Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 19th, 2015.
Summer Ephesians Series: Ephesians 2:11-22
“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” (2:17).
Every Sunday there comes a time in the liturgy when the priest standing with arms outstretched proclaims to the people, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” To which we all respond, “And also with you.” And then what happens? We all move about and greet one another with the peace of Christ. We pass the peace, as it were: “The peace of Christ,” “Christ’s peace,” “peace be with you.” Why do we do this? Why bother to pass the peace at all? What underlying condition do we suffer from that the peace of Christ is the remedy?
In his book Mere Christianity the great Anglican saint, Clive Staples Lewis, wrote that “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” An interesting image, isn’t it? Human beings as rebels who have taken up arms against God. And this rebellion it alienates, creates hostility and division between human creatures and God and at the same time creates a hostility and division between and amongst human creatures. See for example the opening chapters of Genesis. The sin of Adam, the basic human sin, is to try to set up on our own, to act as if we belong to ourselves, as if we are our own masters, writers of our own destiny. And as a result of this sin of Adam his relationship with God is cut through with enmity and they are exiled from Eden. How quickly the enmity spreads for in the very next chapter of Genesis what do we witness but Eve’s eldest son Cain kill his younger brother Abel. Division is murder. Hostility arises even between the human and the non-human creation: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”
My point is simply that these divisions and hostilities are all caught up with each other. Hostility between human creatures because hostility characterizes our relationship with God apart from Christ. We rarely see this connection, though. I mean, we know well the hostility and divisions between human creatures and even between human creatures and the non-human creation. Turn on the news, the examples they are legion. Charleston; Sarah Bland; Tina Fontaine and the thousands of other missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. But rarely do we see this hostility as a sign which points towards a greater hostility yet, that which sin creates between human creatures and the God whose love creates and sustains us.
Interestingly, though, Pope Francis made just such a connection in his recent Encyclical, Laudato Si, about the divine mandate to care for creation. Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis writes, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” For Francis, the reason for the hostility between humans and the rest of the created order is the hostility between human creatures and God. We might say, in a similar fashion, that the hostility and divisions are so great between human creatures because we persist in rejecting God’s way in favour of forging our own path.
We lack peace, we long for peace, we need peace. What then is the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe? It is Christ and his church. First, it is Jesus Christ. Just prior to our reading from Ephesians Paul wrote, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,” (2:1). That is, sin brings not only division and hostility, but also death. “But,” Paul continues, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ,” (2:4-5).
The way of the world is not the only way, there is another way to live that has been opened up to us in Jesus Christ. And this way begins as we are brought near to God: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” We are not called to set ourselves free from the division and sin that so ensnares. We cannot. This reconciling work is Christ’s, who in the mystery of his cross and his passion put to death the hostility which marks us so deeply.
Behold, in the vertical and the horizontal axis’ of the cross, the extent of Christ’s reconciling love—which at once overcomes the hostility between humans and God and the hostility amongst and between human creatures. These are not separate acts, they are the one act of the reconciling God, accomplished in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Remove one or the other axis and you do not have the cross.
And in the shadow of the cross the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead gathers us, begins to work in us, creates in us and through us that which we cannot become on our own—a community reconciled, to God, and to one another, liberated from the old way of sin and death and set on a new course with Jesus, where we, together by the power of the Spirit, begin to live into this new reality in which we are no longer divided, but one.
Life in Christ, then, means two inseparable things: it means coming into a new relationship with God and it means coming into a new relationship with others, a relationship characterized by, among other things, peace. “For he is our peace,” writes Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
I said earlier that the remedy for the division and hostility that cuts to the heart of the universe is Christ and his church. If Jesus is the obvious answer then I hope by now that it is becoming apparent how the Church factors into this. If it’s true that you can’t be reconciled to God in Christ apart from being reconciled to one another in Christ, then it’s true that you can’t ever meet Christ in all of his glory without also having to meet the common, everyday, not-always-particularly glorious Church. Christ is the head of the body, after all. Paul gives us a visual image for this at the end of our passage this morning. Christ is the cornerstone of the holy temple which is being built up out of those who are in Christ, a dwelling place for God (2:19-22).
Part of what Paul is saying in Ephesians, I think, is that the Church is a community which, by God’s grace, has been set apart, called to order our lives in a distinct sort of way around the risen Jesus. To be in Christ then, is to be in the Church, for it is just here in this community of imperfect people that the love of the reconciling God is poured out in a tangible way in the sacraments and witnessed to as we are reconciled one to another and joined to those whom we previously would have been alienated from. When we think of what we do here at St. Cuthbert’s, all of the groups and various meetings that take place, all of the money and other resources that we spend—is this all ordered towards the mission of the reconciling God?
Of course, the church itself is imperfect and marked by all sorts of division and hostility (that’s a whole other sermon), and so we need to always be confessing our sin as we live into this unity which is a gift to the Church in Christ, for the sake of the world.
And on that note, it’s worth returning to where we began, with the passing of the peace. If we are to be a community that passes the peace of Christ to one another and further extends this peace out into the world then let us note just where the peace comes in the liturgy. In both the BCP and the BAS the peace comes after we confess our sin and receive absolution and before we share the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. In other words, the passing of the peace is situated in just such a way that our gaze is drawn to the cross, where in Christ’s own self-giving we see the fullness of grace: the result of our sin but also the means of forgiveness; the result of our hostility but also the means of our peace; Christ’s body given and blood shed for us, through which the Spirit gathers us into one body that we might be a community of God’s reconciling love in the world. Amen.