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The New Humanity

Sermon - 8/09/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ephesians 2:11-22

Our text today comes from the letter to the Ephesians, a letter likely written by a disciple of Paul (in Paul's name), a very common practice in those days.  It was most likely a circular letter intended for many churches in that ancient world of Asia Minor, not only for the church in Ephesus.

And so reading, then, in chapter two, verses 11 through 22:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For 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. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

 

Since this letter was written for Christians throughout Asia Minor in the second half of the first century, and since that happens to have been the focus of my sabbatical last summer, and since I just happen to have a few pictures from that experience J, I thought I would share a few to help us get the context of this particular text.  And kind of get us in touch with that era.

 


Kind of looks like I come from that era, I know J.

 

Who would have known that there were Duck fans in Rome J.  But since this text focuses on, or highlights a new way of being a temple of the Lord, I want to show you some pictures of temples from that ancient world.

Beginning farther east in Turkey, and then moving our way west toward Rome.

This is in Ankara:

The Temple of the Divine Augustus, built to commemorate his death, shortly after the birth of Jesus.  It was under repair when I was there in 2003.

Heading our way east to Aphrodisius, this is the Tetra Pylon, which was the gateway to the Temple of Aphrodite in that city that bears her name in Turkey:

 

And then Didyma, Temple of Apollo - a massive temple built over 2,600 years ago:

 

Moving across the Aegean Sea to Corinth, a very familiar site for many people, again a temple to Apollo in that ancient city:

 

In central Greece, another temple of Apollo, this time in Delphi, on a hillside:

 

Down below that temple is the Thodos, a temple of unknown origin built for an unknown purpose -- I'm sure they knew, but we don't:

 

On the island of Delos, a very small island, but nearly a dozen different temples on this one island, here the temple to Isis, an Egyptian Goddess:

 

A temple to Zeus, in Athens:

 

And of course, dominating the skyline of Athens is the Parthenon, on top of the Acropolis:

 

And then heading west to Olympus, where the Olympics were founded, at the center of that ancient site, another temple to Zeus:

One thing I didn't know is the Olympic games were all dedicated to various Gods.  The games were a very religious experience, done for religious purposes.

Here's what the Temple of Zeus would have looked like in those days:

 

Moving now to Italy, Pompeii, another temple of Zeus, with Vesuvius looming in the background:

Not sure if it looks threatening now, but it certainly was back in those days.

Another temple of Isis, also in Pompeii:

 

And then finally in Rome, the temple of Mars, built by Caesar Augustus, probably around the time of the birth of Jesus, maybe a little before:

 

The Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum:

 

And finally the Pantheon, not to be confused with the Parthenon:

The Pantheon in Rome, it was the home of the 12 major Roman Gods.  Still standing in beautiful shape today, 1,900 years later, this was built in the mid-second century.  It was converted to a church, and therefore maintained.

Now, my point in giving you this very brief tour of these ancient temples is not just a promo for the tour I'm hoping to lead in the summer of 2011, but to show what we can see of the ancient religious establishment of that Roman world.  These were the temples, or ones very similar to them, that were very familiar to the recipients of this letter.  These are the kinds of sights they would call to mind when they think of temples.

As Marcus Borg noted on that pilgrimage I took in 2003, you do not build massive edifices of this type based on superstition, on a hunch, on childish myths.  These were huge undertakings, requiring enormous dedication, built by people who took their beliefs very, very seriously.  And I think we forget that.

They certainly would not agree with the premise of this text -- that as Gentiles they were far removed from God.  I can just hear some Roman citizen, upon reading this letter, or hearing it, protesting -- "how can you people claim to be any closer to God when the temple to the God of the Israelites is in Jerusalem, far away?  We have all these temples all around us!".

And furthermore, that temple built to the God of Israel has now been destroyed (if this letter was written any time after that destruction in the year 70).

The claim, therefore, of this letter to the Ephesians is quite stunning because first of all, it refutes that whole religious establishment of the Roman Empire.  And in essence calls it a fraud by not even acknowledging its existence.

Secondly, it makes the incredible claim of an alternative route for those Gentile followers of the many Greek and Roman Gods to be included in the heretofore exclusive Jewish household of God. 

So, stop and think how absurd this claim would sound to a Roman citizen of that era.  To suggest that they could now be included in the commonwealth of Israel, in the household of God.  It would be like a citizen of modern-day Cuba saying to us U.S. citizens, proclaiming jubilantly, "Now you have the opportunity to become citizens in our great nation of Cuba!".  Who would take that seriously?  Surely that's the way it sounded in that day.

