Last Thursday morning, I drove from our Minneapolis campus up to Shiloh Temple International on West Broadway. Only a nineteen minute drive, but on other levels, it felt as though we were miles and miles apart.
Shiloh’s campus is immediately north of North High’s football field. It is surrounded by a twelve foot chain link fence with barbed wire on the top. There’s a large day care in the south side of the building.
I was warmly greeted, directed through the auditorium (hundreds of seats; I understand they’re full; there was a large stage with an incredible array of instruments. In a room just off that sanctuary, I renewed my friendship with Richard Coleman, met for the first time, a pastor Babington, and the senior pastor of Shiloh Temple (celebrating his thirty third year! Think I’ve been here long???) Bishop Richard Howell.
These men had called this meeting- and in addition to the Lutherans (including our bishop), there were Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, and several representatives from Evangelical Emerging churches… We were there to listen- to hear the hearts and minds of these church leaders who knew that the Church was about lowering barriers, not stating rules and then strengthening the battlements- the walls- to defend them against all comers.
They knew that it was Christ Jesus who brought us together, and in Christ, we were brothers and sisters, even though we came from different traditions. They knew that regardless of what our traditions were, and no matter how we might disagree about baptism, or communion, or speaking in tongues, we were called to work together as leaders of the church to confront the racist demon that has so plagued our country.
In short, they were personifying what Paul is writing about in Ephesians, Chapter 2, our focus for today as we continue our series on Ephesians, “Sturdy Shoes.”
Last week, we got started with a look at Chapter 1, and, given the horrific week of racial violence, how in it we found the “sturdy shoes” of our adoption by God as God’s beloved children, and the gift we have been given to know God’s will- God’s love and care for all, God’s passion for justice.
This week, we’ll look at the how and why we have a relationship with God, and how we can put that into action in our own lives and church, particularly as it pertains to our relationship with our African American brothers and sisters, and the violence they experience. We will continue seeing the “sturdy shoes” that God has provided for us all in this wonderful letter.
You will want to have your Bibles, if you brought them, open to chapter two. If you’re using the pew Bibles, we’ll be on page 170 in the New Testament- the back part of the book…
Now as is always the case, context is critical for getting at the meaning of our reading.
Paul opens the chapter with a description of life without Christ- separated from God, on our own, following our passions, the desires of the flesh and senses. Now to the Ephesians, and in our world, we read that, and go immediately to the dualism of flesh and spirit that we have struggled with since Plato first wrote about it, hundreds of years before Paul: flesh- icky, bad, sinful; spirit- pure, good, God-like…
But what Paul is trying to communicate is the wholeness- the shalom- the peace of God- when we live in communion with God, in words that his readers would understand. In Hebrew thinking, in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no dualism. What makes you “you” is both flesh and spirit; there is no you without body. That’s why we talk about Resurrection of the Body when we talk about Life Everlasting in the Apostle’s Creed.
I can’t pretend to know how it works, but if you have ever been around the body of someone who has died, you know that it is just the shell- it’s not the person we loved… (Genesis 2- the man is not a man until God breathed the breath of life into him; in Ezekiel, the dry bones are not Israel until God has re-clothed them with muscle, flesh and BREATHED into them the breath of life…)
But after using their language to describe the issue- separation from God, Paul then explains God’s plan in v. 4ff: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ!” Notice the inclusive language: “us,” “our,” “we…”
God’s love is the driver here- it is in God’s love that we are given Jesus even though we are separated from God, apart from God. We have made choices that put us in God’s place; we’ve made choices that separate us from God and each other.
And in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we see the fullness of God’s love for all humanity, undeserved as it is. Because Jesus lived, because Jesus died and because Jesus was raised again, you and I are “raised up with him, and seated with him…”
That’s what it means when Paul says, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast…” In Paul’s day, “grace” was something bestowed by a ruler, as the result of some activity. (We still struggle with this, too, don’t we? Someone does something nice and the first response is often, “so what do you want…” Or, we do something nice with the expectation that the recipient will respond in like manner…)
That’s not what we’re talking about: Grace is undeserved; it is not reciprocal; you can’t earn it- it is God’s free gift. The good works we respond with, Paul says, is what we were created to do as we follow Jesus…
That then, is the set-up, the theological foundation: God so loved the world that he gave us all Jesus, to bring us together with God and with each other.
Now, I pointed out the inclusive nature of the language in vv 4 and following- the “us,” and “we…” And he was applying it directly to all believers, including, of course the Ephesians- and you and me.
