Once I Was a Gentile, Now I am Not — A Justine Post Sermon

The following sermon was offered by Justine Post at the Advocate, Sunday, July 19, 2015, Year B, Proper XI

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How quick we are to forget that we are still Gentiles. How quickly we have forgotten that we were once not God’s chosen people. We’ve gotten so accustomed to receiving a faith that has been passed down to us through liturgies, families, the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible… that we have lost a certain kind of orientation- that of the Ephesians. That of outsiders who have been adopted, grafted into the story of God. We don’t remember what its like, to be a people who have not exactly inherited but been given this story as their own. We were once strangers.

This sort of theme isn’t new to us- at different times we’ve felt estranged from God. We can easily recall the words from the famous hymn: I once was lost, but now am found… was blind but now I see. This kind of estrangement is similar but a bit different. We don’t usually sing, “I once was a Gentile and now I’m not….was uncircumcised but now it doesn’t matter.” But nevertheless this is true.

I remember the first time I understood God’s story as an outsider, and it wasn’t through my home Episcopal Church. I first learned that I belonged to a group who was outside the story of God- aliens from the commonwealth of Israel- embarrassingly but truthfully enough through a cartoon. Many or most of you might not get this reference, but at least my parents will…they know how much TV I used to watch. One show was called The Rugrats- a cartoon that portrayed the life of talking babies. The main protagonist’s family was Jewish- and although I didn’t know really what that all meant at the time, they did a special episode on Passover. All the babies played special characters- Moses, Pharaoh, the Israelites, etc. And they must have aired that episode a lot during my childhood…because I remember watching it a lot. I learned more about the story of Moses and his people from this cartoon than I did in church! I knew this story meant something to my faith, but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it. More than anything I remember having a reverence for that story and the Jewish faith- I knew that in a way that story wasn’t mine. It was that families; it was their people.

Of course in church I did learn that that story mattered to us Christians too. Because we’ve been grafted into this faith, that story matters to us now. But for so long I hadn’t given much thought to being an outsider anymore that I never once considered being a Gentile. So the second time I encountered our alien-ness it was embarrassingly enough not until my second year of seminary, in my theology class. Willie Jennings- a professor/theologian who focuses on the racial formation of the world, colonialism, and how Christianity intersects within- was lecturing to us about the arrival of the first Catholic orders in the New World. In attempting to convert native tribes to Christianity, it didn’t go so well. Not everywhere but with many tribes they used force, sometimes violence, and paid no particular attention to the tribes’ history, beliefs, or rights. In some places violent battles broke out, and many lost their lives.

When I heard that it all struck me as very messy and upsetting. How? How could they have performed all of this violence in the name of God? Jennings’ reply: “They forgot. They forgot that they were Gentiles!” They lost the orientation of stranger, of one who has been humbly adopted into the story of God. Without this orientation, they assumed an entitled disposition. They never considered themselves as ones in need of hospitality. They never considered the bond between land and native people. They understood themselves never as aliens apart from God but as always having been inheritors of the faith. In their minds they were chosen by God, not adopted. This proved to be a dangerous and at times a violent exegesis. Without what Jennings calls a “gentile existence,” anything is permissible. There is no need for the welcoming hand of the other; belonging occurs wherever you go. Everyone’s entitled and assumes they’re in the right. And what’s most troubling: when we forget our former strange-ness, the walls of hostility as mentioned in Ephesians appear to have remained standing. Without a gentile existence, this sense of entitlement leads us away from the Prince of Peace. And it leads us away from unity.

A gentile existence, Jennings suggests, is Ruth-like. As in, “you will be my people and your God will be my God.” This is the disposition, the angle, the orientation we should take in the Christian life. We were once dependent on the radical hospitality of the God of Israel. We were once apart from God’s story. We have graciously been adopted into this faith, and we now have the opportunity to claim the God of Israel- indeed the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- as our God.

