A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 preached at Batesville Presbyterian Church; Batesville, MS, July 2018.

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This morning’s reading from Ephesians starts with an important couple of words. “So then.” “Therefore,” in other words. It’s a conclusion, a culmination of things shared up to that point. If we back up a bit, to the beginning of chapter two, we’ll find the author of Ephesians proclaiming our salvation by God’s grace. We humans were sinful, following the course of this world and rulers other than God. But the writer reassures us: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this isn’t your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

“So. then. Remember…”

The verses that follow are a before and after of sorts. Things used to be like this. Now they’re like this. We were without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of God, strangers to the covenant and without hope, divided by a wall of hostility. But after, with Jesus, old laws are abolished and we are knit together as one  humanity, guided by Christ and built into a dwelling place for God. Scholars have debated whether or not Paul himself wrote this letter, but known author or not, this letter proclaims a truth that already is. Peace has already been made through Christ’s sacrifice, and because of that peace with God there is peace on earth too. It sounds great, but it can be pretty hard to really feel the truth of that when the world around us seems anything but peaceful and reconciled.

In her book about spiritual practices, author Dorothy Bass suggests that the best way to forgive a person is to pray for them. Even if it’s hard, even if you don’t mean it. Pray for them until you do. I wonder if proclaiming God’s peace might be a similar undertaking. Even when hope seems absurd and peace impossible, we have the life-giving promise of God’s grace.

Verse 15 tells us: “He [Jesus] 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.”

We humans like labels. We lean on categories to keep us comfortable, and to define where a person or event or idea should be in the order of things. Those of us who live with privilege, whether based on our race, gender, or economic situation, are even more likely to lean on the boundaries society has drawn. If everyone stays in their place, we get to keep our fairly comfortable one. Except Jesus isn’t about keeping people comfortable. That work of reconciliation and peacemaking to which we’re called is work that overturns assumptions and opens wide the doors that have closed off our understanding of one another.

The *classic* 1995 film Babe offers us a lesson in the shortcomings of relying on the way things have always been. The movie takes place on the farm of Arthur and Esme Hoggett. Dogs and the cat are the only ones allowed in the house. The sheepdogs are at the top of the ladder outside, too, and viewers hear from narrator and animal characters alike that the sheep are definitely the stupidest. At one point, the title character Babe, a pig, has a rather messy adventure in the house, and Rex, the alpha dog, orders that every animal stay in its proper place. A well-meaning cow even tells Babe, “the only way to find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.” Babe is raised by a motherly sheepdog named Fly, and he ultimately learns to guide sheep himself. But the order of things gets a bit flipped upside down in the process. Jesus had a habit of turning over expectations too.

In Christ there is “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” Living into this peace on earth is more than just saying it. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to action. It calls us to engage in the messy work of making peace. Desmond Tutu described this invitation beautifully when he said, “God saw our brokenness and sought to extricate us from it — but only with our cooperation. . .God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to God. God sent Jesus who would fling out his arms on the cross as if to embrace us.” Tutu continues, “God wants to draw us back into an intimate relationship and so bring to unity all that has become dis-united. This was God’s intention from the beginning. And each of us,” he concludes, “is called to be an ally of God in this work of justice and reconciliation.”1

The work of peacemaking is the work of God. And because we’ve been reconciled to God, the way is open for peace to seep into our relationships with each other. Professor Brian Peterson clarifies: “This is not the [peace] of the Empire, for whom the cross was a brutal tool of control and oppression; instead, this is the peace of persistent, unrelenting mercy for others, as Jesus loves us all the way to death. Because of that, the church will not be defined by differences in nationality, language, marital status, sexual orientation, ethnic identity, education, political affiliation, or any of the myriad ways in which culture is determined to divide, but [the church] will be defined by Jesus who welcomed those declared ‘aliens’ by the Law.”2

“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.”

We are quick to put people into categories. Our default so often is “us” versus “them.” We label people illegal or distill a person’s identity to the fact that they have to sleep on the street. We lean on the structures society has built even when they are not as just as Jesus might have them be.

