The Reconciling Good News (Ezekiel 37:15-23; Ephesians 2:11-13; Matthew 5:43-48)
The Reconciling Good News (Ezk. 37:15-23; Eph. 2:11-13; Mt. 5::43-48)
A short time ago we looked at the first half of Ezekiel chapter 37 as an Old Testament Lesson. It’s that strangely rich vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. I suggested to you that the main point was that God is able to bring individuals and communities back from their graves literally, figuratively, and missionally. Today, we are back in Ezekiel 37, looking at what God does next after bringing dry bones back to life.
Now, Ezekiel was not the most “usual” chap in the roll-call of Israel’s prophets. In chapters 4-5 alone, he drew pictures on mud bricks, laid on his left side for 390 days and his right side for 40, then shaved his head and beard with a sword and burned the hair. I don’t think most churches would be very open to this guy as a candidate for ministry. Nonetheless, he had one indispensable character trait for ministry. Before the Fall of Jerusalem, he was all about judgment, but after the blow fell, he was unafraid to reverse himself to become among the most hopeful of prophets. He knew that real ministry had to be about what people needed. Note I didn’t say wanted.
Our lesson from Ezekiel 37 comes after the life-altering blow to the whole nation of Judah that happened when their country was conquered and depopulated by the super-power of their day. In some ways the worst part of it all was the destruction of Solomon’s beautiful Temple, and the dismantling of the religion built around it. That would have been hard for one like Ezekiel, who in addition to being a prophet, was a priest. His very life was tied up in the temple and service of it.
Again, just before today’s reading comes that famous vision of that Valley of Dry Bones – that represented the people, the institutions, the land, the religion, all of it. None of these people or institutions had hope, spirit, or future. But Ezekiel became convinced God was in the resurrection business. God was about to take hopeless, useless, down-in-the-dust, depressed, and beaten up people, communities, and institutions, breathe new life into them, raise them to new work, and put them back into their homes.
How might he tell an imaginative story that would capture what this might look like? That’s where we come to today’s Old Testament Lesson. By God’s instruction Ezekiel found two sticks. He wrote the name of Judah on one and the name of Joseph (Israel) on the other. The two sticks represented the two kingdoms that had been divided over many political and religious issues over 350 years before Ezekiel lived. This division was deep-seated and well-practiced by his time. God asked Ezekiel to hold these two sticks together so that they were one in his hand.
When people asked him why he would do such a thing and what it meant, he said, speaking for the Almighty: “I am about to take the stick of Joseph…and I will put the stick of Judah upon it, and make them one stick, in order that they may be one in my hand.” The point is reconciliation. People could say, “Surely these two can never make up.” “They’re just too different.” But to say this forgets that God is all-powerful, and in the resurrection business. Old divisions, wounds, and barriers just don’t count for much when they are covered by the hand of God.
In this enacted parable is the message with which we as a church are entrusted. The God we trust, the God that Jesus came to reveal and was incarnate in him, is the God who brings new life, and shows that by covering wounds, hurts, and divisions with the Almighty hand. We must not succumb to the temptation that is rife within our time and place to proclaim a narrow kind of judgmental spirit that causes more wounds, and
exults in divisions in the name of purity. According to Ezekiel, who was speaking for our God, the job is to be the voice and presence of the God who raises people from their graves by reconciling them to one another, as a primary mark that they have been reconciled to God. We live in a sadly divided country that needs to learn to be reconciled one to another, so we need this message today as much as ever. That’s why we’re here!
Jesus of Nazareth lived about six centuries after Ezekiel. According to Matthew’s Gospel, he came as a teacher to bring us, not new legislation, but new patterns for living in God’s way. Jesus found the resources for what he said in the traditions of his people, especially in what he called the Law and the Prophets – we’d call it his Bible. Jesus was convinced that the real policy from headquarters – that which God really expected from disciples was to love God passionately and absolutely, and to look out for those who come to us as our neighbours with as much passion as we look out for our own welfare and that of our families and friends. These are non-negotiables for the community of Jesus. Last week we looked at the first of these two great commandments. One day Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbour”? by a very religious person, and he told the story we call the Good Samaritan. Our neighbours whom we love as much as we do ourselves are whoever comes along in need.
