Monday, July 20, 2015

Breaking Down the Wall

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:11-22.

Warning: The introduction to the main topic of this sermon contains pop culture references. They are not intended to have the same weight as the theology that follows but are used for their insights into the prejudices and perceptions of our society, and so are sometimes commended and sometimes condemned. Complaints should be directed to the Apostle Paul who quoted Greek playwrights and used sports metaphors in his letters, that is, our scriptures.

While contemplating today's passage from Ephesians, I came across a surprising difference between my two favorite science fiction franchises. Doctor Who, in its original incarnation, was the longest running sci-fi series in the world. The show didn't become a hit though until the Doctor encountered the Daleks. They were the survivors of a nuclear war, so mutated by radiation that we never used to see them, just the non-humanoid battle armor in which each individual Dalek lived. In the first story the Daleks' enemies were the Thals, an idealized blond humanoid race. In contrast to the peaceful, non-technological Thals, the Daleks were dehumanized, mechanized, interchangeable and militaristic. Although originally seen as the cost of a culture always at war, the Daleks have come to represent xenophobia. They wish to wipe out or enslave every other race in the universe. The Daleks are monsters and while the Doctor generally is loathe to personally kill any species, he has the hardest time being a pacifist when facing the Daleks. He is not above maneuvering them into situations where they will be destroyed, usually through their own aggressive actions.

As even non-Trekkers know, the archenemies of the original Star Trek crew were the Klingons. And though the primary hero of each of these series has a personal reason to hate their foes—the Daleks were responsible for destroying the Doctor's home world; the Klingons killed Captain Kirk's son—they ultimately end up in very different relationships with their nemeses. More than 50 years later, the Doctor and the Daleks are still each other's greatest enemies; years ago, Kirk, albeit reluctantly, became responsible for the admission of the Klingons into the Federation, a kind of galactic United Nations. A prominent crew member of the second and third Star Trek series was Worf, a Klingon orphan raised by a human couple.

With the Klingons now allies, although not ones to be taken for granted, subsequent Star Trek series had to create new archenemies. But each has eventually become an ally, if only begrudgingly and out of necessity.

In the finale of Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans must join with their former oppressors, the Cardasians, to defeat a mutual enemy. That enemy is also a formidable threat to the Federation, which turns out to be not nearly as benign as it appears. A black ops division of the Federation engineers a biological weapon specific to this alien enemy and infects them. Then Odo, one of their race, who, like Worf, was raised on Federation ideals, goes to their planet to heal them. The Borg, a scary half-biological, half-mechanical race which the crew of The Next Generation fought, agree to a truce with Captain Janeway of Voyager. As part of the agreement the Borg drone Seven of Nine comes on board Janeway's starship and eventually becomes a valuable member of the crew. In the final analysis, the Doctor's enemies always remain enemies, whereas adversaries in the Star Trek universe eventually reconcile.

The theme of reconciliation is at the heart of many of Paul's letters, such as today's. The two adversaries he is writing about were the Gentiles and the Jews. Jesus was a Jew and was revealed by his life, death and resurrection to be the long-awaited Messiah. But he was quite different from the popular conception of the Messiah. Instead of a leader who would liberate the Jews from their oppression by Gentiles, Jesus set about liberating all people, Jews and Gentiles, from their slavery to evil and sin. While the known world was being evangelized in the first century, the majority of Jews did not respond well to this idea of the Messiah but many Gentiles did. Most of these were “Godfearers,” Gentiles who attended synagogue though they did not convert to Judaism. The Gospel message resonated with them and they readily converted to Christianity. Jewish Christians felt that they should become Jews first, getting circumcised and observing the ceremonial rituals. But Paul, though once a zealous Pharisee, saw this as a mistake. For one thing, the first Gentile converts, after hearing Peter preach, were given the gift of the Holy Spirit without first submitting to either baptism or circumcision. A more important problem was that requiring that Gentiles observe all 613 commandments of the Old Covenant diminished what Jesus did on the cross to establish the New Covenant. We all, Jews and Gentiles, are saved and become members of God's people through Christ's sacrifice. Making the Gentiles retroactively become Jews would be akin to making newly naturalized U.S. citizens also become British citizens since that was the national origin of the first U.S. citizens.