“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” We have been brought near to this place, and nudged along by the wind of the Holy Spirit we might just be able to throw our doors wide open and love each other.

It’s easy to read Ephesians from an insider perspective. To assume we know what side we’re on, so to speak, because we’re part of the church. But in verse 12 the Greek word used for “without Christ” — atheos — is “more than just a description of nonbelief.” It would’ve been meant as an insult, “implying that one was uncivilized.” Karen Chakoian describes the significance: “Both Greeks and Jews could be accused of this: Greeks for rejecting the God of the Jews, and Jews for rejecting the state-sponsored religion.”3 The divide between Jew and Gentile was deep, and everyone was sure that the other people were wrong.

Towards the end of Babe, the time comes when our pig hero is to compete in a sheepdog competition. On his own farm, he just asked the sheep nicely and they did what he said — this was, of course, a change of pace from the dogs’ strategy. But the sheep at this competition are strangers, and refuse to talk to him. In a redemptive moment of relative open-mindedness, Rex the alpha dog runs back to farm to ask the home sheep for advice. As the narrator describes, “He spoke slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid.” Moments later the narrator introduces the sheep’s response: “The sheep spoke slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant.” Of course, neither is entirely true, but each species has discounted the other, sure that its own perspective is the only right one.

By the end of the movie, we learn that although each animal has made assumptions about the other, everyone on the farm is smart in his or her own way, and when they start working together the seemingly impossible becomes possible. Cracking open our sometimes long-held assumptions about those we have labeled “other” is no small feat. We get nervous that change will be difficult. Fears for ourselves or our loved ones close us off to other perspectives. Worry about consequences prevents us from standing up for someone who needs it. Babe the pig eventually learns that the reason alpha dog Rex is so harsh with the other animals is because he lost his hearing saving some sheep during a storm, which ended his promising competitive sheepdog career. All of the animals on the Hoggett farm learned something from listening.

Peacemaking — embracing one unified and holy humanity — requires some bravery. Community organizer and self-proclaimed “justice doula” Mickey ScottBey Jones offers this “Invitation to Brave Space:”

“Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a ‘safe space’

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

and

We will work on it side by side.”

ScottBey Jones doesn’t just talk about this sacred space. She helps make room for it to happen. She’s part of a team of people who started a movement called The People’s Supper, based on the principle that breaking bread together is a good first step to building bridges. The project’s website reads: “Too often, we exist in echo chambers and see each other as monoliths: one-sided stereotypes who can be reduced to a single word or phrase. Instead, we want to go beneath the headlines, to see each other as real people with real struggles, real fears, real hopes, and real dreams. . .And, we plan to do it in the most nourishing way we know – over supper!. . .Our goal is to make space for folks to hear, and to be heard.”

The idea is that 8-10 people get together and share a meal. There are a couple of different tracks participants can follow, but so-called “Bridging Suppers” specifically aim to foster deep connection between “folks of different backgrounds, different faiths and different beliefs, different racial and ethnic identities, different genders and sexualities, different worldviews, and yes, maybe even different voting habits.”4 Supper hosts have access to icebreakers and conversation guides, should they want or need them. The hope is that these small escapes from those individual echo chambers will have a ripple effect, inspiring people to keep engaging with everyone around them.

Our text says: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizen 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.” As ScottBey Jones put it:

“We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

and

We will work on it side by side.”

No household is perfect. Having lived in eight different states almost always with some assortment of other people, I can tell you that from plenty of first hand experience. I tell my college students, a lot, that being a person is hard. Being a person with other people is even harder. But we are called to this messy work of peacemaking. We are called to question what we think we know about other people and to find the light of God in the eyes of every person we meet. Having been saved by God’s grace we have everything we need to live with grace toward others. Jesus has showed us the way. Now let’s get to work!


 

Notes

  1. Quoted by Karen Chakoian in Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 258.
  2. From this commentary on Working Preacher.
  3. Karen Chakoian in Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 254.
  4. Read this (and more) about Bridging Suppers here.

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