christ allows him to transcend the two groups to envision a third option, something else entirely, which contains both groups, which elevates both groups into something new, what he calls a “new humanity”—kainon anthrōpon—a new expression of humanity now transformed to serve the greater glory of God.[6]

What Paul came to discover was this: we have been called into the Church because God in Christ is trying to build something new through the church, that something new is a new humanity—a true household of God, built upon the cornerstone that is Christ, “in whom,” Paul writes, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord,” (Eph 2:11). Why? So that you and I together may become a dwelling place for God. That’s the miracle of the Church.  Whole. Together.

People will come from east and west and north and south—from everywhere, every direction, every every—to sit at Table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). When we gather at this Table—and every time we gather—we should have the entire world in mind.  As every false category melts away we demonstrate to the world “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

Here is the Lord’s Table of peace.

A peace the world cannot understand, but desperately needs.

So, come, world, come to the Table of peace.

[1] On the origins of World Communion Sunday
[2] Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” North of Boston (1915).
[3] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 65.
[4] Listen to Michel Martin, a journalist with NPR, on the generative power of diversity & faith.  Martin talks with Krista Tippett at the Chautauqua Intuition. See also Katherine W. Phillips’ article, “How Diversity Makes Us Stronger,” in Scientific American:. 
[6] I propose that Paul’s understanding of the “new humanity” is an example of what Carl Jung (1875-1961) called the “transcendent function,” which occurs at critical moments of insight and transformation. “The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites.  The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing—not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principal tertium non datur [no third is given], but a movement out of the suspension between the opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation.”  “The Transcendent Function,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 8 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1972), 67-91.  This insight emerged in the writing and preaching of the sermon.  I’m sure others have made a similar connection, but it was new for me.  This parallel has considerable implications for the way we understand Paul’s theology and for a Jungian approach to the Christian experience.

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