We do need to be like Ruth. And if you happen to find yourself feeling proud and entitled as an Episcopalian, maybe you need to attend a confirmation class with Lisa. I remember my first one where she started the class by saying, “The history of the Anglican Church… or Henry XIII just wanted a divorce.” Nothing like those “humble beginnings” to remind us that we truly are brought into God’s story by Grace alone. Through Christ we have somehow been beautifully written into Israel’s history. We are uplifted and taken into a new place. It should humble us. It reminds me of Anne Lamott’s words: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace- only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

We are no longer outsiders, but rather we have now found ourselves in the midst of Christ’s redeeming work. But that doesn’t mean we can forget that we were once outsiders. We’re not outsiders anymore, but we can’t forget that we were. That means we are not center to this story, but rather God is. Isn’t that why we come to church anyways? It reminds us that we aren’t the center, but God is. Our confession, the peace, the table, and even the way we sit remind us that we didn’t really choose to be in this story, but that God graciously brought us in. This place- church- reminds us that in Christ there is true peace, for there is no longer Jew nor Gentile. We are all one.

But what about this wall of hostility? This letter to the Ephesians declares that through the cross, Christ has broken it down. The world does not believe this message- the world has convinced its inhabitants that walls of hostility still exist and they serve a purpose. Sometimes these walls seem to exist, and seem profoundly big: humanity has continued to build them up- walls that exist between races and socioeconomic status, physical and legislative walls that literally keep thousands of men and women separated from society and locked up, walls that appear from years of broken or unattended relationships. I could go on… the walls can feel big and violent. But these “walls” are an affront to God, because through Christ these walls don’t even exist. It looks like the walls exist, but they really don’t exist. It’s confusing I know. But when we the church read a text that proclaims: “Christ 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,” we must proclaim that as a reality in the face of hostility in this world. This word to the Ephesians is past tense- not even past tense, past participle! Through the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, both groups have been reconciled. The hard work has been done. These walls continue to appear perhaps because we still don’t know how to live into this new unified humanity.

This new humanity in the place of two. It’s not just new like a new coffee mug or a new shirt. This kind of new is a different Greek word. Kainos is qualitatively different. New as in completely unseen, unheard of, un-invented. Nothing like we’ve seen before. This newness looks like a lot like the Gospel text for today. Even though Jesus and his disciples are tired from their journey and have not had any time to rest, this large group of people- Jews, Gentiles, people from all over- are following him around. Jesus does not deny them but has compassion upon them. Compassion that leads to healing and wholeness that only he can complete. All of the sick who touched his cloak were healed. Here Jesus is offering that radical hospitality that we are so in need of. He brought a newness to all who came to him. This is the chaos of people that has been grafted into one body through Christ. For some reason this story reminds me of what I hear when people are receiving Eucharist: while Jesus is making his way into our lives, some are singing, many are praying, multiple utterances of “body of Christ,” “cup of salvation,” and “amen,” over and over. Every noise during the distribution reminds me that Jesus truly did welcome all. And here we all are, grasping for his cloak.

So we remember It happens every week here: the Eucharist is here telling us- don’t forget! Don’t forget that you were once outside but have been welcomed in. Don’t forget that you are now a part of God’s people. Don’t forget that through the cross of Christ the walls of hostility have been broken down. And we’re allowed to proclaim that! Not just by word but by action. We must live in a way wherein the Spirit breaks into our lives and assures us that yes the walls don’t really exist.

I’m not here to tell you something new. I know through your varied ministries and work throughout this community you all are out living in this newness, pushing back against these non-existent walls. We must continue to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. Remember our former other-ness as we seek unity with those who are un-like us. Remember that God is God and we are not. Continue to trust in the church and it’s sacraments that are given to us. When we pray we should really mean it. When we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit I believe it can lead us into strange friendships, reconciling conversations, and works of justice.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” We are a family, joined not by our own blood but through the blood of Christ. Acting in this way requires a boldness prompted by the Holy Spirit. So we bid Holy Spirit come. Amen.