as preached on 10/31/2018 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Staten Island, NY
Ephesians 2:13-22: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he 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. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Bible Gateway).
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…
Less than a week from today, those of us who are 18 years old or older and hold citizenship in the United States of America will have the opportunity to go to a local polling site and cast our vote for people to represent us in our government. After what has been a lively campaign season, we’ll go to the local school cafeteria or church auditorium, get a ballot from a poll worker, fill in the dot next to the candidates we prefer, indicate whether we agree with a particular ballot initiative, and slide our ballots into the reader, trusting – maybe – that our votes will be counted accurately and that perhaps this time the candidates we voted for will win.
This year, I will have voted three times. I voted once in the primary for US Congress, again in statewide primaries for governor, assembly, and senate, and will vote next week for the House of Representatives, the US senate, NYS Assembly, NYS Senate, and governor. I’ll dutifully post a selfie of myself on social media with my “I voted” sticker, and will be sure to check on results before I go to bed.
Thus I proclaim my status as citizen.
In our reading today, the author of Ephesians uses the language of alien, stranger, and citizen to call to mind a certain paradigm in the minds of their readers. The power of this language came through to the audiences of ancient Rome – people who were the first readers of this letter – just as it comes through to us today. In the Roman Empire, there was a clear divide between the citizens and non-citizens of Rome: entering into marriage, owning property, running for office: the ability to do these things was a function of your citizenship status.
Some people were in, others were out.
Today, here in the United States, the language of aliens, strangers, and citizens is a red-hot political ember. We hear of caravans of migrants about to “invade” our borders as military troops are deployed in an unprecedented move. We learn that the Department of Homeland Security is setting up an office specifically designed to find people who may have lied on their immigration forms and de-naturalize them, strip them of their citizenship. We go to the polls and find that our names are not on the rolls, that our polling site has moved, that we need ID we didn’t know we needed – this says to us: prove you belong, that you’re not “one of them” – alien, stranger. And just yesterday, news broke of the federal administration’s plan to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, a legally dubious maneuver that is adding chum to already shark-infested waters.
I find this drumbeat relentless, exhausting, and infuriating.
Which draws me back into Ephesians. Now, there’s plenty in this book of the Bible that I struggle with. Later in this book, we read the infamous sections on wives being subject to their husbands and slaves needing to obey earthly masters – we can struggle with that another day. But the relentless rhetoric around illegal aliens and voter fraud and terrorists hiding among refugees drives me to dwell here, in the second chapter of Ephesians, and this vision of walls breaking down, peace being proclaimed, and reconciliation happening. Here in Ephesians, the establishment of peace and reconciliation becomes a foundation for a “holy temple,” a “dwelling place for God.” Here in Ephesians, strangers and aliens become citizens, become equal members in the Body of Christ. Everyone belongs.
Let me say that again: everyone belongs.
What does that mean about how we treat people who are different?
Jay T. Rock, writing in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, puts it this way: “We are to move beyond the walls that separate us from other human beings,” Rock writes, answering the “call to (be) one community…formed by Christians’ engaging in the active dissolving of separating between peoples and breaking down walls of alienation (118).”
Rock also writes, “…those who follow Jesus are not to treat people as ‘other’ but as neighbors or sisters and brothers, with whom to share food and love and the practices of the reign of God. The Christian writings…offer a theology not of exclusion but of embrace (117).”
We need to remember that all people are created in the image of God.
We need to recall what we promise at our baptism: to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
A good place to start would be, when you hear of how strangers and aliens are treated, to think to yourself, “is this how I would want Jesus to be treated? Is this a response that preserves human dignity?”
When you can confidently answer “yes” to these questions, your heart can be at ease.
But when there’s a hesitation, or when you say “no,” spend some time imagining and praying: imagining what the Jesus-focused, humane and dignified response would be, praying for that outcome to come to be, and asking for the strength and fortitude to do the work to bring that outcome…and then, in community with others, start seeking, serving, and striving.
The Gospel gives us this authority: we are to go out into the world and share this news of love, of reconciliation, of peace.
For there is no “other” in Christ.
Friends, let’s pray together:
God of love, when those in power seek to divide, let us proclaim that we are stronger together. Let us recognize the image of God in all whom we encounter. Let us hold them in our hearts as we vote, petition, and gather for justice. Amen (Sojourners).
“Ephesians 2 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).” Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2&version=NRSV
Rock, Jay T. “No Longer Strangers or Aliens: “Otherness” as a Binding to Be Loosed in Christian Tradition.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 52, issue 1, 2017, pp. 113-119.
Sojourners. “prayer of the day,” Verse & Voice 10.25.2018 (Oct. 2018): sojo.net. Email 31 October, 2018.