Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Trial and Error

Trial and Error
Ephesians 5:8-20[1]
There is a tension in the Scriptures regarding the moral standards for the life of faith. In some places, the “precepts” of the Lord about right and wrong are presented as absolute. It would seem that what Scripture teaches on how we are to live our lives is clear and unchanging. On the other hand, there are other places where the Scriptures seem to speak with a different voice. In those passages, the will of the Lord is expressed in general principles more than clear-cut rules. Indeed, those of us who embrace the New Testament are used to hearing that we are set free from rules and regulations. It can be confusing to try to know just what it is we’re expected to do.
That tension translates into two basically different approaches to the Christian life. Some of us believe that all the teachings of Scripture are indeed rules for living, with all the authority and finality of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, to depart from any of them is to depart from God’s will. Unfortunately, life tends to be messy, and we all make mistakes. And so that has led some of us to embrace the opposite extreme: we cannot possibly keep all the commands the Bible presents, so we think we are free to live as we choose. In the process, however, we can go so far as to abandon the Scriptures entirely as the basis for our life and faith.
Our lesson from Ephesians for today presents us squarely with this problem. On the one hand, in the preceding verses St. Paul speaks about the behaviors that must be avoided, indeed must not even be mentioned, as well as those which prevent any who practice them from having an “inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). In our lesson, he speaks in seemingly absolute terms of the contrast between those who are “disobedient” because they are in the darkness and we who are “children of light.” If you only pay attention to what our Scripture lesson negates, it would seem that the matter is clear and unambiguous. Those of us who practice the Christian faith are to separate ourselves from the behaviors of those who walk in darkness.
But the problem with this is that it’s hard to make such an absolute separation when it comes to human behavior. Whether we like it or not, we all contain both darkness and light, and there are times when our behavior reflects one or the other.[2] Those who cannot accept this typically have not had much experience with the brokenness of life. And even if they do, they only cinch up their resolve even tighter and refuse to admit that they might ever “fall short of the glory of God.” But the attitude that sees the speck in the other’s life and is blind to the log in one’s own is itself a part of the darkness in us all. We just cover it up with a veneer of piety.
Despite our best efforts at avoiding this difficult truth, the fact of the matter is that we all fall short. We all make mistakes. We are all human, which means we are all fallen and flawed and fallible. And oftentimes we fail precisely at the point where we think we are invulnerable. I think that’s what Jesus’ saying about the speck and the log is about: recognizing that none of us holds the moral “high ground,” and if we think we do, it should be a warning signal that we are headed in the wrong direction.
So if we cannot construct an air-tight absolute set of life laws from the Scripture that any flesh-and-blood human being can possible keep perfectly, what are we to do? Many in our day have decided that the thing to do is to ignore the Scriptures. After all, they do come from a time and a place that is very different from our world. The logical conclusion would seem to be to think of the Bible as a historical relic, one that might have some snippets of wisdom. But since it’s basically out of touch with our lives here and now, we are free to take it or leave it. Since it comes from a very different setting, we can view its teaching, especially its moral precepts, as descriptive of a way of life that no longer really applies to us. But to make that assumption would be to abandon one of the essential foundations for our faith.
What are we to do then? If we look at the positive teachings in our lesson for today, I think they may point us in the right direction. We are to “live as children of light”, which means practicing “all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-9). We are to “be careful” how we live, seeking to be wise, “making the most of the time” (Eph. 5:15-16). We are to “understand what the will of the Lord is” and seek to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:17-18). And I think the guiding principle behind all of this is found in the appeal to “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10).[3]
If you’re like me, you may be wondering just how specifically we’re supposed to do that. But that’s where the heart of what the Scriptures have to say can be challenging to us. There are indeed some very clear-cut teachings, but the Bible doesn’t tend to prescribe specific actions. Instead it teaches us principles for living, principles like “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Our job is to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That may sound frustrating. We’d much rather have a clear-cut list of do’s and don’ts. But that’s not the way God works in our lives. The call to follow Christ is a call to live intentionally, every day.[4] It is a call to continually seek God’s will in every aspect of our daily lives.[5] In a very real sense, it is a call to a life of trial and error—figuring out how God wants us to live our lives as we face each situation, each crisis, each opportunity, and then doing our best to put that into practice.[6]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/16/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 38, where he offers the suggestion that for ministers to truly offer others a way to connect with God we must “enter ourselves first of all into the center of our existence and become familiar with the complexities of our inner lives.” I think this applies generally to all, and he says that when we do this we will “discover the dark corners as well as the light spots.” Cf. also Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 15-16, where he says, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. … Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter—the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” Cf. further Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. … All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” Cf. Richard Rohr , Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 33, where he says that the “ego” or the false self “wants to think well of itself and deny any shadow material.” He continues, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see.”
