Polarization and Peace

A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22

Sometimes, as a preacher, there are moments when the biblical text preaches to you in ways much that are infinitely more powerful than anything you could think to say.

That was the case this week, when I read this passage in Ephesians.

The more I sat with it, the more it spoke to me, convicted me.

Do you know that feeling?

That kind of bittersweet moment when the Holy Spirit whispers to you, “You’ve been wrong; you need to repent.”

It’s not like the feeling of shame that comes when you’ve done something you’re not proud of and you want to hold on to it as a secret you never reveal—the shame that says, “If anyone knew, they’d never love you.”

And it’s not like the feeling of anger that comes when you’re confronted with sin that you don’t want to admit—the anger that says, “You don’t know me, how dare you.”

No, the feeling of conviction is different. It’s sharp, yet gentle. It’s a nudge, a knowing, You need to repent, which hurts, but it’s followed immediately by the knowledge that even though repentance is required, you’re already forgiven because of the boundless and neverending grace of God.

And because you know you’re already forgiven, you want to do everything you can to make it right. Because God has poured out such love that you’re full to the brim with it, and your response is to love in return.

Anyway, this was one of those moments for me. This scripture passage. It convicted me and it called me to repentance, and it reminded me of the forgiveness I have received in Christ. And I wondered if today we could just walk through together, when we’re talking about peace as a fruit of the Spirit, because the writer of Ephesians says it much better than I ever could.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 

A little bit of context here:

It’s easy to forget, as Christians, that the covenants of the promise were initially given to Israel.

Israel, the people of the promise; Israel, the small, insignificant nation through which God promised to bless the whole Earth; Israel, the ones who taught the world that there is one God, not a pantheon of idols, and that this one God made humanity in God’s own image and desires for humanity to live justice and mercy and peace.

These things that we take for granted, these concepts that ground even our secular societies a few millennia later, are teachings that God gave first to Israel in the Torah and the Prophets. God chose Israel to be his people, and through Israel, God promised to bless and reconcile the entire world.

This is important, because Gentiles like the letter of Ephesians is addressing, Gentiles like most of us are, were not immediately included! Remember: Judaism wasn’t just a religion in the way we think of it now. There was no separation of church and state in ancient times; they were bound up together. You worshipped the gods of your nation—if you were Roman, you were even supposed to worship the emperor himself as a god.

It’s not like today, when you can pick and choose your religion like some kind of cheap buffet: I’ll take a little Christianity, and a little Buddhism, and a little New Age spirituality to go with it, thank you: Israel was a nation, a distinct people group with a particular identity; an ethnicity, a country, bound together by the promises and commandments of God. And even though, by the time of Jesus, the Jews had been conquered by the Roman empire and lived within what was politically Roman territory, they still understood themselves as a distinct nation within the greater empire.

Therefore, Gentiles, quite literally, were not Jewish. They were separate, foreigners, and as such they worshiped their own gods and emperors, not the One God of the Universe.

So when the text says that before they knew Christ, the people were separate and excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, this wasn’t figurative. It was a statement of nationalistic reality.

Now, this doesn’t mean God didn’t love all people even then; but it does remind us that God revealed himself to Israel first, and chose Israel as the vehicle through which the rest of the world would come to know and love him.

Why do I dwell on this right now?

Because I think there are some profound lessons for our current moment.

It’s not precisely analogous, but I can’t help seeing the resonances.

Let me put it this way:

How many of you feel like you’re living in a totally different country than, say, the other half of the country?

And not unlike the Jewish people in the Roman world, you can live in the same city or even on the same street as a neighbor, and have what feels like a totally different identity, as if there are two nations within one. Two nations with different priorities. Different news and information sources. Different worldviews.

And within these differences, there is accelerating negativity—even hostility—toward one another.

This has been well documented in social research. Let me show you a couple of pretty discouraging charts from Pew Research.

In 1994, the median Democrat and Republican were not particularly far apart on social and political issues. You can see that there was significant common ground, and most found themselves somewhere comfortably in the middle.

Fast forward just 23 years to 2017. Here you see that the median Democrat and Republican are now much farther apart, and what stands out to me is that the middle has largely collapsed. Where before there was significant common ground, now there is less and less. In the three years since this data was released, I’m certain things have grown more polarized, not less.

Now, I want to make it clear: I’m not here to make a case for one perspective over another. People of good will and good faith have different political perspectives, and that’s healthy.

But along with the extremity in our political views has come a wave of vitriol that is NOT healthy.

Over the past 20 years, the number of members of one party who view the other party as “very unfavorable” has tripled—tripled. Republicans and Democrats say, by overwhelming margins, that members of the other party are more closed-minded, unintelligent, immoral, lazy, and unpatriotic. In 2019, a PRRI survey showed that both Republicans and Democrats would be more upset if their child married a person of the opposing political party than if they married a person of a different religious faith.

