Proper 11 (16), Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
18 July 2021

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

When we were living in Abbotsford there was an annual bike ride for diversity. It was probably a good idea in a community a friend of mine calls the buckle of the Bible Belt, even though my experience is that the rapid growth of the last three decades has changed and diversified that community significantly.
Someone I bumped into at a friend’s house was involved in this bike ride and I wondered what kind of diversity people had in mind. I didn’t say anything because that would have been heretical. However, my point now is the same as back then, diversity covers a lot of ground. The term itself means nothing other than difference, and if I was holding up diversity as a value in and of itself, I may as well include those whose views differ from mine, though I am certain that that was not intended by the organizers of the bike ride.

I understand that the concept of diversity has the important goal to accept and value people for who they are, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, or class. I most certainly support that goal and it is an important counter to the pursuit of homogeneity, where we seek people to be the same, or think the same, or look the same.
And if you think that that is an exaggeration, I ask you whether you have ever decided not to raise a topic or participate in a conversation because you knew that those whose conversation you had joined sought agreement and you decided not to rock the boat. This does not have to be in the political arena but could as well have been at a family gathering, or at a Bible study at church.
I can check all three.

And so what you have in societies and communities is centrifugal forces pulling things away from the centre, and centripetal forces that pull people toward the centre. And for a society to remain together, there needs to be a balance of both. Enough centrifugal force to allow for diversity of disposition and views, and enough centripetal force for people to remain a community, to remain together.
A family, an organization, and a nation need to know what it is that is keeping them together.
Sometimes it’s not possible to stay together. Then you get a divorce, or a Brexit, or a split in the church. It’s always painful, but sometimes there is no other way.

The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar Tom Wright believes that the letter to the Ephesians was actually written in the city of Ephesus, during the almost three years the Apostle Paul spent in the city, the majority of the time imprisoned. Wright believes that Ephesians is one of the letters Paul wrote from prison.
Wright thinks that Paul came to Ephesus after his visit with the Corinthians had gone awry. We don’t exactly know what happened but whatever it was, it had undermined his authority. And now Paul comes to Ephesus.
Paul continues to preach in the synagogue, after all he is a Jew who follows Jesus, but he gets everyone riled up against him and lands in prison. The reason people are upset is that Paul would have denounced Artemis, the fertility goddess, to which Ephesus boasted a temple that people came to visit from far away. Denouncing Artemis would have cut into the souvenir and tourist industries. Besides, Paul declares God to be the bringer of peace – not the Roman empire, and finally, having caused so much trouble, people may have identified Paul as a Jew, which he was, and it would have raised old animosity toward Jews, who in turn may have distanced themselves from Paul, saying that he did not represent them.1
This is a likely scenario, especially knowing that Paul was no stranger to controversy.

And so Paul sits in prison and writes letters, one of them to the church in Ephesus he came to visit.

It is a fact that Paul shaped the church significantly. Not only because he travelled throughout much of the ancient world, founded churches and remained in contact with them, but also because Paul the Jew had a vision for the church that was inclusive, that included both Jews and gentiles. It wasn’t Paul’s vision, it was God’s vision in Jesus, but the Jew Paul fought for it not only by preaching the Good News of Jesus to gentiles, but also because he created the theological foundation for the church to be inclusive. In Galatians Paul lays out that we are saved by faith, some argue not by our faith first, but first by God’s faith in us. That we are saved by faith does not mean the abolishing of moral standards, but that Jews who have received the Law, and Gentiles who have not, are on equal footing and that there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all … are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

And now here in Ephesians Paul reminds the church that they are in fact one. In the midst of whatever chaos had developed that had pitched various groups against each other, they are not Jews and gentiles, or whatever other factions they may wanted to divide themselves into, they are the church, one body, joined together in Christ and growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom we … are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Eph 2:21-22)

We may not make much of it. It’s the kind of rhetoric we’re used to from the Apostle Paul.

But what Paul is saying to us helps us understand what holds the church together.
It is not the political order. It is not the Pax Romana, peace the Romans imposed by force but the peace of Christ.
There may be strange people in the church, but we are no longer strangers and aliens, we are citizens of God’s kingdom – before we belong to any other political order.

And that means that we belong in God and that Jesus is Lord, and difference cannot make us reject each other, or reject others outside of the church. What holds the church together is not that we are all the same, but that we belong to God.

This is a scandalous thing that Christ is our peace and not our personal convictions. It is a scandalous thing that we must subordinate everything to Christ.
But it is a gift that Christ is our peace. It is a gift that we can accept each other and that it is Christ the head who holds together his body the church. It is a gift that difference does not threaten us. It is a gift that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)

Amen.

 

1 N.T. Wright, Paul – A Biography, San Francisco, CA: HarperOne 2018, pg 259ff