Welcome to worship this morning. We are so glad that you are here. Please note that we are featuring first class and second class seating for the first time. On my right is first class. You are closer to the parking lot, I hope you took advantage of valet parking when you arrived, you’re seated closer to the music, and it’s a little shadier, too. We also have free beverage service for first class. Second class, a little farther to the parking lot, no valet parking, a little further from the music, and you get a strong blast of morning sunlight, and no free beverage service. OK, everyone feeling good? We are glad that everyone is here, united in Jesus Christ and ready to worship.
THE WORD Ephesians 2:11-22
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,[a] 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.
MESSAGE “The Distance” Rev. James Renfrew
So what do you think of our new seating plan for Sunday mornings, with First Class and Second Class seating? We thought we would give it a try. They do it with airplanes, trains, theater tickets, and internet plans, don’t they? So why not us, too? We need to be in step with the times. So let’s take a poll and see how people like this new policy. So we’ll ask our First Class folks, do you like this policy? And before you vote, could we freshen your cool beverage first? So thank you, so it’s official now, we have first and second class seating. Upgrades to First Class are possible of course, just fill out this thirty page application form, and double your financial commitment for the year. See, it’s easy!
You knew right away, of course, that we are planning no such thing in our church. There aren’t going to be any first or second classes here. But I thought it was a good way of getting to the issue that was a great concern among the earliest Christians, first and second class in the church. Communion, back in those times, included a large meal, but Paul observed that on Sundays common laborers often had to work, so when they arrived late for the service, the best food on the table had already been eaten. Be fair, he told them in his letter, make sure the food is available to everyone equally, not just those who get there first. The fact that we have mostly omitted the big meal on communion Sundays, reducing it down to its basic elements, the loaf and the cup, is evidence that Paul’s concern was addressed a long time ago. Everyone gets the same food at communion, everyone is treated equally at the table.
But there was another issue of first and second class back then, and it’s one that is not obviously present in the life of the church anymore, but we will take a close look at it, because I would contend that it does continue to affect us, though maybe not in the way Paul thought.
So back then first and second class status was based on one thing, one thing only, the answer to this basic question: “Are you Jewish?” Let me try that with our congregation right now: are you Jewish? Not one! Many Christians in Paul’s day would have answered “yes”, because their background was Jewish. They were born and raised as Jews, grew up learning the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), and participated in all of the great Jewish rituals and traditions. All of the twelve disciples were Jewish, for example. And many of the first followers of Jesus, from all of those villages and towns in Galilee, were Jewish, too. For them, following Jesus was not about becoming Christian, as something distinct from Judaism, but, instead, to be more authentically Jewish, believing that Jesus was the culmination of Jewish prophecy.
But, meanwhile, people who were not Jewish in background, were becoming drawn to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and his teachings. And they became his followers, too. These followers of Jesus were referred to as Gentiles, Greek-speakers, and the uncircumcised. They were welcome to become Christians, but only as Second Class Christians.
And if you think they liked being Second Class, just ask our Second Class section here this morning how they liked being Second Class.
I made it seem like upgrading to First Class was complicated, but could be done by anyone. What did I say, a thirty page contract, and double your commitment? Just like you waiting at the crowded airport gate waiting ready to board. And then that familiar announcement comes across the PA, “Those wishing to upgrade to first class, please check in at the kiosk”.
In truth it was a little more complicated to become a First lass Christian. Why? Because it involved surgery. Now I know that many of you have had surgery, and it can truly be life-saving. But would you want surgery that you didn’t need? It happened to me once. I was at the hospital with incredible abdominal pain. All the tests indicated that my appendix needed to come out, and I was prepped for surgery, lying on the gurney with tubes in my arms. My wife had me put me on the church prayer chain. Then the surgeon stopped by to see me, he poked me in the belly, and when I didn’t scream he observed “it’s not your appendix”, it’s just a tear in abdominal tissue. So no surgery needed, he said. Whew, the Prayer Chain worked! Then the surgeon said, “you’re all prepped, I can still take out your appendix, if you want”. Well I said what you would say, “no thanks!” Who wants the go under the knife if you don’t need to!”
I mention this because according to the Jewish Christians you had to become a Jew first before you could become a Christian, and that meant surgery, which I won’t go into in detail, but it was only for men and it involved a sharp knife. So quite a lot of Gentile Christians were stuck in Second Class because they didn’t want to go through that surgery, to go from uncircumcised to circumcised. And, as a result, the early church was divided into two classes, theoretically united in Christ, but actually more reflecting an observation from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. “We’re all equals, but some are more equal than others.”
It was Paul who took this issue head-on and confronted the Jerusalem leadership of the Christian Church and declared his intention to bring the Gospel to the uncircumcised, Greek-speaking, Gentile world without requiring people to become Jewish first. You may remember one of his more famous declarations, “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free, because all are one in Christ”. We may read those words as a matter of course, but when Paul wrote them it was very radical.
It’s been a long time, nearly 2000 years since this was a hot theological debate in the Christian Church, and while the Old Testament is a valuable part of our Bible, we no longer require people to become Jews before they can become Christian. We have a confirmation class going on right now, and I can tell you that we are not telling these teens that they have to become Jews before they become Christian. Issue settled, right?
Not exactly. The Jew and Gentile issue may be settled, but there are other ways that we continue to deal with first and second class citizenship. I’ve had the opportunity to read the 200 year history of our church in Byron, and I would say that for the large majority of those two hundred years the status of women was definitely second class. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that a woman could serve as an elder, and our first female pastor only arrived in 1978. This, of course, was partly due to our own rules, but it also reflected the status of women in the surrounding culture. Now we look back, and wonder how such an obvious error could have lasted for so long?
But the truth is that there continue to be huge matters of debate about who is included and who is excluded, based on religion (perhaps you’re heard of the so-called “Muslim Ban”), immigration status (my ancestors just showed up in New York and Boston and they were welcomed”), but by the early 1900s there were greater restrictions introduced to make it harder for Asians, Italians and Catholics to migrate here). Even income and wealth is a distinguishing mark between classes of Christians. I served a once prosperous church in a neighborhood that had became poorer and poorer over time, and it was startling to see how difficult it was for the older church leaders to welcome families immersed in poverty.
The key verse in today’s reading from Ephesians: 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 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.
And I love how Paul puts it: his plea is not simply for the first class to grudgingly admit the second class to its privileges, but to recognize that all of us are diminished by division. He uses the words “near” and “far” to describe the distance that we have created between ourselves, our neighbors, and even God. Those taking pleasure in their nearness to God should look again, because if anyone is far off from God it means that we all are.
Just to be clear, near or far, close or distant, come to our fellowship hour, everyone served, no waiting, no classes.