Toorak Uniting Church

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A Big Idea

Ephesians 2: 11 – 22
Pentecost 8
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
22 July 2012

Introduction

What is the most powerful thing in the world? What is it in this world that we know has more power than anything else? Now when I ask that question in this context - in this place - a church, some may think the answer has to be God. And given a contemporary understanding of the Divine that’s a good answer. It reminds me of a story I heard in Canada many years ago. The minister had gathered the children on the steps of the chancel to tell them a story. He asks, "What is brown, covered in fur and gathers nuts to store for the winter?" There is a moment of silence as the children ponder their answers and then a little boy raises his hand and says, "Well, it sounds a lot like a squirrel, but I know the answer is going to be Jesus."

What is the most powerful thing in our world? If you read the newspaper each morning you may agree with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung that "power comes from the barrel of a gun". It is difficult to shake off the illusion that violence is the most powerful thing in the world.

Of course it is also reasonable to suggest that love is the most powerful thing we know. I certainly agree with that. And of course it is never love in the abstract, but always love as an action or as something practical. I remind those young couples who come to this place to be married that love is a verb – a doing word, not just a noun. As Scott Peck wrote in his book the Road Less Travelled:

Love is not a just a feeling. Love is an action; an activity . . . Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. It is the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. True love is an act of will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love; it is correct to say that 'Love is as love does'.

Yes, love probably does make the world go around. But I want to suggest this morning that the most powerful thing in the world is a big idea; an idea that has the capacity to grow even beyond itself. The greatest ideas are never static or fixed or stagnant. They are always dynamic and vibrant.

What has kept Christian faith alive for 2,000 years has been its capacity to change and to be a dynamic influence in every culture it engages. True, it has been imperialistic and often failed to incorporate the best that a particular culture may have had, but Christian faith has had a remarkable ability to change and grow into the needs of people and cultures in different places and at different times in history. Sadly, today in the West particularly, the Christian Church is dying. The internal struggles; the desire to return to a golden age; the fear of the contemporary culture; an unwillingness to embrace the best of science, psychology, anthropology and spirituality and a timidity to reinterpret the Biblical message for modern minds has weakened both the institution of the church and its morale.

Interestingly, all we really need is a big idea that is animated by the Spirit of Life and which captures the imagination, and a movement begins. That’s how it all started. That’s what inspiration is all about. The word means to breathe into… to breathe life into… and then the idea begins to do its work.

The Ephesians' Big Idea
The passage read earlier illustrates this movement of an idea. It may not seem so significant to us, but the notion put forward in the letter to the church of Ephesus that the "uncircumcised", those outside of the Jewish faith, can be brought into the covenant with God and have the same place, the same rights as the "circumcised" was a radical idea – a big idea. It was this movement toward an inclusivity that many in the ancient world found difficult to accept. Nevertheless, I suggest it opened the way for the church - the community of faith - to be an open and inclusive movement. Now as often happens it didn’t take long before the gatekeepers found ways to keep people out. But here at the birth of Christian community the movement of the Spirit was toward open inclusiveness.

Remember that at one time you were called "the uncircumcised" by those who were circumcised. But it was a circumcision of the flesh made by human hands. You were at that time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.

John Dominic Crossan, the Irish-American Biblical scholar, has suggested that the decision to move away from circumcision may have also had a very practical aspect. While an eight-day-old baby boy has little say in what is done to him, a grown man, on the other hand, who desires to embrace the life and teaching of Jesus may say, "You are going to do what to where?" So embedded in the Christian way has always been the capacity to adapt and to adopt that which continues the forward movement of the church.

While the language and the historical context may be somewhat foreign to us, it doesn’t take much to hear the early murmurings of a religion that is willing to engage the prevailing culture. But always centring in the one who through his life and teaching drew all people into this healing and wholeness. Again from the letter to the Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you, who once were far off, have been brought near by the life of Christ. For he is our peace; through his body he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. The law with its commandments and ordinances is finished and instead he has created one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace and reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross and putting to death that hostility.

To be radically open to all humanity, the walls that divide must be demolished. I recall Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun…
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down!"

~Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Of course there is always the opposite view that "Good fences make good neighbours", which also comes from Frost’s poem. But the more radical idea – the big idea that comes from the author of the letter to the Ephesians - is that all the walls can come down. First, the dividing walls of religion; then the dividing walls of cultural and national hostility, so that there is only one new humanity formed, shaped, nourished and nurtured through the Spirit of Christ lived out in the life of Jesus.

Being One New Humanity
But the subtle point here is that it is not just a matter of people becoming Christians, or joining a Christian church to become one new humanity. What the author is encouraging us to see is that this big idea of reconciliation between those who are hostile to each other and the notion that we are one new humanity formed by the life and vision of Jesus of Nazareth, this idea, this notion don’t just belong to the Christian Church but belong to the whole wide world. (Dangerously close to the World Wide Web!)

That’s difficult to grasp because we have been encouraged to see ourselves as having the "keys to the kingdom." It will be for us to decide who is in and who is out. And it doesn’t matter which Christian denomination we belong to, we do have an internal sense of being right and that others should be more like us. Maybe that is just a natural way of being in the world. You know, a bit like the song from My Fair Lady, "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?"

Professor Higgins:
Why can't a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historically fair.
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
Why can't a woman be like that?

Why can’t everybody be more like me? Well thank God they are not! The new humanity birthed in the vision of Jesus is diverse, different and dissimilar and continually changing and responding to all that is happening in the world around. And that is a good thing.

The idea that humanity can be one; that reconciliation between hostile groups is possible; that the walls that divide us can be torn down; and that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens and members of the household of God - these are all big ideas that have grown within our Christian faith and are growing with our world. Sometimes, perhaps most times, it takes a long while before we see the fruition of these spirit-filled ideas. It took hundreds of years for us as the human race to see that the racial divide could be conquered; that slavery must be abolished and that human dignity is found in the new humanity.

It is sad that within our own day we still idolise our national boundaries, and highlight our religious and cultural distinctions because our ideas are too small. And perhaps these distinctions and divides are necessary for where we are in our evolutionary history. But we are moving forward and it is noteworthy that a man writing two thousand years ago had a big idea, a power idea that these constructed human distinctions we so prize could be transcended by a great vision, a bigger idea - one that was not static or stagnant but empowered and energised by the very Spirit of life itself.



© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012


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