"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“Therefore, remember” – rough draft (still far too long)

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Pentecost +8 Ephesians 2:11-22 and Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56; July 19, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Our epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians brings us a powerful and concise image of what it is that we are to be as a community of faith.  Some have called this text the most significant ecclesiological text of the entire New Testament – ecclesiology being the study of how the community of faith exists.  I want to focus on this text today for two reasons – as a community we’re about to start a season of renovation and repair on our physical building.  When such things happen within a community of faith, it can quickly become the defining factor of who we are…so to be clear, we are not a building, but part of the mystical body of Christ that exists here, and wherever 2 or 3 gather in the name of Christ.  That has nothing to do with the physical infrastructure that keeps the rain off our heads while we sing.  Second reason, we live in a highly secularized culture and the text today explicitly tells us who we are to be in the midst of that culture.

Paul begins this snip today with the words, “Therefore, remember…” and my goal today is to walk through a sermon of remembrance, a call to be who Christ has made us, and not what we or the world think that entails.

Back in April this year, there was a decision by our Supreme Court to ban the use of Christian (and Roman Catholic) prayers in the city council of Saguenay and to require the removal of a crucifix and a statue of the sacred heart of Jesus.  This all unfolded as a result of a human rights complaint made by an atheist who often attended city council meetings and objected to having Catholic faith practiced in a secular, municipal government setting.  Shortly thereafter, our Edmonton city council also ceased the practice of public prayer before council meetings.

There was some outcry from Christian groups against this change, although I have to admit that I greet most of these sorts of events in the secular world with a shrug.  The reason I am cavalier about whether or not a city council prays before a meeting, is because I do not believe it matters one bit to the faith, and I think a good case can be made that public, secular institutions like municipal governments should not be inviting prayers from any faith tradition into its midst.  I’m particularly comfortable with that perspective because I have a very good idea about what we are as a community of faith, which is Paul’s principle goal we hear in this discourse from Ephesians.  Let’s spend another moment discussing the secular world before we dive into the text.

We have benefited for the past several hundred years from the idea of Christendom, a state founded in Christian principles, that has been the dominant mode of being in the western world basically since the early medieval period to the modern period.  We still hear the after-echoes of that concept coming to us through history, and one of the places it was hanging on into April 2015 was around the idea of prayer having an integral place in our government processes.

I’m old enough to remember as well the days when all students stood every morning in school, recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang O Canada and God Save the Queen.  I also remember a sense of sadness when those practices were stopped, not so much because it was another ending of Christendom, but because it was something I had done daily as a child.  Christians often lament those sorts of events as the end of faith in the public square – but it raises the question if faith should have ever been in the public square in the first place?  Christendom arose out of the juxtaposition of the church and the state into one geopolitical apparatus that was used to effect the will of the sovereign.  This carries with it many challenges to the faith which I’m not going to engage except to point out one of the most frequently discussed – what does the church do when the state wages war?  From Constantine onwards the answer to that question has often been the church’s role is to endorse the warfare of the state as righteous and serving the will of God.  We can hear some continued echoes of that relationship in our brothers and sisters to the south, where the Protestant Christian right is sometimes indistinguishable from a political group, and I can’t help feel uncomfortable every time I hear a politician say something like, “God bless America” or “God bless Canada”.

The danger in this sort of relationship is that it allows us to avoid the real, radical call to community that exists in the call to follow Christ.  We are told quite directly that our role is to submit to the rulers of the state, because they have been put in place by God and, even if unbelievers, will ultimately serve the will of God (Romans 13).  That same text does not tell us that our rulers are supposed to lead us in a form of theocracy, in fact the text is rather indifferent to who the rulers might be or even what they might do, including persecuting the church.  What the text is all about is what people of faith do.  That indifference is one of the reasons why prayer in city council is not really that important to me.

