Our walk through Ephesians continued this week in the second chapter with a passage that focused on peace and reconciliation across deep divides. Audio below and text after the jump.
The through line of this passage is peace. Deep, overflowing peace.
Given the state of our world right now, that sounds like a pipe dream, doesn’t it?
I don’t know if Paul has a prescription for world peace here. He might. I do think he has some insight about what makes for peace in our everyday real lives. And that’s worth something. If your life feels scattered and disjointed, if there are people with whom you just can’t get along, if there are long simmering conflicts, let’s bring all of that to this text today.
Paul starts, as always, with grace. We’ll come back to that. For now, just note: it’s the foundation for everything else.
Then Paul says, do you remember when you were separated from Christ? When you had no hope and were without God?
For some of us, that may describe how we felt when we woke up this morning. Some of us may not be having a morning quite that rough, but I am sure you know how this feels. None of us gets through life without some alienation and hopelessness.
It may be counter-intuitive, but this is where life with God almost always starts in the Bible. In the Old Testament the classic story is of the Israelites being brought out of slavery, through the wilderness, in order to get to the promised land. They began in bondage and languished in wilderness. That’s their story.
What that means is when we feel hopeless, alienated, cut off, it is not something to be ashamed of. It means our lives are ripe for God to be at work.
Paul tells us that when we feel farthest from God, that is the time when Christ comes and gathers us in, and brings us near again.
How does Christ bring us near? Paul uses this great metaphor of Christ breaking down a dividing wall. Whatever it is that separates us from each other, whatever it is that separates us from God, Christ can and will dismantle that.
For the Gentile Ephesians, one wall they all shared was the wall of Jewish custom and practice—spiritual practices like circumcision and keeping kosher were and still are for Jews life-giving reminders of God’s covenant faithfulness. But for the Ephesians they were stumbling blocks. They weren’t doors to new life. They were ethnic and cultural barriers.
Paul, and several of other early followers of Jesus, almost all of whom were Jewish, began to believe that what had happened in Jesus was for the whole world. And before their very eyes they watched these dividing walls of religious practice and cultural difference crumble.
There might be some walls that we long to see come tumbling down. The walls and ideological fences that fracture and divide the church—all of our wrangling about you don’t believe the right thing or the right way and so you’re out—could those walls come tumbling down? Or what about the walls that keep us in our little bubbles, living and worshipping and working with people are the same age, or social class, or race? Could those walls come tumbling down? How about the walls in our own hearts? The walls that keep us from loving others, or being fully loved? Could those walls come tumbling down?
Paul thinks so. He sees a world in which Christ has announced peace to both those who are far, far away, and those who are near. He thinks that Christ declares peace on both sides—peace on the right and the left, peace among the liberals and the conservatives, peace to both our inner demons and our better angels. This peace has the power to knit us back together, reconciling us not only to each other but also to God.
This is why we pass the peace each week. It’s not just because it’s fun for the extroverts to get up and hug everybody.
We pass the peace because it’s a way to learn in our hands and feet and bodies what it feels like for God’s peace to flow through us to our neighbors. It’s a way for us to practice announcing Christ’s peace to our neighbors, so that we can go out and do that everywhere.
And it’s no accident that the passing of the peace comes right after the prayer of confession. In our prayer of confession we don’t just list off mistakes and misdeeds. We take stock of how far away from God we are or have been. We start right where Paul started, by remembering how it feels to be far from God.
And then in the words of forgiveness we hear the insane good news that no matter how far we’ve wandered, no matter what strange land we find ourselves in, Christ comes to us and says you are no longer strangers, but members of the family of God. And after we sing out our joy at that news, we turn to our neighbors and share that peace.
That’s what we’re doing in worship, and that’s what Paul’s getting at here. The peace of Christ breaks down whatever it is that keeps us from each other and from God, and brings us back into relationship with one another and with the holy center of life.
It’s a lot to be going on in a handshake. It is one small way to witness to and practice this peace that is essential to the new life we have with Jesus. That’s what this is all about—living a new life.
Paul describes that new life a couple of ways: the household of God, and as a temple where God dwells. The idea is that when Christ steps in and starts knocking down walls, it’s not just for the purpose of demolition, but renovation. We who were once far off, defined by our dividing walls, are having those walls knocked down and our lives remodeled.
That’s what this whole church thing is all about. That’s our word for today about what it is to be church. We’re people who once were far off, but now have been brought near. We’re people who have known dividing walls, and who have seen them crumble. We’re people who still have dividing walls, and long for those too to fall. We’re people who are being re-created, re-formed, re-made into a new body, a new household, a new temple where God can dwell. We’re people of peace.
Which, of course, doesn’t mean we’re always peaceful—we still fall short and we still wake up and find ourselves living in that far away place of alienation. But something about Christ’s peace has caught our eye, and we’re learning, practicing, bit by bit, what it is to accept Christ’s work within and among us.
Notice, though, that this is not our own doing. If it sounded like way too big of a task for us—you’re right. We can’t break down all the walls ourselves. When we go swinging crow bars around, we’re liable to break stuff. All this peace is not our own doing. Jesus does this in us and for us. This is what that grace stuff is all about. Our call is to lean into that grace, lean on that grace, make our home there, and let it re-shape us.
It’s as if God’s love is an ocean. It’s not wise to go flailing around wildly, trying desperately to hold ourselves up in that water. Instead, it’s when we let go, spread our arms wide, and lean back, that we at last come to rest on the grace of God. And we may wonder, how can the water hold us, but when we trust it, it turns out to be gracious plenty.
This grace business is the foundation for all the rest. We can’t bring ourselves out of those places of alienation, despair, and God-forsakenness. We, who are so defined by our dividing walls, can’t make peace for ourselves.
All we can do is take part in the peace that Christ makes. All we can do is open our eyes and see the work Christ is doing all around us and even inside of us. All we can do is lean back on those waves, and let them carry us.
We are, as Paul tells us, God’s creation, God’s work of art. We are saved, we are made whole, we are given peace, by God’s grace—not by any work of our own, not by anything we do for ourselves, but by God’s good grace.
It is God’s grace in Christ working in our lives through the Holy Spirit that brings us out of places of alienation. It is God’s grace that breaks down dividing walls. It is God’s grace that proclaims peace, and brings us near, and re-creates us into a temple where God will dwell. It is God’s grace that ultimately enables us to confess I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
Our task, our mission, our sole call in life, is to accept that grace, to taste and see that God is good, to trust that the water will hold us, to lean back, trusting ever more in the grace we’ve found in Christ.by Sarah W. Wiles August 12, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA