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Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth so much that it seems like a shoe gets stuck! A few years ago, I said something in a sermon that made one woman very, very angry. I don’t remember the exact Gospel I was preaching on, but I remember saying something about how being a “cradle Episcopalian” was (I thought) far less important than being a “faithful Episcopalian.”
If you’re new to the Episcopal Church, you may not be familiar with this term, “cradle Episcopalian.” It simply refers to someone who was born and baptized early on into the Anglican Tradition, which in this country is the Episcopal Church. Cradle Episcopalians are great people. They are good to have around. I want my church loaded with them because they often have a wisdom, and an insight, and a perspective that others of us (me, for instance, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church) don’t always have. That’s not to say that Cradle Episcopalians are always right. Nor is it to suggest in any way that they are to be discounted, apologized for, gotten around, or ignored. The woman I offended felt that I was putting down life-long Episcopalians, and she associated with me all that is new, changing, inferior, and wrong-headed about the church that she has loved her whole life. The point I was trying to make, and didn’t make very well (at least for this one lady) was that our church now, as was our church in the First Century, is enriched and blessed by a multitude of people—some who are followers of Christ from the very beginning, and others who may have just walked through the doors this morning. The scriptures we’ve heard this morning work together to remind us of the broadness, the expanse, the array which is to be the Christian Church.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets to the point pretty directly, though Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. Paul writes about the circumcised and the uncircumcised, hardly a topic one might expect for a Sunday morning in July. But he’s really just using shorthand for a conversation about Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles being everyone who is not Jewish. By the time of the Letter to the Ephesians, the early Church was filled with at least two kinds of people—some were former Jews who had decided to follow Christ. Many probably still thought of themselves as Jews, even though they had, in many places, been driven out of the synagogues. But these Jews who followed Jesus were also successful at inviting non-Jews to join the movement. There was the Ethiopian Eunoch, there was the Centurion Cornelius, and before long there were many, many more.
But there’s a conflict going on in the early church at Ephesus. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but some scholars think it has to do with new Jewish converts who felt like, since they were Jewish (circumcised), they gained a more immediate entry and a higher status in the community than those who were Gentile and had never been Jewish. Among some early communities there was even the question of whether a Gentile man who joined the Christian Church should become circumcised like a Jew in order to be a good Christian. Should Gentile women adopt the customs of faithful and orthodox Jewish women? These questions may sound strange to us today, but they were HUGE question for early Christians.
It’s in this atmosphere that Paul preaches, “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.”
Paul goes on to write with assurance to the newly converted, “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.”
Paul says that we, all of us, are to be one household. If you go to Israel today and look at any of the archeological sites you can see what a household in the first few centuries looked like. It might be a couple of rooms, but then when the children grew older, a sleeping loft might be added on. Then when a child grew up and got married, an addition would be built on to the house, and so the household grew. With each new addition, another room would be added. It didn’t matter if the new person was liked or disliked. It didn’t matter whether they brought anything in particular to the household. What mattered is that the new person was family, and they were welcomed, and they were included.
The other scripture readings for the day point to various dynamics with the church. The Old Testament reading warns that there will be those leaders who will seek to separate and divide. Some will attempt to scatter the flock and drive them away. But God will create a remnant of those who follow God, and this remnant from every land, and bring them home. And among this new family, there shall be no fear and none shall be missing.
In today’s Gospel, even Jesus seems to want to cordon off the faithful, to say “these are the ones to whom I’m called. These and no more.” And with that, Jesus tries to go off to a “lonely place.” It’s almost as though Jesus, himself has enough of a following, an already-full-plate, a more-than-full agenda. But then, before long, Jesus understands that God’s love is for everyone, and that there is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.
Whether it is the worldwide Christian Church trying to get along, or the Episcopal Church, or a local parish like this one—the good (but sometimes difficult) news of the Gospel is that all are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a life-long Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are still trying to figure God out. God spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. God anoints us with holy oil, and fills our cup until it’s overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
May God continue to remind us of his holy welcome, and may God continue to show us how to welcome one another.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.