A New Humanity

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on July 22, 2012, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.  (Second in a series of sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians.)

I was listening to public radio when I first heard the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont.  I don’t think I had ever heard of him before, but a hundred years ago, in the early 1900s, they said of him that in another hundred years – about now, in other words –  he would be the only man remembered of his era. So much for fame!

Alberto Santos-Dumont was a Brazilian who was fascinated by the idea of air travel.  He invented a number of variations on the dirigible and then he won a prize for the first heavier than air flight in France in 1906.  He thought he was first to fly a heavier than air machine  but that was because the Wright brothers had had no publicity.  They didn’t want publicity.  They wanted to be sure they had all their patents registered  before they let anyone know.  That’s why they went to Kitty Hawk where there would be no one around.  But Alberto Santos-Dumont never patented any of his inventions  because he thought they were too important for human progress.  It seemed to him that if world leaders could travel quickly by air to consult each other  there would be no more war because it would be easy to get together  and overcome disagreements. He was shattered when dirigibles and airplanes  were used in World War I to drop bombs  and when, some years later, a bomb was dropped near the hotel  in which he was staying  he was so disheartened  that he went upstairs and killed himself.

All this was news to me, I never heard of him,  but it struck me that it sums up a great deal  of the human frustration in the search for peace. Santos-Dumont was perhaps more naive than most, but isn’t there still in all of us  the naive belief  that if we just would work at it a little harder or communicate a little better  or apply some new technology that we could make peace:  that we could create a world without conflict, a world without war?  What would it take to make that dream a reality  in Syria, in Afghanistan, in the Sudan, in the United States?

I remember reading that American occupation forces in Iraq  had created  an advisory counsel of Iraqis with 20-some members  representing every religious and ethnic group in the country.  That may be a swell idea for Iraq,  but it made me wonder  how it would work out here. I had a vision of some occupying power in this country creating a counsel representing every religious and ethnic group of Americans and wondered how far forward that would set the cause of peace. It’s our divisions that prevent peace but to enshrine them in the government  surely would make peace impossible.  We get along as well as we do in this country specifically because  our representatives  in Washington do not represent  any particular religious or ethnic groups.  I mean, suppose Chris Murphy represented Protestants and Linda McMahon represented Roman Catholics and Senator Blumenthal represented Jews and I wound up with no one to represent me!  What peace would there be if we emphasized our divisions?

Let’s look at this morning’s second reading.  Paul is talking about unity. Paul knew all about ethnic divisions. He was brought up on them.  Judaism had survived by emphasizing divisions, emphasizing differences.  Jews couldn’t eat certain food,  couldn’t work on certain days,  couldn’t offer incense to idols,  couldn’t do dozens of things  their neighbors could do, and that made life difficult for them,  it made them different, but it also preserved their identity. If you never mix with others,  you don’t get conflicted by differences. There was a wall in the temple beyond which no Gentile could go  but our reading  from the Epistle to the Ephesians this morning says that in Christ  that dividing wall  has been broken down  and the laws that divide us have been annulled so that one new humanity might come into being  with equal access  to the One Spirit and One God.

Paul offers a way to peace beyond all our division – ALL our divisions: those between human beings, those within human beings, and those between us and God.  Every division weakens us, all of them create conflict,  and all of them, this letter says,  have a single answer: Christ is our peace.  Christ, it tells us,  has created something new in himself: a single new humanity.  The epistle pictures this new humanity as a temple with Christ as the cornerstone and all of us stones in the walls of that temple  holding each other up and being held up by Christ.  You can’t imagine a building fighting itself. All the stones, all the timbers, all the iron beams, serve a single purpose. That’s one way of looking at it.  But it’s a rather mechanical way  and before this letter uses that image  it has spoken of a fleshly unity,  a unity in one body.  Paul in his letters is very prone to talk about being “in Christ”  and he uses the image of a body of which we are members.  And I think the most important aspect of that for us is that it locates peace in Christ first of all, not in us, not in a program, not in a technique or technology. We are made one “In Christ.”

