13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Ephesians 2
When I was in elementary school my family visited South Africa. At that time the country was under the power of apartheid. It didn’t take us long to experience this.
My father, mother, two sisters and I were packed, along with all of our luggage, into our taxi in Johannesburg. I was looking out the windows eager to see everything in this new country. I remember being surprised to see freeways and sky scrapers reminiscent of the United States. I also remember being suddenly afraid when the taxi driver sped up as we were heading straight for a young woman in the middle of the street. The light had changed before this woman had made it to the other side of the road. She was a black African. Our taxi driver was Afrikaans. At the last moment he hit his brakes as hard as he had pressed the accelerator. Our car stopped only inches away from this woman, who now had tears of fear in her eyes. The cab driver said in a gruff voice, “Those women donkeys. They don’t know nuthin’.” My father quickly grabbed my sister, who was lunging toward the cab driver in hurt and anger at what he had done.
I realized what an amazing country the United States is. We have had our own problems with intolerance and exclusion of people unlike those in power. But this experience taught me that we have come a long way. Thankfully South Africa has come out from under apartheid since that time. But there are still far too many places on this planet where intolerance and exclusion reign and inclusivity is only a dream.
This commitment to inclusivity, this public will to battle exclusivity in our society, is a wonderful thing. But it is hard to square with some aspects of our faith. This is true of the 10 commandments which is our focus during this sermon series. It is even more true of the first commandment with is our focus for this morning; “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
However, rather than making an apology for this commandment, I am going to argue that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, though exclusive in its claims upon the human heart, is actually the source of the greatest plan for inclusivity the human race has ever known.
God has always been committed to inclusivity. I know that there are many in our community, even some in our church, who find this hard to believe. Religion, including Judaism and Christianity, are often spoken of in the public square as if they are the source of all of the wounds, divisions and wars on this planet. But if you take a step back and read the Bible for what is says you find a very different story being told.
Last week, for example, we spoke of the very special relationship God made with Abram in Genesis 12.
12 The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’
Verses one and two of this passage seem to support the stereotype of religion as the source of human division. But don’t skip over the last phrase: ”and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God is offering an exclusive relationship with Abram and his progeny. But the point of the exclusive relationship is inclusivity.
Let’s step back even further and take a “macro-look” at Genesis. Genesis one speaks of a harmony between God, creation and humanity. But division comes when human beings decide to do things in their own way, according to their own will, rather than following God. The result, demonstrated from creation to the story of Abram in Genesis 12, is of the progressive unraveling of the relationship between God and humanity, humanity and creation, and humans and humans.
God responds to these human divisions, sourced in our decisions, not God’s, by offering an exclusive relationship with Abram. That special relationship or covenant is one in which his family will again walk with God and, over the generations, be shaped by that relationship into a people who will draw others back into relationship with God. The plan is for everyone to be brought back into relationship with each other and with creation by getting back into relationship with God.
God has always been committed to inclusivity.
The ten commandments are part of that plan. Under Moses’ leadership a group of Abraham’s descendants were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They had recommitted to follow this God who had given them their freedom. And God provided the ten commandments to help them grow into a community who witnessed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the very way they related to each other. This law would help them to distinguish themselves from other cultures. It would help them become a source of peach and reconciliation to all of the other cultures around them.
When my 14 year old son was quite a bit younger we had to establish right and wrong with him. He was becoming more mobile and more precocious and we needed to draw clear lines for him.
We were distressed when he would follow up our rules by testing them. We would make it clear what he should not do and he would immediately do it again! We were frustrated that he did not immediately obey us until someone much wiser made it clear what was really going on. Our son wasn’t just being a “rebel without a cause”. He was testing the boundaries we had established in order to be certain that they were really there. And once he was sure they were their he would turn his attention to growing and developing within those bounds.
It became clear that these boundaries made him a happier kid. He wasn’t anxious or insecure. Instead he became very confident and was free to explore all of the wonderful things his life had to offer.
The law is meant to function in this way for us in Christ as well. They aren’t random dictates by an power hungry God. They provide boundaries of right and wrong which can provide us a kind of security and sense of belonging that free us to explore all of the blessings and wonder of life with courage and without fear. They are part of the way that we share in the peace and reconciliation of God.
What is intended and what actually happens are not always in alignment, even for God.
Most followers of God understand that the commandments are meant to distinguish us from others. But we often use the commandments to establish our identity as those who are better than the people who do not have the law. And this short circuits God’s plan to bless others through us. Our exclusive relationship with God becomes a means of excluding rather than including others.
I was talking with my atheist film maker friend about this. He loves to put up the really outlandish things that Christians do on his facebook page. He has regular installments which, sadly, are easy to come by. I couldn’t defend the things conservative Christians do in public. But I could at least try to help him understand where they were coming from.
My theory is that the most outlandish things that we do stem from insecurity. The church in the West is used to being in the majority. Now, however, we find ourselves in the minority. Many cherished ideas, norms and beliefs of the church are being pushed aside. This makes some in the church insecure. We feel like we don’t belong in our own country. And that insecurity and fear moves us to action. We make plans to try to regain the power that we have lost. We fight to be in the majority once again.
One of the key ways we fight this battle is with the law; especially with the ten commandments. We try to get our laws to become the law of the land. We denounce people who disagree with our strategies. We make our beliefs a source of exclusivity. And we are no longer part of God’s plan to draw human beings together around him.
