A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 28th July 2019
preached shortly after the appointment of a new Prime Minister.
Someone asked me the other day why I had chosen Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as a preaching series this summer. The answer to that question will, I hope, become abundantly clear today. I think the message of Ephesians is a message for our time.
On Wednesday afternoon our new Prime Minister stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street to set the tone of his premiership. At one level, it was a complete contrast to his predecessor – she cautious, careful and reserved, he bullish, exuberant and clearly a man in a hurry. Time will tell whether that is a matter of style over substance or not. We must pray for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But if the style was different, Boris had one thing in common with Theresa, as well as with David, Gordon, Tony, John and Margaret before him, not to mention Donald and Barack. And that was the traditional, we might rightly say formulaic, appeal to unity. The appeal to unity is a trope of political life, as predictable as it is unachievable. Politics is about competing visions for the world and, in a democracy, opposition is a necessary and vital task. It is totalitarians that can appeal to unity and expect it, and that usually by coercion.
The truth is that no political vision can really unite. True, in these fraught national times, we can usually expect a greater sense of common purpose and vision than we are currently experiencing; but, even the most basic of political ambitions – say that of increasing prosperity or greater equality – should be called into question. How to be prosperous when earth’s resources are showing signs of exhaustion? How can society be more equal, when creating opportunity for some will mean some being asked to give up their long-held privilege?
And what of a Christian vision for the world? We see in the United States and in Russia, Christians taking sometimes extreme partisan positions that, on the face of it, run counter to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Does our faith lead us to such inevitable blind-alleys when aligned to politics? Should we avoid the political world at all, as some have always advocated? And can our faith really be expressed in a single political vision around which all Christians can unite?
One of the most direct expressions of Christian vocation in the public realm is contained in Paul’s Letter to Ephesus. It cannot, and rightly should not, rightly align to any specific public policy or political philosophy. But it does say something profound about who we are as the People of God in the world, and how that identity of belonging to Jesus Christ, about which we have already heard in this sermon series, can be expressed for the common good.
Much of that finds its expression in the passage we have had read this morning. Feel free to have it in front of you. First, who are we as the People of God.
Paul expands on this question in Chapter 2 verses 11-22. First, as he reflected on who the Ephesians were before they knew Christ in last week’s passage, he does the same again, but perhaps with a more corporate view here. Instead of talking about individual believers and how we become incorporated into the life of Jesus Christ through grace, which was the theme of those first ten verses, now the difference is one of Jewish and Gentile identity. He’s writing to Gentiles here – non-Jews (himself as a Jew who has come to see that God’s purpose in Jesus is to bring Jew and Gentile together). Remember, he says, who you were: outside of Christ. You didn’t belong to him, he says. He uses the image of circumcision, the outward mark of belonging to God in the Old Testament, as a sign of the separateness of the Gentiles. They were outside of God’s promises, God’s covenant. And because they were outsiders, they had no hope.
But now, he says in verse 13, but now all that has changed. Through the death of Jesus, through his unrepeatable sacrifice, you too have come under God’s promises, accessed not by circumcision, but by faith (this last point is made earlier in verse 8, but it is implicit in Paul’s argument). Now, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down by Christ. He has made us one. This dividing wall image is a powerful one for those of us who have grown up with the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain. Today, an enormous Separation Wall (or Barrier if you are Israeli, even such a word has political meaning) snakes between Israel and Palestine, a sign of lack of trust and of permanent suspicion and hostility. It’s an image of separation, one worth pondering as we face profound questions about the Northern Ireland border by the way. Writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, the Anglican bishop of Clogher, whose diocese straddles the Republic and the North, quoted these words by the 19th century historian, Macaulay about Ireland and its history, “the molten lava of the past flows hot and dangerous under the thin crust of the present”. Dividing walls betoken danger, unspoken threat and the potential for violence.
But, in Christ, says Paul, such walls between ancient divides are broken down. He is our peace. No longer do we have to access him through the ancient Jewish Law (symbolised in this passage by circumcision); now we are reconciled to him, in place of two groups, only one exists. This is a verse and a sentiment expressed regularly in our worship, when the priest says, “Christ is our peace, he has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. We meet in his name and we share his peace.” The peace we share with one another, is an expression of the peace we enjoy from Christ, peace with God and, through Christ, a new, single humanity. This is who you are now, Ephesians, says Paul. This is who you are now, says Scripture, to us. We now enjoy the same access to God as anyone else who calls upon his name. Our relationship with one another in the church transcends all the barriers we put up between ourselves – race, gender, class, prosperity, religious heritage, etc etc, When the church speaks in the public square, it does so not as a group of people with a common set of cultures and habits, and not as the Conservative Party at prayer (as we used to be called) or the Labour Party at Mass (as we sometimes have been called in more recent times) or even Remainers at Worship (because by a significant majority those who worship regularly in English churches voted Remain). None of these will do. We speak in the public square as Christ’s One People, sharing his unity, whatever politics or policy might be being addressed. None of us can unChurch those who share alternative views, however convenient it might be. Unity isn’t some political slogan, spoken ritually by every politician on the cusp of power. Unity is our DNA. It is who we are.
