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 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/pew-study-finds-polarized-americans-increasingly-resistant-political-compromise/ . 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.”

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