July 1, 2012

You Are Citizens With The Saints

Passage: Ephesians 2:19-20

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

On July 1st 1867 the enactment of the British North America Act united three British North American colonies—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada (Ontario & Quebec)—into a single country Canada; the rest, as we are prone to say, is history.  Today is the 145th anniversary of that event.  Most Canadians, I should think, treasure their citizenship; we are generally agreed that the establishment of Canada is a celebration worthy of a national holiday.  I am grateful for the many privileges that are mine by virtue of being born here; when I travel I feel a sense of gratefulness every time I hand my Canadian passport to a customs official for inspection.

Canada also belongs to the Commonwealth of Nations made up of 54 member states; Queen Elizabeth II is the head of this free association of nations—for 16 of those nations Queen Elizabeth is also Monarch.  Just a month ago (June 2-5th) Jubilee celebrations were held marking Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the throne.  In his summer letter the Dean of Foundation House at Oxford Canon Dr Robin Gibbons wrote of the Jubilee celebrations. “There are a few commentators who object to hereditary monarchy, but I think the vast majority in these Islands (British Isles) count ourselves fortunate that we have such a devoted monarch who puts duty to her people first.   Of course she is also Queen and head of the Commonwealth, which seemed like some colonial anachronism a few years ago, but compared to recent activities of the UN is now emerging as a model of polity in a world of very uncertain stability.”  As a citizen of that commonwealth, I thought Dr. Gibbons observation insightful.

I remind you that Queen Elizabeth, as Monarch of the British Isles, is also head of the Church of England—a responsibility that she has taken seriously.  I know that many are uneasy with mixing of Church and state; yet it seems to me that that gospel has had a positive effect in its influence in the Monarchy and the Commonwealth of Nations impacted by headship of this Monarch.  As the gospel yeast has its effect Commonwealth nations have inherited a stability of leadership that has accrued to our benefit.

1.  The promise of restoration, of help, and of healing is a theme that runs throughout the prophecy of Isaiah; in one of those promises the prophet declared, “Peace, peace, to the far and near, says the Lord; and I will heal them” (Isaiah 57:19). In the older testament paradigm “the far and the near” was a metaphor for those of the house of Israel (near) and the Gentile world (far).  The image was of born proximity to Jerusalem where the temple stood; the house where God promised to make his name dwell (meaning his presence).

The Apostle Paul takes up this theme in his Ephesian letter: “So he (Jesus) came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”  He is talking of the reconciliation that is in Christ of the believer to God and believers to one another.

Notice how Paul talks of the benefits of those “near”—meaning the Jewish people; they were part of the commonwealth of Israel, familiar with the covenants (God’s) of promise, having hope and knowing God’s presence.  Those who were “far” had none of these benefits.  The point I underline with you is that the peace proclaimed in Christ was aimed at both the “near” and “far”.  Proximity to the benefits of temple presence was not a guarantee that those “near” would look in the direction in which those benefits pointed; namely trust of God.

In Canada we are “near” in that we have been the beneficiary of the how the gospel has been yeast in the institution of government.  This is not to say that everything the British Empire did in the name of the Monarchy was perfect; far from it.  Even so the gospel yeast has been present ever pointing to trust in God; the God who reconciles us to himself and one another in Jesus Christ.  I wonder if I really do appreciate the benefits of such heritage.

Bill Blaikie, an ordained United Church clergy, went on to serve Canada as a politician under the NDP banner.  In his recent book The Blaikie Report: An Insider’s Look at Faith and Politics he expresses his concern that the left side of the political aisle has abandoned the importance of the Christian traditions that gave rise to care for the marginalized.  From the conservative side of the aisle I heard Preston Manning speak of this same loss; he said that while the machinery for the governing of church and state should be kept separate the influence of the church is important to be heard and the marginalization of faith from politics is a mistake.

