Shalom is together

A few weeks ago our friend Mariya talked about the concept of Shalom in talkback. Rand had just given a great sermon on Jesus’s blessed are the peacemakers, and Mariya reflected that peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, it’s about wholeness, completeness and harmony, everything working together. It’s about the way things are supposed to be. In scripture, that is the concept of shalom.

We can’t experience wholeness on our own. Bell hooks said it well: “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” And that’s the main point of our message today. Shalom happens together, with others. We can’t get to this much longed-for completeness in ourselves, no matter how self-actualized we become. But every American is taught to try, since we are raised on the religion of individualism! Unfortunately it’s an empty religion, since God is shalom and designed us in connection with the earth and each other. Trying to separate ourselves out is damaging and futile; that’s why we’re making this mural together, to visualize the connection in all of creation! Seeds can’t open without this mycelium network. We literally can’t become complete on our own; we can’t realize the fullness of God’s plan as individuals or even within our nuclear family. We need others, especially the community of faith. And that’s hard, because we have differences from each other!

Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about it:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.  Ephesians 2:13-18

The groups that Paul is talking about are the Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were a small group of people through which the story of God relating to humanity had come, and the Gentiles were everybody else. Jesus was a Jew, and after centuries of rich tradition, the Jews in the early church felt like they had a lot of spiritual privilege. They were special; God had looked out for them in spite of their frequent disobedience. But this was more about the nature of God than it was about the particularities of any group of people! God was expanding the blessing and promise to all people through Christ. 

But the Jewish Christians were just discovering this after Jesus’s resurrection; it was all new and messy in community. These believers had grown up with a literal stone wall in their temple in Jerusalem that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the temple proper. There was a sign on the wall that read that it could only be breached by pain of death. Gentiles were not allowed to worship with Jews! In fact, Paul was eventually arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious leaders by accusation of taking a Gentile Ephesian across this barrier. This wasn’t just a wall of hostility, it was the law. Similar to how the lie of white supremacy was literally written into the laws in the United States!

What Jesus is doing through his death on the cross was fulfilling the law that said that Jews and Gentiles had to be kept apart. He was bringing them together in his body. See these lines that go in different directions? (on the cross.) They come together in the center. He is becoming the new meeting place, the way of fellowship in himself. Paul wrote to the Colossian church: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. He is our peace, Yawheh Shalom, the one who brings people together through seemingly impossible history and barriers.

Paul knows what a huge deal this is, for Jews to give up their legacied centuries of spiritual privilege. Remember Paul had been so bought in to the concept of his own spiritual privilege as a Jewish leader that he’d been murdering people who threatened it Jewish privilege with this wild new gospel! Paul also had some sense of how impossible it would be for Gentiles to see themself as full partners in this new gospel, Jesus being a Jew and all, and to actually feel included enough to make something new together! Steeped in our own culture, it’s hard for us to imagine the difficulty of this cultural divide in the early church and what a miracle of transformation it was in its coming together.

The word that Paul uses for new here in new humanity is “kainos”, and it implies something that literally has not existed before in the world. This is not just people putting up with each other and minimizing differences. This is beyond our concepts of “unity” and “reconciliation” that have too often been the dominant culture forcing everyone to fit into their mold, like the racist assimilation process in the United States. This is God creating something brand new with God’s own self, an opportunity for fellowship in which everyone has equal access through faith. This had never been done before.

The Jews had to repent of their spiritual privilege to get into this newness, because the only way to come to Jesus is through grace; nobody is entitled to Him by any human privilege or capacity. They will have to participate in destroying the enmity, the wall of hostility that has been upheld by their laws and regulations. They will have to set their laws aside, as Paul says.

The Gentiles will have to be brought near by a new invitation that acknowledges how they’ve been excluded in the past and what new thing God is making now through Christ. Paul does that in this chapter of Ephesians around our passage today. He recognizes and articulates how the Gentile believers had been separated and excluded from the covenant of promise that God made with the Jews, but now, through Christ, God is making us all a dwelling place of his Spirit together! You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people, he says. And “God’s people” is now a brand new thing that has never existed before. We’re all called to get beyond your entitlements, because all of us were once addicted to the cycle of just trying to please ourselves, he says in the beginning of the chapter. We were all dead in our sins by being self-absorbed, but how Jesus has made us alive by his grace. What God is doing in us is beyond the sin and injustice that has kept us apart. Praise him! He is transforming us.

