Written by Pastor Ed
A Renewed Peace Church Builds Bridges
September 23, 2017
MWC Peace Sunday
Ephesians 2: 11-22
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Frost says and yet we humans have built walls for centuries. The Great Wall of China was built over numerous dynasties to keep people out as was Hadrian’s Wall built in the first century AD in northern England to keep the Scots out. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in as are numerous other walls. Some walls serve both purposes, or it’s not clear which it is, like the Israeli Wall which separates Palestinians from their land and jobs. We hear a lot about walls these days.
And walls are not just physical, but also metaphorical and mental. We erect unseen walls that are just as hard or harder to cross as physical ones. A building with lots of steps and no elevator has erected a wall to those in wheelchairs. When everyone assumes that everyone else knows which doors are open, or how things work, it creates a wall for the newcomer. Our language as well as our actions can create walls.
Yet one of the powerful images in our scripture for today is that of Jesus as the wall breaker. “(He) has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2: 14) In fact, that is the heart of the message in this first whole section of Ephesians. The book of Ephesians is carefully structured in what is called a chiasm, with chiasms within chiasms. I won’t go into details, but perhaps it can best be explained with this chart which shows the structure of the first three chapters of Ephesians. There is a symmetry which focuses on a central theme.
Chiastic Structure of Ephesians 1–3
A Eulogy – in praise of God 1:3–14
B Thanksgiving and prayer for church 1:15–23
C Salvation for both Jews and Gentiles 2:1–10
D CHRIST IS OUR PEACE 2:11–22
C1 Salvation for both Jews and Gentiles 3:1–13
B1 Prayer for church resumed 3:14–19
A1 Doxology – in praise of God 3:20–21
So, the passage we read from Ephesians 2: 11-22 is the focal point for this chiasm. And then within those verses there is the same kind of structure, as seen here.
As Tom Yoder Neufeld points out in his commentary on this passage, the outer frame draws a sharp contrast between before and after. It begins by reminding the Gentiles that they were once “strangers and without God.” It’s how the Jews saw the Gentiles. “We” are in and “You” are out. There were clear lines drawn. But the corresponding part of the outer frame declares that “you” are no longer strangers, but in fact are “built into a dwelling place for God.” (2:22)
The inner frame is not held together by a contrast, but rather by the action of Christ in drawing together the “far and near.” These words call to mind a passage from Isaiah 57:19 in which the prophet declares “Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord.” Christ has accomplished this through the giving of his life as well as through his proclamation of peace, calling to mind another verse from Isaiah, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.” (Is. 52:7)
While Isaiah was speaking to the exiles who were far away, the writer of Ephesians is speaking of the Gentiles who were seen as far from God, but have now been joined together with those who were seen as near, so that together they would have access to the Father.
And then we come to the heart of this passage, “For he is our peace.” (2:14) Now certainly many of the images here are not all that peaceful. Breaking down walls, hostility, and the cross are all words that conjure up violence and destruction. And yet, in the very act of that violence, the walls are broken down, hostilities are overcome and cease, and the cross becomes the symbol of something new, one body. It is no longer “us” and “them” but it is “we.” We together have become a new household and temple in which God dwells.
Now let’s remember that when this was written, the feelings of Jews toward Gentiles was probably about like the feelings between modern day Israelis toward Palestinians. Or to bring it closer home between the Neo-Nazi white supremacist groups toward racial minorities. I remember Millard Lind telling the story of asking an Israeli women what her dogs name was, and she said “Goyim,” Hebrew for Gentile! The writer in Ephesians simply calls it the “hostility” much like the “Troubles” of N. Ireland. To suggest that in Christ these two groups were now brought together and shared the same relationship to God was a radical notion, one which I’m sure some argued against vehemently. We can surmise that by all of the NT writings that make the same point.