[3] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 437: “Christians will be active moral agents in their world. They are to ‘try to find out’ [dokimazo, ‘discern’ or ‘test’] what is pleasing to the Lord (v. 10). This implies that believers must determine what is suitable behavior in concrete circumstances.” Since the main idea is one of “figuring out” what is pleasing to the Lord, I like Gene Peterson’s translation of this verse in The Message: “Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.”
[4] Cf. Perkins, “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI: 443: “Believers must attend to their own conduct. Ephesians never suggests that such attention requires detailed moralism and legal observance. It does require consistent turning away from the old way of life.”
[5] In this regard, it seems to me that the highest example of this approach to life is the one modeled by Jesus. As the Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS (adopted by PCUSA in 1991) puts it: “Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else.”
[6] I think one of the best expressions of this approach to life is a prayer written by Thomas Merton, in Thoughts in Solitude, 79: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. There for I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (emphasis added)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Ephesians 4:22-32; 5:1-2[1]
We are a people for whom connections play a significant role in life. There was a time when “connections” meant knowing the “right” people. I think, however, that a fundamental shift has taken place over the last couple of decades. Instead of knowing the right people, having the right connections is now a matter of technology. Now, it means that you have internet service in your home, and that you have a smart phone that is fast enough to do everything you do on a computer.  Unfortunately, I think these notions of having the right “connections” miss the point. What truly connects us are the ties we have to family, to friends, and to a community of faith like this one. But in order to appreciate how important these relationships are, we have to get outside our tendency to focus on ourselves and pay attention to our real connections.
I think this is the point of our Scripture lesson from Ephesians for today. St. Paul urges us to see to it that the change that has happened in our lives because of Christ actually makes a difference in the way we live. He tells us to “put away your former way of life,” and to “clothe yourselves with the new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24). This is a concept we’re familiar with. It lies at the heart of salvation. We who come to faith in Christ experience a complete transformation (cf. Rom. 12:2), so that we can be said to have become “new creatures” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). If we’re familiar with the concept, I’m not sure we’re aware of how far the Scriptures get personal with what it means. In fact, in our lesson for today, St. Paul gets right down into the nuts and bolts of our daily interactions with those around us—into the real connections of our lives.
The first “connection” Paul addresses is the way we speak to one another. It may seem naïve in a time when we use our words to manipulate others, but Paul insists that we must “stop telling lies”! (Eph. 4:25). He says that we are to be truthful with one another because “we all belong to each other.” It’s clear that one of the basic principles of being connected to one another in the body of Christ is that we are essentially truthful with one another.[2] Later in the passage he points out that we are to avoid “evil talk,” which traditionally has been related to cursing, but I think that limits what Paul had in mind. I like the way the Good News Bible puts it: “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you” (Eph 4:29 TEV). I think that’s the bottom line for Paul: because we’re connected to one another, we are to speak to one another in a way that will “do good.”
Another “connection” that Paul addresses is our work. It may seem strange for Paul to deal with so ordinary a topic as work, but how we go about our work makes a significant difference in our connection with one another. It’s unclear to me why Paul would introduce this topic with “thieves must give up stealing” (Eph. 4:28).[3] But one thing he makes clear to us is the intention of work. In a time when “laboring and working honestly with one’s own hands” was frowned upon by the elite, St. Paul set the example by doing that himself.[4] Perhaps equally as important is the motive he supplies for work. It is intended to be viewed as a means of “having something to share with the needy.” In other words, in the new life we have from Christ, our work is not merely supposed to provide for our needs and wants, but perhaps more importantly to contribute to the welfare of the others to whom we are vitally connected.
Finally, St. Paul deals with the topic of anger. He says, “Be angry but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).[5] To some of us, that may sound contradictory, because we’ve been taught that to be angry is to sin. Of course, that’s not the case. Anger is a normal part of life. But while it is human to get angry, we must beware the tendency for anger to turn into bitterness or even hatred.[6] When we let anger turn into a grudge, not only does it fester inside us, it also severs the connections that St. Paul says are essential to our new life in Christ. Instead we are called to practice forgiveness. St. Paul calls us to forgive one another because God has forgiven us in Christ. He calls us to replace anger with kindness is because we have been shown such great love and kindness. And so we are called to “be imitators of God” and to “live in love” (Eph. 5:1-2). The forgiveness and love that God has poured out into our lives is that which establishes the connections between us. Therefore we can do no less than to seek to live our new lives in this way.
