Sermon: Bringing down walls

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
July 18th, 2021

Ephesians 2:11-22

Sometimes there is good news. Every week, as I think about the Bible readings for the coming Sunday, I look back to see what I have said about them in the past. This week I discovered something that hugely pleased me. Twelve years ago, when talking about today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, I mentioned the continuing exclusion of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from the World Council of Churches because of their support of apartheid in that country. The WCC had not expelled the Dutch Reformed Church; the Church withdrew itself in 1961. In 2009 it still had not returned, and in that very year the executive committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Church declared that it was not ready to readmit the Church to WARC after suspending it in 1982 because the Church had not yet renounced apartheid ‘fully and completely’.

But in June 2016 the Central Committee of the WCC, meeting in Norway, welcomed the Dutch Reformed Church back. Dr Agnes Abuom, a Kenyan Anglican, said that it was ‘a special joy to welcome back to the fellowship the Dutch Reformed Church, one of our founding member churches and now, a generation after the end of apartheid, a partner in building a future of justice for all peoples’; and Dr Gustav Claassen, the general secretary of the Dutch Reformed Church, said that they were, ‘really overwhelmed by the reaction … Our African brothers took special time and effort to share with us their joy’. Sometimes there is good news!

I mentioned the relationship between the World Council of Churches and the Dutch Reformed Church back in 2009 because today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians talks about the reconciliation between opposing groups that Christ made possible. Through Christ God had reconciled the world to himself, through Christ peace was also created between the two groups most profoundly separated in the Roman Empire: Jews and Gentiles.

It is hard for us, Gentile Christians that we are, to understand the strength of the division between Jews and Gentiles. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians talks about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the two and that wall was literal; there was a physical wall in the Temple in Jerusalem that separated the outermost Court of the Gentiles from the rest of the building. On the wall were notices, in both Greek and Latin, warning foreigners and uncircumcised men that crossing into one of the other courtyards was punishable by death. One of the (false) accusations made against the Apostle Paul was that ‘he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place’. (Acts 21:28) We are heirs of a tradition in which Christianity is a Gentile religion; it is difficult for us to truly comprehend the radicalness of the revolution that occurred in the early church, when Gentiles were welcomed into the people of God.

Today’s reading gives us a hint of that. It is written from a Jewish perspective to Gentiles: the uncircumcised; those without Christ; aliens from the commonwealth of Israel; strangers to the covenants of promise; without hope and without God. There is absolutely no doubt that from the perspective of the writer these people were distinguished by what they lacked and what they were not. But now they have been welcomed; no longer strangers but members of the household; no longer aliens but citizens; no longer without God but helping the community to become the holy temple that is the dwelling-place of God. Most astonishingly of all, this has happened not because the Gentiles have become Jewish, not because they have been circumcised or started to obey the dietary laws, but because Jews, too, have become part of something new. In the cross Christ did not just draw Gentiles to God; in the cross Christ abolished the law, the very thing that made Jews Jewish.

I am speaking after the Shoah, the Holocaust, after centuries of supercessionism and antisemitism led to the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. Whenever the Christian scriptures mention the Jews, they are talking about a competing group within the same religion. That is not the case for us in the twenty-first century, and so I am not going to say anything more about the division between Jews and Gentiles that today’s passage describes as being overcome by Christ. Instead, I am going to follow in the footsteps of the emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and use the description in this letter of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Gentile’ ways of life to talk about two contemporary groups of people: those whose identity is based on their commitment to following ‘the law’; and those whose commitment to freedom is so lawless that they have no sense of community at all.[1]

Members of the first group, ‘the circumcision’ in today’s reading, identify themselves by their quest to do the right thing, to be successful in life. They create a community by distinguishing themselves from those Others who do the wrong thing, whose lives do not demonstrate success. We see this all the time, even in the church, perhaps especially in the church. There is a temptation to divide the world into those who behave appropriately, which means like us, and those who do not, those others, drug users and dole bludgers and adulterers and people who cheat on their taxes. Christians always need to make sure, because we tend to be a community of those who want to live the right way and do the right thing, that we do not fall into the trap that the man in the parable did and pray, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector’. (Luke 18:11)

Members of the second group, ‘the uncircumcision,’ live at the other extreme. Unlike the first group, they do not care about belonging to a community; for them life is about their individual freedom. We are less likely to see them in church; after all what would be the point, for them, of coming to a place that has communal expectations? Rowan Williams wrote of this group: ‘[t]he “freedom” of the life of passion, the organization of life around gratification, is intrinsically incapable of producing a properly social sense at all’.[2]

We have seen that over the past 18 months. Societies that emphasised individualism and freedom found it harder to deal with a deadly global pandemic than those with some sense of community. All last year some people in other states made fun of Victorians for following the public health directives, accusing us of having Stockholm Syndrome or of enjoying being locked down. But we know that the reason that we followed the directions was because we care about our community. We know that the most important thing in a global pandemic is not our freedom to go where we like, do what we like, and decide for ourselves whether to wear masks. We do not have the lawlessness of ‘the uncircumcision’.

What today’s reading tells us is that the division between the two groups, the circumcision and the uncircumcision, those who define themselves by following the rules and those who define themselves by their individual freedom, has been broken down. This is because the true identity of both groups is a gift from Christ. We do not need to create ourselves; we have been created by God and redeemed by Christ. That is the most important thing we can know about ourselves; that we are citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. This means that ‘the circumcision’ do not need to worry about always following the rules and being successful in life; it means that ‘the uncircumcision’ are not left isolated in individualism. Peace has been proclaimed to both groups, those far off and those near, who are now part of the one community. And, as today’s reading reminds us, for us that single community is the church.

There is no place for dividing walls of hostility in the church, both because the church is the body of Christ and because the church is a sign of what will ultimately be true for the entire cosmos. Rowan Williams said of this passage that it is ‘used rather too frequently in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and on other occasions when we are being urged to be conciliatory to each other’.[3] Despite that, I am going to use it again to urge us to be conciliatory to each other. The church knows that when we live out our oneness in Christ we reveal the unity that God is giving to all creation. This is an awesome responsibility to have, to model God’s intentions for the whole cosmos. Luckily for us, it is also a gift. We can live in ways that will lead to peace and reconciliation because Christ is our peace and reconciliation. In Christ we are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens of God’s realm and children of God’s household. If a Church that once supported apartheid can be welcomed back into the worldwide fellowship of churches, including by those who were the victims of apartheid, anything is possible. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Rowan Williams, ‘Resurrection and Peace: More on New Testament Ethics’ in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000) pp. 265-75.

[2] ‘Resurrection and Peace,’ p. 268.

[3] ‘Resurrection and Peace,’ p. 265.

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