01 October 2017

Proclaiming Peace

Ephesians 2:14-22

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14).

Both groups into one.  The groups Paul has in mind are Gentiles and Jews. The Gentile question preoccupied the early church.  Can Gentiles follow Christ?  Or, must Gentiles first become Jews, that is follow the Jewish Law, to follow Christ?  Jesus was Jewish after all, and he certainly wasn’t Christian. Was Jesus sent only for Jews or did God have the entire world in mind?  Are Jewish followers of Christ bound to Jewish Law? 

These questions permeate Paul’s writings, the debates over these questions were intense and fierce.  Paul’s answer is clear, especially here in Ephesians.  Paul writes—and pay close attention to what he’s proposing—Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances”— toward what end? —“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” (Eph. 2:15).

This is a remarkable window into Paul’s grace-filled imagination.  He understands God to be doing a new thing in and through Christ, “to create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”  A new humanity in place of the two, making peace.  At the risk of oversimplification, what we have here is a summary of Christ’s ministry and a beautiful description what happens when we are in Christ.  It’s an arresting image:  Christ at work breaking down walls of division to form something new.  You see, Christ is always at work breaking down walls of division, if we let him. Between God and humanity; between ourselves and God; between ourselves and others.  And, Christ’s people are continually being formed into something new, as disparate groups of people, not only two but three or four and more, are forged into a new humanity, with a new identity rooted, not in an ideology or group or ethnicity or even nationality, but in Christ.

“So [Christ] 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” (Eph. 2:17).  Not either-or, both-and. This is the way of Christ. This is the way of Christ’s people.  This is how you can identify the work of Christ today, wherever this pattern is enfleshed in the world. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt. 5:9).

And, so Paul, being a practical pastor-theologian, invited Christ’s people to re-imagine themselves. He gave them a new vision. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also 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” (Eph. 2:19). What an image.

In several weeks, we’ll commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. When we think of Martin Luther (1483-1546), we think of passages from Romans, such as "the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). However, I was struck by a comment made by Susan Jaeger, several weeks ago our adult education class.  She cited N. T. Wright’s observation that the history of the church since the Reformation would have been very different had Luther, instead of focusing on Romans, turned to Ephesians with its image of Christ as our peace, tearing down dividing walls. If only.

In place of walls and fences and divisions, Christ offers us peace.  And one of the best expressions of this peace is Christ’s people gathered around a table.  It’s been said, “In a place of privilege, it is better to build a longer table than a higher fence.”  Our ultimate privilege is who we are in Christ.  We are God’s “new creation,” God’s “new humanity,” rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17).  Our lives are to reflect the Lord of love, who came not to divide but to bring God’s children together, declaring peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.  As Paul came to know personally, when we are in Christ, all these categories of near and far, insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, friend and stranger, indeed, every category, breaks down.  Dividing lines begin to blur as disparate groups, disparate identities, disparate nationalities, disparate ethnicities merge to form something new—a new humanity that lives in the community of Christ’s people, the Church.  And the symbol around which the community gathers is none other than a table, not a cross.  Yes, Christ’s death on the cross changes us; Christ’s suffering transfigures human suffering and transforms our lives.  But the symbol of the new humanity in the early church was not the cross, but the table. A table.

Catacombs of Priscilla
Go down into the catacombs outside Rome and you won’t find a single fresco of Christ on the cross.  You don’t find the cross anywhere.  Remember, the cross doesn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century, when the Roman Empire coopted Christianity.  But what you will find in the catacombs are frescoes of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples gathered around a table. The meal was central. We know that the first Christians worshipped on Sunday evenings and shared a meal together.  They not only remembered Jesus, they encountered his real presence in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, they affirmed their commitment to one another, they shared their lives, they held all things in common (Acts 2:44), they prayed together, they sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in their hearats to the Lord (Eph. 5:19), and they offered thanksgiving to God.  Thus, they came to know what being a living temple of the living God looks like and feels like; they realized that the community had become a dwelling place of God—not in a building, not even in a sanctuary (as beautiful as this one is), but in them and in the community, the koinonia.  We are the temple.  Christ dwells both in one’s hearts and hearts united in Christ. 

On this World Communion Sunday, as followers of Jesus we know that tables matter more to the Lord than fences or walls—and we need to affirm this especially today in a world obsessed with fences and walls, that prefers to instill divisions between peoples and races and groups.  And, friends, do not underestimate the counter-cultural power of the Lord’s Table; do not underestimate what we are about celebrate here.  The table calls us into a radically different way of living, a subversive way of being, which imagines an alternative way of being human, of being in relationship. Just consider the early church in Rome, above ground the Romans were crucifying enemies of the statement, while below ground, underground, we have images of Christ's people around a table.  The contrast couldn't be more striking.

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“To participate in the Eucharist [or Communion] is to live inside God’s imagination.  It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ.”[1]  We are being drawn into that body.  For, the Lord welcomes us, in all our wild diversity, to participate in his life; he invites us to lift up our hearts into the life of God.  

And this new life is symbolized in what happens here at this table, when we experience Christ in the breaking of the bread—which is Christ in our breaking and in those places where the world is breaking; when we experience Christ in the sharing of the cup—which is Christ sharing his life with us and our lives with him, sharing in the life of the world. And because of this mystical participation, this sharing, of suffering and life, we experience unity, we discover that Christ is our peace.  And, because Christ has welcomed us here, we extend that welcome to everyone. We make sure there are plenty of place settings, that no one is excluded.  We make sure that every barrier is removed, that everyone has free unencumbered access to the abundance of this table, to the presence and peace of the Lord.

So, come, taste and see that God is good (Ps. 34:8).  

Know again—or, maybe for the very first time—the gifts of God are for the people of God, for you.  For the world.

Thanks be to God!


[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 279.

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