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Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 17:22-23, Psalm 66:8-20, I Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-23

We human beings are good at boundaries, building walls and fences, to mark what and who is in and out. We often shape our identities around such boundaries, whether they be geographic or religious. God, on the other hand, seems to be in the business of breaking down walls and barriers. Although it’s not one of this week’s lectionary texts, Ephesians 2:14 (one of my favorites) says of Jesus, “ . . . he is our peace; . . . he has . . . broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Each of our readings for this Sunday, I believe, contains themes or insights that can stretch us to see God at work beyond the limited boundaries that dominate so much of human thinking.

The whole book of Acts is a story of the early movement of the followers of Jesus across geographical boundaries, beyond the narrow confines of a single nation even to “the ends of the earth.” Acts begins with Jesus’ departure into heaven when he says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The book tells of the continuing crossing of boundaries by the early “missionaries,” ending in Rome, from which the message will spread to the ends of the earth.

The methods used by these early spokespersons when they cross boundaries is instructive. They meet people where they are. They adjust to the circumstances they find in each place. The do not go out with chips on their shoulders building new barriers between “us” and “them.”

Today’s story of Paul’s message in Athens is perhaps the most inclusive. He does not dwell on Jesus but reaches across the boundaries that often divide people of different religions. He acknowledges their religiosity. “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts. 17:22) He notices their many altars, including one “To an unknown god.” (vs. 23) He is there, he says, as a representative of that unknown god. What an interesting place to start, one which already acknowledges that there is mystery beyond our understanding. God is bigger than we think, bigger than any of the altars we build. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (vss. 24-25)

We are all children of this God, Paul says (vs. 26), noting that one of their poets has said, “For we too are his offspring.” (vs. 28) Would that we all might approach one another across religious “boundaries” in this spirit.

We also sometimes act as if there were a “wall” of separation between the church and the world where we live our everyday life, as if worship in the sanctuary on Sunday were the most important part of our relationship with God. Scripture tells us otherwise. God cannot be contained by church walls.

My ordination and active ministry were among American Baptist churches, and I am still a member in good standing of that denomination, although mostly, these days, The United Church of Christ is my home. In 1959, the American Baptists commissioned a book by Marcus Barth, son of the widely-known theologian, Karl Barth. It was a study of the book of Ephesians, taking its title, The Broken Wall, from that verse I quoted at the beginning of this blog. A colleague of mine, Jitsuo Morikawa, wrote in the “Foreword” to that book: “Our real field of serving and witness is not in ‘churchly’ ecclesiastical functions and activities, but in the ‘worldly’ functions of secular society.” He said that Marcus Barth spoke about that “with eloquence and power.”

The reading from I Peter writes about our living faithfully in the world as being prepared to “suffer for doing what is right . . .” (I Peter 3:14) It is not a matter of seeking suffering, but of living according to one’s conscience. “Keep your conscience clear.” (vs. 16) In fact, the section ends with an interesting observation about baptism. It’s purpose is not to wash clean, but to “appeal to God for a good conscience.” (vs. 21) Living our faith in the world is an expression of conscience as we follow the example of the crucified and resurrected Christ. (vss. 18 & 21) As he was faithful to God’s righteousness and overcame, so it is to be with us. Jesus says, in John 14:20, “ . . .because I live, you also will live.” The Gospel reading is also about breaking down any walls between ritual religion and the world of daily life. Keeping God’s “commandments” is a way, Jesus says, of showing that we love him. (vs. 15 & 21)

Psalm 66, in its own way, also sees God’s arena of activity as everyday life. God is present in, and brings us through our suffering. We live through tests. We fall short, but God offers hope, forgiveness, and restoration. (See especially vss. 10-12 & 18-19) Whether the Psalm expresses the experience of an individual or speaks for the nation as a whole probably matters little. It was probably written after the people returned from exile. While in exile, many felt separated from God and now experienced “restoration.” If we’re talking about walls and boundaries, we can read the Psalm as a reminder that we cannot draw lines between the good times and the bad times and say God is one but not the other. God cannot be contained within such walls. Even in times of suffering and exile we need to be attentive for God’s presence.

Finally, John’s Gospel speaks of the unity of Father, Son, and followers, repeating what we have read the past couple of weeks. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:20) God cannot even be contained by a wall between heaven and earth, with God remaining comfortably upon a throne. All walls have been broken down and, as Paul says, in his sermon in Athens, some “would search for God . . . though indeed he is not far from each one of us,” quoting one of their poets: “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27-28)

The Gospel lesson describes this presence of God among us as an “Advocate,” “the Spirit of truth . . . You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17) We are approaching Pentecost when we celebrate the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. The presence of that Spirit lurks in this week’s readings and might provide another theme.

For now, it is sufficient to celebrate, live into, and proclaim the reality that God is in the business of breaking down walls and reaching across the artificial boundaries we human beings are often inclined to build. Marcus Barth, in that book I mentioned earlier, spends many pages identifying the many ways in which the broken wall in Ephesians 2:14 can be interpreted. He concludes that the interpretation cannot be limited to any single wall, saying, “Jesus Christ has to do with whatever divisions exist between races and nations, between science and morals, natural and legislated walls, primitive and progressive peoples, outsiders and insiders.” Do I hear an “Amen”?


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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