(From Ephesians 2: 11-22)
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus 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, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then 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. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;in whom you also are built together spiritually] into a dwelling place for God.
Many people who hear the familiar phrase, “Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others” will likely recall its similarity to the famous line from George Orwell’s Novel Animal Farm—“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The implication in each of these statements is that although the equality of all the members of a group is declared to be a fact, the reality is that some subset of the group actually receives better treatment than the rest of the group. Case in point: life at the Animal Farm.
The shortened plot of Orwell’s satirical novel, Animal Farm, is that the animals on a farm revolt against the treatment of their human masters, taking over a farm which they then rename “Animal Farm.” The animals initially adopt a set of “Commandments of Animalism” as their guiding principles. The most important of these commandments proclaims that “All animals are equal.” It does not take long on the farm, however, for one group of animals, the pigs, to betray the other animals and rise to a position of power. Once established, the pigs rewrite the guiding commandments, summarizing them into one new commandment—“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” With this move, the idealized egalitarian society of the animals becomes a new dictatorship under the direction of the new ruling class, the pigs.
George Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945. It was written as a satire on Communism and many other socialist-inspired movements of his time that had gained mass support by claiming to be egalitarian, only to simply become dictatorships under a new ruling regime. The promise of equal distribution of wealth and opportunity for all people soon emerged as a good life for a new few at the ongoing expense of the many.
Reading Orwell’s satire within its story line makes it quite easy for us to receive his warning that power can corrupt even the best intentions of those who come to wield it. The stories within the parables of Jesus perform this same function for us as believers. Jesus was a master storyteller. Through the interesting characters and situations from everyday life found in the parables, we learn spiritual truths it would often be more difficult for us to receive if they were stated both clearly and directly. Good stories can make life’s hard lessons more palatable. They beckon us toward moral conclusions that might offend us if they were spoken in the form of more pointed accusations against the thoughts, words, and actions common to our everyday lives. And, while Jesus often spoke the truth in parables, the Apostle Paul often spoke his truths openly and plainly, placing them within a context that eliminated the possibility of any misinterpretation or doubt regarding the meaning of his message.
A case in point regarding the messages of the Apostle Paul is found in our scripture lesson for today from the Book of Ephesians. Let’s begin by briefly recalling the background of Paul’s own ministry context. Paul was originally a Jewish Pharisee named Saul. Saul was a traditionalist, one who did not accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and who persecuted those who followed his “Way.” Saul met the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, as he was carrying writs to arrest and persecute many who were followers of the Way of Jesus. He was struck blind on that road, only to receive his true sight in believing that Jesus is the Christ of God. Saul received a new name, Paul, and he then dedicated himself to a life-long ministry of making disciples of his Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
Paul was driven to minister to the far corners of the empire of his time. There, he encountered both Jews and gentiles with whom he shared the Gospel, the good news, about salvation and a new and eternal life in Christ Jesus. In Ephesus, Paul began teaching and preaching in the synagogues, and he eventually established the Church of Ephesus as a leading church in Asia Minor. Although Paul’s authorship of this letter to the Ephesians is disputed, it does follow the content of his teachings and methods. Paul came to understand that his ministry was part of God’s complete plan of salvation. Salvation came to believers first through the ministry of Jesus to the Jews. Paul, then carried the message of salvation to the gentiles, those who did not adhere to Jewish traditions and rituals such a circumcision. His message, found in today’s text, was that his mission was to graft the gentiles into God’s plan of salvation. It is faith in the shed blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sin that has both saved the Jews and grafted in gentile believers. Therefore, all are now equal members of the body of Christ, as his Church, with full and equal access to God’s eternal kingdom. There was now no division among believers, but unity and equality in God’s kingdom, where peace under the reign of Christ shall prevail.
Paul’s message to believers, that we are all one in Christ and equally equal in his eyes, was preached to graft in the various groups of “gentiles” of his time-nearly 2,000 years and 100 generations ago. Church, speaking the truth in love as Ephesians 4:15 directs us, I confess that we have not yet lived out the faith we profess. This has not only been true regarding our activities in the world, where issues of classism and racism still prevail, it is the truth even in our beloved Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formally established under Richard Allen in the early 1800’s because of poor treatment by white members of the St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Only a few decades after its own formation, The Methodist Episcopal Church in America succumbed to the ways of the world, where racism was a harsh reality. A few weeks ago, I watched the movie “Selma,” which depicted the graphic horror of abuse white Americans waged in 1965 against African Americans peacefully marching in a protest to be treated equally equal to them. And, today we again find ourselves living in the wake of a further wave racially motivated killings. This is telling evidence that we have yet to live out our faith, in peace, in a land where we are all equally equal brothers and sisters in Christ. It is time to have the tough conversations, and to awaken to the hard reality of our sins of omission and silent assent that have allowed inequality and acts of horrific violence to prevail in our nation. It is time for honesty, dear friends in Christ, and for our true repentance and dedication to change that alone can bring healing renewal—finally forming a land where we are all people are truly equally equal. Let God’s people say Amen!
Hymn: “Jesus, United by Thy Grace”
(Words-Charles Wesley, Music-John B. Dykes)
Jesus, united by thy grace and each to each endeared, with confidence we seek thy face and know our prayer us heard.
Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each other’s care.