Which leads to the second point of this passage from Ephesians, which is about it means to be a missionary church. At the heart of the Christian message as Paul expounds it in these verses is the idea of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another. The latter is a natural consequence of the former: a desire to be reconciled with those who are different from us flows from the fact that we have been reconciled with God. For if you and I have been given the gift of God’s amazing love, if (as we heard last week), “we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life,” then at the heart of those good works is the ministry of reconciliation. This is a hugely challenging area, of course, for we have come to invest in many aspects of our identity as fundamental to what it means to be human beings. Many of those things define us, often in unrealised ways. Our gender, our nationality, our politics, our upbringing, our income level, and many other things are invested with enormous importance and, when combined with the human tendency to sin, or to fall short, these things can so easily become a source of division. In our current climate, some have invested themselves far more than is healthy in a form of national identity that cloaks itself in the Union Jack above all else, while others, perhaps waving the EU flag with equal energy, unquestioningly support a certain sort of internationalist economic model. But when either thing becomes a barrier to seeing the humanity of the other, when (whether through foolish rhetoric or more sinister intent) one side demonises the other, then the genuine danger of conflict and violence is all too real. It is therefore doubly tragic that it is Christian faith that has been the megaphone through which words of division have been shouted in Ireland for a century, so very far from the message of reconciliation that is at the heart of what it means to be a public Christian and a Christian church in the world.
But let a more hopeful story in the face of tragedy demonstrate what it might mean for the Church to live out its own reconciliation with God and one another in the world. The tragedy of South Sudan’s birth as a nation has been widely-reported (although how much human need goes unreported as we talk endlessly about Brexit?). The civil war, following on from the crisis in Darfur, has seen vast numbers of human atrocity, the details of which are probably too horrific to mention with children in earshot. In the face of that, it has been the churches – the large Roman Catholic and the much smaller Anglican Church of South Sudan – that have borne the brunt of care, and (thanks be to God) on the whole remained united in the face of such terrible division. It is the churches who have been instrumental in brokering a peace deal. For some time now, both Catholic and Anglican work in reconciliation has been going on, much of it supported by the Archbishop of Cantebury’s reconciliation team. Mrs Welby has been instrumental in working with South Sudanese women to try and help them to bridge gaps and to provide support. Late last year, Archbishop Justin approached the Pope to ask him for help in supporting the reconciliation work going on and, together, they invited the warring South Sudanese leadership to the Vatican for what was called a ‘spiritual retreat’. During the retreat, each participant was given a bible inscribed with the words, ‘seeks that which unites. Overcome that which divides.” At the end of the retreat, Pope Francis knelt before the leaders of South Sudan and washed their feet, saying “As a brother, I ask you to remain in peace. I ask you from my heart, let’s go forward. There will be problems, but do not be afraid.” Later this year, the Pope and Archbishop Justin hope to make a joint visit to South Sudan, to see if they can continue to encourage the divided parties to continue their efforts to prevent a return to atrocity, and to encourage reconciliation. It should not go without notice that, in these two men, divided theologically by a religious division that has lasted 500 years and whose own church’s histories are littered with the bodies of those casualties of that division, in these two shine an example of how reconciliation not only takes time and effort, but also is an essential element of what it means to be part of the One Body of Christ. That is Paul’s vocation for the church – to be a people of reconciliation.
For the Church to be such a People, and for you and I to be a reconciled people of reconciliation, we should ask ourselves about our own work. Are we able to model in our living what it means to be a person reconciled to God? Are we able to model what it means to be a person seeking reconciliation with others, with whom we might be divided? Are we able to promote reconciliation between divided parties, and by our actions prevent such division from returning . You will all, I’m sure, be able to think of situations where to be reconciled and to be a reconciler could be an enormous gift.
And for our national crisis? Whether we are, to quote the Prime Minister, a “doomster or a gloomster” when it comes to Britain’s future outside Europe or whether, like his critics, we fear the country is about to sign an economic, social and cultural suicide note, a Christian vocation will not allow us the privilege of allowing such views to be the last word on the matter. Instead, as reconciled people seeking reconciliation, we are to be people who do ‘all that makes for peace and builds up the common good’. Whatever our future holds, that will remain our task, promoting peace, building up where others have torn down, promoting unity while remaining united ourselves. Whatever happens beyond 31st October that will always be our call as Christians. As we break bread today, as we feed on him whose body was broken that we might be whole, let us pray for unity and reconciliation, resolve to be people of reconciliation in our own lives in the coming weeks, and give glory to him who has reconciled us in one body by the cross. Amen.