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July 22, 2012

Revised Common Lectionary Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This week's reading from the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians is filled with an abundance of memorable verses. Indeed, line after line struck me as possible sermon titles:

“In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” (v. 13)
“He is our peace.” (v.14)
“He has made both groups into one.” (v. 14)
“He has broken down the dividing wall.” (v. 14)
“One new humanity in place of the two.” (v. 15)
“Putting to death that hostility.” (v. 16)
“Peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” (v. 17)
“Through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (v. 18)
“You are no longer strangers and aliens.” (v. 19)
“Members of the household of God.” (v. 19)
“With Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (v. 20)
“In him the whole structure is joined together.” (v. 21)
“Into a dwelling-place for God.” (v. 22)

This passage is full of reminders that we are one in Christ. In other words, that Christ makes unity possible; that Christ is the reason why conflict can be overcome; that Christ is the agent who brings people together.

Given that this letter was originally addressed to congregations, this would seem to be the audience that this text is most relevant for today. Thus it is easy to think of our unity or oneness in terms of the institutional church. The “you” and the “our” speaks to sisters and brothers who identify with the body of Christ at the level of the local congregation, or perhaps at a denominational or even an ecumenical level.

While church institutions may provide the context for profound experiences of unity, no doubt we can also think of many instances of disunity. We can think of groups that have broken apart, erected dividing walls, and given birth to hostility. Indeed, the history of the church since the time of Christ is a story of pain and division as well as peace and a dwelling-place for God. As the subsequent chapters of Ephesians attest, even the early church in western Asia Minor failed to live out the unity made possible by Christ.

There are times in the midst of my work with MCC when I am tempted to forget this reality. Certainly advocacy provides plenty of reminders of the failings of human institutions—governmental systems, while they may be staffed with intelligent and well-intentioned people, often seem to mess things up rather than make things better. And so I have been conditioned to view institutions with some ambivalence. At the same time, I have been conditioned to idealize the church, and I often ignore its humanness.

Throughout the Bible, God seems to view all the work of human hands with ambivalence. For example, in this week’s reading from 2 Samuel, God rejects David’s desire to build a temple, while declaring that “the Lord will make you a house” (7:11).

Thus it seems to me that the message in Ephesians is not that the church will be perfect, or even that it will always function in ways that are clearly distinct from other structures in our society. The compelling words of the second chapter should not delude us into thinking that church committees will always run smoothly or that Christians will always agree about how to best follow Jesus. After all, there are even times—for example, in Mark 6—when Jesus’ own ministry is portrayed as a chaotic and haphazard affair. Life is messy.

The point is that all our human problems have a solution: It is Christ who is our peace, not the institution of the church. The solution is a divine person who joins the structure together, not the structure itself.

Furthermore, the biblical narrative makes it clear that the peace and unity-building work of Christ is ongoing. Given the reality of sin, we can be certain that problems will continue to emerge, and will continue to require the solution of Christ’s active intervention. Christ is the agent who not only brings people together once, but who can bring them together again and again.

My prayer is that the institutions of the church will view themselves as providing a context for this intervention, intervention that is needed both within and beyond the church.

By Paul Heidebrecht, Director, MCC Canada Ottawa Office