Most of the New Testament was written by Paul. We have approximately 13 letters written or dictated by Paul, so Paul’s way of thinking and his ministry is important to understand what the New Testament tells us about faith in Christ.
One of the most important things to understand about Paul is that he is often dealing with the Jewish-Gentile conflict. That is because he lived with that conflict in his ministry. It would start with Paul’s ministerial practice when arriving in a new city. Paul would go to the town’s synagogue, first, to preach the Gospel. In time, though, Paul would be kicked out and he would take the message to the Gentiles.
This act was not simply about going to the next group in the town. It was about going to a group of people that the Jews of the time believed were unacceptable. The Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s day believed Gentiles were dirty and unacceptable, because they were not privilege enough to be born into the faith as part of God’s covenant community. Jewish leaders would encourage people not to interact with Gentiles or allow them to be part of the community, unless they went through a large and drastic effort and, only then, would they be conditionally accepted into the community. Gentiles were outsiders to the Jewish leaders.
What Paul experienced between the Jews and Gentiles plays out in a lot of his writings, especially this passage from Ephesians 2:11-22. We’re going to spend the next few weeks looking at Ephesians. It offers some practical thoughts on how we are called to be the church today. Ephesians, then, is really the sequel to Romans. Romans is Paul’s great treatise on how he understood what Jesus did on the cross. Ephesians, which was not written specifically to the church in Ephesus, describes how the new community called Christians are to live out their faith.
So, we engage these thoughts with Paul bringing us into this Jewish-Gentile dynamic. We know, now, what is going on when Paul writes about Gentiles and Jews and uses language of separation. Yet, I think we still need a contemporary way to engage this passage and to apply it to the situations we interact with. We need our own dynamic much like the one Paul faces.
There are many places we could focus on. We could look at the political dynamic of our culture today. We could even focus on our personal allegiances. Yet, if we really want to get into this dynamic and how it might impact us today we need to look at the dynamic between those who come to church on a weekly basis and those who are not in church. When we look at this passage through this dynamic, we see that the passage speaks to us a call to find commonality with the unchurched and to preach peace through actions to them.
But, what is going on in this dynamic between those in the church and those who right now are, perhaps, watching the third round of the Open Championship or out doing a lot of other things. Many of us have recognized a cultural shift has taken place over the last 10 to 20 years. In this culture shift, what we have seen is that the appeal of church and living a Christ-like life in the United States is trending lower. This shift has affected every church in the United States and in every cultural setting.
When you have a cultural shift, what ends up happening is that people get their defenses up and often retreat to comfortable positions. For many who are in the church this is a traditional response. We say, “Well, I cannot understand why someone wouldn’t want to come today,” or “I never missed when I was your age.” We build walls that are focused on the idea of setting one group (church attenders) up against another group (those not in church). By doing this, we are kind of like the Jewish leaders Paul ran up against. They established boundaries and walls in order to see themselves as better than the Gentiles.
Boundaries and walls send a message to people, especially those we want to interact with. Many people who are not in church on regular basis today have more experience with the boundaries and walls we put up than our actions of love and compassion. In their book “Unchristian,” David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons touch on this. They write that one of the reasons people do not attend church is that they feel rejected by the church and, by extension, Christ. Much how the Gentiles felt rejected by the Jewish leaders.
This is not the message we want to send to people who are not here or who have no relationship with Jesus. The message we want to send is the one Paul proclaims by saying that in Christ we have a hope and a peace that is available for all people.
Paul writes that Jesus took it upon himself to break down the boundaries and walls that we create and, in its place, establish a unity of connection through his love. This is all done through the cross. On the cross, Jesus brought about a new kind of peace into the world. It is a peace of grace. A peace that says that no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter what you could ever possibly contemplate to do that God will love and forgive you. It is a peace of reconciliation and new beginnings with God and one another.
Jesus’ work of reconciliation does the work of bringing us all together and allowing us to see that there is more that we have in common with one another than we have that makes us different. Scripture tells us, in Genesis, that God created each and every one of us. We are God’s own special design and blessings. We are loved by God. We are all people who are loved by God regardless of whatever we could do in our lives. We are all people who need God’s peace.
It is a peace that is available to all people. We often think that God’s peace is only given to those who show up on Sunday mornings. While I am thankful beyond words for all who are here every week, we have to remember that the grace of God is not just for those of us who are here. It is also for those who are not here. God’s peace is available to you, to me, to the person sitting at home believing the church has nothing for them, and to the person who is shopping right now because they have given up on the church. God’s peace is there for everyone.
That is the message Jesus preached with every word of his heart. Think about all that Jesus did throughout the Gospels. Never did Jesus say to receive his peace do you have to pass a litmus test of ideas and thoughts before being considered acceptable. The words offered to people to experience his peace were “come and see” and “follow me.” There is an invitation to participate into his peace and to learn as we go what it means to experience the forgiving and reconciling nature of God’s love.
Just as Jesus proclaimed peace through his words and, indeed, his actions so are we to be proclaimers of God’s peace, especially with those who are not here today. The way we do that is through our love. Love is the greatest expression of the peace and grace of Christ. Love that is not condemning. Love that is not judging. Love that brings people into a relationship and journey, much in the same way that Jesus invited people into a journey with him. No disciple of Jesus Christ has ever been made by condemning or judging someone. Disciples are made when we walk with someone, make friends with them, and walk together in a mutual journey of learning more about Christ.
That is what the people who are watching the Open Championship, are shopping at the stores, or just sleeping in today are looking for. In this highly-connected culture of ours, today, people are looking for love and acceptance and they will look for it wherever they can find it. Many people, who are not in church today, believe they cannot find that love and acceptance from a place many want to be at – the church – because they see the people in the church condemning them, first, before loving them. We cannot reach people who need to experience Jesus’ love if our hearts have judged them before we met them.
Since arriving to Claylick last year one of the constant themes I have heard is this: You want to grow the church, but you’re not sure how to do it. You want to see Claylick be a vibrant place that can be here for generations to come, but you’re not sure what needs to happen for that to be there. That is why we are doing the conversations we are having on Sunday evenings. Our Sunday evening conversations are focusing on our long-term vitality and future, so if you have a heart to seeing this church grow and be vibrant in years to come then make the commitment to be at these conversations and be part of the discussion.
But, let me say this if we want to grow as a church then we need to let our best asset be our best asset. We cannot grow by being just another church in a collection of a churches across our area. We can only grow by doing what God has gifted us in doing. That, I believe, is by being a place of unconditional love and acceptance. When people come to Claylick, they should feel the same love and joy that you have expressed with me and my family since we arrived. They should be made to feel like they are part of the family and part of our community. People should feel like they have a place to belong and to be part of something bigger than themselves.
If we used our greatest asset and allowed that to be the way we relate to the world, the possibilities are endless. Imagine the lives that could be changed by the fact that we seek to be a place of love and acceptance. Can you imagine what it would do to the single mother or father to know that there is a place that will love them and walk with them? Can you imagine what it would mean for the unemployed worker to know that there is a place that will love them and walk with them? Can you imagine what it would mean for the person who is told that they are not welcomed at other places to know that they are welcome here?
Lives would be changed. New hope would be proclaimed.
Let us break down the barriers that exist between us and the people who are not here, and simply begin to reach out to them by our acts of love that proclaims the great peace that came from Christ.