The Church is not meant to separate
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV)
The goal of the Christian religion is unity over against separation – of being drawn together rather than being pulled apart – because life is lived best in community where everyone serves each other. The history of God’s people – we can see this in the Old Testament and we can see this in the history of the Christian Church – is the desire of God for there to be unity but it is people who know better and bring about division – between men and women, between those in and those out of any group. God’s call to Abraham was that through him all the world would be blessed but again and again there is separation – it is more than difference, it is about saying that someone is other, unworthy, wrong, even evil based on tribe or land or religion and then leaving them to their own devices so that by the time of Jesus there were huge divisions in society – Jew and Gentile is the most noteworthy for us but the Greeks regarded non Greeks as ‘barbarians’ – and what Paul is presenting to the Ephesians is that in Jesus Christ, God has acted decisively in favour of unity over against separation – of being drawn together rather than being pulled apart – and this is the social issue of the 1st century Christians dealing with having Jew and Gentile in the same room and no longer hanging on to their label but replacing it with the label ‘Christian’.
We live 2,000 years later and while we observe theological disputes over time eg. the Arian Controversy of the 3rd and 4th Centuries when Jesus is taught to be a divine creature but not as divine as the Father or the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in the 11th Century, the unity is very much organisational. To be one in Christ is to be in the one Church and this is threatened when people have theological disputes such as in the 16th Century and Lutheran Reformers who challenged the prevailing reality of the day by saying that unity didn’t have to be organisational because that wasn’t in fact important but what was important was unity in preaching and teaching the Gospel – a return to unity in Jesus Christ and God’s grace.
This 16th Century then proliferated the theological claim of ‘my truth of Jesus’ and Christian groups increasingly splintered to the point of where in the last 100 years or so only the Roman Catholic Church has a significant global unity of over 1 billion members and everyone else is in various groupings in the other just over 1 billion members and with the rise of other unifying forces – nation states, philosophies and politics, social trends, identity politics – today we find a multiplicity of church bodies and a still increasing desire to make more of them and Christians on both sides of so many issues – from the trenches of the First World War through to today’s politics whereby some Christians align themselves to certain politics and accuse those not so aligned of being non Christian.
Back in the 16th Century the irony was that divisions in the Church of the time always sought organisational solutions – unity was one organisation and we can see this in the adage ‘the religion of the King is the religion of the people’. Luther was excommunicated early in the Reformation and lived under the ban for the rest of his life. What people often don’t appreciate is that the Augsburg Confession was probably the first Christian document that sought unity when it was presented by Princes and Dukes to the Emperor. They were basically saying “We are Christian too and while we disagree with Rome on some things there is considerable amount of theology upon which we agree”. These Lutherans weren’t overly interested in organisational reform but in the theological reform – unity and agreement in Christ and about the Gospel – and the organisation or protocols or polity can be flexible as long as it promotes and serves the Gospel. That is why today we have many types of polity, church organisation in the Lutheran churches around the world.
Sadly it is true that Lutherans also have got caught up in organisations and turf wars and began to split among themselves and we have the current global Lutheran landscape as evidence – 2 British Lutheran churches in this land and 9 other national churches from other countries here as well.
We can’t go back to the first century but we can recognise today’s divisions – no longer Jew and Gentile so much – and listen to how Paul addressed the Gentile Christians, the new ones entering into a relationship with Jewish Christians with outcome of there being peace through the blood of Jesus – the forgiveness of sins – humanity does have a unity in our sinfulness but in Christ we are reconciled with Jesus and with each other – and so there is peace because we are one because Jesus has rescued us the same way, one because we are in one body – the Church, one because we have received the same Spirit. This has come about because Jesus has become one of us – a human being – Gentiles were not excluded because Jesus was a Jew and women were not excluded because Jesus was a man – and through him and his death on the cross, Jesus has broken down hostility and whatever it is that keeps us apart.
Paul is making it pretty clear that among the followers of Jesus is a new society and new a paradigm of living together where we are drawn together recognising our sin, receiving God’s grace, meeting Jesus in Word and Sacrament and now together we can turn to the world and extend our hand and invite the world to come and join us and become fellow citizens in the household of God. Of course any group of people will have their tensions, divisions, politics, forces that drive people apart but by staying around Jesus – Sunday worship, reading the Bible, communing at his table where we don’t get to choose who is on either side of us, remembering our baptism – we receive the constant message, reminder, challenge to be at peace, to receive peace, to make peace, to extend peace, and to live peace with each other. This is our permanent task because it is our lifestyle following Jesus – seeking to live at peace with everyone but especially those in the household of God.
So where does that leave us in the 21st Century with so many divisions in the Body of Christ?
Good question! And there is no easy answer, no three or ten step programme, but perhaps it begins with the realisation that the Christian Faith is personal but not individual but personal and communal and that our orientation is one of not being separate but of seeking to draw near to others and others to us because Jesus has made peace with us and he is our peace. This means that Jesus and the Gospel is at the centre of our hearts and the centre of our group and we do not face just him ignoring others but Jesus points out us to each other in the Church to be united and then points us, his Body, out to the world to tell, share, live, serve, call out, whisper to the world that God is not their enemy – the hostility has ended between God and people because Jesus has made peace – and we all live better when there is peace around.
Jesus is our peace – in the congregation, in the Church, and in the world – and it is something his followers need to keep learning all the time.
- Ephesians 2:11 - 22