10/21/2018 - Christ is Our Peace - Acts 15:1-9; Ephesians 2:11-17

Christ is Our Peace

Acts 15:1-9

Ephesians 2:11-17

October 21, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley


Some rescue crews discovered a castaway on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. She had been there for five years before they found her, and when they found her they discovered that she had seen fit to construct for herself three buildings, using only sticks and vines. They asked her about them.

“Well, that one is my home,” she said, beaming with pride. “And that one,” pointing to the structure directly next to her home, she said, “is my church.”

“Well then, what’s that third one?” one of the rescuers asked.

“Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”

It seems likely that wherever there is a church, there will be church fights.   Evidence of that comes from the New Testament where many of the letters were written to address conflicts in particular churches. 

In Acts 15, we heard one version of a church fight that seems to repeat itself in multiple locations in the first century.  If you were listening to the two readings, you probably noticed that the word “circumcision” was repeated a lot.  That was the buzzword of the day.  At other times in church history, there were other buzzwords like papal infallibility or the inerrancy of the Bible or abolitionism or women’s ordination or many others.  We might not attach theological significance to the word “circumcision,” but that’s just because it’s not our current buzzword.

The fight in Acts 15 happens because the church is expanding rapidly.  It started as a movement within Judaism, but there are Jewish people spread out all over the Roman empire.  As the Jesus story spreads to Jewish people living beyond Israel, it is also received by Gentiles.  And that’s when fighting really starts.

At this time in history, one scholar says, “To the Jew, the Roman or Greek was an idolater; to the Roman, the Jew was an atheist who refused to acknowledge the gods or the divine authority of Caesar.”[1] The hostility was thick.  Add to that the Jewish rebellion of 66 and you get a bloody, horrific war.  That was probably the context when the letter to the Ephesians was written.

The fight about circumcision, like so many other church fights, is really about identity.  Who is on our team?  Who is against us?  And how do we know?  Some Judean Christians think they know all about the Gentiles and their idolatrous ways, so they are sure they have to set down firm rules at the start.  They are trying to hold onto a strong identity in the midst of the hostile culture surrounding them. 

The culture around them said that Jews and Gentiles were too different to get along.  As the Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago says, “They could not pray in the same worship space, sit at the same lunch counter or around the same table, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, be church together, because they were too different. Jews and Gentiles were different. They had different stories, different rituals, different histories, different diets. How could they be one? How could they live out any kind of unity? No, culture said. No, no, no. You cannot. You stick with your own kind. You watch only the news that will support what you already think. You read only the scriptures that are your favorite ones because they buttress your theology. You eat meals only with the people who either won’t talk about hard things or who agree with you as to what to do about hard things. You don’t invest energy in nurturing friendships with people who might wear you out with difference. The proposition of Jews and Gentiles together, the culture claimed, is not only ridiculous but dangerous.”[2]

Some of the Judean Christians absorbed that cultural message and thought that the only way to resolve the issue of differences was to eliminate them.  Instead of recognizing that God was doing a new thing, they maintained that in order to follow Jesus, a person had to follow Moses first.   Before we judge them too harshly, we might remember that Protestant denominations made similar assertions, to follow Jesus best you had to follow Luther or Calvin or Wesley or Roger Williams. 

Acts 15:5 identifies the people  arguing for required circumcision as Pharisees.  This is so interesting.  When we read about Pharisees elsewhere in the New Testament, it is almost always a negative, combative encounter with Jesus.  But these are Pharisees within the Jerusalem church.  Somehow instead of opposing his teachings, they have joined his followers.  They have already accommodated a lot of changes in their thinking.  It may be that giving up this central piece of identity is just more than they can imagine.  There is a paradigm shift taking place among the people of God, but some folks just can’t get on board. 

That paradigm shift is still happening. It is the shift that moves us out of a mindset of fear and scarcity to one of abundance and trust. 

The first time I ever preached here was on the Sunday I candidated 8 years ago. (It’s OK if you don’t remember it.)    On that day, I talked about walls. I mentioned the photos I saw in a college journalism class.  They were photos of people who escaped from East Berlin by digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall for weeks, and then crawling through it as it filled up with ground water.  I also told you about the seminary class in 1989 when my professor, Glenn Stassen, returned from Germany and passed around a chunk of that wall.  He had been there as it came down. 

