17 May Church:Christ’s Peace in the Broken Wall
Church: Christ’s Peace in the Broken Wall
May 13, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
So far in Ephesians, Paul’s message about growing up in Christ breaks in on us in a dazzling exposition of what is going on in this world in which we live. That is followed by a surprising redefinition of how we who live in this world under-stand ourselves. What is going on is this: God is continuously acting within our lives and our world in ways that are glorious. And what we understand is this: every part of our lives is affected by these glorious actions of God.
Paul is point-blank refuting the idea that God is some far-away deity, off doing something big in the universe, remote from who we are and what we think of ourselves. No; God is present and active in us, not just in the religious part of our lives but in every part. Paul hammers the point home because unless we understand it, we will never be able to see ourselves as the saints we really are, as the saints God has made us and declared us to be.
Paul seems to sense that it is a difficult task for us to move past what our parents, siblings, teachers and coaches, friends and colleagues tell us about the world and ourselves to believe what God reveals about us, so Paul clears the path for us by guiding us through the thorny brambles of individualism.
Individualism is the wisdom-stunting, maturity-inhibiting habit of seeing growth as an isolated self-help project. The individualist is convinced that he can serve God without actually dealing with God. This is the person who is sure she can love her neighbors without knowing their names; who assumes that “getting ahead” involves leaving other people behind; who uses their knowledge—of people or the world or God—to try to control people, the world, or God.
For Christians who want to grow up in Christ, the remedy for individualism is the church. That doesn’t mean that when we pass through the sanctuary doors, we cease to be individuals. Once inside, we still maintain our integrity as men and women who have responsibility for our intentions and the use of our free will. But, church is where we cultivate a submission to the care and authority of God.
As long as individualism has free rein in our lives, we will not be capable of embracing church, and indeed, that is precisely what we see happening in our society where so many people now identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Such individualism severely handicaps us in growing up to the full stature of Christ. If left unchecked it can be fatal, condemning us to a lifelong immaturity.
What most people see and think of when they think of church is a building, maybe one we see in our neighborhood or pass along the street. It usually, but not always, looks like a church, but there is no mistaking it, because there is a sign that identifies it as “church.”
For some of us, church conjures up an image of the place our parents took us when we were young. Others of us found our way inside the doors later in life, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes at the invitation of a friend, sometimes out of desperation. We go to this place most Sundays. We get to know the names of the people there; some of them become friends. We are called to worship by the pastor, we sing hymns and listen to sermons and say prayers. We receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes there is a baptism.
For other people church is a building they enter only on special occasions, like a wedding or funeral, Easter or Christmas or Mother’s Day. The only reason for being there is affection for the person married or buried or the family member who wants us to attend.
What takes place inside the church, for both insiders and outsiders, is pretty ordinary stuff involving pretty ordinary people—at least, that’s what it looks like to the naked eye. There is no training required, no skills to be mastered, just people praying and singing and listening, exchanging vows, being blessed, receiving Jesus in the bread and grape juice, celebrating marriage, honoring the dead. Millions of men, women and children do it every Sunday all over the world, and they’ve been doing it for 2000 years.
Anyone entering one of these buildings expecting entertainment or relief from a dull or boring life is not likely to come back a second time. Anyone entering hoping to see a miracle or have a vision will almost certainly leave disappointed. There is nothing out of the ordinary to see and what you do see is painfully ordinary.
But it turns out that there is more going on than it appears. The church, seemingly against all odds, is primarily the activity of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Paul delineates that divine activity with nine active verbs that tell us what is really going on in church: Jesus is our peace, he makes us one, he breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, he abolishes the law, he creates one new humanity, he makes peace, he reconciles, he puts hostility to death, and he proclaims peace.
Paul also uses five inactive verbs to describe how we are brought into the action of Christ. The verbs are passive because the action is not something that we do but something done to us that includes us in Christ’s action. We are brought near, the Spirit gives us access, we are given a foundation of faith, we are joined together, and we are built together. All of this is Paul repeating his point yet again that we acquire our identity not by what we do but by what God does for us.
