Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Sermon

Here is the text of a sermon I preached in my home church this past Sunday. The passage for the morning was Ephesians 2:11-22.

Everyone from politicians to beauty pageant contestants claims to desire peace. We may rightly question the sincerity of these claims – if not those of the beauty pageant contestants then certainly those of the politicians – but peace itself is at face value considered to be a universal good, an ideal toward which we are to strive. How to get there and what it might look like when we arrive are hotly contested questions, however; questions which have received different answers across time.

The answers which one gives to these questions – how do we achieve peace and what does genuine peace look like – depend on one’s diagnosis of the problem. One story told today is that scarcity and lack are the problem. If the world can manage to eradicate these through technological and economic progress this will bring about the end of poverty and the satisfaction of all our desires. We in the West are championed as heralds of this peace. We are the so-called cradle of civilisation, the developed world, the first world, even the founders of New Worlds. All our leaders preach this Gospel of Progress, the freedom of men and women to be and do whatever they want provided they do no harm to their neighbour.

This all sounds rather commendable and honourable. One small detail is left out of this optimistic narrative, however: our relentless and remorseless violence and division. Under the powers and principalities of this world the progress towards peace is a competition, and in every competition there are winners and losers. The cost of technological and economic progress is the lives of millions of slaves, of indigenous peoples who resisted colonisation and Christianity, of those who quite literally can’t or don’t buy into this notion of freedom and peace, those who end up on the wrong side of the tracks, which is to say the wrong side of history.

This, as I said, is one contemporary story of peace. Those of us familiar with the biblical story will not be surprised by the self-deception and violence it contains, nor will we be surprised by the wilful falsifications or omissions in the dominant telling of the narrative. Seen from one angle, the Old Testament can be read as a history of violence. In the opening chapters of Genesis we are offered a picture of paradise, yet almost immediately it all goes wrong. But whereas the Modern Man will tell you that the problem with humanity is an ignorance which leads to regression and recession, Scripture offers a different diagnosis: the sin of pride. This is the quest of humanity to become God, which stems from a refusal to be under his gracious command. And with this prideful refusal comes violence.

In Genesis 4 the first murder is committed, a tragic instance of brother killing brother. The blood of Abel, like the blood of countless other victims throughout the ages, cries up to God from the ground. From this point on humanity is characterised by a willingness both to glorify itself and to destroy itself. Our fate within this vicious circle appears to be sealed.

But God calls the idol-worshipper Abram away from his family to a new land, and promises to bless all the families of the earth through this one family. God promises peace in the face of overwhelming violence. It is an impossible promise, one which is reiterated again and again throughout the Old Testament. Yet it is a promise which never quite comes to fruition. Why not?

The chosen people of God, what Paul in Ephesians calls “the community of Israel,” are no different to the people around them. The same pride and the same violence is to be found within their ranks. Even one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, King David, was forbidden from building the temple because he was a man of war. Indeed David’s last act on earth was to give his son Solomon a hit list, imploring his son and successor to kill his father’s enemies. And Solomon himself, the king of Israel during its most peaceful and prosperous period as a nation, maintained this peace and prosperity at least in part through a harsh policy of forced labour. When this policy is mentioned in 1 Kings 9, our imaginations are being sent back to the opening chapters of Exodus, with Solomon cast in the role of Pharaoh.

And yet…these people of God are different. They are the people of the covenant, whose sign is circumcision and law and Sabbath. For Jews this was all the difference in the world. They were and are, after all, God’s people, chosen by him from among all the other people of the earth, related to him as a son to a father, called to be a royal priesthood. No other nation could boast such credentials.
For Gentiles, too, the Jews were different. They were a peculiar race with peculiar habits and morals, a people who worshipped a peculiar God. We cannot appreciate the force of our passage in Ephesians if we do not first appreciate the radical difference between Jew and Gentile. Yet we must distinguish between the actual difference and the perceived difference. By that I mean the true difference and the false difference.

God’s calling of Abraham seemed to divide humanity in two. On the one hand the chosen, on the other the reprobate, the unchosen. On the one hand the holy, on the other hand the unholy. On the one hand the friends of God, on the other his enemies. On the one hand the blessed, on the other the cursed.

But was and is humanity as neatly divided as this? Was God’s choice of Israel really his rejection of all those outside of Israel? What about our own categories into which we like to divide people? I don’t have to list them now, but we can run through these divisions in our own minds. What comes of these divisions when they are exposed to the light of the Gospel?

What Ephesians teaches us is that the Gospel explodes these divisions. Or rather, it brings together what we have torn apart.

What does this mean for the Jews? Primarily, it means that the reason for the distinction of Jew from Gentile is not to be found within Jews themselves. God’s particular love for his chosen people is a sign of his love for all of humanity. “For God so loved the world” is not an empty clich√©, but a startling declaration that none are excluded from God’s covenantal promises. It is precisely because Abraham and his descendants were just as tainted as everyone that they can be a sign of God’s unconditional grace, a grace given and received before circumcision, as Paul reminds us in Romans 4. And as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, God’s mercy to his chosen people was done in anticipation of his mercy to those who are unchosen. For the Jew, therefore, there can be no boasting, no pride, no animosity toward the Gentile. The message of both Old and New Testament alike is that salvation is by grace.

