From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “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” (2:14).
The message Paul gives us in his letter this morning could not be more appropriate for what is going on in our country and in our church today. I’m referring to the dividing wall within the Episcopal Church over the election of an openly gay bishop, to the possibility that a liturgy for blessing same-sex couples could be approved by our General Convention in the coming weeks; and to the open contempt in which political liberals and conservatives now hold one another over a myriad of issues: the fallout from the Iraqi war, the economy, the recent Supreme Court decisions. The list goes on. Now, before you tune me out because you don’t want to hear another political sermon, especially from me, a “liberal democrat,” hold your horses! I’m not going to get political—no finger-pointing from me this morning. I think what we need is a good dose of Paul; to hear and heed the Gospel mandates in his words: forgiveness, reconciliation, respect.
Let me begin by putting Paul’s letter to the Ephesians into context. Its recipients were the Gentiles living in Ephesus, those people excluded from God’s covenant. The birth of this alienation is recorded in Genesis where God says to Abraham, “Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you (Gen 17: 10-11). Paul, a Jew, is now making clear, among other things, that to become a Christian one does not first have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised. With the advent of Christ, this physical mark of distinction becomes irrelevant. The Gentiles’ inheritance is now based solely on their faith in Jesus Christ. From the second chapter of Ephesians, verse eight, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
The bottom line theology in Ephesians is this: God has a plan to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in the body of the risen Christ. Jesus Christ has ushered in a new covenant, dissolving the laws that perpetuate ancient political, ethnic and religious rivalries. All people are now God’s people. Ephesians challenges us today to recognize that cultural divisions, ethnic divisions, religious divisions, and political divisions are contrary to God’s vision of human salvation.
Perhaps, our biggest stumbling block is our inability to agree on the definition of sin and what is tolerable within the scope of our tradition.
The most obvious front-page example is homosexuality. Some would argue that people who express their sexuality with a member of the same sex are living in sin. Others would argue that God created us for communion with one another, and that homosexuality is just one other expression of this communion.
At a more local level, I recently witnessed this culture-war anger erupt at a dinner party. It was a lovely, happy occasion—most of the guests were St. Jamesers. The conversation began with the Civil War and then moved on to race relations in Richmond. The tone was civil, the content fascinating, with at least three distinct positions being offered as to what the race problem in the city is, where it comes from, and why it persists. It was a conversation full of thoughts, thoughtful in tone, and entirely nourishing. But when the topic somehow turned to Iraq, and then terrorism, something happened. There was a subtle shifting of gears, a psychic click, and then a strange hovering energy—a kind of malign presence—overtook the table. In an instant, it pierced the civilizing filter that until then had kept the conversation passionately dispassionate. Several things occurred in quick succession. As everyone at the table re-set their internal equalizers, turning down their ears while turning up their mouths, the quality of the speech changed, becoming faster and louder. It wasn’t long before the people at the table were no longer people—at least not in the eyes of those they were arguing with—but personless positions. Objects. The next thing anyone knew, one gentleman was stabbing his finger at another gentleman and calling him a “liberal Democrat” – in a tone of voice that made clear he thought this was about the filthiest aspersion one man could cast on another. “I’m an American,” the man responded, implying, perhaps, that his accuser was not. It only got worse—the epithets of “liberal” and “fascist” were flying back and forth, until one of the men stormed out. I should also point out that it would be accurate to describe both men as “fiscal conservatives, social liberals.” It’s a shame they may never know what fast friends they would be if this incident had not gotten out of hand.
I bring up this little tale because to me, it felt emblematic of a dynamic currently at work in the culture at large. More and more in this country, we seem to disrespect people if we disrespect their ideas. Our ideological opponents aren’t merely “wrong” anymore; they’re guilty of “treason.” Sadly, it seems we are not united by a greater good anymore. Dare I say that we have lost sight of what binds us together as a nation, as a faith community?
The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Can we radically disagree with one another without having to compromise our sense of personhood? Can we radically disagree with one another and accept that two opposing points of view may come from the heart, honestly, genuinely and prayerfully? Can we see God in the face of the one with whom we radically disagree? I believe we can. I’ll be straight with you. It’s one of the most difficult things Jesus calls us to do. In our own pews there are people who represent both sides of the aisle, to the far left, the far right and everywhere in between—it is one of the things that makes St. James’s great, and makes me a better priest and preacher. I have to stay on my toes! While this makes our church body more interesting and diverse, oftentimes it creates tension. But I do believe we can co-exist within the tension and respect one another and love one another, at the very least in the Biblical sense.
With that said, how do we love in spite of ourselves? How do we see God in the face of people whose ideas we disrespect and perhaps even regard as hostile? Let’s look at what Paul writes of Christ in the second chapter of Ephesians verses 15 and 16: “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.” The cross. By dying on the cross, Jesus breaks down a wall that separates humanity from God. Your religious enemy, your political enemy, has been gifted the same unmerited grace you have been gifted. We are equal in the eyes of God. Have you ever really considered the visual symbolism of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross? Jesus in between two disparate arms? You (looking left) and me (looking right) with Christ in middle reconciling our hostilities and differences.
Paul is not calling us to be heroes of the faith like the men whose lives changed the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi. Ephesians makes it possible for every Christian to make an appropriate response to the extraordinary salvation already extended to us by God in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. When we come before God at that altar (pointing) to receive the body and blood of our savior Jesus Christ are we not called to forgive our neighbor? To ask forgiveness for our own self-righteousness? To surrender our hostilities, our hatred and fear? Why else would we drink from a common cup? If we cannot stand before the altar of God as one for the sole purpose of being fed by the only thing that really matters, then we are in a world of hurt. It’s time we acknowledged that we have much more in common than we do differences. More important, our divisions cannot allow us to lose sight of what unites us, what binds us together: our love of God. Love is not something we believe, have, keep, or give: it is something we do, and in its doing we kneel together. Amen.