July 19 2015 Reflection

8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 19, 2015)

Ephesians 2:11-22


Last year in November marked the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany. Today, if you travel to Berlin, you would only see remnants of the wall.

It is hard to believe nowadays that such wall did once exist in the city, separating its population for more than 30 years.

But humans love to create walls, barriers that separate people instead of bridges that connect them. In 1969, Northern Ireland built what it called as “Peace Walls” after riots and burning of houses occurred in Belfast. These “Peace Walls” were created to separate the Catholic from the Protestant communities.

These walls vary in size, from only a few hundreds meter up to five kilometres in length. The highest of the walls is more than 10-meter-high. The latest of these walls were built in 2008, ironically on the ground of a primary school in Belfast following a time when tension between the two communities was high. The government has tried, again and again, to tear down these walls, but they always face resistance from the people themselves.[1]

The early church had the same challenge with ‘walls’. The church began as a Jewish movement, but it had been overwhelmed by positive responses from the Gentiles. (This was one example when something positive could turn into something that potentially threatened the life of the church.) More and more non-Jewish people became Christians, especially through the ministry of people like Paul. As the result, the early church was facing a significant question: what did they have to do with these new members of the Church who were not Jewish? Did they have to conform to the Jewish law or embrace the Jewish identity to be Christians? Or should they be exempted from these laws?

Instead of creating ‘bridges’ that connect these two communities, many Jewish Christians created ‘walls’ that further alienate their Gentile brothers and sisters. These Jewish Christians asked the Gentiles to conform to Jewish law and customs before they could be accepted as members of the Church. One law that they believed could not be compromised was the law about circumcision for all men.

Indeed, for the Jews, circumcision was not only the sign of their identity as God’s chosen people; it was also the requirement to be recognised as part of God’s people. And they had their own derisive words for the Gentiles: “the uncircumcised”. These words were not only used as a physical description; they were also a theological and sociological statement. Unlike the Jews, “the uncircumcised” were those outside of God's covenant; they were those who did not measure up to be God’s chosen people.[2] For them, unless one was circumcised, one would always be an outsider, not an insider of the covenant with God.[3]

Until now, some of us may think that all of this argument about circumcision was only about theological or intellectual disagreement. Well, this disagreement had seriously affected the way the early Christians lived as a community.[4] As the result of their view, the Jews refused to sit with the Gentiles at the same table during a meal. Remember that Paul once rebuked Peter for not eating at the same table with the Gentiles and separating himself from them (Galatians 2:11-14). The disagreement had seriously undermined their unity as the Body of Christ.

Fortunately there were people like Paul and his followers who strongly opposed to the narrow view that many Jewish Christians held at the time. For them, Christ had abolished the Jewish religious law through his sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, one was included into the covenant with God not through the law anymore, but through Christ’s death on the cross. By abolishing the law, Christ had destroyed the wall that divided the Jews from their Gentile brothers and sisters. Christ had paved the way for both the Jews and the Gentiles to be one in the body of Christ.

Indeed, both Jews and Gentiles had now been united and made into one building. They were all the holy temple in which God dwelled. Christ, through his suffering and death on the cross, had made what seemed to be impossible possible.

Remember, the author of the letter to the Ephesians was a Jewish follower of Paul who wrote, in his name, for a non-Jewish congregation. Yet, the author did not ask the Gentiles to rebel against the Jews. He didn’t ask them to separate themselves from their Jewish brothers and sisters. Rather, he championed a message of reconciliation. Christ had come not to reject or choose one over the other, but to bring close those who were far away.

Belfast in Northern Ireland in the 90s was a scary place to live. One Belfast woman, Mary Taylor, had to live with weekly bombings, shootings, and other forms of threat. Her children were essentially living and growing in a war zone. People were afraid to talk with one another. Suspicion was running high.

But Mary went to an ecumenical group where both Catholics and Protestants attended. In the group, she heard Paul’s message from his letter to the Corinthians:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!   (2 Corinthians 5:17 - NRSV)

These were refreshing and joyful words that ran counter to the tension and suspicion around her. And with these words of hope and encouragement came the task: she was called to the ministry of reconciliation.

So she began quietly and secretly attending both the Catholic and Protestant churches. There she discovered different ways of connecting with people with different religious affiliations and political views.

Such ministry at the grassroots level by people like Mary would permeate the political leadership in Northern Ireland. More and more church people and politicians from all sides of politics were driven by the same hope for peace. Many people, from inside and outside the church, worked together to bridge the deep division. Many have discovered that as they look to God for their hope, peace can indeed thrive.[5]

Today, we are not dealing with division between the Jews and the Gentiles or between the Catholics and Protestants anymore (at least not that I’m aware of). But there are still many other issues that can and still divide us as a community; issues that have the potential to spill over from the intellectual sphere into the way we live as a community. Indeed, just like the Jews and Gentiles in the past, we are often still trapped in the sin of labeling people. We like to label people as conservative or liberal; pro-life or pro-choice; modern or traditional; Coalition or Labor voters; right or left; pro gay or not, etc. The letter to the Ephesians challenges us to welcome those who hold different view from us as still our brothers and sisters in Christ; as people whom Christ had died on the cross for.

If the church is like a house, Christ has broken down the barrier, the wall of hostility that often separates us as a community. And if Christ has broken down the wall of hostility, why do we want to build that wall again in his house?

Last week, we are reminded that God’s will is to reconcile all things in the universe in Christ. Today we are reminded to aim for unity within our own community. Indeed, discipleship is not only about reconciliation beyond the church, but also reconciliation within the church community.[6]

Indeed, our world has always been a divisive world. If we too, as a community of God, choose to be as divisive as the world, then we are no different than the world and the Gospel will become insignificant. But, if we can show unity in the midst of a divisive world, then we can truly be the light and salt of the world, just like what Jesus calls us to be. Amen.

[1] Dividing Wall, in Seasons Fusions for Congregational Life, Pentecost 1 (July 19 2015), p. 123

[2] What We Reconcile, in Seasons Fusions for Congregational Life, Pentecost 1 (July 19 2015), p. 118

[3] See Kyle Fever, Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (July 19 2015)

[4] Kyle Fever, Commentary on Ephesians 2:11-22, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (July 19 2015)

[5] Mary Taylor, Ministry of Reconciliation, in the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide (June 5 2013)

[6] What We Reconcile, in Seasons Fusions for Congregational Life, Pentecost 1 (July 19 2015), p. 118