We aren’t the only ones with this problem. The people of Israel had a very similar struggle in their own context. For a very long time God’s people in the Old Testament sought to combine faith in God with exclusivity. The prophets were witnesses to much of this behavior.
God’s people have not always shared God’s heart for inclusivity and by the time we get to the prophet Isaiah a different plan of God’s inclusivity emerges. The covenant of God to Abraham narrows from one community to one person. At the end of chapter 52 Isaiah begins to describe, not a community, but one person who will be a blessing to all of humanity…
See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Isaiah continues his description in the next chapter.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
One person would, not only demonstrate God to all of humanity, but this same person would actually open the way for all of humanity to gather together around God by grace. This one person would be the ultimate expression of God’s inclusivity.
When the early church re-read this passage, they saw the image of Jesus very clearly in this description. Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s inclusivity.
This is what Paul, speaking from the other side of the resurrection, is saying in the first verse of our reading this morning:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
He is writing to a primarily non-Jewish congregation. They are aware that they have not followed that God or his ways. They have come to know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through Jesus. And Paul’s words here are a word of encouragement for them. Though you are not part of the family tree with whom God established his covenant, he says, you belong. Though you are not related by blood to the One who embodied God, you are safe and secure with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…
And brothers and sisters, this is true for all of us as well. Through faith in Christ all of the barriers are destroyed. We are safe. We are secure. We belong.
This is true, not only of the barriers between us and God, but of the barriers between humans and creation and the barriers between human beings. When we enter into this exclusive relationship with God through Jesus Christ we become a proactive part of God’s plan to include all of humanity in his peace and reconciliation.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
I have spoken of the misuse of the law by conservatives in the church. But this misuse of the law is not limited to one slice of the church.
I was at a conference last week to discuss the challenge of breaking down the walls between church and community. I was joined by church leaders in Anglican (or Episcopalian) churches, as well as other mainline denominations. Most were political liberals. In our time together it became very clear that they stood to the left of the wall between liberal and conservative in our country.
One night, at dinner, I was talking to a couple of Anglicans. Their church, as many others, is struggling over the issue of gay and lesbian leadership in the church. But their struggle was global. Rather than battling between liberal and conservative in this country, the dividing wall of hostility was constructed between Anglicans in Africa, particularly Nigeria. and Anglicans in the West, particularly the United States.
The two white North Americans with whom I was speaking were fully committed to the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the leadership of the church. And they were very frustrated by the Nigerian Anglicans who did not agree with them. One of them said something to the effect of , “It will take twenty years for them to come around to our side.”
I thought that was a very interesting comment, given that it has taken the Anglican church in the West many, many centuries to come to the opinion they hold now. ”Really,” I said, “you think that will happen in twenty years?” ”Yes, the other one offered, suggesting that the Nigerian culture will develop and they will come to see what is right.”
I was beginning to hear some paternalism from my liberal friends. This paternalism enables us to speak of other ancient cultures as if they are backward. Along with our own sense of self-righteous anger it can build a wall that divides us from those who are not like us. If this wall is allowed to continue we could begin down a path which justifies actions like that of the South African cab driver. ”Those people don’t know nuthin’.
This is certainly what the Nigerian Anglicans experience. They have told Western Anglicans that this attempt to make them have this same commitment to inclusivity reminds them of Western colonialism. It is simply a new form of the West telling the Africans how they should live. It is yet another attempt to discredit their culture on the basis of an unexamined sense of the superiority of our own.
And here we have the weakness of our culture’s approach to inclusivity. Though there is much to be admired, our approach is still based upon power. Those working to bring inclusivity to our nation do so through channels of power. Those who feel that we are losing things that are essential to our culture fight back through channels of power. The only way to win is for one side to overwhelm the other and force them to be silent and to submit to the reigning view. The result, then, is not the tearing down of these walls between people. Our efforts at inclusion actually strengthen them.
If inclusivity is truly our goal, we must find a way which is not based upon power, but upon love. And we have such a path clearly marked by the cross of Jesus Christ.
When we look to the cross we see God’s commitment to inclusivity based upon love. Jesus took the sins of liberals and conservatives, of Westerners and non-Westerners, of rich and poor upon himself as he hung on the cross. Through his death the covenant of Abraham came to fruition. All nations are indeed blessed through the relationship he had with God. Anyone and everyone can access God through Christ by faith. And as people gather together around this exclusive relationship with God in Christ they are drawn together. Wounds are healed, sins are forgiven, a new way of life is begun; a life of peace and reconciliation. A life of inclusion.
Many of you have heard of Desmond Tutu; the Anglican Bishop from South Africa. He grew up in the days of apartheid. When he was a child it was standard practice for a black person to step off the pavement into the gutter to allow the white person to pass, giving the white person this gesture of respect. But one day when Tutu was a little boy, he and his mother were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward them. Before he and his mother could step off the sidewalk, as was expected, the man stepped off the sidewalk and, as his mother passed by, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her. Though Tutu was only a young child, this act of love struck him deeply. He asked his mother, “Why did that white man do that? She said, “He’s an Anglican priest. He’s a man of God, that’s why he did it.”
That was the moment that Desmond Tutu decided to be an Anglican priest. Not only this, that was the moment when he decided to be a man of God.*
Paul concludes our passage with this:
17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, may we commit ourselves to the true path of inclusion. May we commit ourselves to the peace and reconciliation of Jesus Christ.
*From “Let Me Tell You a Story” by Tony Campolo.