Reconciled through Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Yesterday’s memorial service for Dudley Stone brought together two worlds: the world of the parish church and the world of the theatre. To most of us, that combination of people seemed right and natural. But this has not always been the case with the Christian Church. Though theatre as we know it grew largely out of medieval cathedral communities and their dramatic and humorous re-telling and ad-libbing of biblical stories, the church often was at odds with theatre and acting.—both of which were thought to be corrupting influences.

Here in New York, St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church is nicknamed the Actor’s Chapel, our own Church of the Transfiguration since 1870, when the Little Church graciously hosted a funeral for a notorious actor. Often joining us through Zoom Evening Prayer from St. Stephen’s Church in London is the Rev. Lindsay Meader, who is Lead Theatre Chaplain for the Diocese of London and Senior Chaplain of Theatre Chaplaincy UK.

Whether we think of the theatre world versus the church world, or some other possible opposing group:  Democrats/Republicans, Vegans/Meat-eaters, Vaccinated/Unvaccinated, and that deadly rivalry: Yankees/Mets…. We seem to have a tendency to spot “the OTHER.” Having diagnosed “the other” asserts our own identity, and the longer we go in that direction, the more solid are the walls we build – whether real or imagined.

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.

While the media and perhaps a bit of animal instinct in us easily feels threatened by those who are different or who appear to be on opposite sides of an issue, sometimes the information is skewed. Several days ago, an opinion piece in the New York Times by a health care policy professor at Harvard points this out. Dr. Anupam B. Jena points out that while “While the politicization of the pandemic is undeniable, the focus on it has obscured a simple truth: Everyone has made sacrifices, no one has been spared, and the shared experience of the last year and a half has been sorely underappreciated relative to the differences.”  (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/16/opinion/covid-risk-birthdays-study.html, accessed July 17, 2021).

The data also suggests that while there are some large disparities that fall along political lines — in vaccinations, self-reported mask use and closures of businesses and schools — people’s actual behavior may not have been as polarized. What people were willing to take risks for during the pandemic have been quite similar.

He goes on to explain the enormous number of people who gathered – even at the height of the pandemic—to celebrate birthdays. Other big issues like whether adolescents should be vaccinated show differences among political affiliation and geography, the differences are not always as great as the media suggests.

There is a temptation to be with those who agree with us. The new Viking Cruise commercials shown on PBS offers its message, “welcome back to the world,” that their trips provide the opportunity “connect with other like-minded people.”  While we all might feel those urges from time to time—can you image a more boring world:  one in which everyone agreed with all of your opinions, assumptions, prejudices, and values?

In today’s Gospel, even Jesus seems to want to cordon off the faithful, and pull them away. It’s a little bit like here, as in a few other places, Jesus suggest, “these are the ones to whom I’m called to minister among. 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 or even a theater person! 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.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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