Monday, July 24, 2006

“Just Like Me”[1]

Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-56

The world that Paul inhabited was just as torn by disunity, strife, and hostility as ours is. From the Jewish perspective, everyone fell into one of two categories. Either you were one of the Jewish people, who were God’s chosen ones, or you were a Gentile. Jewish people hated and despised Gentiles as “dogs.” Nor was that kind of thinking limited to the Jewish people. For example, from the Greek perspective, everyone was either a cultured Greek or a crude Barbarian. This kind of either/or thinking still largely defines human existence: no matter who you are, you’re either one of us, or you’re our enemy.

The Wall. In Paul’s world, the Temple in Jerusalem reinforced the division of all humanity into Jewish versus Gentile. To be sure, there was a “court of the Gentiles” where people from all nations could worship the one true and living God. But between the “court of the Gentiles” and the “court of Israel” there was a gate with a warning inscribed on it: no Gentile was allowed to enter the Temple on pain of death![2]

Paul uses this very concrete image of a “dividing wall” to express the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross. Through his death, Paul says, Jesus tore down the “wall of hostility” that literally and figuratively divided the Jewish people from the rest of the peoples of the earth. The point is that those who like the Gentiles of Ephesus were formerly excluded from any part in God’s life now have full and free access as members of God’s family to all the blessings of God’s kingdom.

Paul’s gospel is that all of the worst hatreds that have divided humanity through the ages have been nullified through Christ. Christ created a new humanity out of all the divided, angry, hostile, groups of people that populate our planet: a whole new humanity at peace with themselves, with one another, and with God. In this new humanity that Christ has created, everyone has a place —including Central American dictators, South American drug lords, and Middle Eastern terrorists.

New Walls. Now, if Christ has potentially overcome the most intense hatreds that have divided humankind throughout history, you’d think he could overcome the things that divide us right here in Dickinson, Texas! Surely the peace that Christ can create even between Israelis and Palestinians should somehow trickle down to us! But like every other grouping of human beings on the face of the planet, we have problems communicating with each other, we have issues that divide us, and we harbor hard feelings toward one another. In front of God and everybody.

Christ died to create one new community out of all humankind. He broke through all the closed circles to openly show love to all.[3] And that means that there really is no place for any of the various “isms” that we use to justify our own existence over against others and which therefore in reality divide us.[4]

And yet here we are creating whole new “walls of hostility”! What are we supposed to do about that? Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have a web page called “Spirituality and Practice.” One of the “spiritual exercises” they recommend is that any time you catch yourself criticizing someone, you use the phrase “just like me” to help you remember how much you have in common with that person.[5]

For example, “He always likes to be in control of things” should be followed by a humble and heart-felt, “just like me.” Or “She has no clue what’s going on in the real world,” should immediately move to the admission, “just like me.” Or “They don’t know the first thing about worship, … just like me.” You get the idea.

The point is that whenever we justify or rationalize the hostilities and differences that divide us by claiming that we’re in the right and “they” are in the wrong, we are conveniently overlooking our own shortcomings. You know those annoying traits that we’re embarrassed about, that we’d really rather not acknowledge, that make it all too clear that we make just as significant a contribution to any conflict as “they” do (whoever they are)!

No Walls. If true spirituality is about learning to serve one another in love because of the love we have been given,[6] then we all have a ways to go, don’t we? We all tend to get caught up in looking at life as if it’s all about me.[7] That one recognition ought to be sufficient to remind every person in this room that we are all still learning what it means to love God.

I want you to imagine a person you don’t really care for sitting right next to you in worship today. Then I want you to think about someone you really despise. Imagine him or her sitting on the other side. Then you may be getting close to the idea of what worship is about!

We all could use a fresh dose of humility in light of all that Christ has done for us. The fact that we all fall short reminds us to renew our commitment to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ in a world that is already so broken and fragmented by fear and hate that it’s tearing itself apart.

[1] A sermon preached 7/23/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 15.11.5

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 120-21.

[4] Ibid., 182-89. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 251.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 31-39; Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for your Life, 169, 179-88; Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 98-99, 103-4; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 258; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God, 151, 178.

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 186-89.

No comments: