Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11 October 2015 11.00am
You can listen to this sermon here:
You can listen to this sermon here:
Ephesians 2.11-22 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands-- 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he 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. 15 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, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Deuteronomy 24.17-22 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
One day last month, Liz and I set our alarm clock for 4.30 in the morning,
so that we would be up and ready to leave the house by 5.30,
so that we would be out of London
and on the M4 before the rush hour started.
We were on our way to the seaside!
Weston Super Mare, to be precise.
We’d managed to secure our tickets, for the grand price of a fiver each,
to go to Dismaland, Banksy’s dystopian funfair.
I don’t know if anyone else here this morning managed to go?
I thought it was brilliant,
in the sense that it was highly creative, original,
and profoundly disturbing.
If you don’t know what it was, let me explain…
It was the intentional antithesis of Disneyland.
From the deliberately surly and provocative staff,
parodying the smiles of Disney’s Mickey-mouse-eared greeters,
To the Disney castle reimagined as a burned out wreck,
with a distorted Little Mermaid sitting in the shopping-trolley strewn lake.
All the elements of the Disney fairy-tale were subverted or satirised,
In ways that shocked, provoked, and challenged.
So, for example, the happy ending of Cinderella,
where Cinders and Charming ride off in their horsedrawn pumpkin coach
to live happily ever after,
became a sculpture of a fatal accident,
snapped by hordes of paparazzi,
as one tragic fairy-tale princess morphed into another
and the happy ending disintegrated before a watching world.
All the installations were created or commissioned by Banksy,
the infamous and hugely talented graffiti artist from Bristol.
And whilst I’m aware that graffiti can be a divisive subject,
and I certainly don’t think that all graffiti is art.
I do think Paul Simon was onto something his song ‘The Sound of Silence’
when he claimed that
‘the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls’.
There was, it seemed to me,
something profoundly prophetic about Dismaland,
as there is about so much of Banksy’s work.
And one of the images that has stayed with me most over the last month,
has been the radio controlled boating lake at Dismaland.
You know the kind of thing, don’t you?
Where you put a coin in,
and you get to steer the boats around the lake?
Well, here’s the one at Dismaland:
You can choose which boat you want to pilot,
and your choice is between the police boat,
or the boat weighed down by refugees.
The backdrop to the boating lake is a sculpture of the Seven Sisters,
that iconically beautiful piece of British coastline.
But in the Dismaland boating lake,
the white cliffs are guarded by a watch-tower,
just in case any refugees should make it past the police boat.
The water around the boats was littered with floating corpses
of those who had fallen overboard.
And we were invited to play with the boats.
A more powerful metaphor for the way the West is responding
to the current Syrian refugee crisis
I would be hard pressed to imagine.
It was made all the more poignant because we were seeing this installation
only a few days after the tragic images had hit our news screens
of a young Syrian child lying dead on a Turkish beach.
And it struck me at Dismaland,
as it strikes me whenever I allow myself to open my eyes and look hard enough,
that the world is not what the world should be.
people leave their homes, and risk their lives
in a desperate hope for an uncertain future;
happy endings don’t always happen;
princesses die along with the poorest of the poor;
and a world where everyone smiles and wears Micky Mouse ears
is a lie we are sold,
and it’s a lie which we buy,
because it’s so much more bearable
than the truth that is staring us in the face.
We live in a world divided,
a world at war with itself,
and we are, each of us, complicit,
whether directly or indirectly,
in the systems that create slavery, oppression, and destruction.
We may not be taking the wheel
and piloting the police boat or the refugee raft ourselves,
we may not be staffing the control tower
that keeps out the so-called undesirables from our towns and cities.
But those who do, are doing so on our behalf, and in our name,
whether we like it or not.
And so we come to our passage from Ephesians this morning,
as we continue our series looking at this letter.
In this text from the first century,
we find the author addressing, in uncompromising terms,
some surprisingly contemporary issues.
He offers a response to a world marred by violence, racism,
segregation, ethnic tension,
fear, division, and hatred.
As I read it through again now,
just listen to the words and phrases that leap out…
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,
called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"
-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands--
12 remember that you were at that time without Christ,
being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,
and strangers to the covenants of promise,
having no hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus
you who once were far off
have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he 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.
