This scripture requires us to do a little bit of a history lesson. As the Christian movement started, the early church had a few issues. They faced opposition from the outside; persecution by religious as well as cultural leaders. But they also had some internal struggles. Before Peter’s dream of the unclean animals and before Paul expanded his mission to the Greek Isles, most of the early Christians were Jewish. And, they believed they were doubly special. Not only were they part of the Chosen People of God as Jews but also chosen by Christ. They believed if you wanted to be a Christian you had to keep all the Jewish customs. All Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th day of life. Non-Jewish people, Gentiles, were not; hence the derogatory statement about circumcision.
So, some Jewish Christians believed Gentile Christians were second-class citizens, less deserving, less special, which clearly caused some disharmony in the community. The Jewish Christians had always been included in the family of God but now there are interlopers, red-headed stepchildren, so to speak, with different cultures and value systems and now they have to figure out how to get along as one big happy family. And, as you can imagine there was some hostility.
The writer of Ephesians essentially says you are one in Christ. You are one family. You both have equal access to God in Christ and it is Jesus Christ on the cross that brings you together. So act like it. And of course when the letter was received, everyone did just that, and they lived happily ever after…. Right?! Of course not!
What is it about human nature that even those who have everything they need in life, and in faith in Christ insist on playing Tug of War with Jesus? Instead of allowing Jesus to be the hope and peace which unites us together. We fight over who gets him and his blessings.
Many non- Christians see the hostility, hurt, confusion and chaos within individual churches, denominations and within the universal church and understandably say: Jesus I get-but I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with the church.
There are an estimated 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. In our little community in Western North Carolina alone, we have at least 5 different types of Baptist churches, 3 members of the Methodist family, and 2 different types of Presbyterians, plus a whole host of others. Many of these churches exist because the Christian family couldn’t get along.
For people who claim to not like divorce, churches do it a lot. Some of you have left a church because of the hostility you experienced. Someone’s feelings get hurt, there was a shift in church politics, a change is made that some don’t like, and a few came together and decide to take their ball and go home. They would rather leave than do the work of reconciliation. Even the United Methodist Church is in the process of deciding if we can survive our family problems, hostilities and hurt feelings.
I am not pointing the finger at any one person or group. In one situation or another, we have all preferred to leave a situation than work the problem out. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of our human condition. This isn’t limited to Christians, but it is exacerbated and illuminated when we profess to be united in Christ.
The problem is we as people of faith are not reconciled to each other, or God. And often we aren’t reconciled to ourselves. We choose to ignore the things about ourselves we don’t like. Blaming our problems on others, criticizing others so that we don’t have to admit any fault in ourselves.
We claim faith in Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor, but what we really mean is I believe God is on my side. The personal relationship with Jesus allows individuals to say: “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine!” forget the rest of you. And if you don’t like the image of Jesus being painted then you can go somewhere else.
Anne Lamont a Christian author is famously quoted as saying “you know you have created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you hate.”
It seems as if we have taken the image of Jesus on the cross and one group grabs one hand while another grabs the other hand and we play tug of war with Jesus. Pulling Jesus to “our side” whatever that side is. Wrestling him away from “those people”.
When we do this our energy is depleted. Our faith becomes about us, and what we want, not Jesus. And we no longer have the energy to actually do the work of God or follow Jesus because we are too exhausted fighting about who Jesus belongs to. This is just another expression of hostility toward the “other”, one-upmanship, being higher on the food chain, more important than someone else: insider vs outsider, or as our scripture names it. Near v far, citizen v. alien, stranger v. friend.
It is such a common part of our culture whether it’s church, nationality, social class, color or language that we have come to accept it as normal behavior. For one group to be special or important we assume that means someone else must be less special and less important.
This breaks God’s heart. No one likes to have a family meal to have all the children fighting and angling for attention. Every time we do that we are crucifying Jesus again and again. God looks at all of humanity, no matter our differences and proclaims they are his child. They were made in the image of God, knit together in their mother’s womb, special, unique and loved equally.
And if we profess there is only one God, creator of all, then we must accept that “those people” whoever they are, as our brother and sister- whether they share our faith or not, because everyone, even non-believers are still created by God, worthy of God’s love and redemption. Even you, whether you believe it or not, are loved and cherished by God.
The love, grace, mercy, and compassion of God is a gift, freely offered and available at no cost- to everyone who accepts it. This is the start of reconciliation. It starts by seeing Jesus not as an object to be possessed but as the keystone that holds God’s arc of promise together. The cornerstone of our life and faith.
People of faith are chosen, not because they are special, but instead for a purpose, to participate in the work of God to bring all creation back into unity and harmony with God.
This starts when we acknowledge where and whom our focus is and where it should be. When we realize our focus is not on Jesus, but our own selfish desires, then we can begin the process of changing that attitude and mending God’s broken heart and ours.
This means catching ourselves when we make a critical comment about others. When we blame problems or challenges on a group of people, catch ourselves saying “those people” messed everything up or if my group was in charge we wouldn’t be in this mess, we can stop and remind ourselves that they and their opinion are just as important as ours. There is no us or them, it is only we. We are in this together and we need every voice.
It allows space in our hearts to listen to someone else’s point of view. Most of the time when we say we are listening, we are just looking for a weakness, something to refute, argue about or challenge. We aren’t listening to their perspective but a way to convince them to see things our way.
When we listen with the heart of Christ. We soon understand we have more in common than what divides us. We are more alike than different. But this also means, there are no winners and losers. We may not always get what we want, but we may see that there is a better way than we first imagined.
Reconciliation, harmony, getting along with others doesn’t happen overnight; in our families, the church, or in politics but it is necessary work if we are to be the body of Christ. V 10 of the scripture for today says we are created for good works, it isn’t just feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger. It is those things, but more than that, it is being an example to the world about what it means to find hope not in our own human understanding of political, cultural and national peace, but in the true peace of Christ that outlasts all of us. This is true hope, true peace. A peace that crosses boundaries, isn’t imposed by force, challenges the dividing walls we put up to keep others out and showers us with that peace which surpasses all understanding.
It is living our faith in the community in such a way that when others see the way we treat people who are different, they can say, that person loves like Christ.
This was the example of the early church Jews and Gentiles. The places where they shared meals, worshiped and prayed together were in the open. People could easily walk by and see these two people sharing intimate moments together and this became the example for all the world to see and know that peace was possible. How much more of an example would it be today if we did the same. If we could learn to focus on what unites us in Christ and work together for his peace to spread through our church, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.