Us vs. them. It lingers in mythology, history, literature, the stories that we tell on TV. And whether it’s the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, Cowboys vs. Indians, the Capulets vs. the Montagues or House Stark vs. House Lanister, this is all so familiar to us. Whether it’s tribal, religious, socio-economic or political, we like to divide into camps, assume the worst about each other and proceed to either build walls between us or tear each other down. Democrats vs. Republicans, anyone?
Which team are you on? Are you with the police or Black Lives Matter? In an “us vs them” world, you must choose, you understand. Apparently, it’s impossible to be in favor of both the police and justice in our black communities. Such is the twisted, frightened logic of “us vs them.” It circles the wagons and points the finger at those people out there. It creates a “win-lose” scenario when in fact God intends a “win-win” scenario with us and our neighbor. It’s what happens when we fail to trust that God will provide for us, that there is enough for everyone, that the organizing center for our existence is not my group, tribe or nation, but God. Not even the Christian church. God.
Ephesians says that Christ has made both groups – us and them, divide it any way you like – into one group. He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. He has made peace by creating a new humanity, creating a right relationship first between God and people, but also – and this is the focus of Ephesians today – creating a right relationship between peoples; a right relationship made possible by the cross and in one body. Jesus’ body. So God’s will is to unite us. As we heard last week, when we stand on a high point and look to the horizon of the future, we see Christ, who has dismantled “us vs them” and united us in a new humanity.
But of course this is isn’t just the future, because the cross has already happened. So this unity is given to us now as gift and promise, to celebrate, to live, to work for. Even if it is not yet complete.
One might object: but Paul was talking about Jews and Gentiles, not all the groups I listed. Well, think about it. Does it matter how you divide people? We know the Jews were God’s chosen people. And who then were in the group called the Gentiles? Everyone else! So you see that this sort of covers everyone, doesn’t it, and that’s the point. On the cross, Jews and Gentiles, and all versions of us vs them have all been brought into right relationship into one humanity.
Now, this message from Paul to the Ephesians was and is challenging. For many Jews, they imagined their god to be a bit of a glorified tribal god, the kind of god familiar to every culture. They thought God chose them to be the people on earth who would be blessed by God, at the exclusion of the rest. But it became clear as Jewish history evolved that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a different intention: The Jews weren’t chosen simply to be blessed. They were chosen to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Blessed to be a blessing! So with all the walls and barriers that had been erected between Jews and gentiles over the many years, in the end, the Jews had to realize that the same God who originally blessed them richly was now knocking down those barriers and walls so that Jews and Gentiles could be blessed, too. So that both could become one new humanity. And Jesus was the one who united two into one.
I’ll never forget Claudina Trujillo, a little old Latino lady who was dirt poor. I was a youth director at the time and my group of 30 teens and 8 adult leaders were on a mission trip to one of the poorest counties in the nation, San Luis County in southwestern Colorado. Our group did various kinds of work helping these rural residents, who were 99% Latino. These folks couldn’t have seemed more “other” to us. Although they were Christians(albeit Catholic), they were very poor, many unemployed, they spoke a different language and had darker skin. A team of 7 or 8 of us were visiting Claudina in her tiny little sun baked house right where a mountainous forest and meets the desert. We had been working around her property, chopping wood, reframing her door, weeding her garden. We had finished and we were just saying goodbye to her, but she wanted to gather us together. She called me Captain Juan, “Captain Juan, we must gather with your young people.” She led us all into the house because she wanted to share a Bible verse to us. She asked if one of the young people would read from this Ephesians lesson. When the boy had finished reading, she said, “See, we are all one. We are one in Jesus.” And we said, “Amen.”
What does it mean to live in the light of this truth, that the God who became one of us, sharing in our broken lives, did so in order to remove the walls that preserve our brokenness? First, the self-erected wall between us and God, but second, the wall between us and “them.”
What if we lived life believing that everyone we meet is at the foot of the cross with us, a community gathered by Jesus? I’m suggesting here that this passage in Ephesians is not just about uniting Christians – and it certainly is about that – but also about uniting Christians and non-Christians.
“Wait a minute!” you might say. “What if they don’t even believe in Jesus?” That may be the case, but the point here is God believes in them – in their value, in their worth, and therefore extends the life of God to them. And that in the fullness of God’s vision, we are united with that person already into one humanity, God’s new humanity. It says earlier in Ephesians that God intends to gather up all things, all people in Jesus.
The truth is, God is already at work through Christ in all of creation, in all religious traditions, for John reminds us that all things were made through Christ. Got that? All things, and people, were made through Christ and it is God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ. Yes, God is loose in the world and at work in people whether they realize it or not.
That is something for us to build on. We can work with anyone out there, have meaningful community with them, because the God we believe in is at work in and through them. Maybe we share our own faith story and beliefs with them. But before we do that, make sure you listen to their story.
And of course, the unity described in Ephesians does not mean that everyone is in agreement on everything. Sometimes we engage in fierce disagreements. But according to Paul’s teaching today, we still have a shared humanity in Christ with those same people, so we build bridges between our camps, we bring out the best in each other. We share one another’s burdens – with fellow Christians, for sure. also with non-Christians.
And yet, the “us vs them” way of thinking looms like Mt Everest. I had lunch with some Christian friends the other day who are very much in an “us vs them” frame of mind. They believe in metaphorical walls being built and barriers established, because they have bought into the sweeping generalizations that are made about our Muslim brothers and sisters. In Muslim countries, they’ve come to believe, all gay people face capital punishment, that all Muslim women must endure the horrifying FGM medical procedure, that all Muslims want to institute Sharia law in their host country and abolish the laws of the countries they’re in. One doesn’t have to do much reading to find out that these generalizations are grossly inaccurate and unfair. They reinforce the “us vs them” scenario.
What if we treated our Muslim brothers and sisters as fellow human beings Christ has gathered at the cross – a community of sharing burdens and sharing life?
I close with this short anecdote. Last winter, I had lunch with Nancy Nordeen at a place she had suggested: Crescent Moon. I soon learned that she knew the owner and manager of Crescent Moon, a Muslim man whose sons played on the same soccer team with Nancy’s boys. I was impressed with the friendliness and hospitality he showed to us both, even coming over to our table and introducing his boys to me. It was clear that Nancy had already paved the way with her hospitality, offered and received. And it kind of struck me: you don’t see this alot with we Christian folk. We are far too often content to remain with our own kind and leave it at that.
May each of us get caught up in the vision God has for us: that all things and all people are united in Christ. The barriers have fallen away. The walls have been knocked down. Let us see our diverse brothers and sisters for who they really are: Fellow sojourners in the life and in faith, gathered at the foot of the cross by our Lord to be a part of a new creation. Amen.