There’s a greater reason for my preference that prayer not happen in public places except in the context of a community of Christ.  What is it we do when we pray as a group with one person leading the prayers?  The leader puts to voice the prayers of the community before the throne of the Almighty, so prayer is always a corporate action of the body of Christ.  Now, if you put that prayer into a secular context, like a school classroom or a city council meeting, what is being done?  The gathering of people there are not all believers, and in today’s Canada may be followers of other faith traditions.  The gathering will include atheists and agnostics.  How then are the words of the prayer putting to voice the petitions of the community, when there is no Christian community?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas put this forth clearly when he was asked to pray at a gathering honouring a Christian novelist, Reynolds Price, in the context of a luncheon at a university.  He at first refused because Hauerwas rejects quite directly what he calls ‘civil religion’, the use of Christianity to dress up secular communities, usually just to add solemnity to an otherwise secular event.  Then he decided he could do it, and wrote quite a dramatic prayer titled, “Addressing the God who is not the ‘Ultimate Vagueness’”.  Listen to his prayer as an example of why I’m so uncomfortable with prayer in secular settings:

God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. Amen.

Prayer in a secular context is incorrect because it is not voicing the wishes and burdens of a Christian community (Stackhouse: “prayer is a ritual meant to express a single sentiment on behalf of a unified group to a deity they wish to petition.  It isn’t an exchange of views such as a university debate”).  I recall a week I was on a course on addictions counselling in Winnipeg, while I was still serving on a fighter squadron.  That’s where I was on September 11th.  When we heard the news part-way through the morning of the World Trade Centre collapse, I was asked by one of the instructors, who was a sister in the faith, if I would lead the group in a prayer.  I did, but have realized since then that the prayer was less about lifting up the will of a community of faith before God, and more about putting to voice the concerns of a classroom full of soldiers about what the future would bring to each of us and our families.  A couple of other believers thanked me afterwards for my intercessions on their behalf, but the vast majority of people in that room merely edited out my references to God and Jesus and hung instead on my words as a source of comfort and solace.  Now, how would that make you feel, as a leader of prayer, to discover that the majority of your audience ignored the faith parts and hung on your words as a source of comfort rather than turning to the One God as the ultimate comforter?  Maybe that’s a good reason to talk about a tragic event that will change all our lives, but maybe not the best circumstance to pray to a God that most of the listeners do not believe in.

The Supreme Court’s conclusion in that case about Saguenay was that the provision for freedom of religion in our Charter did not permit public institutions like city councils to define themselves as Christian (or Muslim or Hindu for that matter).  Freedom of religion does not permit the secular state to re-define itself as a theocracy, and that’s a reason to give thanks to God.  I know, as a student of history, that one of the things we’re guaranteed to do when God enters our discourse in governance is to figure out how to use God as a tool to acquire greater power for ourselves.  And before we get too righteous about our courts taking away our right to prayer as a fundamentally un-Canadian thing to do, we should stop and consider that there were once laws in place to stop our indigenous brothers and sisters from practicing their faith.  We don’t want the secular institutions of our secular world imposing what they believe to be the proper faith on anyone.

Now, what does this diversion through secular life have to do with we as the Body of Christ – the answer is lots, particularly if we want to avoid falling into the traps that the secular world presents to us.  We are called to be something particular, and something particularly apart from the secular world.  In a discussion with a colleague the other day he mentioned that he thought a job change would be coming up in the near future, because after a number of years in one place he thought he was now performing the one act that God had brought him to that place to perform…which meant he would be changing jobs in the near future.  I was quite taken with this idea that our secular employment, ultimately, is just a tool through which God brings us into contact with other people who we need to minister to.  A radical concept, suiting a radical community of faith.

Onto the text.  This short snip of eleven verses contains a dramatic description of what it is that we are being here today.  I’ve summarized the textual analysis on the handouts so you can follow the greater structure that I’m outlining.  Paul sets up his analysis in three sections: the first talks about what we were, the second talks about what Christ did, while the third tells us what we are now, on the down-stream side of Christ’s sacrifice and our individual decisions to follow Jesus.