Remember that the Jews were a barely tolerated minority in the Roman empire. They wouldn't participate in sacrifices offered to the emperor as a god. When the Romans realized that monotheism was central to Judaism, and that they would die rather than worship any other gods, they gave them a pass on the emperor cult. But they never really understood why the Jews were so close-minded in this aspect and why they couldn't, like their pagan subjects, simply add another deity to their pantheon. This attitude, which goes back to the Greek successors of Alexander the Great, was the original source of anti-Semitism. So one can understand Jewish resentment towards Gentiles and why the first Christians, all Jews, felt that the Gentile converts were getting off too easily.

What Paul says about this division is interesting. He says that this was one of the things Jesus died for: to remove the barriers between people. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he 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. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

But wait a minute! Didn't Jesus die for our sins? Yes, one of which is the hatred we have for those who are different. When Judge Sonia Sotomayor was up for confirmation to the Supreme Court, I heard a Latina say she was for her because “she looks like us.” That is the least important reason one should support or oppose a person, though at least that person was honest. And when we lived in tribes the fastest way to recognize friend or foe was by appearance, because everyone in a clan was related somehow. I never thought about the persistence of family resemblance until I went to a reunion some years ago and met many people for the first time who nevertheless looked oddly familiar. This would not strike me as strange had I grown up in a nomadic tribe or even a small village where I had familial connections to pretty much everyone. It would then be natural to see similar people as the norm and outsiders as odd folks not to be entirely trusted, or even to be hated if that were my group's viewpoint.

Once people started to live in towns and cities of hundreds or thousands of people we had to expand our ideas of who was a friend. But sharing appearance or language or culture or DNA still determined who was in our inner circle. Allegiance to larger groups can be tenuous. We have seen that in countries like Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Nazi Germany people can be incited to attack their ethnically distinct neighbors, even if they had previously lived together in peace, sometimes for centuries. Even here in the United States we have trouble remembering that being an American doesn't mean belonging to a certain race or religion or national origin.

The idea of a people of God made up of folks from different nations and ethnicities is in fact found in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. But it wasn't talked about much in Jesus' day. Still, during Jesus' ministry we see Gentiles coming to him for healing. And shortly after Pentecost, the deacon Philip is led by God to baptize an Ethiopian official who happens to be a eunuch. This puts him outside of the presumed target audience for inclusion in God's people on two counts. And we see that even the apostles are surprised by the kind of people God calls to come to Jesus.

Paul is considered the Apostle to the Gentiles and yet his method was to go to the synagogue of whatever city he was in and preach there. When he saw the phenomenal results among the Godfearers, and resistance from his fellow Jews, he realized that God had a different idea for the composition of the Body of Christ. But that caused a lot of friction and the church, headquartered in Jerusalem, met with Paul and figured out what elements of the law the Gentile converts had to observe. And in Acts 15 we are told that they wrote this: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual sins.”

Now this was probably hotly debated in the churches Paul founded. After all, Paul preached that “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works so that no one may boast.” But refraining from certain things is not what saves you. Rather they are the acts of someone who is saved and is now operating out for love of God and for his fellow Christians, Jewish or Gentile.

In any relationship, there is a trade-off. You have to think of the others in the relationship. Marrying means giving up dating other people. Having kids means you can't just go out partying on a whim and leave them to fend for themselves. Belonging to a group means you respect and don't contradict the mission or violate the ethics of the group. You do these things out of affection or love for the others in the relationship. If you don't do these, the relationship will suffer and probably break down.

To be sure, relationships change, but not in the essentials, not if you wish them to last. I was fascinated by an NPR story of an Iranian couple who came to the United States. The father was very old world and autocratically ruled his family and his wife. When the wife objected she was told to shut up. When the kids were grown and married, their mother divorced her husband. He was shocked. In the aftermath, as he lived a bachelor life, he discovered—don't laugh—Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And in reading this pop psych book, he began to change. In the end, the couple remarried, over the objections of their grown daughters! But the husband had picked up a skill that researchers say is essential for a marriage to survive: listening to his wife. That change of practice allowed them to save what was essential about their relationship—the love embodied in the marriage.