Yet the question remains: how can God’s promise of peace be fulfilled? How can the Jews complete their vocation to be a blessing to the nations? Here we can only affirm what Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians: In Christ all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.
In Ephesians, Paul says that Christ is our peace. To the two questions I posed at the beginning – how is peace to be achieved and what does it look like? – we receive one answer: Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace with God. Christ is our peace with our neighbours. Christ is our peace even with our enemies. To understand how Christ is our peace we must follow Paul’s lead in Ephesians and speak of Christ crucified.

Crucifixion, for the Romans, was an instrument of the Roman peace. It was the threat which awaited those who rebelled against the established order, and a sign to onlookers of what would befall them if they too stepped out of line. Seen from the Roman perspective, then, the execution of Jesus was a sacrifice offered by the Romans to their gods as a way of keeping the peace of the city. Jesus was perceived to be a threat to the empire, a threat to a very worldly form of peace whose basis was fear.
The Romans, it turns out, were right: Jesus was and is a threat to this peace. When Paul writes in Ephesians 2:17 that Jesus came and proclaimed the good news of peace, this proclamation had a two-fold purpose. The first purpose was to cut through the false notions of peace to which we attach ourselves. Christ calls into question our own versions of the Roman peace, our desire to live and act as if Jesus is not the Lord he claims to be and was proved to be by virtue of his resurrection. In this sense, then, Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword.

Yet even this sword which Christ brings is good news. It is good news first of all to the victims of false peace, the ones whose sufferings are the price of comfort and security for others. Yet it is good news also for the perpetrators, for Christ chose to fall on his own sword, so to speak. Even when we say No to Him he has already said a Yes to us which echoes throughout eternity. Even in our following after other gods He continues to pursue us. Even in our capitulation to the Roman peace He is and always will be the one who has overcome the powers and principalities on our behalf, and who invites us to participate in his triumph.

This overcoming, as Paul writes in Ephesians, is the achievement of the cross of Christ. Our hatred of God and our neighbour is forgiven at Calvary. Our hostility, past, present, and future, is put to death. Our captivity to that which opposes God is broken by an act of love which liberates us to love God and neighbour. As I said earlier, seen from the perspective of the Romans the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a way of maintaining the peace of the city. Christ was a sacrificial victim offered by the people for their own safety. Lest we think this a barbaric practice we moderns have left behind, we should remember that this practice continues in our own day, as the powerful rulers of our age send their poor citizens away to die or kill on behalf of the nation’s interests.

Seen from a divine perspective, however, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth represents an entirely different kind of sacrifice which achieves an entirely different kind of peace. It is a sacrifice of self-giving love, a pouring out of himself not for the sake of maintaining the status quo but as a revolutionary act whose goal is the reconciliation of enemies and the establishment of a new kind of kingdom which usurps the old.  Theologian Karl Barth – I am contractually obliged to quote him at least once every time I speak – is therefore apt to call the event of the cross a “coup d’√©tat,” a change of power within the world.

This brings us to the second purpose of Christ’s proclamation of peace. Not only does it expose and defeat false notions of peace. It also invites us and empowers us to share in true peace, however partially and provisionally. This is symbolised in Matthew’s Gospel by the tearing of the veil in the temple. It is symbolised in Ephesians by the language of twoness and oneness.

Previously humanity was divided in two, Jew and Gentile. The achievement of the cross is to create one new human out of these two. Former identities are reconfigured as the walls which we have built up between each other are broken down. Few embody this new creation more than Paul himself. We read in Philippians how he has laid aside his former identity as a law-abiding Jew; indeed he tells us in rather explicit language that he counts his former identity markers as refuse, as dung, as crap. And in First Corinthians he tells us that he has become all things to all people, to the weak he became weak, to the Jews a Jew, to the Gentiles a Gentile. Paul didn’t transcend these identities because of an identity complex, nor was he sneakily pretending to be like his audience as a missionary tactic. Rather, Paul was embodying the truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. He was enacting the very salvation to which Christ had invited him.

And as we are taught in Ephesians 2:8, this is a salvation that has its beginning and end in grace. What, then, is the relationship between peace and grace? The first thing, and perhaps the only thing, we can say is that grace comes before peace, and peace necessarily follows grace. The two go hand in hand in this order, as they do at the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We cannot have peace with God without the grace of God. Our friendship with God is only possible because of His grace. Paul ends chapter 2 of Ephesians by talking about all the things that the church and its members are: citizens and holy ones, those who belong to God’s family, a holy sanctuary, a place in which God indwells by his Spirit. We are these only by grace, which is to say, we are these things insofar as we are in Christ. For it is Christ who is first of all the true citizen of the kingdom, the holy one, the one who belongs to the family of God as the Son of God, the holy sanctuary in whom the fullness of God dwells. And by the grace of God what is true of Christ becomes true of us; or at least is becoming true of us as we continue to grow together in Christ though the power of the Spirit.

