“United in Christ” Colchester Federated Church, June 22, 2018, (Ephesians 2:11-22) Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest sites of Christianity.  The site is venerated as Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified) and as the site of the Resurrection.  For many Christians, this is the most important church to visit on pilgrimage in the Holy Land.  And it’s important for another reason too—the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches are the main denominations who share the space (alongside the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.)  Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi explains it like this, “Every morning around dawn, representatives of the three denominations that controlled the church—Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, and Armenian—together opened its great doors, a medieval ritual meant to ensure equal access to the building.  Then in the late afternoon, monks prayed along the route of their turf, a procession of ownership.  Sometimes the territorial defensiveness actually caused violence.  Jesus had urged the surrender of possessions, but here some of his followers tried to possess him.”[1]

As much as the denominations share this holy space, there are still some clear divisions both theologically and physically.  There is sometimes violence especially during Holy Week when groups process around the church.  If one group happens to step into another group’s part of the church and therefore interrupt their Good Friday observance it has become chaos.  It’s hard to think of something sadder than Christians coming to blows on Good Friday if someone happens to cross onto their side of a church while honoring and contemplating the death of Jesus Christ.  This is probably one of those moments where Jesus wants to throw his hands in the air at how oblivious we can be to his central message of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

However all is not lost, and something remarkable happened in the 1990s at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like all churches (including our own!), whether they are famous holy sites or churches in small American towns—the church needed a new roof.  The old dome was in danger of collapsing, so the denominations had to work together to design and create a new one.  The dome ended up being “a gold sun emanating thick rays.”  In Halevi’s words, “Looking up from the dark alcoves to that glaring monument of ecumenical cooperation, a pilgrim was reminded of the reality of oneness beyond human grasping.  High above, all our differences were dispelled in light.”[2]  It’s a beautiful sentiment and a wonderful example of cooperation to protect this holy site that means a great deal to all Christians the world over.

The division of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in general and the fistfights on Good Friday specifically points to tension when we try to achieve unity within diversity.  It can certainly happen, as we see when the denominations came together to create the new dome where differences are dispelled in heavenly light, but not without struggle.  As we continue on with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we can clearly see that there were tensions between Jews and Gentiles who were becoming part of the Jesus Movement together.  In time, the full inclusion of the Gentiles and the belief that one didn’t need to go through the rituals of Judaism (like circumcision) to be a full member of the community helped make this Jesus Movement become Christianity.  A new thing altogether was being created and the Church was forming.  Paul lovingly writes, “For he [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God.”[3]

Does it surprise us that there were various groups in the beginning of our faith?  We can perhaps appreciate this passage more than most as members of a Federated Church.  For our church is part of two denominations that share a great deal in common, but aren’t exactly the same.  And that’s not a bad thing.

It can remind us of Paul writing to the Galatians (who were really struggling with the Jews vs. Gentiles issues).  Paul wrote to those in the midst of conflict in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[4]  This doesn’t necessarily mean that distinctions don’t matter at all.  Today we would have different categories of identity, we might say that there is no longer old or young, rich or poor, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, black or white, American or Mexican—pick whatever categories you can think of that we use to proclaim our individual and unique identity and contrast it with someone else.  Think of us versus them categories that we use all the time.  And Paul would say, “Guess what, at the end of the day in the Christian community, we are one in Christ.” Our unique characteristics are here and don’t need erased, but we are united in Christ.

Now we are one in Christ, justified by faith in him, fantastic.  Does that mean we get to act however we want in this united community?  No, it doesn’t.  Because if we are really one and we work to maintain our unity, then we need to treat one another with love and respect and not cause disunity by our words and actions.  Because in Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”[5]  It matters how we treat folks since we are all members of God’s household, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” as Paul further relates.[6]  The truth is that from the beginning church folks have been diverse and have had a lot of opinions and have sometimes not behaved very well.

All of this makes me recall a story about a small, country church where the pastor called a special meeting to approve the purchase of a new chandelier for the sanctuary.  Of course, discussion took place both for and against the chandelier at the congregational meeting.  Tempers were flaring.  Finally, an old farmer stood up, and said, “Buying a new chandelier may seem like a good idea to you, but I’m against it for three reasons. First of all, it’s too expensive and we can’t afford one.  Second, there isn’t anybody around here who knows how to play one.  And third, what we really need in this church is a new light fixture.”  Sometimes we think that we know best even when we may be misinformed.  We may even think that our opinions are the only valid ones.  We may think that it’s our way or the highway.  In a text this, Paul is challenging all of that.  Talking about Christ being our peace, our cornerstone, and the one who breaks down the dividing walls between people.

Paul is trying to shake things up when the people separated themselves from one another along clear lines of difference—Jews and Gentiles.  Paul is trying to call the community to a deeper purpose, to the reality that we are all one in Christ in the Church and that faith in him is all we need.  Moreover, we had better start acting loving and kind and treat one another the way that we would want to be treated.  This passage brings up a lot of questions considering the diversity of Christianity and if it’s even possible to achieve unity within diversity.  We have Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches of Christianity.  Just getting into the Protestant branch alone, there are thousands of Protestant denominations in the world.  We tend to get very specific when defining our particular flavors of Christianity.

Here’s an example from a joke—two people met on a plane and the woman asked the man if he was a Christian.  The man responded that he was.  The woman then began an intense line of questioning, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox?” “I’m Protestant.” “That’s great, so am I. Are you Calvinist, Process, or Liberationist in your theology?” “I’m a staunch Calvinist.”  “That’s fantastic. So am I.  Are you a Calvinist Baptist or a Calvinist Presbyterian?” “I’m a Calvinist Baptist.”  “I’m a Calvinist Baptist, too, what are the odds?  Are you a Northern Calvinist Baptist or a Southern Calvinist Baptist?”  “I’m a Northern Calvinist Baptist.”  “Unbelievable! So am I, and are you a Northern Progressive Calvinist Baptist or a Northern Conservative Calvinist Baptist?”  “Well I’m a Northern Progressive Calvinist Baptist,” the man said.  And with that response the woman stopped smiling, turned away and refused to speak any further to that crazy heretic.

Friends, don’t we often have more in common that unites us than divides us?  We are so quick to differentiate ourselves from one another in the Christian community at times.  Though what Paul is trying to bring home to us then and now is that diversity is a good thing.  We don’t need to erase who we are ever.  Yet Christ breaks down the dividing wall—the hostility that can exist between us because of our differences.  For the Christian community anyway, we have to recognize that Christ is at the center of it all and is the head of the Christian Church universal.  We can resist the temptation to use our categories of personal identity, theological beliefs, or specific denominations to separate ourselves from one another to such an extent that we can’t even see all that we have in common as followers of Jesus Christ.  Not when Christ creates in himself one new humanity, thus making peace forever.  Because at the end of the day, the hope is that we can look up and out and see that our differences are dispelled in the light of Christ.  Or at least they may be one day, with the help of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, 168.
[2] Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, 169.
[3] Ephesians 2:14-16, NRSV.
[4] Galatians 3:28.
[5] Ephesians 2:19.
[6] Ephesians 2:20.