There’s an old saying about family. You’ve heard it; I’m sure. It goes something like “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Personally, I prefer this timeless adage the way Jem so wisely put it when he paraphrased his father’s words in the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. He said “Aunty, Atticus says you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”
I like to imagine a similar paraphrasing taking place among the Ephesians as a certain letter was being passed around the congregation, and through word of mouth, beginning to spread like wildfire. What? We are one? God’s household? A new humanity? This is absurd! What can this possibly mean?
You see, the animosity that arose from fierce national identity between Jews and Gentiles in the late first century was very real and very mutual. The Jews, believing they were of a chosen, special race, looked upon Gentiles with disgust and disdain. The Gentiles, in turn, eyed the Jews and all of their odd ways and eccentric beliefs with great suspicion. The idea of living life as one body was an unthinkable, even repulsive thought. And we would be naïve to assume that those early believers in Christ would have been unaffected by the years upon years of social hostility towards one another. Indeed, the battle lines were drawn, and the dividing wall spoken of in this text was as literal as it could get. And yet, in the midst of all this comes the letter to the Ephesians and in it, arguably one of its biggest contributions to the canon – this idea of reconciliation, and not just with God, but with each other, too.
And now suddenly, for 1st century Jewish and Gentile Christians, it is no longer a matter of differing customs or cultures or even preference. They are family. They share the same heritage. They can choose their friends, but they sure can’t choose their family, and the writer is saying that they’re family now, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.
Funny enough, my least favorite and my most favorite thing about this text are actually the same. I love the certainty found so obviously in the author’s words. For once, something in this Holy, mysterious book seems to be black and white instead of gray or fuzzy or confusing. Christ is peace and through him, by being joined with him, we experience real peace in our own lives and with one another. Yes! Give me more. I love this text. And yet, the very thing I love is also where my greatest hesitancy is found. Because within this certainty lies the conviction that these are, in fact, perennial, timeless truths. And when I read them, I find that I can no longer ignore or deny the power of these words – the call to be one with God’s people, the call to recognize the Church universal as his. No matter how often or how much I would sometimes like to, I just cannot ignore these truths.
When I first met my husband, Lyle, for whatever reason, I left a lasting impression on him. So much so, that he sought out a mutual friend of ours to inquire more about me. This mutual friend would end up telling Lyle something like “That Aurelia, she’ll tell you like it is; she’s a straight shooter.” Now, considering that conversation took place seven years ago and Lyle and I have now been married for five, I think it’s safe to say that at the time, he found the idea of unwavering, upfront honesty appealing. Still, it has often been said concerning married couples that sometimes the quality that draws us to our spouse in the first place can be the very attribute that ends up testing our nerves the most. I.e., my lack of filter can sometimes be a little much.
And yet I can’t help but be totally and brutally honest with all of you when I admit that I’ve had my fair share of affirmed fears and disappointments in the Church. I mean, haven’t we all? Haven’t some of the worst fights, extreme politicking, or straight-up power trips taken place within church walls? Some of my earliest childhood memories involving racism or other forms of judgment and even downright hatefulness seem to have come from Christians. And yet, we’re called to be one? I have seen family and friends leave the faith altogether because the hurt and pain they experienced in their life came at the hands of Christians. And yet, we’re called to be one? I cringe at my own story when I think back to my own harsh judgments and crass words towards others. I have said and done plenty of things I am ashamed of. And yet, we’re called to be one. Even now, I struggle with feelings of anger and frustration towards Christians whose theology seems too different or too foreign from my own. And yet, we are called… to be one.
Everywhere we turn, everywhere we look, our individual and corporate experiences, both good and bad, are constant reminders that the church is full of broken people. You and me. All of us. Broken and wanting and searching, and all too often, looking around and seeing very little cause for hope and very little reason to stay. And yet, Christ has promised us – then, now and always – peace found in him. Verse 14 says “For he is our peace.” For he is our peace. And this text isn’t speaking of peace simply as a lack of hostility, division or turmoil. Rather, it speaks of a full, life-giving, hopeful kind of peace that penetrates every level of our being. It speaks of Shalom. Here, Christ is connected to peace as comprehensively as possible. Christ is connected to peace, and by his blood, we are connected to him. And he calls us to oneness with each other through our oneness in him.
This oneness plays out in the form of the Church universal. We are family, we belong to each other and we establish this sense of belonging through the Church. Just look at how deliberately played out this concept seems to be in the text. The beginning of the passage describes the gentiles as part of the commonwealth of Israel who can now claim a shared heritage with the Jews, and the middle section depicts the realization of a new humanity or race altogether. However, by the end of the passage it has become so much more. Now this imagery of citizenship has been complemented with the image of family. “But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” The household of God! Family is relational, it’s personal, and it’s truly intimate. The author of Ephesians is astounding readers both then and now with the kind of truth that can be pretty challenging to live out. We were made to experience intimate community. We were made to be one with creation. God wants us to love him, but my goodness, he wants us to love one another as well. And the type of intimacy that is described here in Ephesians, transcends any worldly differences.
This peace, this oneness, this relational, communal intimacy described in the text is not something God just wants us to have. We want it, too. Humanity inherently desires peace and reconciliation, though we may often seek it in our own broken ways. Look at history. Look at Winston Churchill. Nobel Peace Prize winner, honorary U.S. citizen, two-time British prime minister, named the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll. To the world, what did he stand for? What did he represent? He will go down in history as one of the greatest world leaders who was determined to fight the Nazi cause until threat no longer existed. He sought peace; he sought restoration; he sought to protect the possibility of oneness with all of humankind.
