Sermon - 9 Pentecost

In the Name...

 

There’s a story told from Poland, set many years ago.  It seems there was a small country village and into this village moved a quiet old man.  Nobody knew much about him, but everybody knew he was friendly and helpful.  If someone needed help with the harvest, he was there.  If someone needed a little extra money, he was there.  One thing, though.  He never went to church.  The village priest visited with him and it turned out this man was an atheist.  Well, in the fullness of time, the old man passed away.  He had no family, so the villagers asked the priest to conduct a funeral and bury him in the churchyard.  “A funeral I can do”, replied the priest, “But, it is not permitted to bury him in the churchyard.”  The villagers pled, but the priest was adamant.  The rules were clear.  No atheist could be buried in hallowed ground.

 

The day of the funeral came and the entire village, from the smallest child to the most venerable matriarch, turned out to pay their respects.  A grave had been dug just outside the churchyard fence and there the ceremony was conducted and the old man’s coffin laid to rest.  When the service was over, the priest then addressed the gathered mourners with these words, “My friends, for some time now I have been concerned that our village is growing and the churchyard is not large enough.  Will some of you help me move the fence past where we now stand and make a little more room?”  And so, as everybody responded to the call, the old man was included with the village in death as he had been in life.

 

Our lesson from Ephesians, this morning, addressed the issue of fences and walls - in the case of Ephesus, the walls that were starting to appear between Gentile and Jewish Christians.  We sometimes forget that the Church started as what we might call a Jewish denomination.  The leadership was Jewish; the founding members were Jewish; in fact, people who have studied these things estimate that almost half of the world Jewish population in the 1st Century joined this new denomination. 

 

It was quite a struggle, then, for the founding members to see their denomination being taken over by outsiders.  Of course, there had always been Gentiles who were interested in Judaism.  Traditional pagan religion was all about ceremony and magic - not personal improvement or spirituality.  Those concepts didn't exist.  What we call today a "secular" lifestyle was all there was.  Except for the Jews.  They were the only people of the Ancient World with what we would recognize as a religion - a personal God, a moral code, a spiritual meaning for life, a world view.  And those qualities were attractive to some non-Jews who were dissatisfied with the emptiness of their own traditions.

 

Of course, the only way to be part of the Jewish covenant was to be born a Jew, so what we call "conversion" was impossible.  Nevertheless, Gentiles, as long as they were circumcised and kept a kosher diet, could attend synagogue as "proselytes" or "God-fearers", as they were called.  Sort of an affiliate status.  No real threat.

 

The new teaching of Paul, however, was that both Jew and Gentile could become fully fledged Christians which meant that there was no limit on Gentile membership and, worse, they were as eligible as any Jew to become leaders.  Well, it was a struggle to give up control and we see in the Book of Acts and the various letters of the New Testament that, at times, the struggle could almost come to blows.

 

It is a very human tendency to divide the world into "them" and "us".  For decades in America, we spoke of "The West" and "The East" and made the contrast between democratic freedom and communist repression.  Yet, it is one of the ironies of history that the year in which the Berlin Wall came tumbling down was the same year that construction began on the first border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

 

Fences and walls are everywhere we look.  Consider our everyday language.  How often we innocently and without reflection use terms like "those people."  Sometimes, "those people" are from another country, with accents, different customs of religion and food, and different ways of being family.  But, more often they don't come from another land.  They just live in a different part of town or attend other churches - or no church at all.

 

Maybe "they" belong to certain clubs, or drive certain vehicles, or eat at a certain restaurant.  The walls take many forms.

 

"But, now," St. Paul says, "in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace."

 

And this is the heart of the Gospel.  That the greatest fence of all, the highest wall, the one separating God and Man, the seen from the unseen - this has now been torn down, or rather, washed away for as St. Paul reminds us, it is the blood of Christ which gives life to this one new humanity.  Just as blood sacrifice in the Temple reconciled the Jewish community in covenant to God, so the Blood of Christ on the Cross has reconciled us to each other and to God, making of us one spiritual house wherein God may dwell.

 

We are all in need of the reconciliation spoken of by Paul in today's epistle. We are all in need of a fresh look at just who we are in the eyes of God, and where we fit in the family of God.  As the villagers expanded the fence which enclosed hallowed ground to include the grave of the man whom they loved - so God, through Christ Jesus, expands the boundaries of the sacred to include those whom the ways and attitudes of this world would exclude.

 

The poet Robert Frost once wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."  Something?  How about someone?  Someone named Jesus.

 

In the Name...

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