3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 25, 2017
Ephesians 2: 11- 22
Dramatic images of Paul show up in paintings and icons. The icons show him as bald, dressed in early Christian priestly trappings with symbols of his works and writings. Paintings are usually dramatic scenes of his conversion or his shipwreck on the way to Rome. But the truth is none of the above.
It’s hard for us comfortable middle-class Lutherans to imagine his life. He seems to have given up a comfortable life as a Jewish scholar, well enough connected with the Temple elite to have requested and received permission to persecute followers of Jesus in Damascus. After his dramatic conversion, his life was reversed. He lived in the shadows of Arabia for a long time, and his travels were on foot through many back roads. He paid his own way by being a leatherworker – sewing everything from tents to personal items, and most likely living in other people’s homes and teaching from his borrowed shop space. The chances are that he would not have had the money to stay at inns along the way, perhaps he even slept outside while on the road.
“Today those who walk through the magnificent ruins of a city like Ephesus cannot help but recognize the grandeur and power of Greco-Roman culture embodied in majestic buildings, shrines, temples, and statues. Yet here was a Jew with a knapsack on his back who hoped to challenge all that in the name of a crucified criminal before whom, he proclaimed, every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth had to bend. The contempt and mockery of the sophisticated Gentiles for this babbling ragpicker of ideas reported in Acts 17:18(“Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’) ring true.”
But the fact is that his letters to the churches he founded were the first writings of the New Testament, and his words take up more than the writings of any other New Testament author.  In those writings we learn about a person whose life was changed dramatically by the love of God poured out to him so powerfully that the eloquence of his expression of it has given us some of the most beautiful language of the Bible.
It was the overwhelming love of Christ which compelled him to tell people who had never heard of the Jewish God that they were included in the life of love that God had for all people, not just those of the Jewish faith and tradition.
Most of Paul’s opposition came, not from the Gentiles to whom he was preaching, but the Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and believed that the Gentiles had to adopt the Jewish Law to be full believers. In congregation after congregation, Jewish preachers and believers came behind Paul, putting new demands on new believers and explaining that his preaching and teaching was not sufficient. Again and again in his letters, he offers arguments for his position that Gentiles were not bound to accept the observance of the Law of circumcision, but his most basic argument was greater than just logic. He wanted the Gentiles to experience the love manifested by God in Christ, and nothing must be allowed to stand in the way. His attitude toward the Law for the sake of the Gentiles was part of his ‘being all things’ so that they might be saved.
Imagine for a moment that you are Jewish. Your whole identity as God’s chosen people is wrapped up in the rules by which you live. Not only are all the men circumcised, but what you can eat, what you can wear, how you wash, who you sit down to eat with are all regulated by the Law. You are disgusted by those who are not your religion as they eat pig meat that has been offered first to their gods and then sold out in the open-air marketplace. Even modern day Kosher Jews are so particular about keeping different kinds of food separate that their kitchens are double: two different sets of cabinets for two separates sets of plates, cutlery, pots and pans; two dishwashers; two prep areas.
It’s easier for us to imagine how the Gentiles saw them – as picky, obsessed, and contemptuous.
But Paul sees the community of believers of Jews and Gentiles through the eyes of God, who loves humanity so much God came in person to fulfill the promises of the prophets that the Messiah would be for all nations. This outpouring of love is the very power that can bring together people of such different values and understandings into one body.
The early communities of Brothers and Sisters in the faith didn’t just sit together for an hour on Sunday morning and then go home to do whatever they did. They shared a meal as part of worship.
I can only imagine how awkward that might have been after sitting down with my vegan brother and sister in law to a family meal in which we ‘meat people’ tried to offer them something we all could eat together. Only love makes it work. The believers supported and took food to the sick, and often lived together in community. Only love makes it work. It was often risky to become a follower of Jesus, as there were persecutions. Only love makes it work. When you joined one of the early communities, you might have to change occupations as soldiers were expected to lay down their arms. Only love makes it work.
Paul claims, in the reading for today, that the Jews were already joined to God before Jesus, but that now even the clueless Gentiles have been joined to God’s love and mercy, creating something entirely new, one body. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, is the cornerstone of the foundation of apostles and prophets, the capstone of the arch that is the living building of God’s home on earth.“So 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. Both groups are reconciled through the cross, putting to death hostility between them through Jesus death and resurrection.” (Eph 2: 17-19)
It’s amazing that such a day of unity existed. That’s not what the church looks like today.My experience of the Church is one of factions, divisions, those who want stronger rules, and those who think that love is all you need; those who think that church is all about who is in and who is out; who’s going to heaven and who’s not.
If the sign of the power of God’s love is the unity of believers, I think that the Church has a lot to answer for when we meet our Maker.
Paul’s story and Jesus’ story are the same: That God’s greatest power has been shown in God’s vulnerability. God’s most abiding characteristic throughout Scripture is God’s steadfast love and mercy to those who believe. How can we who have been welcomed and are no longer aliens and strangers experience God’s love in the manner of Paul – transformed by God’ love, compelled to share it with all, suspending our judgement because we are so grateful to be here by God’s invitation. Our witness is that across everything that divides us, we are called together to be a sign of God’s peace. That is our work, our ministry. Amen.
 Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. (The Anchor Bible Reference Library. NY Doubleday, 1997), 448
 ibid. 448
 ibid., 449
 ibid. 449