We’re marching through Ephesians these six weeks in the summer, reading the letter as if it is addressed to us, just like they would have done in the house church in Ephesus back in the first century. Indeed, as part of Scripture, this letter is addressed to us, and reveals in practical and in sometimes-heady terms the vision that God has for his people on earth.
Two weeks ago, in chapter 1, Fr. Jordan preached about Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church. The uniqueness of Jesus as the revelation of God is why we start every Sunday service with “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” — at the very beginning of our time together in worship, we all agree by saying out loud, “Okay, y’all, this is who we’re all here for, right? Jesus is what we’re all about.” Jesus Christ the foundation upon which all else in our lives, in the church, in discipline, in mission, in knowledge, and in love, is built.
Last week, I preached on Ephesians 2, highlighting the counter-cultural grace that defines people and communities who follow this God made known in Jesus. Wherever God’s people are found, there is a community of grace, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation. God’s grace makes room for mistakes and accounts for evil, knowing that each person succumbs to temptation. With this acceptance that humanity is incapable of being perfect, either there is permanent isolation and rejection of others, when someone is inevitably wronged, or, as we hear in the Gospel and see practiced in Jesus’s life and the lives of Jesus followers throughout time, there is grace. Allowing people to own their darkness and giving people a chance to renounce it, that is grace. That is seeing a whole person for who she is, and loving her despite her faults. Part of that love is helping and supporting her to admit her faults and seek to do right in the future.
And that’s what we’re called to look at a bit more closely this morning, the call of reconciliation that Ephesians makes to all its faithful readers. The author of Ephesians makes a stunning argument throughout the letter, and especially in chapters two and three; this book preaches that the natural divisions among people, the “dividing walls of hostility,” as chapter two puts it, are torn down by the cross. In this book, we hear especially about the enmity between Jews and Gentiles, a long and storied history of suspicion and hate, of seeking to enslave one another, to kill each other, and to live isolated from the other’s impure culture.
Ever since the Tower of Babel, people have struggled to reach across the divides that tribe, culture, family, money, and location put up among us. It’s just easier, isn’t it, to spend time with people who look like you, who can afford to go out to eat where you like to go, who have the same political affiliations and philosophies that you have, who do the same kind of work that you do, who live in your neighborhood, whose kids go to school with your kids.
And it doesn’t take much imagination to see that these sorts of dividing walls, which can sometimes masquerade as preferences, end up leaking into Sunday mornings, too. You’ve heard it said that the most-segregated hour of the week is Sunday at 10am, and I’m certain that each of us has been members at churches where this is the case. And the difficulty there is that it’s not just Sunday morning, then, is it? Our whole understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like is then skewed because all we ever see at church is people who look and act and sound and live the same way that we do. And our whole vision of what Jesus’s body looks like is malformed, because it does not include people from every nation under heaven. The people who make up the church, God’s hands and feet in the world, are called not because of their skin color or their tax bracket, not because of their zip code or their resume, but because the image of God resides within them.
Just in the last two weeks, we have seen the terrible consequences of dividing walls in a very physical sense. Humans who live in a country full of corruption are damned to be abused and killed, unless they are able to find safety within a democracy; in recent months, there have been great failures to recognize the oneness of humanity, to practice the truth that people are just people, who are people; full stop. No matter where they are born or from where they flee, no matter what is written about them on pieces of paper or in electronic records; the image of God resides within them.
And the image of God resides within you. And the image of God resides in our midst, as a group and community, because no matter how much we drink the Kool-Aid of individuality or the pride of using our own bootstraps to pull ourselves up — or as I put it colorfully a few weeks ago, dragging ourselves out of the quicksand by our own ponytails — whatever lie or temptation we submit to, trying to believe that we can save ourselves and can maintain our own salvation, God shows us through the blood of Jesus Christ that we are helpless when we are alone.
