World Communion Sunday
October 5, 2008
Ephesians 2: 11-22
Yes, we had communion last Sunday. Yes, we are having it again this Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is an important culmination of the celebration of baptism—which we shared together last week.
And this morning, the first Sunday in October, is World Communion Sunday. This observance was begun by the Presbyterian Church in 1936 and has gradually spread to include a broad range of Christian communities both in the United States and around the world.
The National Council of Churches, USA, notes that a celebration like this—a celebration of our oneness in Christ, the Prince of Peace—has great relevance in our world today. A world where so many people are separated from each other by injustice, violence, fear.
Those “dividing walls of hostility” that Paul writes about are painfully present in many places around the world today. Hostility between Georgians and Russians. Between Sunnis and Shias. Literal walls springing up in Israel and on the US/Mexico border.
As we worship together this morning, there are many dividing walls of hostility that we would like to see destroyed. Many places in our world that desperately need the peace of Christ.
But I am drawn this morning to issues of peace a bit closer to home.
I cannot read about a “dividing wall of hostility” without thinking of the current political climate in the United States. Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, so our tax-exempt status should remain intact.
As November approaches, people are speaking out more passionately for their preferred candidates. More passionately against the candidates they oppose. People are talking more and listening less and those dividing walls just grow higher and higher. Walls between strangers, sometimes. But also walls between friends, between people who go to church together, between people who are family.
I know Paul lived and wrote about two thousand years ago, but this “dividing wall of hostility” stuff could have come straight out of this morning’s paper.
In the first century church in Ephesus, the biggest wall was the one between the Jews and the Gentiles. Or, according to the biased terminology of the day, “the uncircumcised” and “the circumcision.” (Such language, you might notice, pretty much leaves out the women altogether.) It is interesting to me that even back then people developed labels for the other; people used language as a weapon against those with whom they disagreed.
“Uncircumcised” is not a label politicians try to pin on each other these days. But you will hear terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” “Pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Maverick/ Bushie. Elitist/ “One of us.” Dove/ Hawk. Inexperienced/Washington insider.
These terms are thrown out in so many contexts that we don’t even know what they mean any more. They do not serve to clarify the debates or to help us decide who will be able to best lead this country. But these terms do a good job of building that dividing wall of hostility. Higher and higher. Thicker and thicker. And the higher the wall, the thicker the wall, the harder it is to even hear the people on the other side.
(And God help the people who try not to take sides. They may be buried in the bricks and mortar.)
I am bothered by the presence of this wall. I feel it growing even between myself and my family members and friends. I don’t like the wall. But I am not surprised by the wall. Dividing walls of hostility are common enough features on the human landscape.
When Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians, he takes for granted that the wall is there. In this case the wall between Jew and Gentile. The wall is a given. What is exciting to Paul—the good news he wants to share—is that Christ has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility
We create the walls. Christ rips them down. Drags us all beyond the walls to the throne of God—together.
So what bothers me about the walls of hostility that are popping up these days is not so much the simple fact that they exist. What bothers me is that people are trying to use Christ to build up those walls.
It is interesting to me that both Barak Obama and Sarah Palin have been criticized because of the perceived theology of pastors with which they are connected. People on the so-called right were appalled—and scared—by sound bites from Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. People on the so-called left are concerned that Pastor Thomas Muthee has prayed over Palin—for God to bless her and protect her from evil. And there are even rumors that Palin may have spoken in tongues.
The name of Jesus gets used a lot in these discussions. The idea of Christ in invoked. But where is Christ in this? Where is the one who breaks down the walls, who makes the two one? People on both sides of the wall will talk about Christ, but never stop talking about him long enough to listen to him.
People are using Christ to obscure the issues and build up the walls of hostility. But Christ came to tear down the walls. To bring peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near.
I would hope that we, as followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, could be about Christ’s work of reconciling people, of tearing down the walls of hostility. In the midst of the wall-building that is going on all around us, we need to be tearing walls down, or at least installing doors and windows.
This does not mean that we do not question someone’s theology. It does not mean that we have to be politically neutral. What does it mean? For starters, that we listen at least as much as we talk.
You all know I’m not big on biblical sound bites—on pulling random verses from the Bible and using them as “how-to” bullet points. But I’ve got a couple of verses for you this morning. And you can go home, read them in context, and see if I’m using them faithfully.
I would encourage us all to use and promote two important biblical guidelines as we engage in political discussions during the upcoming month.
First, remember to speak the truth in love. This is the advice that Paul gives to the Ephesians a little later on in the letter. (4:15) He doesn’t say, “Just tell everyone whatever they want to hear.” He doesn’t say, “Shove your ideas down their throats.” To maintain the unity of the body of Christ, we must speak the truth in love. If love for the other is behind and within all that we say, the walls will not go up.
The second guideline is a favorite of the Mennonites, from the mouth of Jesus: simply let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no” (Matthew 5:37). This rather odd saying is the reason many Mennonites will not swear oaths. And I think the implications are broader than that.
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. What if the candidates heeded that in their debates? I know, not likely. But we can heed it. We can simply be honest about what we think and why we think it. No name-calling, no rhetorical maneuvering. Let our yes be yes. Speak clearly. Speak concisely. Then listen.
It is difficult, especially when feelings run high, to speak the truth in love. It is difficult, especially when the people around us are playing rhetorical games, to just let our yes be yes and our no be no.
It is difficult, but through the power of the Spirit, by the grace of God, it is not impossible. I believe that these guidelines will help us participate in the work of Christ. The work of tearing down the dividing walls of hostility. It is hard, messy, frustrating work. But we can find hope in the promise:
“In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to God by one Spirit.” Amen.