Peace, the bringing together of disparate groups into one body, is at the heart of the Gospel message. Christ is our peace, not building walls, but rather building bridges, closing the gaps and making something new. It’s not only a radical idea, but can also be a risky one when we begin to live it out. The Mennonite church in Quito, Ecuador was a clear example of this when we visited there in 2007. One of their ministries was to refugees fleeing from the fighting in neighbouring Colombia. Since the pastors at that time were from Colombia, it was a natural outreach.
But they soon discovered that, as is often the case, people from both sides of the fighting were among those who came. Previous enemies were now sitting in the circle to worship together. It was a powerful testimony to hear them say, “In Christ, we are no longer enemies but are now part of the body of Christ, the church and we are now ambassadors for peace.”
To quote Tom Yoder Neufeld,
“To confess Christ as “our” peace is a confession we do not make by ourselves. Jesus is most faithfully confessed alongside those we would just as soon keep at arm’s length, who threaten or disturb our “comfort zone,” whether we think of ourselves as individuals or as congregations. To be “born again” is never a solitary experience. We are born together into the “new human” together with our enemies. So be careful! The chain of peace, with which we are tied to each other and to Christ (4:3), more often than not chafes.”
At the Mennonite World Conference Assembly 2 years ago, one of the themes we heard again and again was that we need each other in the church. Despite our differences, or maybe because of our differences, it is important to build bridges to those who are not only far away, but to those close at hand that are different than we are, even those we might rather ignore. And that also includes those whom we may see as “strangers and without God.” They were the ones that Ephesians says have now been brought near, or perhaps we should say, are still being brought near through Christ. The message wasn’t just to the Jews of the 1st century who were having a hard time accepting those “heathen” Gentiles. It is also a message to us, that Christ is still breaking down walls and building bridges to create something new, a new dwelling for God, where we are no longer strangers, but as the song said, members of one family, the household of God.
Who is it that we need to build bridges to? Who are those whom we might consider “strangers and without God” in their lives who Jesus is calling us to embrace as brothers and sisters? Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Calgary Inter-Mennonite as they celebrated 20 years as a welcoming community for LGBTQ persons and we heard stories from those who had been rejected by their own congregations and thankfully had found a place of worship with CIM. They too claim Christ as “our peace.”
Or perhaps it is the ultra-right wing group who also claims Christ. Or perhaps it is the street person, the First Nations person, the Muslim or Jew, the list could go on. Can we consider how to build bridges?
Let me close with just one of the stories that was included in the packet of material for this Sunday from Mennonite World Conference. This one comes from Jennifer Otto, an MC Canada Witness worker in Germany.
Piecing together community –Jennifer Otto (Germany)
During Europe’s last great refugee crisis in the aftermath of World War II, Mennonites sent quilted comforters, food and other supplies to German families beginning the long, hard process of rebuilding after war. Today, Europe is experiencing a new refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan seek security and a sense of belonging in countries like Germany. Differences in language, culture and religion can all too easily become barriers to integrating into a new community, leading to fear and resentment from citizens of the host country, and isolation and hopelessness for newcomers. At the Friedenshaus (“Peace House”) in the industrial city of Ludwigshafen, we strive to build community and learn peace, incarnating a space where Germans and longer-term immigrants can get to know their new neighbours. One concrete way we live our mission statement is through our quilting group. Every Monday evening, a group of 12–20 quilters (mostly women) gather to cut fabric, sew squares and knot comforters to be donated through Mennonite Central Committee to refugee camps in the Middle East. We come from diverse backgrounds, including members of the local Mennonite congregation born in Germany and Canada; recent refugees from countries like Syria, Egypt, and Palestine; and longer-term immigrants from Iran and Iraq. We are Christian, Muslim, Baha’i and agnostic. We range in age from middle-schoolers to octogenarians, and everything in between. We speak German, English, various Arabic dialects, and Farsi. And we are all novice quilters. We make mistakes and must figure out how to fix them. Together, we are learning how to make blankets that will be sources of warmth and hope for others. But we’re also learning how to communicate through barriers, support each other and be comfortable around one another, forming relationships that will help to foster a culture of peace, mutual respect and openness in our neighbourhood and in our city.