Ephesians 2:11-22: Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So begins Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall. The poet describes an imaginary conversation with someone who famously says “good fences make good neighbors.” The other side of the imaginary conversation is the poet’s mischievous desire to take down walls and fences. I can relate.
Taking down walls would have been considered mischievous indeed in first-century Asia minor, where a tiny Christian community in the coastal city of Ephesus would have gathered in secret to hear the reading of a pastoral letter written by a follower of the Apostle Paul. This community would have been wandering in a veritable maze of walls and fences common to first-century Christians. I’m talking about the walls inherent in questions like: what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus if you are not Jewish? What does it mean to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, rather than the Roman gods worshipped by the ruling political powers? Who is in, and who is out?
To put it another way, they were asking the question we ask ourselves from time to time: what does it mean to be church? All of today’s readings are about what it means to be church, although none of them actually use the word. Think: household of God. Think: called out. That’s what the Greek word, “ekklesia” (as in, ecclesiastical) means: called out, gathered apart. That’s what we are.
The story from Samuel has a wonderful dialogue between the Holy One and the prophet Nathan, about David’s longing to build God a house. All this time, I’ve never lived in a house, says God. And do you hear me complaining? I’m not about a building, I’m about a different kind of house. I’m about the household of David, from generation to generation. I can do this from anywhere.
The psalm expands on this relationship that God has with David, a relationship that, from God’s point of view, has nothing to do with David building a temple for God. And, if you know the rest of the story, you know that David never quite does get around to building the temple; he’s too busy fighting wars and cleaning up his personal life. (We’ll hear about that next week.) The story of David tells us that kingdom is not about place, but about relationship.
In this morning’s Gospel, being church, being the household of God, means teaching and healing, living into the expansive ministry to which each one of us is called, to which we commit whenever we reaffirm our baptismal promises. We are called out—ekklesia’d—to be a people of hope and reconciliation for sheep without a shepherd. The gospel reminds us that hope and reconciliation happens in simple acts of compassion, acts of touch.
It is today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians that spells out most beautifully what it means to be the household of God:
In Christ the whole household of God is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
We are called to be a dwelling place for God. I love this. Don’t you love this??
What kind of community is a dwelling place for God? For one thing, it is a community that has Christ as its cornerstone, a community in which Christ the cornerstone is peace. The little Christian community at Ephesus lived in a time and place where warfare, military might and conflict for the sake of power politics and economic prosperity were the law of the land. It was a time and place where dividing walls were the way the existing social and political order exercised its power. A letter about the peace of Christ would have given them pause, as it should give us pause.
What are the dividing walls between us? What are the conflicts that we take for granted? The author of the letter to the Ephesians talked about divisions and hostilities of his own day: between Jews and Gentiles, between those who are far off and those who are near. If someone wrote to the 21st-century church in Portland, what divisions would he or she point to? Conservative vs. liberal. Traditional vs. progressive. Rich and poor. East side or west side. Stumptown or Folgers. And my very favorite: Spiritual vs. religious.
The peace of Christ—pax Christi—does not mean that we need to break down the dividing walls between all these groups, but rather that peace has already been made. The cross holds all of the divisions between us. In Christ, differences no longer have the same meaning they once did, just as death no longer holds the same meaning it did before the resurrection. Where the vertical and horizontal pieces of the cross meet, there are all of the differences and disagreements that might divide us—the cross says they no longer divide us. Living at peace with our divisions and differences means living as a dwelling place for God.
Now, just a little sidebar for anyone new to our community: you might be wondering whether the subtext of this sermon is a bunch of conflict under the surface here at St. David’s. Unless there’s something I don’t know about, I think we actually get along fairly well, in part because we’re a community that connects across differences between us.
In the words to the Ephesians, the cross says to all of us:
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
When we exchange the peace, as we do in every single service of Holy Eucharist, this is what we are saying to one another. You are no longer strangers and aliens, you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. When we exchange the peace with one another we affirm this peace of Christ, the reconciling for all time that is the cross of Christ.
This is why some leaders of worshipping communities—not me, never!—sometimes get a wee bit cranky when the peace turns into a social time, a liturgical seventh-inning stretch. Rather, this peace that we exchange affirms Christ as the foundation of our household. When we exchange these simple words—the Peace of the Lord be with you; and also with you—we are built together into a dwelling place for God.
When we share Christ’s peace, we remember that each one of us has been at some time, an alien or a stranger, and that we are strangers no longer. This is good news indeed, good news worthy of the holy feast we’ll share around this table, when we have once again proclaimed the peace of Christ. Let us celebrate.