5/31 Devotion

For He Himself Is Our Peace

 

Beloved, I don’t know what to do. I think that posture may resonate with many of you. As I sit at my desk trying to write this sermon that I’ve been prepping and praying about all week, I don’t know what to do. Events of recent weeks demand a call to action, demand a response of some kind by God’s people.  But what? As I sit here with the same zero answers I had before, imparting wisdom or “leading” others in any way seems so far beyond my grasp. With both political parties jockeying for favor ahead of the presidential election, every news story is politicized. In ways that seem surreal to many of us, wearing a mask or not has become a point of political debate. When to re-open churches and how fast has caused unhealthy division in many congregations. The horrific and unjust death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers has sent shock waves through our nation. Some of us simply can’t believe what’s going on around us, while others have lost their patience with disbelief instead they demand action.  Every action is seemingly magnified and considered selfless or selfish by someone else. What do we do?

            Prayer is a great start. Let us pray for discernment, about how we as a community can address issues as large as systematic racism and public health, where we are. Let us pray that God would show us where He is already working in Peoria. Because Beloved, when I know nothing else, I know that God is love and He is at work! Let us praise God in the depth of this chaos for He will be the one who delivers, not human governments, not agencies full of human experts, God will deliver. Let us pray that we don’t settle for the token actions of simply saying things are bad or wrong and then carrying on with our lives. Most of all Beloved, let us pray like the college student who has seemingly ruined everything and calls home for mom and dad’s advice. Let us pray like the child who’s somehow made it to the deep end and is frantically reaching out for help. Let us come to God answerless, and helpless. For while the rest of the world would find this position deplorable, we know submitting to God fully is the best place we can be. Take a few moments and pray.

Small Group Question: Which of the following statements better describes your usual posture in prayer? God, I’m helpless, I need you or God please help me with this.  

After prayer, scripture is a great next step. He has been faithful to do time and time again during social distancing God gives us just the passage we needed today. This what the word of the Lord says:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. – Ephesians 2:11-22

 

Paul, addressing a cluster of house churches comprised of both Jews and Gentiles reminds them of the division that ran deep between them before Christ. The two groups had grown to not just dislike each other but in many ways despise the other. It was commonplace for a Jewish family to hold a funeral for a loved one if they married a Gentile, for that loved one was effectively dead to the family now. We see it even the travel patterns, Jews would take the long way around Samaria rather than cutting through. For they wanted nothing to do with the Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual. In Luke 9 we see that Jesus is traveling through Samaria instead of going around and the disciples don’t like this. When James and John are sent ahead to try and find a place to sleep they are unsuccessful. Their anger toward the gentiles and disregard for them is evident. They asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to burn the village for not hosting Him! Jesus is quick to rebuke them.  

But it goes beyond disliking each other, there were good reasons for the separation. Jews lived under the covenant; their culture was by design, oriented toward God. Many of the practices of separation were God-honoring and even God-breathed, for the protection of the Jewish culture. God needed His people to blessed to bless the nations, not to simply integrate into them and vanish. Like the church today there needs to be a clear differentiation in the way we do life. We are called like Israel was to be Holy, which means set apart. But not set apart to think others are dirty or need to stay away from us. Set apart that we might bless them.

Verse 14 says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” As we’ve talked about in past weeks, God’s divine plan for His beloved community always included a grafting in of non-ethnically Jewish people. For God desires all to be saved. In this verse, Paul uses metaphor to talk about the destroying of a cultural barrier. However, He is also talking about a physical barrier, a literal wall. At the second temple in Jerusalem, there was a physical wall that kept non-Jews from proceeding any closer to the temple. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about the wall and its sign in his works.  Josephus is known to exaggerate facts a bit but an archaeological dig in 1871 found one of the signs.

Known as the Soreg inscription the sign reads, “No foreigner is to enter the barriers surrounding the sanctuary. He who is caught will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” This inscription is similar to the disciples' desire to call down fire on the Samaritans. It was an attempt to honor God and keep His name clean and revered. But it was also a misguided human effort all the same. Christ as the fulfillment of Judaism, He is where human meets God. There were no walls or warning signs around Christ limiting access to Him. “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace (v. 15).” Because of Christ, there was no longer a need to fulfill regulations to encounter God. There was no longer an inscription that warns foreigners need to keep a safe distance or their death is on their own hands.

