Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
Last Friday Lona, Ethan, Micki and I went on a college visit to Concordia College in Moorhead. It was a really great day.
At one point in the presentation three students stood up in front and taught us the cheer. If we have any Cobbers here, feel free to join in. It goes like this:
Can we beat them?
(Ya, sure you betcha!)
One of the students laughed and said, “Hey, we’re a Norwegian school, so we just embrace it.”
Huh. A Norwegian school, really? I wondered what a Somalian student might think if they went to that campus visit? What’s lutefisk?
Isn’t culture an interesting thing?
Last month I went with our youth to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. That was a fascinating education in culture and our country’s history.
400 years ago European colonists came to this continent with a strong belief that God had given this land to them. It was their manifest destiny to move west and either convert the savages to become like the European Christians, or to kill them off.
Those who weren’t converted or killed were placed on clearly marked plots of land called reservations.
The Wind River reservation is home to two tribes. The Shoshone tribe is fairly unique because, in the 1860s the Shoshone were allowed to negotiate their treaty with the U.S. Government and choose the land they would live on. The Arapahoes, however, were in a different situation. The Arapahoes were centrally located north of Denver but moved all around the region following the buffalos herds. The U.S. Government massacred most of the Arapapahoe and then took two groups of the survivors in two directions. One group to the south, the other up to Wyoming. Winter was coming so the U.S. Government asked the Shoshone if they would house the Arapahoe for the winter and then they’d figure out what to do with them. It’s been 150 years and the government never came back. Instead, they forced the Arapahoe to purchase land from the Shoshone, so the two tribes live, awkwardly on this reservation together.
Can you imagine the tension between these two cultural groups? Not to mention the animosity toward the U.S. Government and the “white man” in general.
Cultural differences are very real. Cultural identity runs deep and is very hard to change. And the boundaries that form cultural groups usually end up become walls of hostility that stand between groups, keep them separated, and often lead to violent and bloody conflict.
That’s what our passage from Ephesians talks about this week. Open your Bibles to Ephesians chapter 2, verses 11-22.
You’ll remember that last week we talked about what a letter is, why we should read it, and how we should read it. If you missed that sermon, I would encourage you to go onto the website and listen.
Today I want to look at one more big picture of Ephesians before we look at this text specifically. This drawing is my attempt to represent the whole message of Ephesians. It is divided into two parts. Paul reminds the Ephesians, in the first half of the letter, that Jesus had broken down the wall of hostility between the Jews and Gentiles and has brought them together into one. He uses two metaphors. The first is a building. Together we are the temple of God. The second is a body. Together, we are the body of Christ.
The second half of the letter talks about how to live, now that the two have been made one. Paul addresses the cultural issues of his day. He challenges the accepted power structures of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Then he talks about spiritual warfare and the armor of God.
So, today we are looking at this amazing idea that Jesus has broken down the wall of hostility between two warring cultural groups and made them into one body, united in Christ.
Here’s my big question. How does that work? How did Jesus break down these walls.
Let’s look closely at what Paul says. Look in verse 13
“But now 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 might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:13–18, NRSV)
I want to walk you through a picture that helps me make sense out of this.
First we see a culture.
Humans, being limited creatures, create boundaries around themselves. We call these boundaries culture. Culture is good and necessary because the human must have concreteness–language, rules of engagement, common stories, common food, shared values around money, parenting, sexuality, etc.–to exist.
In Paul’s letter, he referring specifically to the Jewish culture. They had particular laws about food and about their bodies. If a person ate certain things, or if a man was uncircumcised then he was considered unclean and they were not allowed to go near that person.
Enter the Greeks, in the Jewish mind, the Greeks were unclean and out of bounds.
Whenever two cultures come in contact with each other the natural tendency is to withdraw deeper into the boundaries, and make them stronger. These boundaries can then become isolating prison cells and walls of hostility when they become rigid and self-elevating, pitting one culture as superior to another.
When you multiply this times all of the thousands of cultures that exist in our world, it looks like the jumbled mess we have.
Now, let’s bring God into this equation. Look at verse 18 again.
Paul says, for through him [that’s Jesus] both of us [that’s the different cultures] have access in one Spirit to the Father.
Let me show you how the Trinity is necessary for God’s promised and preferred future of peace to become a reality.
First there is God The Father/Mother/Creator. God is, in a sense, a culture. God is God and we are not. God is separate from us. If God were only this, then we would have a God like Allah. God would be a ruling Judge, above all creation.
But we also have Jesus. Jesus became human. His humanity made it necessary for him to be born within a particular culture in a particular time and place. That is what it means to be human, and that is good. However, He showed us the path of spiritual formation and the Kingdom of God as he moved outward from within the Jewish culture. He broke down the wall, abolishing the law that formed the boundary between Jews and Gentiles, thus setting the example for us to follow the way of God. Its, not that he ceased being Jewish. Rather, he moved beyond the boundaries of his culture in order to love the other. When we do this, we usually get crucified. His movement led to his death, and his resurrection demonstrates the new life in God’s kingdom. He was willing to sacrifice himself to bring reconciliation to all. This is the love of God. This is shalom–peace on earth–God’s promised and preferred future.
Finally, we have the Holy Spirit. Jesus demonstrates the love and grace of the Father. The Spirit draws us and empowers us to follow the way of Jesus–dying to self and living for the other and the many–and brings us all into the holy of holies, where we are the dwelling place of God.
Notice the movement in this picture. It is a two-way flow. God moves to create us, we move toward God. In so moving, we co-create God’s Kingdom with God on earth.
Notice, also, that this image shows the contrast between the bounded set and the centered set. if you were here in May I talked about this. Culture, when seen as a bounded set, isolates and kills the flow of life. The centered set allows individuals to retain their cultural identity but to be unified with people of other cultures in the movement to Christ in the power of the Spirit. The spirit is coming from a different place in each path but is drawing all things to the same purposes, which is the self-transcending love of God for all things. This life-flow is the essence of God.
I know, that’s really abstract. Welcome to my brain.
Let me show you one more picture. Check this guy out.
Now, for most of you, you are probably thinking, “OK, that’s Pastor Steve in his Pastor uniform. Why are you showing us a picture of yourself. Kinda creepy.”
This picture is, in my life, a very concrete example of what Paul meant when he said Jesus abolished the law. I was raised in a Baptist culture. 500 years ago people who wore clerical robes and collars were murdering Baptists and calling them arnarchists. I grew up in a church culture that had many walls of hostility toward the liturgical expressions of the church. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t be caught dead in this outfit.
But now, because I am convinced that God led me to Grace, and because I love this congregation, and I am drawn to the deep theology of the cross and grace that is at the heart of the Lutheran faith, I am willing to abolish the law of my native culture and wear clerical robes and collars.
I know this probably sound silly to you, but this is my cultural reality.
We are the body of Christ. There are many cultural boundaries within the church. The question that we as the church have to ask is this. What are the things in our faith that are cultural, that draw boundaries around us and keep others out, and how is the Spirit moving us to follow Jesus to move beyond these boundaries, into the scary places of the cross, where we can be a more diverse and centered set?
Jesus led the way. The Spirit empowers us to follow, The Father calls us in. May we have the courage to follow.