July 22, 2018
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
(Ephesians 2:11-18; Mark 6:30-34)
New Jersey. Drought-resistant wheat seeds. The Trojan Horse. The World Wide Web. Human freedom. Penicillin. A green bike. Jesus Christ.
What do the items in this list, as diverse as they are, have in common? All are gifts. Maybe the greatest gifts in history.
New Jersey was given as a present in 1665 by the Duke of York to two royalists, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley. Fortunately, the territory did not remain in their hands; it reverted to the English crown in 1702, and later became part of the United States. If the land had not been returned, the descendants of Carteret and Berkeley would now be in control of nearly nine million people and a half-trillion-dollar economy. Not to mention Princeton University, the New York Giants, the New Jersey Turnpike.
Another great gift was much smaller, but was equally significant. A man named Norman Borlaug developed tiny wheat seeds that were resistant to drought and disease. These seeds were planted across Latin America and South Asia, and ended up feeding more than one billion people. They also put many poor countries on the road to self-reliance.
Clearly, good things come in small packages.
Another significant gift was The Trojan Horse. Well, maybe it was not such a terrific present for the Trojans, since Greek soldiers hid inside the horse and then conquered the city of Troy. But the destruction of Troy led to the foundation of Rome and the Roman Empire, which had a profound effect on Western civilization.
How about the present given to the world by Tim Berners-Lee? Tim Berners-who, you might ask? He gave us the World Wide Web, choosing to make it a public good instead of a personal cash cow. The benefits to people around the world have been tremendous.
The idea of human freedom. This has been America's gift to the world, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom for all people has always been the guiding light of our foreign policy. When we are true to ourselves, freedom is what America is all about.
And freedom is what Jesus Christ is all about -- and he is the greatest "gift of all" (John 3:16). He is our God-and-neighbor connector, our peacemaker and our wall-breaker. He becomes for us the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all.
The Apostle Paul knows Christ's worth, which he describes in lavish detail in his letter to the Ephesians. Writing to a group of Christians who had grown up as Gentiles -- people outside the Jewish community of faith -- he reminds them that they were once "separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."
What did it feel like to be a Gentile in Ephesus? Hard to say. Archeology tells us only so much about what life was like for residents of this Roman city on the sun-baked coast of Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. But as we read the letter to the Ephesians, we can imagine what they were going through, feeling hopeless and cut off from God. Paul says they feel like aliens. We know what it is like to be alienated -- removed, withdrawn and estranged from a community and from God.
Today, alienation can be caused by too much of a reliance on technology. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, believes that social media can isolate us and cause us a lot of harm. She has written a book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and in it she talks about how we have so many opportunities to communicate today, using emails, texts, instant messages, Facebook messages, Twitter messages, phone calls and Skype.
Such light-speed communication is great for making links. Which is good. This is not an anti-tech rant. But, unfortunately, as we get bombarded by messages and make hurried responses, the content of our conversations gets dumbed down. Conversation with depth and meaning -- the kind of thing that connects us as humans -- often gets lost. We find ourselves linked by technology, but, sometimes, we also (as a consequence) feel alienated, estranged from community and from God.
Alone. Cut off. Isolated. Even in the middle of a bustling city.
This was how the Ephesians were feeling, almost 2,000 years before the invention of the Internet. But fortunately their lives were transformed by the gift of Jesus, who became their God-and-neighbor-connector. Paul tells them that their alienation is over, for "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." Through the death of Jesus we are forgiven and restored to right relationships with God and our neighbors.
The cross is a symbol of connectedness. The sacrifice of Jesus brings separated parties together, and the cross itself serves as a symbol of this victory. Just look at the structure of the cross: The vertical beam is a symbol of the new connection between people and God, and the horizontal beam points to the connection between people, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, one to another. Through Christ, those who were "far off" and separated by sin have been "brought near" and united through forgiveness.
In the first-century Herodian temple where the Jews worshiped, there was a series of courts separated by gated walls. Each court moved progressively closer to the Holy of Holies. The first gate was the gate of the Gentiles, and you could walk around in that court if you were a God-fearing Gentile.