Third, and most remarkable of all, our author announces that one Jesus Christ, crucified by the Romans, has by his death, rather than by Roman killing, brought an end to hostility.  And abolished all the barriers between Jews and Gentiles.  To which our Roman protagonist would undoubtedly protest:  "Really? So you're saying the blood of dedicated, valiant Roman soldiers, who died for our country, bringing peace to that troubled, rebellious, Jewish homeland, that their blood was shed in vain?  And only the blood of your Jesus matters?".

How is it that He, and not the might of the Romans, makes peace?

And you see, it's a fair question.  Given now 2,000 years of war and increasing amounts of bloodshed (much of it at the hands of Christians), it is a question that still begs an answer even more so today.

So just how does Jesus, or more specifically, the cross of Jesus, the death of Christ, make peace for anyone?

Too often, I fear, we have little to offer beyond cliché's.  Jesus is the answer.  God is love.  Christ is our peace.  But clichés do not an explanation make.  So we lead the serious quest, longing for that water which truly quenches while we appeal to ancient authorities.  Well, the Bible says.

But in our modern world, it is not a question of what the Bible says, it is a question of what the Bible means to us today.  How is God still speaking, now (not just in some ancient time) to us?

I found a response to that query just recently when several of us went to hear Archbishop Tutu speaking in Portland for the 40th annual Collins Lectures of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.  A little background before we hear from Tutu himself:

Wednesday evening, Monte Campbell shared with us her trip to South Africa just last year.  She visited the prison where Nelson Mandela spent his last 7 years.  And she described the scene, in a story that was relayed to her, of how he was released from prison after 27 years (20 years in a previous site).  27 years in prison.  And thousands and thousands and thousands of people, mostly black Africans of course, lined the hillsides of that road leading out of that country prison.  And when the time came for Mandela to be released, a government limo came to pick him up and take him home.  Nelson Mandela said:  "I think I'll walk". 

So imagine that sight as he walked down that road with tens of thousands of jubilant, cheering people filling the hillsides cheering his walk into freedom.

That was February 11th, 1990.  Mandela was then elected as the first democratically elected President of South Africa in a truly free South Africa where everyone was given the right to vote, four years later.  But those intervening 4 years were not peaceful years.  The gradual dismantling of apartheid did not come without a price.  Unrest and riots, violence initiated by both sides as the power began to shift, threatened to tear the country apart.

And one young American, Amy Beal, left the safety and comfort of her home in California to join the effort to register black voters in preparation for that historic vote, believing that in doing so she could make a difference in the lives of people and the history of a nation.  Sharing a message of hope and equality.

Well, Bishop Tutu shares the story of what happened to Amy as he tells that larger story of that unrest in South Africa, and the remarkable change that came about in the country.

[An audio file of Tutu's speech is available at the following link:

http://stream1.opb.org/media/news/2009/05/05042009_desmondtutu.mp3?r=1

The text that Dan references here occurs at the 29:10 mark of this speech, and runs through the 34:25 mark -- you can use the slider control to jump to that part of the speech]

The Amy Beal Foundation in that township has a school, for those disadvantaged youth.  Amy Beal is dead, killed by the very people she came to help.  And yet her work and her spirit continues on, touching the lives of many, many more people than she ever touched in her lifetime.  She lives on not in a building, not in a temple, not in a shrine built to honor her, but in those people's lives she has touched and changed, including her killers.

And this precisely the message of this letter to the Ephesians. 

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.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

 

You are built into that dwelling place for God.

In Christ there is a new humanity where there are no divisions, no apartheid, no illegal immigrants, no us vs them, but truly one people under God.  How can this be?

It is so because we, inspired by the life and sacrifice of Christ, like those family and friends of Amy Beal, make it so.  Our peace comes not through some divine slight of hand, the substitution of Christ for us, dying in our place.  It comes through the divine light of God -- Christ in us, moving us, leading us, to do away with those false divisions. 

When you choose peace over hostility, you are that holy temple of God. 

When you choose forgiveness over retribution, you are that shrine of Christ.

When you choose reconciliation (which is the way of Jesus) over the way of revenge (the way of our world), you bring the light of Christ into that world.

When you work to bring out that generosity of spirit, present in all people, then you are that body of Christ.

When we break down the dividing walls of hostility, racism, homophobia, sexism, fear, hatred, and intolerance, we become that holy place where God dwells.

We do have an incredible capacity for good, given to each of us, created in the image of God.

To be the church of Christ is to use that capacity, making peace, reconciling all under God as one people.

May it be.

 


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