Mark 6:30-44, Ephesians 2:11-22
Today we continue with our second week study of the book of Ephesians. And while we didn’t focus very much on Ephesians last week, today we will spend a little more time with it. Today we hear these words of unity, of reconciliation, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.”
What is interesting is that, biblically speaking, we usually talk about God’s “peace” as something God creates between us and God, or something that we find within ourselves. But the promise here in Ephesians is extraordinary. The promise is that peace will be created between divergent and even fighting peoples, as it was between the Christian Jews and Gentiles of that time. When I think about the many generations of racial strife and fighting in our country, when I think about the Israelis and Palestinians currently, when I think about the divisions along political lines in our own country, the words of not only disagreement, but frankly hatred that I have heard people speak for those who disagree… when I think of ALL of this, to hear these words from Ephesians which speak of Christ’s sacrifice, his death, as a bridge that will create PEACE and reconciliation between these different groups, it is truly almost beyond hope. How big and different from what we know will God’s realm, God’s reign have to be for us all to be in it together in peace, for us to come together as diverse people to love and care and connect to one another, to be “one”?
But this passage from Ephesians promises this. It says that Christ’s cross has destroyed and will destroy three things: a barrier or wall, the law of commandments and decrees, and most importantly enmity. According to Ephesians, by dying on the cross, God breaks down a wall that separated humanity from God. This is not about atonement, according to the author of Ephesians. This is about experiencing and living fully our humanity. As the NIV commentator said it, “Humans are too trapped in the deadly effects of sin to return to God on their own – or even to notice the wall that is keeping God out? People still need to be convinced of God’s unconditional love for them…. People have to be loved into forgiveness.” And it is from that place of being convinced of God’s unconditional love, of God’s unimaginable forgiveness, that breaking down of the barrier between us and God that all barriers between humans, between dividing forces are also being broken down.
So how is this possible? And since the cross has already happened, if the cross unites us, why are we not united? Why are we still so very divided, still separating ourselves into “us” and “them”, still estranging ourselves from people who think differently, rather than being one, being reconciled, working towards healing, wholeness and the living into the new and full humanity that the cross has created for us?
The thing is, as I have said so many times before, what we do for ourselves affects greatly what we do for others. If we cannot accept God’s unconditional love for us, if we cannot accept in forgiveness, or grace, how can we extend that to others? We can’t. Period. We can’t.
But I want to say again, that I think culturally the cards are stacked against us stepping into that. Which is why faith is countercultural. Faith calls us into a very different way of being than we see modeled and even idolized in our culture. Faith calls us into a different set of values than what we have presented in our culture. The cross, and the reconciliation it offers calls us to be very, very different in this world than what we are told is the best and right way to be.
One of my lectionary friends told us this story this week: there was a congregation down the road from her own congregation: a predominantly African American congregation and they ran a food pantry for many years. But there came a point at which they needed help. So they called on my friends’ congregation and asked if they could partner together to keep the food pantry alive. After one week of working together, my friend asked the folk in the originating congregation how the food pantry work was going.
“Terrible!” one woman said, while all the others nodded in agreement.
“Terrible? Why?” my friend asked.
“Well, the folk from your church show up, they quickly load up the bags, they put them into the cars of the guests who are coming, they clean up everything perfectly and then they leave. The whole thing lasted from 8am-10am and then it was over.”
My friend was stunned. This sounded wonderful. But she had enough wisdom to ask, “What did it look like before, when it was not terrible?”
“Oh!” the woman said with joy as she remembered how the food pantry used to be run. And then the whole group of them began to quickly talk over each other sharing their past experiences. “We would gather between 7 and 8, we’d talk, we’d check in with one another, we would laugh and play around as we gathered together the things to put in each bag. Sometimes we’d stop, pause, sit down and have a drink to talk together and cool down. Then when people came to get their food, we would talk to them, sit with them, ask them how they were doing, laugh more, talk more, sit again and share a coke for a bit. We’d spend the whole day at the food pantry, just being together.”
Different values, yes. But I think we miss something with our emphasis on efficiency. I speak to myself here. I am the queen of efficiency. I was thinking about this this last week when I went to pick up a book from a parishioner. When I stopped at her house, she invited me in to sit and talk for a while. After we had talked for some time, she said to me as I was getting up to go, “I needed to grab you while you were here picking up the book because I know you are just so very busy.” And it hit me differently. I hear all of you say this, often, to me. “Oh, I know you are so busy!” and at some level, I think, I’ve always heard that as a positive: you all know how much I work, how hard I work, and that answers my value of needing to work hard, do well, work harder, do better. But is that really a godly value? As I heard one of you speak to me this last week, I realized that it would be more valuable to slow down, to be with people for more time, to dig in more deeply with people. For the first time I heard “you are so busy” as a critique – not because it was meant to be, not because it was spoken as such, but because I heard it with different ears this time. I could hear God whispering to me through this parishioner that I had gotten lost, distracted about what really matters, and had forgotten about what I am really here to do. My job as a child of God, as a follower of Christ, as a person on the way, is not to be rushing around “accomplishing things” or “getting things done.” My job, as a disciple of Christ, as a person striving to be closer to God is to take the time to be with each person who is in front of me in any one moment. I think about the comment, “If you’ve ever seen a chicken running around after its head has been cut off, you know that running around is NOT a sign of life.” We are called to live fully. But what we are doing by being so busy is not fully living and is certainly not fully living into our calling as children of God.
I think about Tolstoy’s three questions: “Who is most important? What is most important? When is most important?” He answers it this way, “The one you are with at any moment is the most important one. The most important thing to do is what is right in front of you that needs to be done. And the most important time is this moment that you have now, for there is no other.”
I am not alone in these struggles. As I was telling my lectionary group, a group of pastors who have committed to meeting every single week for two hours and sometimes more to pray together, study scripture together, check in and support one another: I could not get such a group going here in the Bay Area. All the pastors here who I know are “too busy”. Again, we feel our “importance” by filling our time with programs and activities and work. But that is not what God is calling us to do.
What does all of this have to do with the Ephesians passage? Crossing those bridges, building those relationships, reconciliation, the peace with our neighbors – the one that is offered through Christ: these things take time, take commitment, and take intentionality. If we are too busy “doing” things to sit with people who disagree with us, to talk together, to be in relationship with one another, to do the work of reconciliation, then that peace of Christ, which is what is being offered through these relationships and through our faith – it will never be ours.
Our churches are failing in this, maybe even more so than in the bigger community. Did you know that the most segregated hour of the week is 10am Sunday morning? Our churches are the last bastion of segregation. And that is not what God wants from us nor for us.
The cross is there, reminding us that God knows all of what we live, all of what we suffer, all of what we struggle against; and it is offering us reconciliation, not only with God, but with one another. It is a profound promise. A very deep and full promise. But we have to step into that. If we truly want reconciliation, we have to act like we believe the promise that it is available for us. If we truly want unity and wholeness, we have to step forward in the faith that it is a gift offered to us that we have only to claim. If we want the peace of Christ in our lives, we have to start by working to trust God’s unconditional and overwhelming love, and more, to trust that through God’s grace it is offered to each one of us. It’s all that easy, and all that hard. Amen.