Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22
Back in the 1980’s, one of my favorite comedians was Emo Philips. A lot of his jokes are based on wordplay, which I like, and a lot of his jokes have a religious or faith aspect to them. For instance:
“When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked him to forgive me.”
“So I went to Israel, and I’m at the Wailing Wall, like a moron, with my harpoon.” I had to think about that one for a little while.
One of Philips’s jokes was voted the best religious joke of all time. I’ve told it before, but here it is again.
“Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, ‘Don’t do it!’ He said, ‘Nobody loves me.’ I said, ‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Are you a Christian or a Jew?’ He said, ‘A Christian.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, “’Me, too! What franchise?’ He said, ‘Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?’ He said, ‘Northern Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?’
He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?’ He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.’ I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?’ He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.’ I said, ‘Die, heretic!’ And I pushed him over.”
That is a particularly appropriate joke for our reading from Ephesians. This passage talks about peace, but it’s not specifically about peace among nations. It’s about peace within the congregation, peace within the church.
The basic disagreement is about whether or not Gentiles, non-Jewish people, need to be circumcised in order to be saved. The Council of Jerusalem back in Acts 15 had decided that no, they didn’t need to be circumcised, but the issue kept coming up in local settings. That’s what Paul is addressing here.
Paul starts out by describing how the Gentiles were not originally part of the covenant, how they were “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Then Paul talks about how both groups, Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians, are no longer two separate groups but one group, no longer two humanities but one humanity.
How did this happen? Through the cross. Through the shedding of Christ’s own blood. Hear Paul’s words again: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
Stan Mast says, “Note how we have been brought near. It was ‘through his blood.’ It took violence to stop the war, bridge the gap between outsider and insider, and bring peace. This counter-intuitive message is the heart of the Gospel” (See more at: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-11b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle)
While that message is the heart of the gospel, I don’t find it counter-intuitive at all. It did take violence to bridge the gap between outsider and insider. It did take the shedding of blood to reconcile the world to God. But it’s not Jesus who shed’s the blood of others. It’s Jesus whose blood is shed. Strength and power is not demonstrated by the shedding of blood; it’s demonstrated by willingly letting your blood be shed. The forgiveness of sins doesn’t come from the strong, muscular parts of Jesus’s body; rather, it comes from the wounded, weak and broken places from which the blood of redemption flows.
Through Jesus’s sacrifice, we within the congregation are made one. We within the denomination are made one. All people are made one.
That has been a central insight of the Brethren since we began in 1708. It’s wrong to shed blood. It’s wrong to go to war. It was tough for the Brethren during the Revolutionary War, as they refused to take up arms against the British. It was tough for the Brethren in the Civil War, as they would not fight for either the North or the South. It was especially difficult for Brethren who lived in the South, as the denomination was opposed to slavery. Many of us have heard the story of John Kline, a Brethren elder who traveled back and forth across the battle lines to tend to the sick and wounded and preach the gospel. He was killed by the Confederates on his way home from Annual Conference, where he had been the moderator, in 1864.
Up until the early 20th century, members of the Church of the Brethren were prohibited from service in the military and had to promise to follow the church’s teachings on this matter as a condition of membership. Andrew Pankratz writes about what it was like in World War I. “Camp life for the several hundred Brethren who refused combatant and noncombatant service proved to be a challenging ordeal. Often the ordeal began when the young Brethren would refuse to wear a military uniform or do any military work. For many of these Brethren wearing the uniform or doing any work on base meant supporting the war effort and the killing of a fellow man. By refusing to wear uniforms or perform military camp duties, the Brethren underwent harsh treatment. Some Brethren were forced to stand at attention for hours on end with the sun beating down on them, to take ice cold showers while they were scrubbed down with brooms until their skin was rubbed raw, to take long hikes at bayonet point, to undergo beatings, to submit to submersion in fecal material in the latrine (mock baptisms), and to mock executions. At least one Brethren was even tarred and feathered. On top of this, many young Brethren had to spend their first days living with the regular soldiers who did not look kindly on their refusal to carry arms. Numerous other Brethren were confined in guard barracks for days on end…
“By the end of the war 504 of the conscientious objectors (this number includes Mennonites, Quakers, Church of the Brethren, and other smaller groups) held in military camps were court-martialed. 17 of the conscientious objectors court-martialed were sentenced to death, 142 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the rest were sentenced anywhere from 5 to 99 years in jail (16 ½ years being the median). After the end of the war in November 1918, many of those imprisoned were freed in 1919. The rest of the conscientious objectors were released from prison during the first half of the 1920s.” (http://www.brethren.org/bhla/hiddengems/brethren-in-wwi.html)
Even this was not enough to change the denomination’s position. In 1935 Annual Conference declared once again that “all war is sin.” As time has gone on, the peace position has become less practiced among the members of the Brethren, and while it is still the official position of the church it is no longer enforced as a requirement of membership.
The culture has influenced the church, but at the same time the church has influenced the culture. In World War I, there was conscientious objection, but no one had actually decided what to do with the objectors. By World War II, conscientious objectors had options for alternative service specifically because of efforts of the Brethren, the Mennonites, and the Quakers. Those efforts led to the creation of the Center on Conscience and War, which our own Warren Hoover led for many years under a different name. In 1948 the denomination voted to begin Brethren Volunteer Service, which has been so important to this congregation over the years. We have three BVSers here right now, Estella and Katie and Bryan, which I think is just wonderful. We sponsor a peace lectureship in honor of Duane Ramsey from time to time.
I could go on with the history, but the history isn’t the point. Peace is the point. Peace gained not at the barrel of a gun, peace gained not through the targeting of a drone, peace gained not through the shedding of the blood of others but peace gained through faith in Christ. Christ, who allowed his blood to be shed for us. Christ through whose blood we are made one.
Recent events, from the murders of the military folks in Chattanooga to the slaughter of the nine members of Mother Emanuel to all sorts of things we read about or hear about remind us that the world is a dangerous place. There are people out there who maybe want to kill us, or even if they don’t want to kill us may do so if we get in the way of something else that they do want. There is evil in the world. There is violence in the world.
That’s why I wanted us to read the 23rd Psalm. As you know, in that Psalm we are the sheep. We find peace, with cool waters to drink and green pastures to lie down in. We are sheep, peaceful, relaxing, feeding, growing wool, taking it easy. But why? Why should the sheep be able to be peaceful? Shouldn’t we sheep be on the watch? Shouldn’t one of us keep a lookout? There are wolves. There are thieves. There are things out there that will hurt us or kill us.
No. The shepherd takes care of those things. As Jesus said in John 10, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The sheep are kept whole, kept together, kept one, by the sacrifice of the shepherd.
Conflict is everywhere. In our own homes, in our own communities, in our own congregations and denomination. Peace is what we want. Peace is what we need. In the end, peace is found through right relationship with Jesus Christ. Through his blood we are made one. He is our peace. Amen.