Christian political commentator and cultural critic David French put it this way recently: “In other words, the idea that a person is ‘good, but wrong’ or even ‘decent, but wrong’ is vanishing. Instead, the conventional wisdom is that our political opponents are ‘terrible and wrong.’ Our opponents not only have bad policies, they are bad people.

It’s as if someone has built a wall right in the middle of our society, and it’s tearing us apart.

More and more, we don’t even interact with those with opposing perspectives. Where we once found common cause in volunteering, neighborhood service, and yes, church, an increasingly secular culture is leaving those touchpoints behind. Now many people say they don’t even have friends of the opposing political party. Others report having once-close relationships disrupted, strained, and broken.

This, my friends, is where I started to feel extremely convicted.

I confess to you, even as someone who thinks of herself as relatively moderate, I have felt myself being pulled—yanked—by the forces of polarization. I have felt the white-hot anger of a social media post I disagreed with. I have swallowed back—and sometimes, I confess to you, have not swallowed back—a flippant or even hostile remark. I have allowed myself to be caught up in these forces, like a surging river after a storm, carried downstream in a whitewater current of hostility.

What’s more, sometimes I have even convinced myself I was justified.

And then this verse:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

There are times I’ve asked myself: why did it take Jesus’ blood? Couldn’t God have saved us less violently?

But then I catch glimpses of the violence in my own heart, and I realize—God chose to enter sin fully in order to free us from it with the power of his presence. So yes, the blood of Christ draws me near, and the blood of Christ frees me, because otherwise, hostility would course through my veins.

But in Jesus, we who were far are brought near—and here’s the spectacular thing:

For he himself is our peace, 

You see, understood biblically, peace is not merely the absence of war or a feeling of serenity: it is a state of wholeness and completeness that is lived out socially. It implies reconciliation, harmony, and justice. It is a hallmark of salvation.

And this passage reminds us where we find peace: in Christ.

In fact, He, Jesus, his very self—not the idea of Jesus, or a list of right and wrong, or a political party or a platform or a candidate or a country—but Jesus’ own body and blood, given for us as a gift of love, is himself the peace we seek.

Jesus is our peace, and in the process,

 [he] has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

And this is where the rubber really meets the road.

You see, Jesus leaves nothing the same as he found it. Not our hearts. Not our communities. Not our politics.

…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Can you hear the radical call in these verses?

Do you see the life of faith to which we have been reborn?

Take these divisions, these entirely different cultures, these two nations—Jew and Gentile, red and blue—and see that in the cross we are made one, forging a lasting peace between us, by which the hostility we carry toward one another is put to death.

Put to death.

When we allow rifts to form between one another, those rifts are filled with hostility. Not just disagreement, not just believing that a sister or brother holds a wrong opinion, but believing them to be wrong, in themselves, in who they are. But Christ’s blood has drawn both of us near; therefore, this is a lie that can never be allowed to stand.

For Jesus Christ put to death that hostility on the cross, killed it alongside the other forces of sin that once ruled us, and drew us to him—and in so doing, to each other.

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

We are not two nations. We are fellow citizens. And not just citizens, but members of the same household—a family—built up together, with a foundation of scripture and Jesus Himself the cornerstone,

 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.

In ancient times, the temple was the dwelling place of God himself, a physical building where God’s presence was thought to reside, a structure that helped define the Jews as a nation and a people.

Now we are the temple. We are the dwelling place of God. No longer does he come to a single location, but now his presence is in our bodies, not as just individual Christians, but together, all of us, the entire Body of Christ—

And in him too [we] are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The divisions destroyed, the hostility vanquished, a lasting peace forged by the presence of the true and living God.

Friends, I’m not going to lie to you.

It’s bad out there.

It’s an election year, in the middle of a pandemic, in a moment of unrest as we deal with the realities of racial violence that have infected our country for generations.

All the forces of hell seek to divide us.

Do we understand who we are as a congregation?

Do we understand how rare it is, in this day and age of rising polarization, to be a community—a spiritual family—with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives?

Let’s not give in to hostility.

Let’s learn to love each other, as Jesus first loved us.

And so I ask you, if this passage has convicted you as it convicted me, let’s be reconciled as one body through the cross of Jesus Christ.

It doesn’t mean agreeing with each other. It does mean respecting each other, loving each other, seeking what is good for another, assuming the best in one another, and sticking by one another. For Christ Jesus, our peace, has put to death our hostility, and now we, together, are meant to become the dwelling place for God himself.

This is the promise for which we, once strangers to God, have been called.

May the peace that is Christ Jesus make it so.

Amen.

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