This past Saturday was my last Synod of Lincoln Trails Assembly meeting as a commissioner. It was an overnight meeting held in Indianapolis. I am actually sad to be finishing my term as commissioner (you can read more about that in the November The Profile’s Pastor’s Ponderings).
During the Saturday portion of that meeting and before lunch we had a genuinely meaningful worship service. Our preacher was Rev. Oscar Clavel, a Latino American man. I mention his ethnicity because we have been dealing with problematic racial/ethnic relations as a theme at Synod meetings this year. He is the Associate Pastor at a larger congregation, Tabernacle Presbyterian, in Indianapolis. And he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2007, to give you some information on him.
What an engaging man Oscar is! He smiled quite a bit, was energetic, and extremely thought-provoking in his message. On the church’s website in the description of Oscar, he joyfully states, “I’m deeply committed to living out of a place of grace and encouraging others to discover their God-given gifts and passions.” He is a man of conviction, commitment and compassion.
I want to share some insights given by him during that sermon and offer some of my own on these scripture passages. They have significant and essential meaning for us today. Rev. Clavel wanted us to face the unity that we have in Christ and as spoken of, in no uncertain terms, in the New Testament letters of Ephesians and Colossians– although, certainly not only in those letters.
The first ten verses of Ephesians chapter 2, of which I only read one, Paul, or an author writing in Paul’s name, speaks of a world torn between life and death, and sin and grace. This world is full of conflict and hostility. He is mostly referring to the world of believers: Jewish believers and Christian believers. He is responding to some people who have tried to separate those two groups. He recognizes that as a Jewish believer in Christ the old has been passed away and the new ushered in. Yet, some Jewish believers in Jerusalem are trying to divide the one Body in Christ. In the letter to the Galatians, chapter 2, Paul actually accuses the disciple Peter (at times he calls Cephas his Aramaic name) of fostering the lie that there is a division between those who have been circumcised, the Jew, and those who have not, the Gentile- anyone who is not a Jew. According to Old Testament law, those groups were definitely divided. However, now in Jesus Christ, those who believe and follow have been joined together. In Galatians, Paul rebukes Peter’s notion that all believers must be circumcised because now they have all been made one in Christ whether circumcised or not.
While Jesus Christ was the dividing point for believers only concerning who they once were and not who they are now, there is no other division. We have all been re-created through Christ by faith alone. The old Law no longer applies to our salvation. Only Christ’s death on a cross creates us in this new image. In other words, we all, Jewish and Gentile believers alike, have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ who freely gave up his own life to cleanse us from our sin. Humanity’s need for that reconciliation presupposes sin, hostility and alienation. In this way of thinking for Paul, previous to Jesus Christ there were those who didn’t belong and those who did, were insiders and outsiders, and were residents and aliens.
In Jesus Christ, we Gentiles were aliens but now we are citizens of heaven. We have all been made into one community, a re-created community. As Paul, also in Galatians, explains: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek” (meaning Gentile, a non-Jew.) That is why Paul shows anger toward and rebukes Peter. Peter wants believers to follow Jewish law too. Also, Peter is espousing a double standard. While publically saying Jewish believers ought not to eat with Gentiles because it is breaking Old Testament law, in private Peter does eat with Gentiles as revealed in the book of Acts.
Rev. Clavel explained that most of us like sameness. I imagine Peter liked sameness too. He understands believers to be circumcised. No circumcision is a new way of thinking for him. Paul, who converts mostly Gentiles to Jesus’ way, knows that these two groups of circumcised and uncircumcised need to become one group, united in the purpose of serving Christ in the world. We are no longer strangers but have been built into one building with Christ as our cornerstone. Still, we like ‘sameness,’ that with which are most comfortable or is a lack of change, and that is a large part of the church’s struggle today. ‘Sameness’ influences our attitudes. This is why because our world is so fractured, we bring that fracturing into the church. It is what we know and it takes much effort to work against that attitude.