So, what were we?  Paul outlines a divided world, a world that is made up of Jews, who are the people of the covenant, and everyone one else: the horizontal dynamic here is Jew versus Gentile.  This two-faced view of the world reflected the Jewish perspective pre-Christ, a world of those who were in covenant (the circumcised) and those who were not, and indeed could not be in covenant (the uncircumcised).  That distinction, Paul states, was one made entirely by human hands.  The word used in the Greek for ‘made in the flesh’ is the same word used to describe the production of idols for people to worship, as opposed to the work of God.  What that dynamic set up was a litany of exclusions for the Gentiles.  Note the language of isolation that is used here to describe each of these consequences: in opposition, separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope, without God.  Note also the dynamic set up here around the role of the flesh – the identity of both the Jews and the Gentiles were set up horizontally by the flesh…so you knew a Gentile was not a Jew literally because of the covenant of Abraham and circumcision.  This is a horizontal dynamic of separation and distinctiveness that will be undone by the coming of Christ.

The description now pivots on the disjunctive word ‘But’ in verse 13, and this is a cosmic but describing what Christ did.  Because of the blood of Christ, those who were far off have been brought near…reflecting an understanding that unity in the faith has the result of removing distinction and boundaries.  This happens because Christ himself is our peace.  An interesting comment.  We usually think about Christ bringing peace, or ending strife, but here we hear that the Prince of Peace is in fact peace incarnate.  He is walking, breathing peace with two legs.  That peace has made us one.

Now, I mentioned the first section of the reading starts with this image of horizontal separation between Jew and Gentile.  Christ’s peace has removed the horizontal separation by making all people one.  Now there is no more Jew or Greek or Gentile, but only one in Christ Jesus.  This distinction in the flesh is now destroyed by Christ’s flesh which has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility”.  In the temple in Jerusalem there was an outer court known as the Court of the Gentiles.  This was the area of the temple where non-Jews could enter and conduct business.  This was separated from the inner precincts and the sanctuary by a wall, that was marked with signs that warned Gentiles to not enter the inner areas of the temple on pain of death.  Jesus comes, in the flesh, and the effect of that flesh is to remove the literal dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.

Jesus’ action continues to remove another distinction, being the place of Torah, the Law by bringing a new law to all believers.  He does this by literally creating in himself one person, where before there were two.  So this Jew comes and by his sacrifice for all people, becomes the representative person of the new way, this new unity in Christ.  This is the reason we say Christ has gone before us, trampling down the gates of death and bringing life to all believers.  As the representative person who has undone the separation of before, he has walked to pathway to heaven to open it to all believers.  This reconciliation brings together Jew and Gentile in one body, the one body that we will share around the Lord’s table this day.  Jesus did this by preaching peace to all both far and near.  This eliminates the horizontal separation that previously existed between Jew and Gentile, the near and far, two bodies separate, by bringing them together in one body in Christ.

I’ve spoken about this horizontal separation that existed, but there was also a great vertical separation in existence.  The Jews, as people of the Covenant, had a particular agreement with God the Father as to what it meant to be a people set apart.  This was the Torah, the Law and the Prophets that set out how it was that a Jew was to live as a person set apart.  There was still separation vertically, as following Torah did not permit you to come into a personal relationship with the Creator.  Such an idea would be considered blasphemous (as you can see when Christ announces himself as the Son of God – Matthew 26:65).  For the Gentiles, there was no path to the Creator except to convert to Judaism and to become a person of the Covenant, but that would only get you part way into that relationship.  There was a vertical separation for both groups.

Now, the unified group, that One Body, is also brought into a different relationship vertically.  At verse 18, the result of all this bringing together, all this breaking down, is to permit us, through Christ, with access in one Spirit to the Father.  The horizontal separation is gone, and the vertical separation is gone.  Now all live as One Body in communion with the One God.  There is still an “un-finishedness” about this all as the end of the story has not yet played out – the one where we will all dwell with God in a city made not by human hands, but by God.  But, the reality of our present is that both the horizontal and vertical separations have been done away with by the action of Christ Jesus.  Truly a story of Good News.

Now, I’m coming to the part that is most exciting of all, where we hear Paul describing what the implication is for we people of faith, as in what we are now, living downstream of Jesus.  The first assertion is most interesting of all.  It is unfortunately not translated using the word which I prefer in place of alien, which is sojourner.  You are no longer strangers and sojourners.

