My turn to preach came up this week, so I buckled in yesterday and — despite interruptions from Olympic bicycling, swimming, and gymnastics — hammered out a sermon. There were several biblical-theological themes on my mind, and also the situations of a parishioner who recently died, and several of my long-time friends who are caught up in the toils of very serious medical situations, plus the stunning performance of ‘Abide With Me’ by recent University of Glasgow alumna Emeli Sandé and the Style Council’s five-star recording ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’. That’s a lot.
It all worked out, and the sermon was warmly received. (It’s below in the ‘Continue Reading’ portion, if you’re looking at my home page right now; if you came to the page for this sermon, you won’t see the ‘Continue Reading’ link, so you can just go ahead. Maybe make some toast.) There’s a paragraph I’d really wish were more craftsmanlike, but the rest turned out better than I hoped. It’s for you — four or five of you in particular, but if you think it maybe’s for you, then assuredly you’re one of the half dozen people who’s been on my mind.
In a few hours, Doug will swing past and carry us off to Knockbrex, where we will spend a few days away from the bustle of city life, (ideally) writing and resting and breathing in (Irish) sea air and sunning ourselves on the beach. I’m not sure if we’ll have reliable connectivity, so if you don’t see me for a few days, don’t worry.
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
2 Kings 4:42-44 / Ephesians 3:14-21 / John 6:1-21
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
If you have been following along with our readings from the Letter to the Ephesians for that past two weeks — as practically everyone here has, have you not? — you have been savouring one of the high points of New Testament theology. Up to this point, the letter has been underscoring that the new Christians in Ephesus have now come to a turning point for which God had been preparing them from the very beginning of the Great Story. Up to this point the Ephesian Gentiles — much as we ourselves, whether Scots or Nigerians, Germans, English or even Americans — had been outsiders, faceless extras in the background of the drama. As Abraham and Moses, Deborah Elisha struggle with the calling to walk in God’s ways, we have been mumbling and grumbling off-stage, with no lines to recite, no marks to hit. And only a few of us Gentiles have apprehended so much as a vague sense of the holiness to which we are called. In the words of the second chapter of Ephesians, we were lost in trespasses, following the way of a heedless world, chasing after our desires, relying on impulses and intuitions that don’t bring us to resolution. ‘So then, remember that at one time we Gentiles by birth were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise’.
Then the letter goes on to remind us that although up to now we have been only barely visible in the script of God’s drama, yet we discover in Jesus Christ that God had all along written in a role such that we be joined with Israel, brought from the gloomy shadows in the wings into the spotlit presence of God, from understudies to co-stars, as has always been our part. Baptised into Jesus Christ, we who once were far off have been brought near; in his flesh he has made both God’s beloved people Israel and the Gentiles of Ephesus, of Africa, of Scotland, into one body, and has created in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. If the sight of nation after nation ambling peaceably into the Olympic Stadium in this week’s opening ceremonies moved you, that’s only a wee foretaste of the unity toward which Christ is drawing us. Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, torn down the barriers that we erect to segregate us from them, to protect the upper class from the lower, keep tradesmen apart from gentry, black from white, and specifically in these words, the hostility that separates Israel from Gentiles. Jesus breaks down the wall of hostility, and brings peace.
The grace of Christ makes one people, one Body, into which anybody whatsoever may be baptised. Our solidarity extends past to our ancestors, and forward to generations we can’t even imagine. Our solidarity includes our sisters as far off as Zimbabwe, and our brothers as nearby as Govan. Our solidarity knits us together with beloved friends and with our bitterest adversaries — not because we’re so agreeable, not because they have conceded and meet us on the terms we set, not depending on whether we’ve been really only mildly naughty sinners whereas they’ve been terribly wicked. The blood of the broken Body of Christ reconciles us to people with whom we don’t even want to be reconciled, because God’s grace knows none of the limits to which mortal flesh clings.
And as if it were not good news enough that Ephesians preaches this tremendous gospel of inclusion, of bringing the most unlikely godless people to belong to God’s people —this letter further reminds us that the grace of God reaches beyond merely welcoming all different sorts of folks, and extends even to the grave and beyond. Next Sunday, we will hear that Christ breaks down the dividing wall between death and life, capturing death, the ultimate captivity itself, and offering his gifts even to those who have been taken from us. For those we love and see no more — for us who stand at the threshold of twilight — the solidarity proclaimed by this morning’s letter reminds us of Paul’s promise that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Where we have built walls that divide, walls of hatred, walls of stone, and where our wars and selfishness bind frail flesh to the way of death, where our love extends this far and no further, all of these walls occlude the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love. And as our lives persistently betray our own favouritism, our exclusiveness, Christ walked among us and drew to himself rejection from all quarters, from his closest friends, from foreign strangers, doing for us the work of reconciliation that we will not do ourselves. Where once Joshua (in Hebrew Yehoshua, in Greek Iêsous) broke down the walls of Jericho that separated the Gentiles from Israel, initiating slaughter and destruction, instilling fear and suspicion between the two peoples — in this morning’s letter Jesus (in Aramaic Yeshua, also in Greek Iêsous) breaks down those walls of painful division, bearing that brokenness, your brokenness and mine, in his own body. By his blood, he reconciled us; by his wounds, we are healed.
Let that broken Body in. Break our hearts open, step aside, get out of the way, leave behind our bossypants determination or our passive manipulation to have our way, and let the spirit of Christ dwell in us. Allow our broken hearts to receive the broken Body, so as to break down the last barriers to the grace that holds us in solidarity with stranger, friend, the grace that holds us together with our loved ones forever, the grace that empowers us to struggle to make God’s justice visible on earth, that raises us out of resignation and kindles in us the fire of God’s love.
There’s a lot of breaking in our good news this morning — a broken wall, a broken Body, broken bread, the broken hearts we bring. We don’t preach a gospel impervious to pain, invulnerable to spite, unmoved by sorrow, untouched by age and decline. We don’t preach a gospel of gilt-edged guaranteed rightness. We preach Christ crucified, we preach power made perfect in weakness, we preach glory trembling at the torn edges of grief. We preach brokenness, and in that brokenness we with all the saints preach the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s grace. We preach brokenness, in which we learn the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. We preach brokenness, by which we may be filled with all the fullness of God.
That glory, that love, that fullness — they come to us where we aren’t so strong that we think we don’t need it, where we aren’t so self-sufficient that we imagine we can make it apart from God. We receive these gifts when we confess that we can do nothing by ourselves, without the saints, without loved ones, without allies, without strangers acting on our behalf unbeknownst to us. The glory, the love, all the fullness of God come to us where we are broken, where we are cracked. That’s where the light gets in.
This morning’s reading from Ephesians sums up this intense reflection on differential unity, on harmonious integrity, with a doxology and a blessing. We praise the God to whom all people belong, from whom we all derive our distinctive identity; and we received the blessing of wisdom, understanding, and all the fullness of God to unite us, broken people that we are, into an entirety infinitely greater than the parts we comprise, a Body made perfect precisely in its brokenness.
Our broken gospel joins hands with weeping friends, because our unity is made perfect in weakness. Our broken gospel sticks with hearts shadowed by despair, because where one’s faith falters, another’s may hold back from the brink. Our broken gospel boldly proclaims that there’s power at work within us, able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, wherever broken hearts receive broken bread that binds them into a broken body that breaks down walls. Things can change — walls come tumbling down!