Sermon: Covenant All the Way Down

A sermon I gave at Ascot Vale Uniting Church on the 22/07/2018 on Ephesians 2.11-22. The covenanting statement referred to at the end of this sermon can be found here (make sure to check out the covenant poster on that page as well).

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God, help my words to give voice to your reconciling love, and help those that listen to hear when they do not. Amen.

“[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.”

At the centre of today’s reading is this claim that Jesus is peace, and breaks down hostility within a new community. I want to try and unpack what this might mean for us today. But I want to admit from the start that this is not an easy idea to grapple with, and in my own reflections it has been somewhat confronting, and discomforting.

“[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.”

The question of peace in the context of the ancient world Paul inhabited is complex. While it is certainly true that the Roman world was marked by significant violence, it was also a period of unprecedented social and political stability for many. Indeed without this Roman Peace (or pax Romana) we probably wouldn’t have Paul’s letters. Paul made use of the peace made possible by the strength of Roman military rule to send letters to various Christian communities across the empire. Indeed, this same security enabled Paul to travel as a missionary. When we start to think about the question of peace in Paul’s writings we cannot disconnect it from Paul’s own experience of peace wrought from the military might of the Roman Empire.

There is something striking and odd, then, in Paul’s suggestion that Jesus is peace. Jesus, who was killed by violent and bloody crucifixion by the Roman Empire. Jesus who began a movement that was perceived to be disturbing the peace.

“[Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made [us] into one.”

In the flesh of the victim of Roman Peace-keeping, we find true peace. What on Earth does this mean?

This way of thinking is part of a broader theme not only in Paul’s writings, but throughout the entire New Testament: the message of Christianity challenges the existing social and political order, by drawing on its own language and satirising it - turning the language of the politically powerful against itself. The most obvious example is the very language of “the Gospel.” The Greek term ἐυαγγελιον referred to the “Good News” of military conquest. This Gospel referred to the proclamation of the King or Emperor’s return from war, proclaiming military conquest and victory. This is the term Christians appropriated to refer to their message - our message - about a saviour that was executed by the military regime of Rome. The Good News is now the message of what seems like defeat, the message of pacifism, the message of a victim of military power, not the message of a victor at all.

Paul takes on this parodic use of language himself, and this is what we see playing out in the claim that Jesus is our peace. Jesus is a peace that challenges conventional notions of what peace should mean, and calls out the violence inherent in the maintenance of the peace Paul himself experienced. By pointing to Jesus we see the quintessential victim of so-called Roman Peace, and so unmask that peace as false. Roman Peace is no peace at all, because it maintains its peacefulness on the basis of significant violence.

We might reflect deeply on our own experience of peace in modern Australia. In what ways is our own experience of peace false? Our society does, after all, lock up refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention. Our social and political order has been built on the dispossession of indigenous peoples, and violent colonisation. Our politicians continue to use rhetoric that targets specific ethnic groups as if they were a fundamental threat to our peaceful society. Our military continue to be entangled in wars around the world. We have to take seriously these hard questions about the peace we enjoy today, and continue to ask how Jesus unmasks this peace as false.

So, how exactly does Jesus unmask the peace that we experience? How does a 2,000 year-old story of a crucified Messiah reveal the problems in the peace we experience today?

Paul summarises the answer to these questions in the first chapter of Ephesians:

“[God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.”

This verse from Ephesians 1.4 formed part of our call to worship today. It’s a verse I’ve grown fond of recently. I have developed a growing sense that in this one sentence we have a summary of the Gospel.

To be chosen in Christ means to receive from God the freest possible gift of grace. God chooses us, we do not first and foremost choose God. Before the foundation of the world God chose us. This means that we relate to God not on the basis of failure to adhere to a moral code or religious law, but rather we relate to God on the basis of Christ. We relate to God because God chooses to relate to us in Christ. We relate to God because we are chosen by God, from before the very beginning, and even before that.

Before Adam and Eve ever bought a MacBook. Before slavery and the golden calf. Before King David used his power to gain a wife. Before the unfaithfulness of Israel, and their road to exile. Before the cross and resurrection. Before Paul ever killed a Christian.

God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless before God in love.

This means that we relate to God through the grace of Christ all the way down. From the foundation of the world.

Before the world was created God in Christ bound us to God in grace, and love.

Before there were any Jews, or Christians, or Sikhs, or Hindus, or First Peoples, or Second peoples:

"[God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love." (Eph. 1.4)

It's grace all the way down.

Throughout our service, I have invited us all to reflect on the theme: “covenant all the way down.” This is what I mean. It is covenant all the way down, because God relentlessly moves towards us proclaiming grace and love: that we are holy and blameless. That you are holy and blameless, and simply because God continues to choose to love you, you are already made right with God. And in Christ we see this fully. In Christ this abstract idea of grace confronts us.

While maintaining on the one hand that God chose us before the foundation of the world, in our reading today from Ephesians 2 Paul suggests that the Gentiles he is writing to were, at one time, “without Christ … strangers to the covenants of promise.” While Christ is the foundation, the cornerstone, of our relationship with God, this still needs to outwork itself in our concrete experiences.

For Paul the way in which the reconciling work of Jesus outworks itself is in the experience of Paul's communities reconciling Jews and Gentiles -- Jews and non-Jews -- within themselves. Paul saw in the ability of his communities to embrace people across the religious lines that divided them the very outworking of the reconciling, saving work of Jesus.

These communities of reconciliation manifest, and make visible the reconciliation we have with God. In other words, if you want to know what God's love looks like, then you have to form communities that reconcile people to each other. In forming communities that reconcile people we expand the vision of God's love and peace which was held onto and retold throughout the Jewish tradition. In forming communities that reconcile people we become the household of God.

We see the grace of Jesus Christ when we are reconciled to each other, and are able to cross the boundaries that divide us: race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, first and second peoples. This grace confronts us, and unmasks - reveals as false - many of the assumptions we make about what living peacefully together looks like.

We might need to rethink how we relate to first peoples in this land to fully appreciate what reconciliation looks like. We might need to rethink, as a society, how we treat asylum seekers to fully appreciate what a peaceful society might look like. If we are not actively crossing the boundaries that divide us, we are at risk of failing to see the very grace that the way of Jesus offers us.

As I said at the beginning, this is not an easy message to understand. We are offered God's love and grace freely. Simply because God chooses us, and calls us holy and blameless. And yet we see this freely given love in our own attempts, as a community, to participate in continually giving this free love to others. We see the reconciling love of God in becoming a reconciling community. And along this way, following the way of Jesus, following the way of grace and love, we have revealed to us just how poorly we understand.

For the Uniting Church, one of the clearest examples of this has been our historic treatment of first peoples in this land. And so in pursuit of reconciliation I want to pray a prayer of confession that comes from the response to the covenanting statement made by Dr. Jill Tabart - which I used earlier in this service. This response was given by Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, on behalf of the Uniting Australian Indigenous and Islander Christian Congress.