15 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,
16 and might reconcile both groups to God
in one body through the cross,
thus putting to death that hostility through it.
17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off
and peace to those who were near;
18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God,
20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
21 In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
22 in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God.
Did you spot them?
people who are far off,
people with no hope,
A dividing wall, that is broken down,
reconciliation, peace, bringing people near,
common citizenship, commonwealth,
a new, unified, humanity.
In Ephesians, it all begins with ethnic tension.
It all begins with the division between Gentile and Jew.
And the author reminds his Gentile Christian readers,
that they themselves were once disadvantaged aliens,
that they were themselves once ‘far away’.
In language which echoes that of our other reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy,
the key point for the writer of Ephesians
is a recognition that no-one has the moral high ground.
The starting point for all of us,
is that we are alienated from God.
In Deuteronomy, the command to the Israelites
to care for the poor and the vulnerable,
and to welcome foreigners to their land
was rooted in their own previous experience of slavery in Egypt:
The Israelites are told:
“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt
and the LORD your God redeemed you from there;
therefore I command you to do this.”
And so it is in Ephesians,
where the author starts with his readers’ own experience of alienation,
as the basis for his instruction about inclusion and reconciliation.
For the Gentile Ephesians,
the division they faced was focused around the act of circumcision.
The Jews practiced this, whereas the Gentiles didn’t,
and in the Jewish faith, only circumcised Jews
had full access to what Ephesians describes
as the ‘commonwealth of Israel’.
Incidentally, the use of this term ‘commonwealth’ here is quite deliberate,
and it takes us the letter firmly into the world of the economic and the political.
The division between Jew and Gentile was no theological nicety,
no simple matter of ‘inner faithful conviction’.
Religion in those days was neither personal nor private,
it was public and politic.
And so the division between those who claimed a special relationship with God,
those who demonstrated this by their dress code, ritual practices, and ethnic identity,
and those who were shut off from that special relationship,
was a division that was played out in the public sphere.
If you walked the streets of the Mediterranean,
you didn’t need to lift a man’s tunic to know whether he was a Jew or a Gentile,
because the hidden mark of the covenant was written large in his dress and behavior.
Well, the divisions in our society may not be primarily between Jew and Gentile,
although you don’t have to rewind very far in European history for this to be the case.
But we too have a divided society,
where issues around dress code, ritual practice, and ethnic identity,
mark one people group from another in public, economic, and political ways.
We live in London, one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet,
and yet we still have our ghettoes,
we still have areas of ethnically demarcated social deprivation,
we still have people divided one from another by language and culture,
we still fear the stranger, and seek safety in segregation.
We’re not so different from the situation imagined by Ephesians,
and so where the letter goes next is of as much relevance to us
as it was to those in first century Turkey who first received it.
Ephesians, you see, is offering an alternative way of looking at the world.
It is seeking to undermine the narrative of ‘them and us’ at the most basic level,
by asserting that no-one, absolutely no-one, can claim the moral high ground,
because all of us start off as those who are, ourselves, alienated.
And the thing is, once the narrative of ‘them and us’ is undermined,
once we accept that in Christ, there is only one humanity,
we inevitably find ourselves at the cutting edge of the call to reconciliation.
Because we are all one in Christ Jesus,
we become those called to live into being
a reality of peace between human beings.
And wherever there exists a division between people,
we are called to break down that dividing wall.
And this is such a powerful image, isn’t it?
I have here my own piece of Berlin Wall,
which I’ve brought out before, and surely will do so again.
But of course, the year the Berlin wall came down,
was the year that the Mexico-USA wall was started.
And just a couple of weeks ago, here at Bloomsbury,
we heard from Sami and Ben about the situation of violent tension
between Israel and Palestine
which is so vividly symbolized by their wall.
And so we’re back to Banksy again,
and his efforts to highlight the injustice and futility of the division
that such walls create in the name of security.
Here is a piece of graffiti that he painted on the wall near Bethlehem,
and again, it’s very moving, and it’s very powerful.
The call is clear: it is for those of us who, with the Ephesians,
have learned that we are all one in Christ Jesus
to live out in our lives the conviction
that Jesus Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples.
We are called to play our part in speaking and living into being
an alternative narrative to the one which is dominant in our world
where ‘might is right’ and ‘the other is my enemy’.