There’s a guy in the Old Testament that God keeps putting on my radar this week, even though I didn’t plan to talk about him. He was also transformed by Yahweh Shalom, Jesus our peace. He was a scared, needy guy in a real bad situation, and his story shows how Jesus our peace comes to do the impossible. The amazing irony of how the peace of God shows up through our weakness and vulnerability and simple availability to the Spirit, NOT through our great capacity to be reconcilers, but through our great surrender to Jesus. I need to keep talking about it because we’re still tempted to believe that this gospel is about our goodness or specialness, and it’s not.

Gideon was the youngest in his family, and his family was a mess, and his people were being wrecked by more powerful neighbors. In fact his people were living in hideouts in the mountains because their crops and livestock kept getting plundered by their enemies. They were so completely getting wiped out that when we meet Gideon he is grinding wheat in a wine press, which shows how little food they had. 

An angel of the Lord comes to him and says, “The Lord is with you mighty warrior, and he literally says “pardon me” to the angel. LOL. He asks HOW is God with us if all this terrible stuff has happened to us? And the angel doesn’t answer that question, but tells him to go in the strength he has to save his people. And Gideon says “pardon me?” to the angel again! It seems to me like one of the most realistic dialogues in the Bible. This word from God is way beyond Gideon’s capacity. But the angel promises that God will be with him and he is not going to die. 

And so Gideon builds an altar to remember this Word from Yahweh Shalom, the Lord is peace. He gets instructions about how to move forward, and he argues sometimes, but he generally obeys. And what God asks him to do gets harder and weirder. Gideon gathers thousands of warriors, but God thins out the army so that the Hebrew people won’t think they won the battle in their own strength. Gideon ends up saving his people with just 300 partners. And everyone, even the enemies, knew this was about the power of God.

I think God knew I needed to remember that story this week. Because we too have lost so much in the pandemic. But God is looking out for us, and doing something new in us, asking us to go in the strength we have. It’s not about our exceptionalism or great capacity; it’s about our willingness to follow Yahweh Shalom, Jesus our peace.

He brings it all together on the cross, vulnerably offering his whole self. I need to plan for our sunrise service on Easter Sunday and I keep waking up with the hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns on my heart. Do you know that one? It’s so beautiful, and as I imagine the crown of thorns jammed into his head to mock him and make him suffer, I see it replaced with a tender crown of flowers now. We should put a crown of flowers on this cross on Easter, to show the beauty he has made through his sacrificial love. 

And then I remembered that Ukrainian people have a tradition of making and wearing beautiful crowns of flowers, called vinoks. It’s heartbreaking to think about what they are going through now, no doubt not wearing vinoks. They are traditionally used in times of celebration, like in wedding ceremonies and they’re also a symbol for peace. I was reading an article where a model who wore one at her wedding said,  “Peace may indeed be the most prevalent reason for wearing the flower crown in today’s world. I think we are coming back to floral themes because fashion is starting to react to wars that we are having around the globe. We need some tenderness.” And that was before the war her people are experiencing now.

Let us practice this tenderness with each other. We honor Jesus’s sacrifice as we open ourselves to the possibility coming together this season in new ways. The center of the cross is a new place of fellowship in him. We should hang a vinok there on Easter. But in the meantime, let yourself be brought near by the love of God for you. You don’t have to do all the work of making the impossible happen, God trying to bring us closer to the miracle that God is doing by the work of Her Spirit. Maybe you have to put aside some laws and regulations you’ve been taught that keep you from being vulnerable. Maybe you have to put away some entitlements or privilege, or expectation that you should be exceptional and already have figured things out. Maybe you have to put aside some hostility toward yourself. Maybe you have to hear that you are no longer a foreigner or a stranger to Jesus, but that you are fully seen and included, even if you were excluded before. Wherever you are, Jesus our peace is here.