Speaking truth. Working honestly. Healing anger with forgiveness and love. They may seem to be such ordinary topics. And yet, I think the Scriptures show us that salvation is so all-encompassing that there is no aspect of life that is left out.[7] Because these issues are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our lives, we are all going to bump into them, and others like them, as we seek to live out our new lives. And we’re not always going to make the right choices when it comes to the nuts and bolts of what that looks like. But the point of all this is not that God expects us to be able to live the Christian life perfectly. Rather the point is that we make the effort to become what the good news says we are[8]—new people who are freed from old ways to live a life that is truly human, truly joyful, truly loving.[9] One reason for this is that in this fabric of life we are deeply connected to one another.[10] It can be easy for us to miss that when we are attuned to ourselves. But the love we have been given by God calls us to live in such a way as to get outside ourselves and build up these real-life connections that truly matter in life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/9/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at
[2] I don’t think Paul has in mind that we will be “brutally” honest with one another in this respect. Since the point is that we speak to one another in ways that will build up our connection, we must remember there is a time for speaking the plain truth, and a time to hold one’s tongue.
[3] His language seems to imply that some of the believers were actually stealing. It may seem unlikely, but then there are various forms of “stealing.” Most of us have probably been in a situation where a co-worker didn’t pull his or her weight (cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 432). In many cases the Bible also considers underpaying people for their work is a form of stealing. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:429, where she points out that the theme of the “reformed thief” was common in the moral writings of the time. But she suggests that the reference here may be to call believers to “provide for themselves and others rather than seek to live off the largess of wealthy patrons.”
[4] Cf. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB IX:432.
[5] Paul is apparently alluding to Psalm 4:4 “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.”
[6] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 61, where he recognizes that “be angry but do not sin” is potentially confusing; he says that the point is we may get angry at times, but that anger “should not become an obsession” but rather should be dealt with in a healthy way.
[7] Cf. especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-189, where he calls attention to several ways the new life changes our connections with one another 1) from an economic system that is built on “lethal tendencies” inherent in the exploitation of nature and humanity to one that exists in harmony with nature as God’s creation and makes it possible for all people to share in the wealth created by their labor; 2) from a political system that is built on the inequity of holding and exercising power over others to one that recognizes the “uninfringable dignity” of every person and upholds the “equal rights of all” without exception; 3) from a social system that is based on privilege in which self-justification by any and all means becomes a compulsion to suppress those who are “other” to one that is based on self-acceptance based on God’s acceptance of us all through Christ and therefore becomes a liberating recognition of all who are “other” as fellow human beings.
[8] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 55-56: “Christian ethics begins with the resurrection of Christ, and imperatives (do this, don’t do that) are grounded in the indicatives of what God in Christ has done for the world and is doing by sending his Spirit into the human scene.” He adds (p. 59) that the call is to “become in reality what in your baptism you professed to be.”
[9]Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 146, where he argues that “God’s will” for humankind is for our total “well-being”: “God’s will is a helpful, healing, liberating, saving will. God wills life, joy, freedom, peace, salvation, the final, great happiness of man: both of the individual and of mankind as a whole.”
[10] Cf. Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:431: “Relations with others are central to the concrete examples of the new Christian way of life. False speech, anger, theft, bitterness, slander, and the like destroy relationships among human beings.”

Monday, August 17, 2015

Beyond Imagination

Beyond Imagination
Ephesians 3:14-21[1]
Another of the challenges I think we face as a people is a lack of imagination. It seems to me that we tend to turn the task of “imagining” over to someone else. The Lego set I bought as a present to take to my granddaughter Helen is a Duplo Forest Fishing trip set, complete with a car, a boat, and three animal friends! It’s very different from the Legos I played with. Anything we wanted to create we had to do with our own imagination. But these days imagination seems a rare quality. Our young people spend their time playing video games, while we who have been around the block a few times watch TV. But we’re all doing the same thing—entertaining ourselves with someone else’s imagination portrayed electronically.
