We hear scriptures read to us on Sunday morning and we have no idea how revolutionary they truly are. I am sure this scripture has been followed many times by a bland sermon about how we church folk have been given a great gift and we shouldn’t muck it up by fighting over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. I am guessing I have preached a couple of those sermons in my lifetime.
But Paul was getting at something deeper than fights over preference issues inside the church. He was speaking to people’s identity…to the structures we build around ourselves to give us a sense of who we are….those things that are so engrained in our understanding of our “self” that we don’t even question them. It is the air we breathe….the water we swim in.
Paul was writing a letter to the early church in Ephesus….a city that was thriving under Roman rule. He was writing to a church made up predominantly of those without Jewish heritage….of Gentiles. He needed to address the identity issues they carried that divided them from each other. He talked about the circumcised and uncircumcised, which was a really racial identity stamped by a surgical procedure.
Paul also alluded to the way the Empire divided them from each other through a forced obedience called “Pax Romana”. But Paul declared Christ their new peace…a peace won by sacrifice and not force. They were no longer slaves of the empire but residents in the Kingdom of God. Paul says, “You once were identified as aliens but now you are citizens.”
Paul spoke of a new temple, which called to mind the old one. A temple built with many walls…a wall that divided Jews from Gentiles; a wall that divided men from women; a wall that divided priests from laity; a wall that divided the holy from the mundane.
I can’t stress just how important these walls were in the Jewish tradition and how well Paul understood the power of these walls. The wall that divided the outer court of the temple and the inner courts was only five-feet high, easily scaled but it was a strong metaphor for the exclusion of the Gentiles. They weren’t allowed past that wall. It was a spiritual barrier…an attempt to keep them from accessing God who was believed to be housed in the most interior part of the temple. Posted on the wall were these words: “No man of another race is to proceed within the partition and enclosing wall about the sanctuary. Anyone arrested there will have himself to blame for the penalty of death which will be imposed as a consequence.”
In the book of Acts there is a story of Paul being seen in the temple with some strangers, one of whom is assumed to be a Gentile. Worshippers seized Paul and accused him of defiling this holy place by bringing in Greeks. He would have been stoned to death if the Roman cohort hadn’t intervened. But it was the precipitating event that led to his arrest, imprisonment, trial, appeal and journey to Rome. Kelly read to us from Ephesians 2:11-22. In the very next verse after this scripture Paul writes: “I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…” Paul knew why he was a prisoner. He was a prisoner because people love their walls.
He said the walls had been broken down by the love of Christ and that Christ was the very cornerstone of a new temple. The foundation was made up of apostles and prophets and they, this motley crew of souls sitting on makeshift chairs in the city of Ephesus, had become the new temple.
This was revolutionary stuff. If Rome got a whiff of it they would be called treasonous. How dare they claim that Pax Romana was a false peace and true peace was inaugurated by a man the empire crucified….that was revolutionary ….and dangerous. What would happen to them if Rome took notice?
If their Jewish friends learned that they believed the Torah had been abolished by Jesus, that itinerant preacher from Nazareth, it would be blasphemy. If their Gentile neighbors learned that they understood their faith as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures they would be shunned. If the rulers of Ephesus learned that they considered themselves citizens of a new kingdom, what would be the ramifications?
The church of Ephesus was stuck in an identity crisis, created by other people’s constructs. We all understand the identity trauma, especially when we let others define our identity for us. Back when my family lived in Indiana, I was driving my son Brett to some event or appointment in the neighboring city of Ft. Wayne. We were on a long stretch of highway without another car in sight and I was driving faster than the speed limit dictated. As we crested a hill, I saw a highway patrol car waiting for someone like me. He pulled me over and while he studied my license he looked at the fifth grader sitting in the passenger seat and then back at me. He said, “You know you were driving over the speed limit.” I nodded. He looked at Brett and then back at me again and this time he said, “Bad mommy…. bad, bad mommy.”
I drove away with a warning and a new identity….bad mommy. The rest of the way to Fort Wayne I kept reliving that experience. “That police officer called me a bad mommy,” I said forlornly. Finally, Brett said (with all the wisdom of a child), “You have to shake it off. That man doesn’t know you. He doesn’t get to name you.”
But people are naming us all the time: immigrant, weaker sex, yellow, red man, commie, leftist, bigot…the list is endless. Constantly people are dividing us up into categories in which they can place us neatly and nicely and then shelf us away…Democrat or Republican, male or female, citizen or immigrant, carnivore or vegan, black or white, educated or uneducated, inner city or suburbs, straight or gay, wealthy or poor, baby boomer or millennial, single or married, strong or weak, introvert or extrovert, dancer or klutz, cool or nerd, religious or agnostic, white collar or blue collar, tree hugger or climate change denier….we are all guilty of defining others and of letting their definitions define who we are….we all carry responsibility for the walls we have built to keep others out…the walls we believe are there for our safety….the walls that actually make everything more tense and more dangerous.
“Those walls that were built to define others,” Paul says, “Christ abolished those. They are just imaginary constructs and they can’t be built here.” The church is actually a daring venture of a new kind of power…the outpouring of our very selves for the good of all of God’s children…the place where barriers are crossed…where love wins….where identity is not defined by others….where no one is a stranger or alien.
I learned a new word this week: Xenophilia. Of course, it is the opposite of xenophobia. Xenophilia is an admiration of the stranger. Instead of building a wall, it opens a door. It respects, admires, feels affection for the other. Sure, we have differences…differences of opinion, taste in the color of carpet, gender, race, politics, height….but they aren’t barriers. They are assets. Our differences make us more able to meet the challenges of life.
Paul was telling this little group in Ephesus and us, the La Verne Church of the Brethren, that the church is the laboratory for the Kingdom of God. His message is as relevant now as it was then. It is here where we get to practice what we preach….we get to tear down all the walls that society and culture have built around us….we get to name ourselves…we get to love and admire people who are different from us…we get to be the church together….the place where God’s love thrives. “There is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free here,” Paul declares.
Being the church together allows us to witness to the wider culture on how important it is to cross the boundaries and love extravagantly. Being the church together helps us act in love when we are apart from each other because even then we are the church. We are the church in the world.
The church I served in Indiana before coming here burned to the ground in the early morning hours on the wintry day of January 7, 1998. It was a devastating loss for this was our church home. It was the building that had housed the sacred events of weddings and funerals, baby dedications and Love Feasts. That same night we gathered on the lawn of the church, the building still smoking, firefighters still keeping vigil in case the coals turned into fire again. It began to rain. Under a sea of umbrellas we held a candlelight vigil to honor our loss. And then a solo voice began to sing and everyone joined:
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
The church is not a building;
The church is not a steeple;
The church is not a resting place;
The church is a people.
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
All around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together.
It’s true. We are the Xenophilia church of the Kingdom of God. Amen.