Sunday, July 23, 2006

He is our peace

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Homily on Ephesians 2:11-22

Sally was a new resident at the home for the mentally ill. Every Thursday night, the residents gathered in the great hall for a group therapy session with visiting family and friends. The facilitator was also new to the institution, so he planned a group discussion to help him get to know the residents better. He began with a question: “Why are we all here?” After a few moments of silence, Sally raised her hand and said, “Is it because we’re not all there?”

It is said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. For those who do—it always essentially comes down to the division between us and them. Are you one of us? Or are you one of them? But that ends up sounding a little bit hostile, doesn’t it? Of course you know it would be easier for us to get along,
if you weren’t one of them? It’s divisive by nature. Even as I’m using these generic terms, all around the room, our minds can’t help but start filling in the blanks, trying to identify “us” and “them.”

Of course this has no application for us today (he said with tongue in cheek). I think one of the most discouraging thing about problems in the Church today, is that all the innovations we are facing together are by nature so divisive—it automatically forces everyone to think and talk in terms of “us” and “them.” It tears us apart. It distresses our faith. We know that this is a reality of our world, and yet we still long for the unity and harmony that only God can give us.

When we seek Hezbolla launching hundreds of missiles into Nazareth, destroying the pleasant mental image we have of Jesus’ home town, we can see so clearly the need for peace in our day. So many people around the world are searching for peace. It’s obvious that our world needs peace. And yet it stays just out of reach.

In our epistle reading today, St Paul wants to remind the Ephesians of their past. He knows that if the gentiles forget who they were—ignorant pagans—they will soon presume that God owes them something and decide to live under their own merit rather than under God’s grace. Salvation, the Apostle insists, came to the gentiles by grace through faith, not through human works, but as a gift from God. We cannot boast of anything but God’s mercy. His warning is: Do Not Forget the Graciousness of God.

To keep them from forgetting the writer calls on the Ephesians to remember. Remember that there was a time when the “circumcised” derided you, calling you the “uncircumcised” and boasting of their privileged place in God's plan. Remember that you were without Christ and were strangers to the covenant, lacking hope and apart from God.

Yet Jesus brought you from afar into the very presence of God through his blood. He did not just make peace between you and God; Jesus is the peace between you and God. In creating his Church—the mystical Body of Christ, he tore down the wall of separation and made one people of Jew and gentile.

Remember that you could not enter the temple, the holy place. You could only go as far as the court of the genitles before the Temple guards would stop you in your tracks. There was a barrier between you and Israel even in God’s house. Now through Jesus, both have been granted access to the Father. You are no longer aliens, but you are citizens with equal standing and equally valued members of God’s household.

There is an intimate connection between Christ’s death and this new peace. Christ’s death and resurrection and the creation of his Church reorients us. It points us to the truth that the hostile division is not between us and them, it is between us and him—between human beings and God.

The root cause of all hostility is the pride of man—the innovation of human sin. Pride is what led to man’s first act of disobedience in the peaceful garden. Adam and Eve said, “We don’t want to do what God says. Who is God to tell us what to do? It's about us, not about him. We will do what we want to do. It's not about what he wants, it's about what we want. We know better, and we won't be fooled any longer.”

That’s pride, which is inherently hostile, for humility is what nurtures relationships, especially when it comes to our relationship to God. Human pride led to the sinful hostility between man and God. The same is true with our relationships with one another.

St Paul writes that "he himself"—Jesus Christ—is our peace. “He is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” That is, Jesus completely fulfilled God’s will where we could notand would not do so.

St Paul continues, “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Our pride should melt away when we behold the cross and consider what it cost to bring us together. Our peace comes through bringing us all to kneel before the same Lord, to share in the same grace and the same salvation. But that peace has a very high price—the precious Blood of Jesus.

Yet he willingly and joyfully surrendered his life so that we could be brought together as one. Will we now show disregard for what Christ has done by not loving our fellow Christians for whom Christ also suffered and died? Even more, we should follow his revealed will in our Lord’s command to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

I love the hymn by Isaac Watts: "When I survey the wondrous cross, / On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, / And pour contempt on all my pride." This passage from Ephesians must be recalled time and time again. Remember that at one time, you were hopless, cut off, excluded. Remember that your sins had shut you out of heaven. Appreciate again what Christ the Savior has done for you. His blood has opened wide heaven’s door.

You who were once stopped outside the Temple, now you are God’s Temple. The proclamations of many churches would lead you to think that the gentiles have always had equal access to God. The truth of our past drives us to amnesia because we want to forget that there was a time when we did not belong. But let’s not jump too quickly back into our acceptance in Christ. Let us linger in the court of the gentiles a little longer. Let us stay out here for a while—alienated, locked out, cast away. Let us be reminded, lest we forget, lest we boast.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram once reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, were accused of deliberately setting more than forty destructive fires. When caught, they stated, “We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging.” Of course, the job of firefighters is to put out fires, not start them. The job of Christians is to help resolve conflict, not to start more of it. The work of the Church is to transform the culture, not to copy it. The ministry of God’s people is to witness to his will, not to circumvent and betray it.

Are we sharing in Christ’s work of being our peace with God? Are we sharing in his labor of smashing walls of hostility and of healing wounds of pride with outpourings of humility? Are we the Church of the living God, the Temple of the most High, children of our heavenly Father, the mystical Body of Christ? Are we indeed all these things? Or are we not?

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