I’ve also run into a surprising lack of imagination in the church. Some people who talk about God seem to think they have it all down. It would seem that they know God so completely they can speak with total confidence about any aspect of the God’s character or actions. I find it truly baffling that any finite human being could think that they would have the capacity to comprehend the infinite so completely. And yet, the fact is that the throughout the ages there have been plenty of people who have made that assumption. I think it reflects a serious lack of imagination, to say the least. Surely the God who says “my ways are not your ways” is so far beyond us that we have to use as much imagination as possible in trying to comprehend him and his ways.
In our lesson from Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of this dimension of God’s character. In the previous verses he has elaborated on the “mystery of Christ” that “the Gentiles have become … sharers in the promise of Christ,” a “mystery hidden for ages” that he has now “carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:4-11).  With reference to this mysterious plan, in our lesson for today, Paul praises God as the one who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). As is often true, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”
In Paul’s mind, the work of God in redeeming all humankind and all creation is a great mystery that nobody could possibly have anticipated. In that day and time gods were either the patrons of one people—and only one people—or they did as they pleased and viewed humanity as lower than slaves, to be toyed with on a whim. Into this world the Apostle proclaimed a God who humbled himself and became human in order to reclaim and redeem all humankind (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).[2] And St. Paul reminds us here and elsewhere that this plan for the salvation of all humankind and all creation is so mind-blowing that no one could ever imagine it. It remains as it always has been: a mystery.[3]
But we who turn to religion don’t typically do so to be stumped. We come for answers. Answers that are clear-cut, with no ambiguity or need for imagination. We prefer our God in a box. We want a God we can predict and control.[4] In our quest for certainty about God I’m afraid some of the philosophers have been right: we’ve simply created a God in our own image, or at least a God according to our designs. But the God of the Holy Scriptures bursts all the bounds of any box we try to use to tame him and use him for our purposes.
That was why the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth believed that “religion,” all religion, and Christian faith are mutually contradictory. For Barth, religion is by definition a human effort to make God smaller than he is.[5] It’s a way for us to take what is beyond us and classify it according to our own minds. He was definitely addressing the religion of his day, but I’m not sure we’ve changed all that much in a hundred years. On the other hand, Barth insisted that any faith that is genuinely Christian must be framed in terms of the one who is infinitely beyond our ability to “ask or imagine.”[6] And since his ways are not our ways, we must expect that we will only be able to touch the hem of the garment when it comes to what God is up to in our world.
Some of us may not like this. It can be unsettling to come face to face with this aspect of God’s nature. At one point in another discussion of God’s saving work, Paul expresses his wonder by saying, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). St. Paul repeatedly emphasizes that what God is doing in this world is a mystery that nobody would have been able to guess. Nor would we believe it if it weren’t so boldly proclaimed in Scripture. God’s amazing plan for the salvation of all humankind and all creation is far more than we “could ever imagine or guess or request in our wildest dreams.”[7]
For that reason we might be tempted to think it’s all too good to be true. But our lesson for today reminds us that when we bump up against the boundaries of what we can understand, we must remember that God is the one whose ways are so far beyond us that we can never fully comprehend him. I think that means we have to use as much imagination as possible in trying to grasp the “the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of his loving purpose for us all. We have to remember that our faith is in the God whose wondrous plans always have been and always will be far beyond our imagination.

[1] © Alan Brehm 2015. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/26/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version is available at
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:417, where she reminds us that the early Christians did not have magnificent temples or cathedrals to reinforce their faith in God; in fact, it was the “pagans” who had the impressive places of worship!  She says, “It must have required extraordinary inner confidence to remain a faithful Christian with no external signs of the truth of our faith.”
[3] Cf. Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 45 (July, 1991): 286: “The paradox held in solution in Paul's prayer is that the one who is rooted and grounded in love, who ‘knows’ the breadth and length and height and depth of that love, knows God's love cannot be contained by human knowing. The dimensions of God’s love are without limit and so defy any limits created by human claims to know.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:784; and A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 213.
[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 12, where he observes that we want our faith “manageable, cut to size and proportioned to our knowledge, so that we know what to do in the present situation and what to expect in the future.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (1933), 236: “So long as religious … activities fail to draw attention to that which lies beyond them, and so long as they attempt their own self-justification, …, they are assuredly mere illusion.” Cf. also 125, 136-37, 184-86, 236, 242, 252, 266, 413-14. Cf. also ibid., 212, where he insists that “Finitum non capax infiniti” (The finite is unable to grasp the infinite), or as Barth himself puts it (p. 494), “the impossible possibility of God—which lies beyond all human possibility.” He does not spare the Church in this regard. Cf. ibid., 332: “the Church, which is situated on this side of the abyss which separates men from God, is the place where the eternity of revelation is transformed into a temporal, concrete, directly visible thing in this world. … To a greater or lesser extent, the Church is a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, … .” See further ibid., 332-339, 366-69. He concludes (p. 413), “the whole relationship between God and man, as set forth in the Church, is a mystery.” (emphasis original)
[6] One of the major themes of Barth’s commentary on Romans is the experience of the gospel as an “impossible possibility.” He says (Romans, 231), “Grace is the impossibility which is possible only in God.” Cf. also ibid., 92, 97-99, 105, 121, 200, 211, 216, 282, 364, 381, et passim.
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 31, where he says that when we truly encounter God, “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Eliminating Hostility

Eliminating Hostility
Ephesians 2:11-18[1]
I’ve spoken before about the concerns I have about the hostility that divides our culture. We’ve seen a little of that over the last few weeks as our nation debates the legacy of oppression and the continued use of a particular flag as a symbol. We’ve seen it in the disagreements over sexual ethics and the morality and legality of marriage. We’ve seen it in the continuing dispute about immigration policy. But these are just the latest expressions of our polarization as a people.[2] When we cannot even discuss the issues that face us without resorting to insults, rage, and even sometimes physical violence, the level of hostility in our society is out of control in my opinion.
As I’ve said before, the really sad part of this is that people who profess to follow Jesus Christ participate in this public brawl. In fact, there are some who claim that God is on their side and feel entirely justified in using hateful words and actions against those with whom they disagree—or worse! I realize that we are all human and our feelings on a matter can get the best of us at times, but I must say I continue to be stunned by the way in which otherwise good and kind Christian people can get riled up at each other. In my opinion, when we let that happen, we are choosing our need to be right over our commitment to Christ and to one another in the Body of Christ.
But the truth is that the community of faith has always faced issues that have been divisive and have even provoke volatile reactions. The world that St. Paul inhabited was just as torn by disunity, strife, and hostility as ours—perhaps more so.  Most if not all the churches of his day were living with the tension between Jewish and Greek and Roman members. If those terms don’t mean much to us today, let me say that they didn’t mix well.[3] 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.  Many Jewish people hated and despised Gentiles as “dogs.”  Nor was that kind of thinking limited to the Jewish people.  From the Greek perspective, everyone was either a cultured Greek or a crude barbarian.  And the Romans seemed to think that everyone who wasn’t a Roman was savage and uncivilized. It’s the kind of either/or, all or nothing mindset that says that you’re either one of us, or you’re our enemy.
Into that world, the Apostle Paul proclaimed a message that must have seemed like wishful thinking. He proclaimed the good news that in Christ God has eliminated all the hostilities that divide the human family. In our lesson for today, he approaches the issue from a Jewish perspective.[4] He alludes to the fact that, while Gentiles were permitted to enter the outer courts of the Temple, they were forbidden to go into the inner courts where the Jewish people worshipped.[5] There was literally a “wall” that divided the two groups at the Temple in Jerusalem. But Paul says that through his death and resurrection, Christ “has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:14). Despite all the differences and divisions, all the hatreds and hostilities that existed in his world, St. Paul believed that Christ had torn down all the walls that separate the human family.
