Summit Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017
Peace Near and Far
Like many passages in the Bible, this scripture is a challenge. It offers a beautiful vision of humanity reconciled to God — two groups now one, gentiles and Jews - the dividing wall of hostility broken down between them, peace proclaimed to those both far and near. But there are disturbing undertones, troublesome details, both in the words themselves and in the way they’ve been interpreted over the centuries. Paul says that this reconciliation has occurred through Christ, in his flesh and through his blood. The church has often - not always, but often - taught that reconciliation only occurs through faith in Christ, in the Church, among believers. That those who haven’t gotten on board - Jews or Gentiles - are still far from God. This has led to new walls of hostility and even persecutions, once the church became powerful, although of course the church is not the only one responsible for walls of hostility between faiths. But hostility between faiths aren’t the only divisions. Within the church, we haven’t been one people. Fights over what it means to be a Christian have led to people being thrown out. Others have marched out, starting yet another one true church. So as we survey a divided humanity, a divided church, with walls of hostility all around, we ask: what is this peace that Christ has proclaimed, to those both far and near?
When I was about nine years old, I used to like writing out my extended address, one line after another. Cheryl Pyrch, 88 Fairmont Avenue, village of Hastings on Hudson, state of New York, country of the United States, continent of North America, the Western Hemisphere, Earth, the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. I got a thrill out of locating myself in the vast creation, all of it my address. For although the farthest reaches of the Milky Way were beyond my imaginings, I was also as close to the Milky Way as anyone, being in it and part of it, the ninth line of my address. And although another fourth grader in San Francisco was further away then I had ever traveled, we were equally near to the United States, being in it and part of it. Each succeeding line of my address was farther away but also near.
This week I imagined the succeeding lines, the expanding circles of my spiritual address: 6757 Greene St. — Summit Presbyterian Church, Presbytery of Philadelphia, the Northeast Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Churches of the Reformed Tradition, Protestants of all kinds, the church universal — which includes all Christians. The next line, Monotheists, People of faith with faith being broadly defined, Seekers-thinkers-those who love- — and then planet earth, and the universe — for the psalmist tells us the trees shout for joy, the floods clap their hands, the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. From Summit Church to the vast universe — all the dwelling place of God, each of us members of God’s household. So although I may live very far from a Christian in Ghana as Christians we are close to each other, each of us part of the universal church, the body of Christ. And although I may be very far in my thinking and religious practice of my atheist friend, we both belong to a seeking, thinking, loving humankind. And although we are billions of light years away from the nearest star, we too, as satellites show us, belong to the heavens that declare the glory of God. The dwelling place of God is vast, but God is close to all of us, all of us in, and part of, God’s dwelling place.
And then came Jesus. Showing us, indeed, how very close God is. Jesus getting his feet dirty walking those sandy roads, eating and drinking, embracing friends and being kissed by enemies, sharing our experience of birth, of pain, and even of death. Now Risen and dwelling in the furthest reaches of the Universe - and also in this sanctuary, and also in our hearts. Drawing us together as one in ever expanding circles. Not one in beliefs or faith or culture, in location or time, but one in God’s household. All of us near to God, all of us citizens of God’s commonwealth. And Christ proclaims peace. Not a peace of that like the Greek or Roman Empires, or any empire, a peace created through military conquest, control of peoples, or through the Hellenizing, or Romanizing, or Anglicizing of others. But a Peace of both difference and unity, as we claim our different addresses in the universe and also within the household of God. A peace where walls of hostility come down, everywhere a dwelling place for God. A God of love and grace. This is the peace, I think, Jesus proclaims.
So, as those of us who have chosen to follow Christ, for those of us who trust in him, what does it mean to proclaim the peace of Christ in a world where we have all been drawn close to God, if not yet to each other?
It’s always easiest to start with what it doesn’t mean. Thermonuclear weapon rattling. Hostile posts and tweets — and I’m not just talking about our President. Building walls that divide — along national borders or in neighborhoods. Proclaiming fake news and lying about others. Putting America first, or any nation above God. I’m sure you could add to this list. But how do we proclaim the Peace of Christ?
Last week I was on study leave, and spent a few days at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I attended a conference on Food Justice. Speakers spoke about hunger and food insecurity in the United States and around the world, about the colonial legacy and structures of inequality, and also about the joy of eating together and sharing food in church. Early on I met a woman at the conference who was born in China but living in Princeton for years. Her children were recently off to college and she had gone back to school, studying religion at Princeton University, taking a course on Islam. She invited me to the first fall meeting of the Princeton University Chinese Christian Fellowship. I was warmly welcomed and enjoyed a wonderful feast. I spoke with students and professors working on interesting projects, including a young woman doing a post-doc on the relationship between climate change and human migrations. We then gathered for testimony, singing and an extended sermon and teaching. I couldn’t understand the words — it was all in Chinese, of course — but I understood the peace that was going proclaimed. Through hospitality to this Christian of a different address. Through prayer and praise — but also in concern and learning and study for the world beyond the church, for peoples far and near, and for this earth in which God dwells.
And so, on this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our calling to proclaim the peace of Christ to all. Through prayer. Through hospitality. Through the sharing of our time and our treasure with those in need — victims of hurricanes and earthquakes and landslides throughout the world. And coming together to care for creation and create a more just world. And through coming to the table of Christ, where we are united with Christians across time and space, different in language, theology, and ways of worshipping, but all members of the household of God.