Last month, I stood on the ugly, rusty side of the  U.S. border fence with two 22-year-old women. I told them that when I was their age, there was a wall in Germany that I expected to be there always.  Then I told them that it was destroyed before they were born. They seemed to be listening earnestly, so I put my hand on the border fence and in my best wise-old-woman-who-knows-the-future voice, I solemnly said, “This wall will not be here forever.”    I fervently hope that is true. 

I have seen the border wall in San Diego and the so-called peaceline in Belfast. I have seen pictures of the wall in Israel-Palestine and the wall that no longer divides Germany.  I am aware of other invisible, but equally potent walls, like the wall of apartheid in South Africa and the Mason-Dixon line in the United States. 

I am convinced that walls like these are built and maintained by fear, fear of the other, fear of differences, the fear that without boundaries, I will lose my identity, the fear of scarcity and the belief that walling off resources from them is the only way to make sure we have enough.  Walls are built and maintained by fear.  When those on one side try to get through or under or around or over the wall, it just increases the fear.  The Berlin Wall was rebuilt three times, each time bigger, stronger and more repressive.  The Peaceline Fences in Belfast have been increased in height three times. 

The first fence along the border near San Diego was installed during the Clinton administration, the second fence running parallel to it was done after 9-11.  They are currently replacing the Clinton-era fence with materials approved during the Obama administration, while Trump requests proto-types to make it higher, stronger, longer yet again.  Building bigger and better walls seems to result in more deaths as people go to the desert to get around them and it creates more of a market for the coyotes who smuggle people across the border. Surely, we need a paradigm shift.   

In Acts, the paradigm shift is explained as God making no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, giving the Holy Spirit to both.  In Ephesians, the shift is Jesus, who has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us. 

Not everyone can handle this paradigm shift. I see a parallel in the movements for religious freedom that happened in other times.  We often hear that the first Europeans to come here were seeking religious freedom. That is somewhat true, but more specifically, they came for their own freedom.  Once they got here, they did what had been done to them.  Eight of the thirteen British colonies established official churches.  Practicing a different version of Christianity or a non-Christian faith, was illegal and often met with violence. Baptists and Quakers were two notable exceptions.   It took a long time for the idea of providing religious liberty for everyone, not just for ourselves, to become the law of the land.

People often do what has been done to them.  When we are shut out or excluded, we often we exclude others.  Sometimes, when we are welcomed we learn to welcome others and then sometimes, when we welcome others, they welcome even more people.   We can choose to be part of the God’s paradigm shift, moving from fear to trust, from scarcity to abundance.  We can be generous with our hospitality, caring for the stranger, offering a roomy theology that welcomes peaceable differences. 

The most effective expression of that welcome is often in sharing our finances and physical resources.  The gospel spread in the first century because people invested their money and time and even their lives to make it happen.  Christ is our peace.  Christ has broken down the walls.   That work is done for us, but being part of God’s paradigm shift requires our own generosity, our own willingness to move out of scarcity into abundance.  

Maybe it would be best to try to show what I’m talking about:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQVC_m4GtDs&t=1s One of the things I love about this is that one person’s generosity inspires others which inspires others so that even those who received the original gift are giving back.

Let me close with some hopeful, inspiring words I read in a commentary late this week.  Two Presbyterians, Allen Verhey and Joseph  Harvard wrote this: 

 “The church is a demonstration plot for the new humanity brought about by God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.  To be the church is to be a people who respond to God’s work with joy and praise, who display something of what God intends for all humanity in their common life. The church is called to provide an alternative to the culture of enmity at work in the world. It is to be a community that resists efforts to build up again those walls of division and enmity that Christ has broken down.  It is to be a place of hospitality to the stranger, a place of peaceable difference.”[3]

“The church is called to provide an alternative to the culture of enmity at work in the world.”  Sisters and brothers, what a high calling this is.   What task could be more important in the world just now?  May God grant us the wisdom and the courage for the living of these days.


[1] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Belief:  A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Ephesians, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), p. 29.

[2] Rev. Shannon J. Kershner, in her sermon “A Place for Me?” July 19, 2015, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2015/071915.html?print=true

[3] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard, Belief:  A Theological Commentary on the Bible – Ephesians, p. 106.