The sameness concept is an appropriate metaphor for us today. While we don’t worry too much about those who are circumcised and those who are not, we still create barriers around gender, race, sexuality, age and ethnicity. It is we believers who have allowed the barriers that the world puts up to become our barriers too. But we aren’t to be of this world, for we are of God in Jesus Christ. For us, those barriers create sin and alienation. We are to let down those barriers, especially where belief in and service to Jesus Christ are concerned. We the faithful have also set up barriers along doctrinal, governance and theological lines. We continue to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups forgetting that ultimately we are one body in Jesus Christ.
We are to be united and, as Paul explains, of the same mind. That doesn’t mean we all believe the same things about everything, but it does mean that our faith in Jesus Christ unites us, even though we may have differences in other ways. It is only in this idea of unity that we can actually accomplish the work of Jesus Christ in the world.
I am reminded of how many people the Paris Ministerial Fellowships help with utilities and other needs because of their Assistance Fund. That Assistance Fund is, to a large extent (although not solely I don’t think), funded by 15 to 20 churches in this community, including ours, united in that helping ministry because of our belief in Jesus Christ. There are no longer United Methodists and Presbyterians, Catholics or Lutherans, United Church of Christ or Brethren. We are all united in our belief in Jesus Christ.
In Colossians, Paul reminds us that we were buried with Jesus in his death through our baptism and we were raised to a new and different life in his resurrection. We are to examine in ourselves whether we continue to live in the old life or the new life. When we resurrect barriers that Christ gave his life to break down, whether it is denominations, politics or race, then we have gone back to our old sinful ways.
At our baptism and then at our confirmation of faith, we make an oath of allegiance to God and to God first, if not alone. People of God, it is at this point that we become one people. For you see, Jesus is enough. Our faith in Jesus Christ is enough to unite us. That faith will assist us in breaking down barriers of alienation, conflict and hostility so that we can go about our business of doing that which is good in God’s eyes.
For example, we are all marked by something concerning our faith whether it is:
- not having courage to boldly and gently speak our faith
- not knowing what to do in situations even though if we faithfully prayed we would eventually be guided in what to do
- or not studying God’s word more for if we did, we would have a way of thinking that enables us to figure out what we are to do in any given situation.
We are all marked by sin. And, we are all saved by God from that sin. We now have the mark, we call the ‘seal,’ of the Holy Spirit upon us through our baptisms. Our mark of sin fades each time we pray for forgiveness and a Christ-like way of living. It is the mark of newness to speak boldly and gently of our faith, to know better what to do in any given situation, and to acknowledge that we need to study God’s word more to internalize and know it better than we think we can. That mark of newness in Christ can break down false barriers that we place between believers. Think of how much greater a witness to a hurting world we would have united in one voice as believers in Christ.
The letter to the Ephesians also calls us to peace in Jesus Christ. For Christians united in Christ, what peace is our passage calling us to embrace? Our task is not to bring about peace for God has already done that in the person of Jesus Christ. Peace is not something apart from Jesus. Christ himself is our peace. Instead, our task is to live that already-given peace in our daily lives. Just how often do we stop harsh words we may want to say and remember we live in the peace of Christ? Do we intentionally decide not to participate in the meanness, hatred, constant criticism, and lack of respect we so often hear about in the political realm and in this present election? Or do we embrace the anger, the hateful words, and the mean-spiritedness because we want things our way and we don’t care if it disrespects others or causes conflict? If we do, then we are not living the peace that is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of all. Instead, we are to remember that we are no longer alienated one from another; we are one body for God’s purposes in this often dark and hurting world.
Rev. Oscar Clavel reminded us of what the last chapter in the book of Revelation proclaims in verses 17: “The Spirits says,
‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” There are to be no barriers to belief in Jesus Christ. God has removed those. Oscar encouraged us to work on forming a new way to be together even in our differences and as united in faith. We are to risk often as we work together with the faithful of all types. Why, because Jesus is enough to unite us. Alleluia! Amen.