In our Book of Common Prayer, there are only three things necessary to have Holy Eucharist, to make this mystical sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: (1) you must have a priest with magic (anointed) hands, (2) you must read a passage from the Gospel out loud in the course of the service, and (3) there’s got to be somebody else there. It’s baked into our worship that God is not revealed in Jesus Christ to an individual, Jesus’s Body is not the possession of one person. God is in our midst only when there are people to be in the middle of. Dividing walls and isolation, created through false differences or through pride, are absolutely the opposite of the God made known in Jesus Christ.
So here’s the rub, my brothers and sisters. Each of us lives with dividing walls that make us more comfortable, and diverse and blessed though our community of St. Augustine’s is, we’ve got walls here among us this morning, too. These false dividers are obstacles to the Gospel in our very midst; they are stiff, crunchy bits of dark sin that stain the image of God which resides in each one of us and in our community as a whole. The way out, to break down these dividing walls, is the second, sticky part of what grace means.
The first part of what grace means is forgiveness, as I talked about last week. That’s looking at what has already happened, looking at those walls, and deciding to break them down, to refuse to let them be obstacles anymore. Forgiveness looks back and the damage which has already been done, and says, “I’m not going to hold that against you anymore,” “We’re going to change from here on out,” — this courageous declaration, this forgiveness which we can offer ourselves and each other, is empowered by the Gospel, by the forgiveness that God has already given each one of us in Jesus Christ.
The second part of grace is reconciliation, and that’s what we’re on about this morning. It’s the part that comes after the bulldozer, after the looking-sin-in-the-face and choosing another path. Reconciliation looks to the present and the future, to how we let change and transformation happen in the middle of our lives and in the middle of our own hearts.
The dividing wall analogy is still helpful here: if forgiveness is admitting there’s a wall that’s been built up there and deciding to tear it down, reconciliation is picking up the broken pieces of that dividing wall and deciding what to do with all those bricks.
The most tempting thing, perhaps, is to pack up and cart away all those stones which stood between us, to just clear the slate and get rid of any hint that there was ever anything wrong.
Unfortunately, this is not how God works. The wounds that Jesus’s body sustained on the cross weren’t just wiped away and sewn up during his three days in the tomb; Jesus’s resurrected body still had nail marks and the hole which the spear had made. Jesus’s body here and now, the community of the church, cannot in truth just brush off all traces of the dividing walls and begin again as if nothing has ever been amiss.
But the path of grace and reconciliation has something else to offer us. Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, suggests this method, saying:
“He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Reconciliation takes the broken objects of pain, takes the bricks that made big walls, and uses those exact symbols of fear and darkness, of isolation and degradation, and makes them into something new. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” God in Christ takes the old divided bits of humanity, the sharp and hardened pieces of our hearts, and as we submit to his great love and grace, he forms and fashions us into his new creation. The scars of sin are real and do not disappear, but they become points of health and strength through the witness of God’s healing love.
There was a man who had many sons. As they grew up together, it was clear that there was one son who was the favorite. It wasn’t because he was smartest or most handsome, because he was most-hardworking or because he was the kindest; through no particular merit of his own, he held the place of greatest love and affection in their father’s heart.
This stirred up jealousy so great within the brothers, that while they had many differences among them, this one brother’s unearned honor bound them together in hate. They conspired to kill him, and to throw his body to the wild animals; in a culture that valued the physical body and a person’s final resting place, they sought to steal even that small comfort from their father and their brother, their own flesh and blood.
It ended up that they found someone willing to buy their brother, to sell him into slavery instead; so they both got rid of him and made money on the deal, what could be better? Sure, their father was broken up, believing that his favored son was dead, but they all moved on with their lives till a famine broke out and there was only food in another country.
The brothers went in search of sustenance for their starving families. Far from being turned away, the very wall that they’d constructed against their brother was torn down when he saw them. He gave them food, and he protected their families from starvation and death because he’d become a great man in the country to which he’d been sold. He told his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Amen.