In Canada we are “near” in another sense.  I think of the vast numbers of Canadians who have had some exposure to the gospel through a church Sunday school.  We have so much support for faith at our figure tips; sermon podcasts, daily devotionals, Bible apps, plus any number of books and articles are instantly accessible on our mobile devices.  On the four kilometer trip from my home to Central United I drive past three churches who, along with us, are engaged in worship of our Saviour this morning.  I wonder if we truly appreciate what is so near to us; it is evident that those “near” need to hear the peace of the gospel proclaimed.

On Canada Day it is good to reflect on what is near to us; the freedom declared in the gospel has clearly been yeast for the freedom of our Canadian citizenship.  We ought not to let go of it.  We also have the gospel near to us; from coast to coast churches are meeting to worship and the love of these people for God accrues to our benefit.  It is crucial that the peace of the gospel be proclaimed.

2. In January of 2011 a story appeared in a number of England’s newspapers about a British immigration officer who was fired when it was discovered that he put his wife’s name on the list of terrorists to stop her flying home.  While his wife was visiting family overseas, he added her name to the register of people banned from flights to the U.K.  When she went to the airport to get her return flight back, officials told her she could not board the plane and did not explain why. She called her husband, who promised to look into it – but he left her stuck in Pakistan for three years. This all came to light during a vetting process when the officer applied for a promotion; he was subsequently fired.

Why is it that people don’t have to be taught to be mean and spiteful?  Who thinks to do these kinds of things, we may wonder.  People do.  Think about children; you don’t have to teach a child to be mean and spiteful.  Siblings are very astute at pushing each other’s hot buttons.  In a fallen world of fallen human beings antagonistic behaviour comes naturally.  We discipline our character to do the good; we don’t find that we need discipline to be spiteful.  Bad habits come easily.

All of this adds up to a truth that Christians never doubt; namely, in a fallen world hostility is found at all times and in all places, together with the estrangement that such hostility produces and perpetuates.

According to the gospel one of the consequences of sin is alienation or estrangement. We are alienated from God, alienated from our true self, alienated from each other.  The fact of prejudice is surely irrefutable confirmation of this alienation.  Prejudice doesn’t have to be taught.  And by definition there’s no reason for our prejudice.  By definition prejudice is an irrational fear of specific kinds of people or classes or nations or races or social groups.  Such prejudice appears to be rooted in the incomprehensible mystery of sin.

Other alienation is quite understandable.  One family member buys a new home and finds herself alienated from a sibling who envies the new home.  A boss demotes you to promote a family member and a wall of alienation goes up between you and your boss.  The truth is, people have treated us shabbily. They have lied to us, or betrayed us, or exploited us, or humiliated us. In this situation the gulf that has opened up between them and us; a gulf that has everything to do with events that are as undeniable as they are unforgettable

In our text we are looking at in this message Paul insists that in Jesus Christ “the dividing wall of hostility” has been crumbled. In the ancient world the highest wall (so high, in fact, that it could never be climbed over) was the wall separating Jew and Gentile. Because this “dividing wall of hostility” was utterly insurmountable it also represented any lesser wall that separated people from each other anywhere, for any reason (or no reason.) And precisely this wall, humanly insurmountable, God has broken down, says Paul, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The peace proclaimed to those on both sides of this wall of hostility is the reconciliation announced in the gospel.  In Christ both “have access in one Spirit to the Father”; now the wall doesn’t exist at all. And in place of the two hostile persons God has created one new person in Christ. And if this one wall has been crumbled, so have all the lesser walls that it represents. “Citizenship with the saints” is citizenship in the kingdom where the walls are gone.  In Christ God has fashioned one new person in place of two hostile persons.

What does it mean, then, if you and I claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ and then live as if the wall were still standing?  What does it mean if we orient ourselves as if the dividing wall of hostility were fixed forever before us?  What would any of us say if we came upon someone who insisted there was a huge wall squarely in the middle of Highway #7 and it was his job to make sure that the wall stayed put? We wouldn’t say he was mistaken or bigoted; we’d simply say he was insane. Listen: if you and I take the name of Christ upon our lips and then suggest in word or deed that there are dividing walls that are real and need to be shored up, we are spiritually insane.