Small Group Question: What barriers exist in the church that need to be destroyed? What language, traditions, or practices might convey the message “you’re a foreigner, stay away?” If you can’t think of any, pray on it.

Verse 19 says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” Beloved, there is no longer a sign, there is no longer a wall because we are no longer foreigners! Our hostility was put to death with Christ on the cross. He broke the barrier, He drew near and took the death that followed upon himself so that we don’t have to. We don’t have to risk death for full access to God, Jesus has dismantled all of those barriers, praise be to God! Paul closes this portion by saying that not only did Christ pay the costly price for unity He is building us together into a great temple. No longer a temple with walls that exclude, but a temple whose walls are made of the excluded, now welcomed, now called children and family.

As we talked about last week, the work of the church is not a matter of what we should do, or ought to do, but rather what we get to do. Our faithfulness to the work of the church is a blessing, the world around us being broken is less of an obstacle to blame and more of an opportunity to cherish. It is vital that we understand where the church fits in all of this. Some pastors have led their flocks recklessly during the COVID season. Rather than taking a posture of humility, they assumed they had the answers, and even more dangerously they over realized the reality of the church. What I mean by that is they painted a portrait of the church as if we had fully received the inheritance. But Jesus has not returned, the day of judgment is not here yet, and we are still called to be a foretaste of the Kingdom in a broken world.

This overstated reality isn’t only dangerous when we talk about thinking Christians are protected from a virus. It can bleed into the way we see unity as well. I think a fitting metaphor is the “It’s a Small World” rides at the Disney theme parks. If you aren’t familiar or you want a visual reminder here’s a video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2Do309e4YU The ride has become a mainstay at all the Disney parks around the world. Its main draw is its old-timey quaintness. With the message being it’s a small world, we’re all a lot more alike than we think, look at our big happy family. Sometimes churches can approach racial issues and other issues of division in this way. In a quaint, trite denial of uniqueness, they strive for a “can’t we all just get along”, usually colorblind message. Avoiding the topic of the brokenness all around them.

But Jesus didn’t come to make all the Gentiles into Jews, even though Paul and Peter debated this for a while, He came to make no one a stranger. The removal of the barrier doesn’t mean the church is one big happy family where we all get along and we’re all the same. It means Jesus invited all of us. Invited every one of every race and nationality, of every upbringing and socio-economic bracket. An invitation that came at a great cost, and thus should hold a high level of importance. It was by his death He grafted us in, and it was by this same sacrifice He has offered room for others. On the same line of thought, we don’t all come from similar places. Everywhere is not the same and nor should it be treated that way.

Peoria is not Minneapolis, the solution to big important problems like systematic racism won’t be the same in both places. Nor will the problems manifest in the same exact way. Our call as the church is not to say we have the answers or to force a one size fits all application of scripture onto every unique culture and circumstance. It is to say God has revealed the truth to us, and that truth is that He is for everyone, thus racism is wrong. The systematic belittling and mistreatment of people is wrong. However, and very importantly our call is not to simply call out bad things as bad or tell non-believers to act in accordance with our standards. Our call is then as a community to prayerfully discern where God is at work here! What is he doing in Peoria? In our community, in our context and how might we participate in that?

 I know for some that may sound like lofty and even vague language. It may even sound like inaction. But Beloved, the tie that binds us, that calls us to be set apart, is a barrier destroying, reality shifting, chain-breaking savior and He is already on the job! So, what do we do?  What is the solution? I don’t know. But God does and He’s already at work, wading into the uncomfortable, vulnerable parts of this world telling them they are welcome and telling us to join in. So anyone who is interested in actively being a part of our discernment process, who would like to come to together and pray, and seek out avenues for our church to proactively be for all people right here where God has put us, please reach out, let me know. The work of reconciliation is a blessing, but blessings aren’t always easy.  Where this will lead, I have no idea, but if we submit the direction to God we’ll be going the right way. And as always the response to every sermon should be worship for God is always good, even when our look isn’t. He Himself is our Peace. 

Small Group Question: Do you sometimes find it hard to identify with the outsiders? What can we do as a community to remember our reliance on God, and combat the pride of self-assurance?

Reflection song for this week is Way Maker by Leeland - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29IxnsqOkmQ