The early church was learning what was essential and what wasn't. Who you were, what you looked like, what race you came from, what gender you were, and what economic class you belonged to were not essential. Again Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What is essential is not who you are or were; what is essential is whom you trust and follow.

But there were still tensions. If you read Paul's letters you can boil down the primary flaws of each party. The Jews suffered from self-righteousness. They couldn't let go of the old regulations and rituals and their heritage. And the Gentiles didn't understand, much less respect the Jews' scruples. They thought that because they weren't saved by their own righteousness, they didn't need to try to be good. So Paul keeps telling them really obvious things about being a Christ follower, like don't get drunk at communion—or ever. Don't everybody talk all at once during worship. Don't dress immodestly. Control yourself sexually. Don't gossip or sue each other. If you believe in Jesus, behave like him.

244 of those 613 commandments in the Torah concern the tabernacle, the mobile structure that was considered the dwelling place of God on earth. David wanted to replace it with a big permanent temple. God wouldn't let him. Later David realized that this was because he was a man of war who had shed much blood. He wasn't fit to build the Lord's temple. That temple, built first by Solomon and then rebuilt by Herod, was superseded by Jesus, God Incarnate, his presence on earth. And now that Jesus has returned to the Father, Paul tells us that God wants to dwell in us. Speaking of Jesus Paul said, “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.” Note that the word “together” is used twice.

Jesus' prayer for the church the night before he was crucified was “Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) But from the very beginning, that has been our biggest problem. First it was the Greek-speaking Jews in the church having friction with the Hebrew-speaking Jews. Then it was the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul confronts the fact that camps are forming in that church around different Christian teachers. Throughout church history divisions have arisen over the same things—culture, nationalities, teachings and teachers. Today we look back at many of these controversies and think “What was all the fuss about?” Yet people still put other things ahead of Christ and call themselves Christian.

Part of the reason that we resist reconciliation with other Christians is that we think that unity means uniformity. We are afraid that if we unite, all churches and all Christians will be the same. But, as Paul illustrates with a metaphor, one body is made up of many different parts and each has an important function. They are all controlled by the head, which is Christ. Do we not trust Christ to be in charge of his body?

We also fear change. But change is a constant. And yet the essentials don't change. Every cell of our bodies has died and been replaced approximately every seven years, skin cells more frequently. But we are the same people we always were: our passions, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our quirks are the same. The church, too, has changed over time, the outward and visible parts most of all. But the essentials remain.

Yet the idea of unity among Christians is still controversial. Just as Captain Kirk could not at first envision a Federation that embraced the Klingons, we cannot seem to envision a church that includes both conservatives and liberals, Baptists and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Lutherans and Episcopalians. And it's not like our so-called “adversaries” are genocidal monsters like the Daleks. They are people who trust in and follow the same Jesus Christ as Lord. The clergy all confess the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. Are all the issues dividing Christians really things necessary to salvation? Or are they stuff we have added afterward, traditions and rituals and governing bodies that may be important and may have arisen for a good reason at one point in history but are not actually essential?

Sadly, the obstacles to unity among Christians are still the same as they were in Paul's day: pride, self-righteousness, lack of respect for others, not listening, and not appreciating the strengths of what different people have to offer the church. Jesus sacrificed his life to bring us together. But we can't be bothered to make sacrifices to be his one holy, catholic and apostolic church. And as long as we think our differences are more important than reconciliation, that who we are or how we do things are more important than being the body of Christ, that divisive speech and actions are more important than the continued incarnation of the love of God which Jesus said was how the world would recognize his disciples, we won't be fit to be God's temple either.

The answer, as always, is love. We need to emulate Jesus, who, when he heard that someone outside of his disciples was healing people in his name, said, “Do not stop him for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) It is Jesus who commands us to go outside the circle of those who love us and reach out to others. (Luke 6:32-36) Christianity is the religion of love. Love is the mark of being a follower of Jesus. But love always involves risk because love is not always reciprocated. Nevertheless we are commanded to love—our neighbors, our enemies, each other. “If I have not love,” said Paul, “I am nothing.” If we cannot love our fellow Christians, what does that make us?

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