You who were once far off

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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 our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said to his apostles: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure, even to eat.” That happens … and it is important sometimes for all of us to take rest, step back and allow our bodies, minds and spirits to recover and re-energize. Last week, Paula and I took time away—we went to Boston for a few days to visit my granddaughter and her parents, then we spent several days on Cape Cod Cape cod marshwith our friends Josh Davis and Danielle Thompson. Josh is a theologian, who until recently, was on the faculty with me at General Theological Seminary; his wife, Danielle is an Episcopal priest. We had a wonderful time with them, visiting, playing with their kids, walking on the beach, and Josh and I spent hours talking theology.  It’s what you do on vacation, I guess.

One of the things that Josh mentioned was that he had been looking at the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. So often, Christians regard Galatians as a place where Paul is saying that the Gospel has superseded or negated Judaism, by giving a better way that is free from the law. But that isn’t what Paul is saying at all. What he says is that the Jews remain Jews and the gentiles remain gentile and they are united in Christ. That Jesus, the Jew, included those who were not Jewish into participation in God as a pure gift, not destroying their separate cultures, and at the same time including those who practiced Judaism in Christ without changing their practice and obedience to Jewish law.

Christ has come into the world, and the unity of human beings, is not in being alike, but in being united with him. It was the great and extraordinary gift, that the God of Israel bestowed this belonging on the Messiah of Israel—that is what that Greek word Christ means—to those who were not otherwise part of Israel. Galatia was a part of that area that is now modern Turkey. Ephesus was a city substantially west of there, on the west coast of modern Turkey. Our epistle lesson this morning was written to the Christian community at Ephesus, which like the Galatians, was made up of gentile Christians with few Jewish members.  In our lesson, the unity of all people in Christ is emphasized.  But we would be mistaken to think that when Paul talks about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the groups he means that Christ is abolishing differences.

The lesson says this: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The wall is the hostility between people, not their differences. All through the writings of Paul he is contending with one party or another, where leaders arose who tried to simplify their own lives by saying that the church should be one, and that should be by everyone conforming to their culture, observances and way of living. Eventually what happened was that Paul lost out. Rather than Jews living observantly, being one component of the diverse body of the Messiah, they were eliminated or conformed into the gentile church; Jews were regarded as the enemies and rivals of the Church. The results of that have been tragic.

Hostility was masked in the church by conformity and was replaced by fear and hatred. People find it simpler to have only one kind of people. Or rather two kinds of people, “Our People” and “Bad People.” That then makes it easier to control: our people can then gradually let some of the Bad People become part of our people, by becoming like our people. That is not the message of Jesus or of St. Paul, who said it this way: “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…” It is the mercy of God and the undeserved gift of being admitted to Christ that gives any of us hope and life abundant. It is not ours, Christ is not our possession, we are his. We don’t serve Christ by giving up our own distinctiveness or opinions, neither do we serve him by failing to accept those who differ from us.

The Body of Christ takes its beauty from its many forms, from the depth of people’s commitment to their own cultures and traditions and from the respect between peoples. This is not easy or automatic—in fact it is easier at times to see the walls of hostility than to see that respect. We are not united in a Christian culture, but in Christ. It takes the action of God, the mercy of God, the gift of God to make this happen.

As our lesson from Ephesians concludes:

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 the 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 build together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

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