Paul has looked at himself and not been impressed.  If we look at ourselves and are impressed, we need friends to tell us the facts.  “For I know that nothing good dwells within me,” Paul wrote in another letter, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” There’s no point, in other words, in looking within.  And there’s not much point  in looking to human ingenuity the UN, the American military, faster communications. We’ve tried all that.  But suppose you could recreate the human race with a deeper unity  so that it was our fundamental instinct not to rule but to serve,  not to be proud or jealous or selfish  but always concerned for the welfare of others, always seeking to serve God. What would happen then?  Well, human beings have known the answer  for a long time.  It’s in the Torah, the early books of the Old Testament: Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s the command.  But the command gets laid on hard hearts.  The seed gets sown in stony soil.  It’s not that we don’t know what needs to be done; it’s that we don’t know how to get  from where we are  to that peaceful place we want to find.  Today’s epistle talks about peace. It says “Christ is our peace.”  It locates peace in him, not in us, not in our procedures or governments  or technology or theories  or even philosophies or religions.  Christ is our peace.

So the road map Paul gives us  points away from ourselves.  It points toward Christ. It tells us that peace is not here but there.  So what we are faced with is the task of reorientation, re-centering,  and everything we do as Christians is part of that process. What do we do when we come here?  We turn our thoughts to God:  “Almighty God . . .” we pray, “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known . . . cleanse the thoughts of our hearts . . .”  Cleanse, re-direct, re-center them in Christ, not in ourselves.  And at the center of this morning’s action we go to the altar.

Have you ever stopped to think of the contrast between that simple action of going forward from where we are  to another place – God’s table – to be fed,  to receive new life with staying seated where we are  as they do in some churches?  No, the whole point of being here is to get to another place,  to re-center our selves. What’s the point of beginning and ending our days with prayer?  Isn’t it because we need to be constantly re-centering? What’s the point of a church’s outreach programs? Isn’t it to focus away from ourselves  and toward Christ in others? And there, not here, is the gift we need.

Alberto Santos-Dumont made the mistake we all tend to make  of seeing peace  as a matter of good communications, better understanding so as to avoid conflict.  We are so used to conflict,  take it so much for granted,  that our idea of peace is a negative:  what happens when there isn’t war.  I think we have the same problem envisioning peace that we have envisioning heaven.  Conflict is what we know, conflict is what makes life interesting,  conflict is what sells papers.  What would you do all day if there were no conflict? What would you do all day in heaven? I said something last week about the concept of praising God forever  which we can’t imagine  because we’ve never known anyone  worthy of praise like that.  So, too, we have trouble envisioning peace because conflict is our normal state.  And we define peace therefore as a negative: absence of conflict.  But the Jews somehow knew better. Their word for peace – shalom – is a word full of rich overtones of abundance and fullness and harmony.

Can we imagine a future for Afghanistan in which the various factions work together  toward a common goal?  It would have to be outside themselves,  not a compromise of different goals  but a common goal greater than any one group.  Can we imagine that ourselves? Could we give them an example, for example,  of French and American working together toward common goals?  Or Democrats and Republicans?  Or even the Episcopal Churches  of Litchfield County?  But how much effort have we made to turn ourselves toward Christ,  to orient our lives toward him –  not eliminating the work we enjoy, the recreation we look forward to,  the family and friends we like to be with –  no, but bringing all of it into a larger focus,  seeing all of it as God’s gift  and a part of the potentially rich fabric of a life truly centered on the love of God.  Peace:  a gift, available in Christ.

Some people think the Epistle to the Ephesians wasn’t written by Saint Paul.  Well, maybe it wasn’t.  But if not, it was written by someone who had really understood Paul’s Gospel which was so centered in Christ  that Paul speaks of himself as being “in Christ”  and of Christ being in him.  And either way is true,  because what Paul had understood was  that the new life God offers us in Christ is a life so identified with Christ  that we no longer think of ourselves as separate entities with our own goals  and our own purposes. And that would be peace.  This can be peace.  The offer is made; the gift is available;  It’s ours to receive – and to share.

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