If you were a Jewish woman who was ceremonially clean according to Jewish law, you could enter the next gate and go into an inner court. Beyond that lay the gate to the innermost court, where only Jewish men who were ceremonially clean could go without fear of death.
And then came the gate for the Temple Priests, and so forth.
Several years ago, archaeologists found an inscription in the wall of the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. It read, "Whoever is captured past this point will have himself to blame for his subsequent death."
That's some pretty hostile language. But hostility is exactly what existed between Jew and Gentile for centuries.
Christ is our peace-maker and our wall-breaker, says Paul, that Christ in his flesh has made both groups into one. Christ makes peace between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, between black Americans and white Americans, between Baby Boomers and Millennials, between immigrants and the native-born, breaking down "the dividing wall” that creates the hostility between us.
Hostility between different groups leads to separation, but walls break down when we identify ourselves primarily as Christians, as disciples of Christ and members of his body. Today, on campuses across the United States, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (an Evangelical Christian group made up of differing Protestant denominations) is trying to become more racially and ethnically inclusive. Members are stressing racial reconciliation in large-group meetings for praise and worship, small-group Bible studies, and summer camps for leadership training. Their focus is not on political correctness, but on the Bible: Leaders point to Jesus' prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one, and to Paul's words in Ephesians about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile.
Racial reconciliation is now part of the training for campus staff, with the goal that it will become part of ongoing small-group meetings. The objective, according to Paul Fuller, an InterVarsity vice president and director of multiethnic ministries, is "to create witnessing communities on campus that are growing in love for every ethnicity."
Growing in love. Not just for our own ethnic group, but for every ethnicity. That comes only from seeing Christ as our peacemaker and wall-breaker.
Paul tells us that Jesus is also the cornerstone of a spiritual house, one that serves as a home for us all. "Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit." What a gift this is!
In this house, we have access "in one Spirit" to God the Father. In this house, we "are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God." In this house, we know that we are resting on something solid, "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."
We live in an uncertain world, in which generous gifts can be taken away, such as when the gift of New Jersey suddenly reverted to the royal family. We live in a dangerous world, in which gifts such as The Trojan Horse turn out to be curses in disguise. We live in an ambiguous world, in which innovations such as the World Wide Web can be used to disseminate both digital treasures and digital trash.
None of this is true with the greatest gift of all time, Jesus Christ. He connects us to God and neighbor, makes peace, breaks walls and offers us an eternal home with God. Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving, as we grow in love for God and neighbor as members of his spiritual household.
I encourage you to hold on to this gift. It will maintain its value forever.
Let us pray.
Father of all mankind, have compassion for all of your flock and open our eyes to the message of the true shepherd. We pray to the Lord.
For refugees, immigrants, the poor and oppressed: that God may lead all to places of welcome and safety. We pray to the Lord.
For a strengthening of all families: that God will heal divisions and draw family members into deeper bonds of love. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are homeless or without friends, that they will feel the warm touch of a loving community. We pray to the Lord.
For all peoples, that we all will be instruments in helping to end all discord, divisions and hostilities among all peoples of the earth. For victims of discrimination and victims of gun violence; that mankind make a commitment to address the complex problems of poverty and injustice. We pray to the Lord.
For families who live with addiction, for those who struggle with mental illness or depression, for all among us who are sick. We pray to the Lord.
For nations who are at war, and all places of conflict in our world; for all of us that we find the will to imitate the love of Christ Jesus who breaks down walls of division and preaches peace to all people. We pray to the Lord.
For those who died in this week’s Duck Boat accident, that they be brought to God in peace eternal, and for those families and friends left behind that they find comfort in this horrible tragedy. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, Shepherd of souls, we trust in your promise to care for all of your flock and so we surrender our prayers to you, both spoken and unspoken, with trust that you hear us and fill our every need. In a world sorely in need of your peace and begging for right relationship with all peoples, we ask you to make us instruments of your compassion and grace. May we bear witness to your love with the witness of our lives. We ask this through Christ our Lord, your Son. Amen
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA