Friends beyond any binary

Christ breaks down the walls between all peoples, then unites them together in love. (Listen.)

Male + Female. Gay + Straight. Trans + Cis. Black + White. Neurodiverse + Neurotypical. Progressive + Conservative. Catholic + Protestant. Believer + Unbeliever. And I could go on with the binaries. We live in a world which loves to label people. Sometimes, labels can be incredibly helpful; they can provide a lens to understand ourselves and other people. But all too often, labels are used to make insiders and outsiders; they are used to exclude and condemn.

Two thousand years ago, not much was different except the labels. And the two biggies for the church at Ephesus were Gentile + Jew. Anyone who wasn’t a Jew was a Gentile. The Jews thought the Gentiles were atheists, because they worshipped handmade statues of stone and wood, not the Living God. And the Gentiles thought the Jews were atheists, because they worshipped a single, invisible God, not the multiplicity of gods which were honoured in local shrines everywhere.

So as much as possible, Jews and Gentiles avoided each other. For the most part they lived in different villages; which is why the gospel according to Mark is full of stories of Jesus crossing the lake; he is moving between Jewish and Gentile regions.

And just in case you think people don’t live like this anymore, just ask any Northern Irishman or Palestinian about how their world is divided up; or, less formally, take a look at who lives where in our neighbourhood. It’s not as stark, but there are Catholic and Protestant streets and schools and shops in Warrnambool even now.

Two thousand years ago, Jews and Gentiles didn’t worship together. Gentiles could explore the Jewish faith, but there were clear limits to their participation. When Solomon built the big temple in Jerusalem, it was laid out in sections. The high priest could go everywhere including the inner sanctum, the place where the Chest of God wound up and where many people thought God lived. Other priests could go most places, but not the inner sanctum. Men who weren’t priests could go to some places, but not as many as the priests; while women and children and Gentiles were limited to the outer courts. And if you were a eunuch or had a skin disease or were menstruating, you couldn’t go near the temple at all.

Again, just in case you think things like that don’t happen anymore, go visit another church. Some churches have areas marked off by fancy screens, where nobody except the priest can go. Other churches exclude women from the pulpit or from presiding over communion. Still other churches have a stage which is clearly off-limits to all but the worship team. Just like the ancient Temple, many churches have zones of exclusion which effectively communicate that some people are more important and closer to God than others.

Two thousand years ago, Jews and Gentiles didn’t spend time in each other’s houses, nor did they eat together: not even different foods at the same table. And just in case you think we don’t live like this anymore, let me remind you of the many churches which have barriers to the ritual meal of communion, and which refuse to serve those who aren’t baptised, or who aren’t baptised in the ‘right’ way, or who are baptised but who are gay or trans or in some other way beyond the bounds of what that church considers acceptable.

And before we get all self-righteous about our open table here at Sanctuary, let me also point out that, back when we used to share a potluck meal after the service, some people remarked on what they called the ‘health food’. Our congregation is mostly middle class, much of our food reflects this, and some people feel implicitly judged or excluded by this food. Our divisions around who we eat with and what we consume have more to do with class than religion, but it amounts to the same thing: we tend not to eat with people who are wildly different from ourselves; and we all too often judge or feel judged by other people’s eating habits.

The letter to the church at Ephesus was written to people who were grappling with issues like these in the face of a startling new reality: that in Christ, the divisions between people have been reconciled. In chapter two, the author is writing specifically about Jews and Gentiles, those two groups who would not live near each other nor worship together nor eat together. But they are now unified because, the author writes, ‘in his flesh Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between [them].’ Christ has put to death those things which have kept them apart; Christ has proclaimed peace to them all. Through Christ they have access to God through the one Spirit: nobody closer, nobody further away.

Later in the same letter, in the often misunderstood household codes, we see husbands and wives being urged to mutual respect and responsibility; likewise, children and fathers; and slaves and masters. So this letter is not just about Jews and Gentiles, but all peoples; and the writer places them on an equal footing before God: ‘for,’ he writes, ‘with Christ there is no partiality’ (6:9). There are no favourites.

In other words, Christ has obliterated all the ways labels are used to judge and distance and exclude. In Christ, nobody is a privileged insider: not ordained people, not white males, not straight people, not fundamentalists, not progressives. All those walls built by the powerful, all those fenced off areas and unspoken rules, are put to death in Christ. There are no more barriers to inclusion; no more obstacles to leadership; no more limits on communion. Instead, everybody is in it together, one body built into a dwelling place for God.

Now, for those who have never questioned their right to fully participate in church life, this mightn’t sound like much; in fact, it might sound a little threatening. Because while you’re still welcome as a precious member of God’s household, you no longer get special privileges. Instead, you now share your identity, your label, with strangers and aliens: that is, with women and children, slaves, Gentiles, queer people, poor people and all those who have often been made to feel far off from God.

But for strangers and aliens, that is, for most of us, this is very good news indeed. Because if Bible verses or religious tradition have been used to create barriers to our participation, here we are assured that the walls are torn down and all peoples are reconciled in Christ.

If concepts of holy living and righteousness have been used to make us feel unacceptable, unclean, unwelcome, here we are assured that the walls are torn down and all peoples are reconciled in Christ.

If creeds or doctrines or spiritual laws or other people’s certainty have been wielded in ways which have made it impossible for us to affirm or explore our faith, here we are assured that the walls are torn down and all peoples are reconciled in Christ.

And if church culture or church practice have been used to shame or silence us on the basis of gender, sexuality, personal history or any other label, this is good news: for here we are assured that the walls are torn down and all peoples are reconciled in Christ. And as reconciled people living in Christ’s peace, we are being built into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God.

But what does this mean practically?

It suggests to me that a healthy congregation, a truly holy temple, will be a witness to the reconciliation of all peoples. In other words, it won’t be a place of easy friendship with like-minded people; and it won’t always be comfortable. Instead, a healthy congregation will be a sometimes awkward gathering of people who probably wouldn’t know each other socially and who might not even choose each other now. But this group of people will be united by their commitment to loving one another in their glorious diversity; and it will be shaped by God’s culture of radical reconciliation. It will be a place where Christ’s peace breaks down the walls between people and then binds them together in love.

So we will have women and men and friends beyond the binary; people on disability and well paid professionals; the neurotypical and the neurodiverse; conservative people and progressive people; the chronically ill and the irritatingly well; people of faith and people of no faith and people for whom faith is a question. When we can eat together again, our potluck table will be piled high with kale and quinoa and KFC; Tip Top sliced white and organic sourdough; cheap sausages and French lentils; and we will eat heartily of them all, savouring God’s goodness and grace.

And there will be no privileged insiders. Instead, in our worship, work and play, in our prayers and in our food, in our love for one another, and in our ongoing invitation to every person to speak and pray and wrestle publicly with the Word: in all these things, we will be a witness that all people have access to God in the one Spirit. For in Christ we are all in this together, loving and unafraid of each other anymore. And as diverse people united in Christ, we form one beautiful and kaleidoscopic body, a place of God’s dwelling and delight. Ω

Reflect: How do you see this reflected in the church around you? How is it denied? Pray about it. 

A reflection on Ephesians 2:11-22 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 18 July 2021 (Proper 11 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Maria Bobrova on Unsplash.

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