To show what he meant (and what he didn’t), early in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasted his way of interpreting the Bible with that of his contemporaries. It’s a difficult chapter. Our lesson is the last example he used. And what he said was that, the common understanding of loving neighbours is love those who are like we are. Jesus said however, when God’s values prevail, it’s not that way. No, when God’s values prevail, people love their enemies. The reason for that is that God made all people and loves them all. The goal is to be as inclusive in our love as God is. That’s what that last line about “being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is all about. The word perfect means “fully mature.” Our love is to be as mature as God’s love, which includes everyone. Even us. Again, it’s about reconciliation. It’s about difference not counting as that which divides, but as that which enriches. We haven’t gotten there yet, and maybe won’t, but that’s the goal.
Let’s go on to the Epistle to the Ephesians, which is thought to have been a circular letter to a number of churches in the area of what we call Turkey today. The name “Ephesians” stuck to this circular letter early on in its history because Ephesus was one of the important churches to which the letter was addressed. In any case, the letter was written at a time when the Church was becoming more of a Greek-speaking phenomenon, at least outside of Israel. More and more, fewer and fewer in these outlying areas had a background within one of the Judaisms of the first century. So it was that those Christians who did have such a background – who were, as they were called, “first in Christ” – were often a bit uppity and off-putting to those non-Jewish Christians who, although they came along later, were, more and more the majority. It is often this way among those “with a history,” to newer members in a community. These two groups had different languages (for the most part), different customs, and different backgrounds. This matter of the division between the Jew and the Gentile was a big deal in the early Church. It is clear in the Epistle to the Ephesians that, in Jesus Christ, this kind of division – Jew and Gentile – is no longer important. You will recognize this as but a specific example of the kinds of divisions that Ezekiel, 600+ years earlier had written about. It is the same kind of division we saw in the Gospel as well. It seems that the issue of divisions, though the names or dimensions have changed across time, has not been solved. People had really not believed Ezekiel that God can reconcile people and heal wounds and divisions by covering them with the divine hand of love. Do we believe him yet?
Ephesians 2:14 calls Jesus “our peace.” This word was often used to indicate a “peace treaty.” Jesus is the means by which the war between factions ends. But, if you’ve been around First Baptist very long, you will have heard that the words “our Peace” meant more than that. The writer was thinking in Hebrew, even when writing in Greek. In Hebrew the word for peace is shalom. This is usually the last official word you hear from me Sunday by Sunday. You hear it more than that. You have heard it means more than peace as a lack of conflict and fighting. You know it means “wholeness.” That’s why verse 14 goes on to say “He (Christ) has made both groups into one.” It is Christ that unifies people. Again, old divisions, wounds, slights – things that we just can’t seem to get over on our own – are no longer important as they are swallowed up in the love of God in Jesus. Then, there’s another image: “He (Christ) has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” The words “dividing wall” refer to the barrier in the Jerusalem Temple that separated the Court of Israel (the “real” people of God) from the Court of the Gentiles (the “latecomers,” the “second-class”), and kept the two groups apart. Gentiles were warned not to go into Israel’s space on pain of death. This horrid wall pictures hostility between people. In Christ, the wall is gone, and if that wall is gone, hostility is gone, too. And that’s another way of talking about the message we have as a community within our communities: “The Broken Wall.” The new way of putting the old message (which is, itself, about two millennia old now): In Christ we are reconciled to God for good. But there’s more to it than that. The cross (and life and resurrection) of Jesus doesn’t just reconcile us to God. It doesn’t just bring us new life in that way. The very first mark of our reconciliation to God is reconciliation to one another. Often the state of our reconciliation to God shows up in the ways we relate to one another and to those out there.
Jesus said that a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. He was talking about the community made up of his disciples. Thousands of years later, this Church has a place set in the very heart of this city. Our purpose is not to be heard as negative, narrow, shrill and unattractive. Rather, we are called to be the voice of wholeness and reconciliation with God and with one another. So many times ministries seem summarized in the minds of people by what they are against, not what they are for. Let the witness that comes out from this corner always be for wholeness, for reconciliation, for new life, for hope, for inclusiveness, not for erecting walls that Jesus died to dismantle. Elizabeth Morrow wrote this poem about walls; it applies.
My friend and I have built a wall
Between us thick and wide:
The stones are laid in scorn
And plastered high with pride.
We talk across the stubborn stones
So arrogantly tall –
Only we cannot touch our hands
Since we have built the wall.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.