Look at pop culture throughout the years. Take beauty pageants and the token answer. World peace. Look at music. Michael Jackson sang about peace and unity in various songs. In one song he declared, it doesn’t matter if your black or white. In another he sang, heal the world. Make it a better place for you and me and the entire human race. Somewhere over the rainbow described the possibility of a better life existing. John Lennon imagined a world with no possessions, no needy people, where everyone was united in shared brother and sisterhood, but where there was no heaven, no hell, no… religion. Ouch.
See that’s the difference between God and man. From our view it’s tainted; religion, the Church. And if I’m honest, I think we have pretty good grounds for feeling that way. But it doesn’t start with religion and it doesn’t start with the Church. It starts with God. And if I remember correctly, he, too, was broken. He, too, felt the pains of religious division, and he, too, experienced the scrutiny of unfair judgment. And yet, he is not broken, and he is not divisive, and he chooses mercy over judgment time after time after time. All of those things that we tend to attribute to religion or to the Church, they might be those things, but God is not.
Dr. Ngan, one of my favorite professors at Truett Seminary and an amazing Old Testament scholar in her own rite, would constantly refer to God as having a marshmallow heart, and it is so true! The Bible and undoubtedly tradition and experience as well show God as constantly being merciful in undeserving situations. And yet his mercy isn’t weak and it doesn’t lessen the truth of the call in this text. Rather it solidifies our call to be one with each other and to recognize that this oneness takes its shape and form in the Church. And as time has shown us this isn’t an easy task. We have sought it out in human wars; we have sung about it and created major movements throughout history. We have failed again and again, and we have grown frustrated with the seemingly impossible task of finding peace and unity with one another. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter how tired we get. It doesn’t change the words in the text. They still ring true. Their redemptive spirit continues to cross religious, denominational and theological divides, and it challenges us all to oneness with each other.
And when we doubt it, we go back to the authority of the text. What is the text doing here? What is significant that we might not have recognized before? For one, look at the example that is given to us for what seems like an unattainable conquest for unity. The Jews and the Gentiles. I mean, the writer couldn’t have been speaking to a tougher, more unwilling, unlikely crowd. It’s almost as if he knew this letter would be passed on throughout history, and he really wanted to set the bar high. If they could do it, anyone could do it! And how did he get them to listen? By getting them to remember. He contrasted their present hope with their past hopelessness. He reminded them of the things of God, of the things they get to be a part of now. He presented them with a shared heritage to delight in.
We can do that, too. We can think back on our past experiences that brought us right to this very moment in our lives. We can reflect on the good and bad things that have shaped our present realities. We can remind ourselves of who we were when we had no hope and who we were when we first met God. We can think about those people in our lives who have been Christ to us, who changed us; who made us want to be better. I know I can. Dad, Mom, Jann, Ashley, Lyle… Who are yours? In all of these things, we come to remember God, and it’s so, so important that we do because doing so reminds us that our own reconciliation with God more often than not occurred alongside some really important human relationships. This text, if anything, tells us that we need each other so that we can see and know God. And those differences, those pesky, frustrating, annoying differences; I think they are reminders of how big God is, and of how there is no box he can be put into.
Moreover, the spirit of the text suggests that we come to understand the importance of the present, the significance of now. It is saying, “Remember? That is who you were then. But this is who you are now.” “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” What happens now matters because the kingdom of God, as scripture shows us, is not yet, but also already. We work toward it today even knowing we cannot fully attain it on our own. We work today for the sake of those who need hope in the midst of loss and tragedy, loss that this church family knows all too well and tragedy that our country has learned all too suddenly in light of this week’s events. We work now on not giving up on the work of the Church to be a light in the darkness and ambassadors of Christ. The present matters because, like the past, it plays a part in shaping a better future.
Finally, for me, the greatest comfort of this text is the acknowledgment that we cannot do this on our own. And while it may not make things any easier or less confusing, I take comfort in the fact that the Spirit surrounds this text as it jumps off the pages and into our lives. Our access to God happens by the power of the Spirit, and the dwelling place of God is made known to the world in the image of the Church through the Spirit. Empowered, then, by the mysterious Holy Spirit, we, too, have become a part of this holy temple, and can take our place among the beauty that is Church tradition.
And it doesn’t matter how much education we have or how much money we don’t have. It doesn’t matter our age or ethnicity or gender. And there is no seniority or position to be earned in this place. Rather, Christ brings us to it through the work of the Spirit so that, as much as any other disciple or prophet in Christian history, we have become a part of this shared heritage, and it’s ours to claim. Whether its ancient tradition or contemporary Church thought, it is ours just as it was St. Peter’s or St. Paul’s or St. Lydia’s, or any other woman or man of the Church throughout time. This text tells us, we are one. And it’s an other-worldly oneness that cannot take place without the presence of the Spirit in our lives.
So I say it again as Jem said it and, and I say it with an utmost conviction. We can choose our friends but we sho’ can’t choose our family, an’ they’re still kin to us no matter whether we acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes us look right silly when we don’t.
So, may we live within the ever present truth that the nature and purpose of the Church is one of community and oneness in Christ. May we risk the vulnerability that comes with being bound to other believers day after day and year after year. May our lives with one another reflect the beauty and mystery of the Spirit’s work in us. And may we earnestly grasp onto the hope that each of us has a very specific and important place among the body of believers, that we may find unity, reconciled not only with Christ, but also with each other. Amen.