Friday, July 27, 2012

Pentecost +8 (preaching on Eph 2.11-22 which we missed last week when we celebrated St Mary Magdalene)

When I was about 12 years old, my friend and I watched an old war movie about an escape from a POW camp – I forget the name of the movie, they tunnel out – well, to my friend and me the idea of building a secret tunnel was just so exciting – heroic, dangerous, playing the Nazis for fools, all that.  Right then and there we decided that was what we wanted to do when we grew up.  Unfortunately, the war had been inconveniently over by then for about twenty years, so we decided we were going to go over to West Berlin and build a secret tunnel under the wall, we were going to become famous for rescuing hundreds, maybe thousands of people from East Germany.

But the reality turned out to be more dramatic, more exciting than our fantasy ever could have been.  Do you remember how the wall finally came down?  It was people from both sides of the wall – the German people knew the time had come when they could knock the wall down, and they began physically attacking it with whatever they could lay their hands on – remember how there was an anxious time when it looked as though the East German authorities might still try to put this peoples' movement down by force? – then at some point they must have realised it was unstoppable and the wall was torn down.

The point is, it was never about rescuing the people of East Germany – not just about the East German people being allowed in to share what they had in the West – but about the German people – all of them – becoming something new together.  Before the wall came down both communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany were separated by more than a physical wall – it was also a wall of hostility, and ideology, and unforgotten guilt – what had to happen, and what did happen in 1989, is that they came together in a historic act of reconciliation that made them into a new people, with a new capital, a new sense of identity, and a new confidence.  This is what reconciliation is about – both sides become part of something new, something more complete than either of them could be by themselves.

I'm reminded of a poem I learned at school by Robert Frost, that starts, 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall' – and tells the story of Frost and his neighbour setting about their annual springtime task of repairing the stone wall between Frost's apple orchard and his neighbour's pine plantation.  Whenever the poet asks why they need to keep rebuilding the fence after the winter ice has broken the stones apart, his neighbour just nods and says, 'Good fences make good neighbours'. 

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall …

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians knows just what Frost is talking about.  The whole theme of this letter is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles who – up to now – have seen themselves as mutually exclusive, divided not just by culture and language but by religion as well.  Like Frost, the letter to the Ephesians sees something in the basic nature of things that isn't too pleased by the human tendency to divide the world into us and them – Frost wonders if it's just the winter ice that breaks the ancient stones apart - but for the writer of the letter to the Ephesians it's God himself who's got a thing against walls.

This letter makes a couple of very basic – but hard to swallow - claims about what reconciliation means – for a start, the writer says – it's not just about giving other people some of what you've got.  Real reconciliation means being prepared to give up some of the things that you thought were really important, but that have turned out to be part of what keeps other people fenced out.  That makes reconciliation risky – you're going to have to be prepared to be changed by the experience in ways you can't predict. 

Remember the highly charged atmosphere here in Australia during the nineties when the Keating and Howard governments introduced native title legislation in response to the Mabo and Wik cases in which the High Court ruled that Aboriginal people retained common law title to the lands they had occupied since time immemorial? There was high expectation in some quarters and high anxiety in others as the implications were contemplated.  Maybe the sky really was going to fall in.  But the eventual legislation brought in something radically new but at the same time radically self-evident – that under some circumstances – for example on pastoral leases, the rights of different groups can coexist and even complement each other, that native title and pastoral leases can coexist.  Property law became less about exclusion and more about cooperation, and I think – though there is still a long way to travel – that these changes in Australian society will eventually mark the turning point in the long painful process of reconciliation – the building of one people with a shared vision of the future.  Reconciliation means both sides being transformed into something new.  Reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, in Ephesians, means both sides get transformed into something new called the 'body of Christ'.

The other major claim this letter makes, is that there's a basic connection between reconciliation between people – horizontal reconciliation, if you like, and reconciliation between people and God.  If you've got a whopping big wall between you and other people who incidentally are also made in God's image, then – guess what? – you've also got a whopping big wall between you and God.  That, I think, is another disturbing idea.  So long as we refuse to knock down the walls that divide us from other people, we're also keeping ourselves separate from God.  And the reason for that is because in Jesus we can see that God's love isn't just for Jewish folk, or even for religious folk, but for everyone equally.  In order to have peace with God – and we need to understand 'peace' in the Jewish sense of wholeness and flourishing – to have peace with God we have to be in the business of breaking down walls of discrimination and exclusion wherever we find them.

You might not think this is too outrageous, but if you were a first century Jew you'd be appalled.  Certainly Matthew would be turning in his grave, and Luke wouldn't be too impressed about it either.  Because the wall that this letter says we have to knock down, is exactly what defines Israel as a separate covenant people, that is, the Jewish commandments or Torah.  This is the Law that Jews believed was a gift from God designed to keep them living within the circle of a covenant relationship, but now the writer of this letter says it has become a barrier to others who are excluded from the circle, and so it is a wall that has to be broken down.  It's a big claim - basically what he's saying is that relationships matter more than holiness.  In the tradition of Paul, the writer claims that Christ's offering of himself on the cross brings the whole of human life into relationship with God.  Because the initiative has been taken by God, there's no longer any basis for holding on to rules that discriminate between some people who are in the circle, and others who are outside. 

So maybe, after all, we do have something to feel uneasy about.  Because if the whole basis for belonging to God's household is breaking down of all the dividing walls that keep people out, then it's going to be a bit of a problem for us if we create new ones.  It's going to be a bit of a problem for us if we become so protective of our own sacred and holy traditions that we fail to see where God might be working outside the Church.  We – Christians as a whole and Anglicans in particular – need to repent of our power struggles and our arguments about who's got the correct interpretation of scripture, we need to repent of our readiness to judge and exclude people on the basis of gender or sexuality.  Because when we hold onto this stuff we're trading the experience of God's radical inclusiveness, and a spirituality that celebrates God's presence in all creation, for a self-centred and loveless dogma.  We argue about whether people from other religions – or people with no religion at all - are right before God, when only God can possibly know that.  It's kind of arrogant, and when we read the letter to the Ephesians we are reminded how far we all are from God, until we understand that God's family includes everything and everyone that our human squabbles divide.
In verse 12 the writer deliberately uses a term that, in the ancient world, was a deep insult. You Gentiles, he says, who were without God in the world – the Greek word is atheoi, from which of course we get atheists.  Jews referred to everyone else as atheoi, and later the pagan sophisticates of the Greek-speaking world referred disparagingly to Christians as atheoi.  Confusingly enough, in 167 CE when the elderly bishop Polycarp was under sentence of death for refusing to renounce his faith, the Roman proconsul tried to find a way to spare him.  Just shout out so everyone can hear you, he suggested, away with the atheists!'.  Polycarp refused, and instead, pointing at the proconsul himself and gesturing at the crowd, shouted, away with the atheists!'.  Of course these days it seems that atheists are the smart set, and the insult is to be called a person of faith.  But the point is that religious labelling is hate-language whichever way it is directed.
Just forget whatever it was you thought was so precious or so right about your own position, says the writer to the Ephesians.  Can't you see it's your rightness that keeps making everyone else wrong?  Can't you see that your rightness itself becomes wrong, when you hold onto it so tightly that it locks other people out?  Good fences don't make good neighbours.  Good fences just keep us all out of God's household, where we belong together.
Take the risk of being wrong.  Take the risk of being found in bad company, of being on the wrong side of the fence, of affirming nothing but the rightness of God, who loves all people equally.