The word ‘sojourner’ has a very specific meaning in Hebrew thought.  This comes from a Hebrew word, ger, that refers to a temporary dweller or a non-citizen that is dwelling in a foreign land.  Hebrew law contained specific protection for the sojourner, I think at least partly because one of God’s calls to the nation of Israel was to remember that they had been sojourners and strangers for most of their history before claiming the promised land.  That is, to be a Hebrew was to have a specific recollection as to what it meant to be a people disposed and without a country.  The cycle of Hebrew ritual recalled this narrative, and so we still see the Passover feast as a remembrance of how the Israelites were “passed over” by the angel of death in Egypt.  To be a sojourner meant some protection, but it did not make you a citizen.  The place this clearly comes through is in Genesis 23:4, when Abraham is asking for a plot of land in which to bury his wife, Sarah.  Abraham is offered the land for free by the host nation of the Hittites, but refuses the gesture and instead insists on purchasing the land for a fair price.  When he replies, he says this: “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place…”  This is the passage that Paul is recalling for his listeners, and it is a distinction sometimes lost in the translation.

Now the reason Abraham insists on purchasing the land, is that accepting it for free from the Hittites would place him as a citizen in the land.  This was not yet to be, for the nation of Israel was not yet ready to claim Canaan, and so Abraham remained as a stranger and a sojourner and purchased the land for the burial of his beloved.

This is an important point for us to understand what it is that Paul has been speaking of, since his concluding passage about what we are now begins with this assertion: We are no longer strangers and sojourners, because we are now fellow citizens with the saints, and with all the members of the household of God.  This is the point on which my opening words on public prayer by secular bodies comes back in to the discourse.  Our citizenship is not of this world, or this country, or this city, but rather with the people of God.  Prayer is the particular language of the people of God, and it is only publically at home with the people of God.

This is not to say you should not bring prayer into your circles of secular friends and acquaintances, into your place of business or work, to the gym for your workouts.  Rather, it’s to say that prayer in the secular context is properly the practice of the individual believer.  As an example, in my day job I perform appeal work for the workers’ compensation system.  You don’t get much more secular that my day job.  We make decisions engaging fundamental issues of justice and marginalization for people who are sometimes in horrific situations – I have always considered my work there to be a social justice ministry.  But, as a servant of the secular state, that doesn’t mean that at the start of an appeal hearing I publically pause, on the record, for a prayer.  I work with a mix of believers and non-believers and people from all sorts of faith traditions.  Some of them would appreciate the prayer, some would be indifferent, and some would be outright hostile.  As a means of bringing voice to the community of believers, I could not use public prayer in a gathering such as that.  But, that doesn’t mean my presence in the workplace is not transformative.  Why?

Well, first a Christian in a secular environment is transformative because we carry the light of Christ.  It’s like wearing strong aftershave in a scent-free workplace, but far more subversive…as people can’t smell you walking down the hall.  Yet your presence changes things.  The second way I’m transformative is because I’m constantly holding the place and the people up in prayer, just usually silently.  I start every hearing with a prayer for compassion and an ear for truth and that God’s justice will be done…but I do that quietly and before I sit down with my colleagues.  I think this is a far more subversive and transformative approach, and I think this is what the people of Christ are called to be in the secular world.

The reason is because our allegiance is ultimately with another city, the City of God.  Paul’s concluding words tell us about that city.  It is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and has as chief cornerstone Christ Jesus.  Rather than being static, that whole structure is constantly growing into a holy temple in the Lord, and each of us, as members of that One Body, are constantly being transformed and conformed together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

As the Hebrews lost the temple, as One people of God we gained the possibility of personal and corporate relationship with the Creator.  This is a relationship that exists independently of the secular structures of our culture, and particularly of the structures like this building that keep us dry while we pray.  We exist independently of whatever culture we happen to live within, and we carry with us a citizenship that will bring us brothers and sisters anywhere we happen to travel.  This community of Christ, gathers from the towers of Cathedrals to the faithful praying underground (Newsboys, “He Reigns”), unified as one by the power of Christ, and constantly transforming into a home for God.

As the ground around our secular home is broken in the weeks to come, and as we hunt for parking spaces, may God remind us that we are no longer strangers and sojourners in this world, but members of a Holy people and servants of the Most High.  Amen.

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Written by sameo416

July 18, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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