He went further than that. In his mind, Christ not only “put to death” the hostility that exists between different groups of humanity (Eph. 2:16). He went beyond that and created “one new humanity” by reconciling us all to God. And so the Apostle says that in his death and resurrection, Jesus the Christ has “made peace” for the human family. Indeed, Paul can say, “he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). Again, in a world that knew precious little peace, St. Paul had the boldness to envision the peace that Christ made for us all, transforming all humanity into one family, united in faith and hope and love. He viewed Jesus’ death as an act of peace overcoming the hostility that infects the human race.  He believed that the peace inaugurated by Jesus Christ could heal the divisions of his world.[6]
I guess the question that faces us in our divided world is whether we believe that Jesus is our peace. We must decide whether we are willing to follow the example of the Apostle Paul in viewing Christ’s death and resurrection as an event that eliminates any reason for continuing to cherish hostility toward other human beings. We have to figure out for ourselves whether we believe that Christ has indeed torn down all the walls that separate the human family. We have to make up our minds as to whether we think that the peace inaugurated by Jesus Christ can heal the divisions of our world.[7]
It’s not an easy question. The hostility that divides our world is deeply entrenched in some cases.[8] Some parts of this human family that St. Paul says Christ has reconciled into one have been at war with each other for centuries. Can we really muster the faith in this day and age to believe that what Jesus Christ did so very long ago can actually make a difference in the hostility that infects us all? I think that’s for each of us to decide. But what is undeniable is that the Scriptures declare that what Christ has done is powerful enough and far-reaching enough to make peace for the whole human family. And we in the church have been entrusted with a special role as God’s agents of peace. We’re called to demonstrate that the peace Christ has made is more powerful than all the hatreds that divide us.[9] We’re called to serve in community with one another in a way that shows what that peace looks like in everyday life. As we do so, bear witness to the day when all hostility will finally be eliminated by our Savior and Lord.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/19/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. PBS Newshour, “Pew study finds more polarized Americans increasingly resistant to political compromise,” 12 June 2014; accessed at . One surprising finding is that technology has actually contributed toward our tendency to related only to “people like us.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 120, where he contrasts the Greek concept of friendship, which was based on “the equality of the partners” and was therefore exclusive in nature with Jesus’ friendship which included even the unrighteous and the despised. He says, “Jesus breaks through this closed circle of friendship.” Therefore (p. 121), “Christians must show the friendship of Jesus in openness for others.”
[4] Although I speak of “Paul” as the author of Ephesians, the actual composition of Ephesians was likely more complicated. For example, A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 128–129, points out that many believe an original hymn lies behind the affirmations of reconciliation here and in Colossians 1:15-20. In fact they think that the hymn original spoke of Christ’s death reconciling “the two” referring to the two parts of the cosmos: heaven and earth. This might make some sense in light of an observation Jürgen Moltmann makes in The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, 282–284 regarding evidence that “cosmic forces” were worshipped in that part of Asia Minor. He says, “Because the worship of cosmic forces was a part of their environment, the Christian congregations in Ephesus and Colossae had apparently found themselves faced with the question about the scope of Christ’s lordship. The Christian answer was that since Christ is the mediator in the creation of these powers, he is also their redeemer, and therefore their true Lord (Eph. 1:21; Col. 2:10).”
[5] J. R. Wagner, “Piety, Jewish” Dictionary of New Testament Background (C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, Ed.), 799: Gentiles could and did bring gifts and sacrifices to the temple (Josephus Against Apion 2.5 §48; Jewish War 2.17.3 §§412–14; 5.13.6 §§562–63), though they were prevented from moving beyond the outer court by a barrier carrying a strict warning that to proceed further would result in a death sentence (Josephus Antiquities 15.11.5 §417; Philo Legatio ad Gaium 31 §212; cf. Acts 21:27–29).
[6] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 32: “The apostle’s teaching holds out the hope and prospect of a reconciled, unified, and amicable society, whose microcosm is seen in the church’s worldwide, transnational, and reconciling family.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 238-39: “In the depths of the paralysing and often deadly conflicts between the peoples, this divine peace already reigns. In the divine depths of the universe, everything is already reconciled. The person who perceives this views his enemies as ‘already reconciled’ and will try to turn the conflict into just community with them.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 128, where he quotes the 1981 Declaration of Peace by the Society of Protestant Theology: “There are no dimensions of our life in which we cannot be certain of the peace of God. There are no conflicts of our life, neither personal nor political, which are not embraced by God’s will for peace with human beings and his whole creation. There are no enemies, neither personal nor political, for whom God’s will for peace does not apply.”
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 186-87, where he suggests that in part the inability to be open and vulnerable to other stems from the compulsion to justify one’s being out of a fundamental insecurity. He contrasts that with the Christian faith in justification by God, which frees us from the burden of self-justification, and grants us the freedom (p. 188) “to recognize the other person in his human dignity and his human rights” and (p. 189) to recognize “the other in his otherness. In this way, the church is to be (p. 188) “a fellowship of the justified who no longer have to justify themselves” and are therefore free from all that divides us from each other.
[9] Cf. Confession of 1967, 9.21-26: “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. We are entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and share his labor of healing the enmities which separate us from God and from each other.” Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 109, where he says that a “truly compassionate heart” is “as heart that remains open to all people at all times.”