I know, hostility and antagonism are the order of a fallen universe. And certainly we live in that universe. But finally, ultimately, we Christians live in Christ. We live in the one in whom the Fall has been overturned; we live in the one in whom all dividing walls have been crumbled.
To say the same thing differently: we have a foot in both worlds, but we don’t distribute our weight evenly over both feet.  Even as we have a foot in both worlds we have shifted our weight onto that foot which is planted in the world of reconciliation. We don’t want to reflect the world’s antagonisms back to the world, thereby making everything worse. We want to reflect the reality of Christ’s reconciliation into darkened corners of our world.  We want only to hold up reconciliation: God’s reconciliation with us and ours with our fellows – and all of this just because we know where reconciliation was first wrought and how it was wrought: namely, at a cross where the God we had offended and pained absorbed his pain in order to have us home again.

3.  As we stand at the foot of the cross we observe that the cost of reconciliation is borne by the offended party, not by the offender. “While we were enemies,” scripture informs us, “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” We offended God. Wrapped up in our self-extenuating rationalization, we were prepared to live with the consequent estrangement. But God couldn’t live with it. He, the one we had wounded; he couldn’t live with it. He sought to reconcile us to himself. At what price? The price was breathtaking: he gave up his Son – which is to say, he sacrificed himself. The cost, the pain of our reconciliation to him, God absorbs himself. Pained as he is by our violation of him; pained still more by the estrangement that arises from our violation, he pains himself inestimably more by bearing the cost of getting us home with him.

There is no such thing as reconciliation—anywhere in life—that costs nothing. It is counterintuitive to think that the offended party initiates reconciliation, but such is Christ’s example. I know that living this way is not easy.  Our efforts to shift our weight on to the foot planted in the world of reconciliation doesn’t always work; the endeavour to live out of the reality of our “citizenship with the saints” is rejected.  There are situations where we’ve swallowed our “rights” and absorbed our pain and risked ourselves again and again only to have it all thrown back in our face. The relationship we hoped to recover has remained dead and now gives every appearance of remaining dead forever. Where are we now?

We must remember it’s never our task to be successful. It’s our task to be faithful. Our only responsibility is to be agents of reconciliation by living the truth of the reconciliation we already enjoy in Christ. The fruitfulness of our effort we must leave with God.

God has promised that regardless of the fruitfulness we don’t see, our lived witness will never be finally fruitless. Its fruitfulness may be hidden from us for now, but its ultimate fruitfulness isn’t in doubt. You are (present tense) citizens with the saints, insists the Apostle.

4.  If you could have dinner with any three people (living or deceased) who would they be and why?  Such “what if” exercises are designed to help us reveal things about ourselves.  Now, of course, as Christians we are expected to have Jesus on that list—but who else in on your list.  I would like to have dinner with John Wesley, Soren Kierkegaard, and my maternal grandfather who died before I was born.

“But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”, wrote Paul, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”  The implication is that we are (present tense) citizens with these particular people.  James, John, Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew, Matthew, Paul, etc are present citizens with us.  According to the New Testament the church in heaven and the church on earth are one.  Recall that on the day of Jesus transfiguration Peter, James and John (then living) met and somehow knew Moses and Elijah.  Clearly, the New Testament picture is of a multi-dimensional universe.  It was during the Enlightenment that, in our imagination, reality was flattened and restricted to the tangible.  Prior to that, as the art of the church depicted, events in heaven and on earth were seen as occurring simultaneously and overlapping one another.

Jesus corrected the Sadducees one day by noting that God is the God of the living (present tense); since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by implication Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are now living.  The same is true for all citizens of this kingdom; in other words some of the dinners we hope for can one day actually take place.  Such are the blessings of citizenship with the saints.