Year B, Pentecost 9
When I was being considered for this position at St. John’s, I was reminded on a few occasions of the difference between Hampton and Norfolk (which is where I previously served in a church). I dismissed these reminders for the most part. My house is 8 miles from here—which is fairly close. There are plenty of people who go back and forth between Norfolk and Hampton. I will admit that doing it in the summer the HRBT is a form of torture, but other than that, it’s really not a major problem.
Early on in my time here, it became clear to me that Hampton and Norfolk are different, a lot more different than Norfolk and Virginia Beach or Norfolk and Chesapeake. There is a different culture. It’s quite fascinating. We have this division despite modern transportation and communication that is light years ahead of what it was 25 years ago. It’s odd because normally we associate walls with things that divide us, and bridges with things that connect us. Yet in Hampton Roads, it is bridges that divide us. Sometimes, I feel like we are East and West Berlin in 1965.
This reading from Ephesians can seem a little irrelevant at first glance. Once the Bible starts talking about circumcision, most Christians tune out. When Paul referred to those circumcised, he is talking about Jewish people. When he referred to the uncircumcised, that was everyone else. The circumcision was a physical sign of a very real commitment that the Jewish people made. At this time (about 70AD), the division between the circumcised and uncircumcised was like North and South Korea today. That’s not completely accurate, because people did interact with one another. However it was that drastic. If there were interactions between Jew and non-Jew, those interactions were superficial and limited. There were no meals together, no inter-marriage, no friendships.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul was saying that this barrier (as impermeable as it seemed) was no longer relevant or necessary because Jesus died on the cross for all. They were no longer Jew and no longer Gentile. They were Christians, followers of Christ and that is all that mattered. Paul wrote, “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.” A lot of people have tried to figure out what wall he was referring to. Was it the wall that divided the temple from the outer courts? Was it a wall between heaven and earth?
I am not sure why we debate it as it seems to me that the text is clear. It’s the hostility between us. There is no real wall. Humans manufactured the wall through fear, jealously, anger, and apathy. The wall was created by humans for humans. Unfortunately we build pretty good walls, even when they aren’t physical. That is why Jesus had to live as one of us and then sacrifice himself on the cross. He had to show us what it was to love without walls.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Hearing about the blood of Christ has the same effect on some of us as hearing the word circumcision. In many Christian communities, there has been an overemphasis on the blood of Jesus. Some people and groups have attributed magic like qualities to the body and blood of Jesus. It is the opposite of magical. The blood of Jesus, and the broken body of Jesus are reminders of Jesus’ sacrifice for each one of us. Jesus did not make the sacrifice only for one group or one country. Jesus sacrificed for all of us. If we can truly accept that, we can find ways to come together. We always say that God loves everyone, but we rarely act like it. Someone gave me a little coaster that says, “Jesus loves everyone, but I am his favorite.” We might not say it out loud, but we act like that a lot. If we can try to believe that Jesus died on the cross for every one of us in every part of this world, we might be more inclined to make our own sacrifices.
In this text, Paul wrote, “He (Jesus) is our peace.” He doesn’t write that he brought peace. He does not refer to him as the Prince of Peace. He says, “Jesus is our peace.” It is one of the most achingly beautiful ironies of the Christian faith–that the way Jesus embodied peace was to be executed by the Roman Empire. We cannot be sure exactly why the Romans executed Jesus. However, it is most likely because they were afraid that he would inspire people to revolt. They recognized Jesus as a leader and one who could inspire the masses. The Roman Empire maintained peace through oppression. They killed the people who threatened their rule. Jesus’ mere existence threatened their rule. The irony is that this violent sacrifice that Jesus made paved the way for real peace, not peace maintained through violence and fear, but real peace.
I am not overly concerned about the divisiveness of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (unless of course it’s taking more over an hour to drive 8 miles), but I am concerned about the walls of hostility that we are building all over the world. Humanity has become adept at erecting walls and that terrifies me. A couple of years ago, a giant rubber duck ended up in Norfolk. This thing is 6 stories tall and travels all around the world. What astounded me was the number of people from Hampton who went to Norfolk to get a picture the duck. (You know who you are.) These were people who would never go to Norfolk normally, but the rubber duck brought them there. I thought, is this really all we need to bring us together—a 6 story rubber duck? Alas, the duck had to move on to its next port and that ended our temporary connection. But it made me wonder what it would take to start dismantling our walls. What is it going to take motivate us? So often what brings us together is tragedy. I don’t want to wait for another tragedy. Frankly, I am not even convinced that would bring us together anymore.
We celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. One of the things we do in communion is we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us 2000 years ago. Jesus knows that humans are fickle and tend to forget things. That is why he asked his disciples to share the bread and wine in memory of him. Because not only do we remember the sacrifice when we celebrate communion, we come to this table together. Just for a few minutes, we remember that Jesus died so we could dismantle the walls and live as the community of believers.
Think of the history of St. John’s, all of the people who have gathered together at the altar. People fought wars in this town. People on opposing sides eventually came together at the altar. Our altar stands as a reminder of what we are called to do as Christians. We cannot let it end here at the altar. Church isn’t a temporary cease fire. It’s a window into God’s dream for us. Let’s open the windows and show people what it is to be the household of God for the whole world.