And this may mean going to Palestine to stand alongside those who are under threat,
as some here have done,
or it may mean taking a stand in the workplace against the incipient racism
that lurks beneath so many of our relationships,
or it may mean getting involved in welcoming refugees
and putting pressure on the powers that be to do more in our name,
or it may mean taking action on an issue like housing,
where the rich get richer and the poor get pushed out,
or it may mean taking a stand on another issue of inclusion,
such as economic status, social class, gender or sexuality.
In all of these cases, and so many more,
we are each called to play our part in speaking and living into being
an alternative narrative to the one which is dominant in our world.
And the narrative of God that we see in Ephesians,
is one where God at work in the world
by his Spirit and through his people,
who are the body of Christ on earth,
to draw near those who are currently far off.
The narrative of God is one where those who are in slavery to oppression
are drawn into a new life of freedom and liberty.
And this is true whether that is slavery to sin,
or oppression under the law,
whether it is slavery to ideologies of dominance,
or oppression in ancient Egypt, first century Paganism, or twenty first century Syria.
The thing is, if our own belonging is to have meaning,
it must extend to others.
If Christ brings peace and reconciliation between us and God,
then we must be active in, praying for, and living out
that kingdom of peace on earth, as it is in heaven.
If the wall that divides us from God has been broken down,
there is simply no justification for our supporting the systems
that continue to divide one people group from another.
And yet, the logic of division is so compelling, isn’t it?
‘Without the wall, the terrorists would bomb innocent homes.’
‘Without the wall, we’d be overrun by immigrants,’
‘Without the border controls, our society would collapse…’
And so we become complicit in a system that uses violence
to exclude the undesirable,
and to fix the problems that it has itself created.
It seems that we live in a world
which seeks to use a blunt instrument to try and break something,
and then to use that same blunt instrument to try and hammer it together again.
And all that we end up with is a broken world.
We use violence to break down anyone who is a threat to our own power and stability.
We sell arms to insurgents, and we sell arms to oppressive regimes,
and then we sell arms to those who are fighting insurgents,
and to those who are fighting oppressive regimes,
in the quiet hope that if we can keep them all fighting each other,
we can continue to turn a profit and keep safe behind our own border controls,
without them noticing who the real enemy is.
And then, when they do notice who’s been pulling the strings all these years,
and they turn on us,
we look at these broken places and realise that they are now a threat to us,
because it’s got out of our control,
and so we bomb them in the name of national security.
The irony is not lost on me that when a politician observes that violence begets violence,
in a spiral of tragedy upon tragedy,
and suggests that the rule of law has become subservient to the rule of retribution,
and that maybe there is another, more peaceable way,
they are called a threat to national security.
The irony is not lost on me that those who have most,
are those who most want to keep away those who have less.
The irony is not lost on me that the narratives our society lives by
are created by and propagated by a collusion between power and might,
that is always acting in its own self-interest.
And in the midst of this we have the collaboration and collusion of the media,
who fill in our world the place occupied in the first century
by the cult of emperor worship,
as they furnish us with propaganda to make us feel our actions are justified,
right up until the moment when they decide that more profit can be made
in selling pictures of a dead child on a Turkish beach.
It may be unduly cynical of me to suggest
that the reason the picture of Aylan Kurdi got so much media attention in the west
was because he looked like one of our own children,
with his little red T-shirt, his fashionable cropped shorts,
and his trendy cute trainers.
But there have been plenty of other pictures available of dead Syrian refugee children
who they didn’t make the front pages,
because they didn’t look like one of ours.
And so we’re back to the division of humanity,
we’re back to ‘us and them’
we’re back to a narrative that says ‘we matter, and you don’t’.
And it is in this context that the community of Christ’s followers
are called to live into reality
the truth that only the power of nonviolent love
can undo the love of power
in a world of domination.
We are called to take our public stand against the systems of oppression,
whether they be military, economic, or political.
We are called to speak out against narratives of racism, nationalism, and segregation,
to welcome the alien, to care for the refugee,
to include the excluded,
to make peace with those who seek war,
to break down the walls that divide,
to welcome all as fellow citizens.
And it starts with us, here today,
as we learn together what it is to include with no exclusions,
because we are all one in Christ Jesus,
and he has made us to be the new humanity.