This understanding of church is hard to come by, especially in the United States. Americans talk and write endlessly about what the church needs to become, what the church must do to be effective and “relevant.” The perceived failures of the church are analyzed and strategies of reform prescribed. The church is evaluated almost exclusively in terms of function—of what we see. Everything is viewed through the lens of pragmatism.
This way of thinking, of church as a human activity to be measured by human expectations, is pursued unthinkingly. The huge reality of God already at work is ignored, benched on the sideline while we call a timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed to figure out a strategy that will pull us back from the brink of death. It sends us off to pursue a shallow version of success, relevance and effectiveness that people can see. Statistics provide the basic vocabulary for keeping score. After decades of pursuing this faulty goal, we are finally waking up to the immeasurable damage this has done to the American church.
Paul is sounding the alarm to get our attention that what is missing is also what is central: church is the gift of Christ that reveals and embodies him to the world. Christ is the head of a body and that body is church. We do not create the church. We enter and participate in what is graciously given to us. That does not minimize the importance of what we do. Our obedience and disobedience, our faithfulness and unfaithfulness are part of it. But there is more—far more—to the church than us. There is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Much of what the church is is invisible. We miss the complexity and glory of church if we insist on measuring and defining it only by what we can see and judging it based on what we think it ought to be.
Paul wants us to understand church as it is, as the body of the living, resurrected Christ, and then to participate in that reality. Paul’s word of choice at this point in his letter to help us grasp the reality of being the body of Christ is “peace.” To live as Christ’s body, we must be at peace—with God, with one another, with ourselves, but it is not a peace we can gain on our own. To grow up in faith means that we grasp that Christ is our peace and Christ brokers peace by doing five things: Jesus brings us home, Jesus brings us together, Jesus breaks down hostility, Jesus re-creates us as one human family, and Jesus reconciles all of us to God. A lot of action goes into making peace, and Jesus is the action.
But here’s a conundrum: if Paul is right, why isn’t church with Christ as its head the most conspicuous place on earth where peace and peacemaking thrive? Let me suggest three reasons: first, Jesus, our peace, is a person. That means that peace is personal. Peace cannot be achieved in impersonal ways. It is not a strategy, not a program, not a political action, not an educational class. Jesus is always relational and so is peace. Peace does not come by fiat. It requires participation in the ways of peace, participation in Jesus who is our peace.
Second, Jesus respects us as persons. He does not force himself or his ways upon us. He does not impose peace, and he is not coercive. Jesus treats us with dignity. His peace is not a decree that everyone must get along without hurting or killing or despising one another. Peace is more than the absence of war or famine or anxiety. It is not accomplished by getting rid of contentious neighbors, or rebellious teenagers or by burning heretics at the stake. In other words, peace is not external to us. We are participants in peace when we live into a life of connectedness, of intimacy, of love which is why peace takes a long time and is always in process, never a finished product.
Third, the way that Jesus becomes our peace is by an act of self-sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus, the laying down of his life for us on the cross, is what makes Jesus Jesus; it is what makes peace peace; it is what makes church church. Paul uses two different phrases to say this: “by the blood of Christ” and “through the cross.”
Church is the one place in the world that holds these components together. Church is the place where God cannot be depersonalized into an idea or force. How do we know? Jesus, the “word made flesh.”
Church is the place where men and women cannot be depersonalized into abstractions like insider and outside, friends and enemies. How do we know? Our worship and our Sacraments. In baptism we are sealed in the name of the Trinity; in communion peace is inextricably identified with sacrifice in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
When you think about it, it’s not really a surprise that church is not always a conspicuously prominent place of peace. We are a collection of saints in all stages of maturity—crawling infants and squalling babies, awkward and impulsive adolescents, harassed and fatigued parents, and the men or women whose wisdom has been hard won. All of us who practice peace have a lot of maturing to do. We do not mature all at once, and so peace is constantly in the making—and also constantly at risk. Fortunately, none of us are admitted to the company of saints based on our peacemaking skills. We practice those skills alongside one another as the church where peace is understood comprehensively as Christ present and working among us. Here. And now. Thanks be to God. Amen.