Paul takes the rest of the chapter to discuss how this gift of eternal relationship with God in Christ came out of the Jewish community, which was known across the world as among the most insular and exclusive peoples ever seen…
Perhaps the best way to ask it would be to say “Why would God use Israel as God’s vehicle to both save and bring the world together?” And for Paul, it is an easy answer: God had (and has) a special relationship with the Jews- God chose them as God’s people- indeed, the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures talks about that relationship…
Necessarily, God would use His people as his “priests…” to reconcile the world- to bring the world back to God… Remember, the task of the “priest” is to stand between God and people. So in their special relationship, there was a job- a job that goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah- “By you,” God promised, “will all the nations of the world be blessed…”
Israel, after hundreds of years of being conquered, exiled, conquered again, had lost interest in that calling. They had “hunkered down” in their specialness, and wanted very little to do with anyone else. Oh, you could convert- but that meant a ritual bath, symbolizing the cross of the Red Sea during the Exodus, and, if you were a man, being circumcised…
We talked about this when we worked through the Abraham and Sarah stories in Genesis a few years ago, and again when we did Acts, but remember: this circumcision thing was a BIG deal- it was how the children of Israel- and Ishmael defined themselves… It was a badge of honor, if you will- unseen, but ever present…
If you were one of the “uncircumcised,” the “circumcised” wanted nothing to do with you… In fact, I think it difficult for us to understand the depth of the animosity between devout Jews and their gentile neighbors… Say “Gentile” as a curse word… Hiss “uncircumcised” the same way…
It is out of this community- small, closed in on itself, that God gives us Jesus, and invites the whole world into relationship with him. And how does this happen?
Please read with me vv 13-16: “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once 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 Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection- through the cross, takes the place of the Law… Jesus is the covenant- not anything else- not even circumcision- something which had been practiced for thousands of years, as the sign of God’s covenant with Israel…It is no longer necessary. And the walls between different people come down: that’s what Jesus does! That’s what we, as his followers, are called to do: bring down the walls that divide people… Those who divide; those who put walls up between people are not following Jesus!
And that was the focus of our conversation this past Thursday, at Shiloh Temple International, on West Broadway in North Minneapolis, with Catholics, Pentecostals, AME Zion, Evangelicals, and we Lutherans… As I told you last week, we were there to listen…
There was some conversation about fear- the fear of violence that keeps some white folks out of that part of town. But our hosts gently reminded us, they put their lives on the line every day, by working where they do, and, with an ironic laugh, “we’re black; we’re always in danger…”
Further, Bishop Howells said, ‘perfect love casts out fear,” and “if you’re too afraid to act, then we might need a conversation about your faith…”
They talked about the absolute need for the Church to be present and leading at this time and place- it’s our calling to be present when there is need- where, as Pastor Coleman said, the devil is running loose… He actually said “the devil is loose all over the world, right now…” He’s right!
And then, four areas of need for the North Minneapolis Community were identified: first, youth workers- young adults willing to walk alongside, be present, and with their lives, offer hope, and an alternative to the lifestyle that gangs offer… That need was primarily financial- to pay these young folks…
The second was for jobs… Did you know that the unemployment rate, when you include those who have left the labor market (not included in labor statistics) is 39%??? For the whole state, it is around 3.8%. Were there employers with entry level jobs in our communities was the question there?
But in order for people to be employed, they needed, as a baseline, at least a GED. There is an urgent need for career track training. The lack of education has to be de-stigmatized, they said. There was a call for a “mentor militia…” And this is for all ages!
The average white child has been read to around 5000 hours before kindergarten begins. In the African American community, for a variety of reason, the average hours of reading to children is between 50 and 500 hours! These children start with a huge disadvantage!
And finally, the community is traumatized- fear is pervasive, and can’t be escaped: there is violence, death, and the community, as I said last week, not only doesn’t see the police as help, they see the police as part of the problem. Pastor Babbington said there is need for mental health care- for trauma care…
In all four of these areas, I can see both campuses of Bethlehem engaging, not only with these evangelical pastors, but also with our own Kelly Chatman, at Redeemer Lutheran, on the near north side of town. And Redeemer already has the infrastructure for volunteers that Shiloh and their partners are just developing.
We are, without question, being called, as our sermon title today says, “To move beyond what’s familiar…” If you’re interested in mentoring, if you are an employer, if you want to contribute to match the $100,000 dollars the African American churches have already pledged, and if you are a mental health professional, and would be interested in working with Bethlehem’s Mental Health Connect as we engage in Trauma Care, either email me, or make a note on your welcome card, and we will begin to engage!
Because I know that this entire community will work with, pray for and commune with anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, wherever there is need-
Because the Church belongs to Jesus, not me, not you, or anyone else! And the Church of Jesus Christ is called to reconcile all people- to each other and to God! And if Jesus can break down the walls to sin and death, the walls between Jews and Gentiles or between blacks and whites, between churches, by comparison- those walls are of the flimsiest cardboard.
What’s more, in Jesus’ eyes, those walls are already down; we just haven’t realized it…
Come and receive the gift of Holy Communion- celebrate the unity we have in Christ- and then let’s go to where God is calling us- to help remove the barriers that separate us from each other and our Lord- in Jesus’ Name, and for his sake. Amen.