And not only is this grace the cornerstone of our friendship with God. It also makes possible our friendship with our neighbours. No longer do we have to see those around us as competitors, as rivals for the scare goods which we long to possess and which end up possessing us. Nor must we see our neighbours as irredeemable, as beyond the pale. Christ is not only my Lord or our Lord; He is the head over all things, the firstborn of all creation, the one in whom and through whom and for whom all things have been created. And the Fatherhood of God is not a narrow idea, but it reaches out to all the families of the earth.

This brings us to one of the central tensions of the New Testament: the desire of some to restrict the grace of God to a select group of holy persons, and the desire of Christ and his followers to see the grace of God gather up all things on heaven and on earth into a cosmic peace.

Nevertheless, the New Testament is not reluctant to highlight the failings of Christ’s followers on exactly this point. Think of Peter. His record in the Gospels is a mix of triumph and tragedy. It is tempting to conclude that by the time of Pentecost he finally cleaned up his act. We read in the book of Acts of his powerful preaching, his acts of healing, and his courageous leadership within the church. We also read a story of his encounter with a Gentile, Cornelius. Peter, we must remember, was a Jew, and as a Jew he held to certain dietary laws. How disturbing and confusing for him, then, when God tells him in a vision that the food which Peter had previously called unclean (on the basis of the very law of God!) has now been declared clean by God. Likewise, then, the Gentiles who previously were excluded from the covenant have now been included. The salvation of Cornelius was not a hoax. Peter could have fellowship with this Gentile; he could eat a meal with him as a brother. This is truly radical stuff, an example of the oneness of which Ephesians speaks.

Yet this was too radical, in fact, for Peter himself. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he recounts another incident involving Peter and Gentiles which occurred some time after Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. As Paul tells it, when Peter came to Antioch he was able to enjoy peaceful meals together with Gentiles. But all this changed when a group of Jews rode into town who had been sent by James. Fearing their reproach, Peter distanced himself from the Gentiles he had been eating with and slipped back into the circle of his own kind. Barnabas followed suit. This may sound like mere canteen politics, the kind of seemingly petty thing that happens in schoolyards or workplaces or college campuses or church events. And that is precisely what it is. Yet Paul calls this behaviour an assault on the truth of the gospel. The gospel, it so happens, has everything to do with meal time. Our peace with God and neighbour is embodied in our fellowship around a table. The table of communion, first of all, but following this the dinner table in our homes.

We cannot read about the life of Jesus in the Gospels, after all, without remarking just how often he spent his time eating with people. And not just with his circle of friends and family, but with Pharisees, prostitutes, and everyone in between. And how often does he picture salvation as a banquet, a meal to which the most unlikely people are invited? It will strike some of you here as good news indeed, then, when I say that eating dinner is central to our salvation. A meal together can be an outworking of God’s grace and peace.

This, then, is the peace which Christ proclaimed to all he encountered, those who were far off and those who were near. In fact, it was often the case that those who appeared most far off –tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, Samaritans, Gentiles, women – were in fact the most near, whereas the so-called near – the wealthy, the biblical scholars and theologians, political and religious leaders, men - were actually the farthest away. It would be a mistake to think that the same is not true today. We are reminded in Ephesians that we who were once far from Christ have been brought near. Yet how often throughout history and even today can the Church be so far from the peace of Christ? How often is the faith which Christ seeks to be found in the most unlikely places? In light of this we must always remain humble.

Humility, indeed, is a defining mark of Christ’s peace. Without humility peace is impossible. We can recognise the truth of this from the human side, since so much of our conflicts are caused by pride. Yet this is also true from the divine side. St Augustine said that we do not understand God until we understand that He is humble. Christ’s proclamation of peace was therefore at the same time a proclamation of his own humility, and therefore the humility of God. Right after He invites us to come to Him to find rest, he says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest.” Peace can only be enjoyed by the humble, just as grace and only be enjoyed by the humble. And we learn humility from Christ. This is another reason why the cross of Christ achieves peace: in the cross of Christ we see manifested the humility of God and thus the form which peace takes in the world. As Paul declares in Philippians 2:

“though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

What could be more humiliating than for the Creator of the world to allow himself to be tortured and hung as a man on a Roman cross? What a strange God we Christians worship. What a strange saviour we follow. We must never lose sight of this strangeness. The humility of God must forever keep us humble. In this way and only in this way can we be what Paul urges us to be in Ephesians 5: “imitators of God.”

The fall was the destruction of the original peace between God and humanity, and consequently between one human and another. There have been many attempts on the side of humanity to restore this peace, but more often than not these attempts end in the increasing of bloodshed and further division. How many men, women, and children have been killed in the name of peace? How many lives have been sacrificed? There is one sacrifice, however, which has achieved what humanity by itself could not achieve. The broken body and the shed blood of Christ which was poured out for all has reconciled God with humanity and humans with each other. The Church is the community which recognises the truth of this strange peace, and which witnesses to the truth of this peace in word and deed. It is the community which gathers around the Lord’s table to receive the peace of Christ, and which gathers around the dinner table to give this peace to others. Around these tables there is no cause for boasting, for pride, for pretence, for we remember that everything we are and have has been received as a gift, and in so remembering we thank God for his grace and peace, and we give freely of what he has given us.