Scripture can be found at this link
Proper 11B, 2018, Track 2
They had been raised to hate each other.
The atheos, the Gentile non-believers, and the Jews.
They had been raised in the same cities but in separate spheres. Both claimed truth. Differing truths. Both claimed righteousness. Both claimed the city.
Some held power. Others longed for it.
The partisan divide served Rome and Rome alone. Because divided, the Jews and Gentiles could never unite to stand against the external pressures of Rome.
Insults were thrown across the aisle. Circumcised and uncircumcised…literally, yes, yet lobbed with a vindictiveness that was not about religious rite but about who was right.
Civility was fragile at best.
The relationships between those referred to with the intentionally insulting term for the godless, atheos, and the Jews was fraught.
And, as these two groups came into community, into Christian community, they found common ground in belief and in oppression.
Drawn together as followers of Christ, they would be persecuted, together, for the same. For upsetting the delicate balance of Roman imperialism. Unity did not serve the empire.
And, the empire was built upon the backs of its citizens. Compulsorily or voluntarily, their bodies fed the machine of Ceaser. The empire thrived in the consumption of those it claimed to serve.
The discord sown between the groups allowed the empire to thrive. Power went unchecked and the tax-collectors coffers, cobbled together from the hands of both Greek and Jew, flowed into the hands of an elite few.
This was the Roman empire and, for every aqueduct, there were countless slaves. For every coliseum, a blood strewn patch of sand.
This was the world into which the words were writ, “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.”
There was a wall surrounding the inner court of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Gentiles were not allowed beyond this wall lest they profane the holy space within.
There was a quite literal divide between belief and disbelief. Between Jew and Greek. Between nations, tribes, languages…
And, in this moment it is broken down.
The divide is broken down in what the Scottish Church historian Andrew Walls would come to call, in light of the very epistle we heard proclaimed today, “the Ephesian moment”.
“The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only “together,” not on our own, can we reach [Christ’s] full stature” (77)...The Ephesian moment, then, brings a church more culturally diverse than it has ever been before; potentially, therefore, nearer to that ’full stature of Christ’ that belongs to his summing up of humanity” (81).
Division serves the empire, unity serves the reign of God—and it is only within the context of the coming together of the divided body that we can reach the full stature of Christ. “Only together, not on our own.” There is so much truth in this.
Jesus as unifier had the potential to undermine the very discord upon which the empire was established.
“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…”
And, after he taught them, he fed them...the portion of the Gospel omitted today (which we will hear later in ordinary time) is the feeding of the 5,000.
Gathering together disparate people Jesus unified them through his teachings. Unified them with bread. Unified them through compassion.
The kind of compassion that saw the collective need of the gathered and responded to that need without question. Citizen and alien—both given “access in one Spirit to the Father”.
To the One who loves, without question, that which was declared good at creation.
The contrast between the compassion of Christ and the cruelty of empire could not be any sharper.
And, I find myself wondering who benefits from our contemporary discord. Who is it that thrives when our divisions and differences distract us from our shared humanity? What happens when we forget who we, by which I mean ALL of us, are as beloved children of God?
“remember that you were at that time without Christ”..remember you were aliens…remember you were strangers…remember…
“you have been brought near”
Remember, lest you forget, the compassion of the One who saw our pain and responded with unmitigated and unbounded grace.
The One who reconciled us.
When we encounter the term “reconciled” in the Epistles it is important to note that it did not have a religious meaning in the original Greek. It was a term that was used in reference to dispute resolution—the mediation between warring factions. Reconciliation, as it is used in scripture, references the intervention of God into our internecine, our mutually destructive, strife.
God intervened in our mutually destructive strife. Intervened through Christ, whom we call our mediator and advocate.
“he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”
To those near and those far…the same peace.
Can the empire withstand peace?
Can the empire maintain its power in the face of our reconciliation?
I wonder what will happen when all creation embodies that peace?
In the final stanza of a hymn, written by Cuban-American theologian Justo Gonzalez’ to mark the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the Americas, he writes:
“In all four of earth’s faraway corners
sin is building embittering barriers;
but our faith has no fear of such borders,
we know justice and peace will prevail. To all four of earth’s faraway corners
we’re a people who point to tomorrow,
when the world, living sovereign and peaceful,
is united in bonds of God’s love.”
Our faith has no fear…
Sit with that for a moment,
Our faith has no fear…and we are united in bonds of God’s love.
No fear of the other. No fear of aliens or strangers. No fear of immigrants. No fear of liberals or conservatives. No fear of Republicans or Democrats. No fear. As we are united in bonds of God’s love.
Which brings me to the psalm appointed for today. Psalm 23
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. I have always imagined that to mean that God gives us a nice meal while our enemies have to watch us eat.
But, this, is an interpretation that cannot stand in light of the good news of the Gospel.
And, instead, I imagine the psalmist depicting a table where we are seated alongside our enemies. A table where we, reconciled by God, and able to share bread with those we have always understood to be the “atheos” on the other side of the wall.
Brought together, sharing a meal, sharing the table, sharing our lives.
At a shared table…in the presence of each other and within the abiding grace of God.