Inclusion: Making Room in God’s House

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:  Ephesians 2:13-22

Summary:   Jesus’ identity as the Prince of Peace is central to what it means to live as people who claim to follow him, and Ephesians 2:13-22 elaborates on how inclusion is one of the fruits of Jesus’ and our peacemaking.  Eugene Peterson unpacks it like this:  Jesus brings us home, brings us together, breaks down hostility, recreates a new humanity, and reconciles us all to God.  Jesus is like an emulsifying agent who makes it possible for people who have been separated to be united into one body, the Church.  

Today we’re continuing our series on Ephesians. You might remember from last week that chapter 1 had to with identity, and a key verse is verse 11, where Paul says it is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

To practice resurrection is to continue to grow into becoming more like Jesus in every way. And because Jesus overcame death through his resurrection, we as individuals and as the church can be a resurrection people who live and breathe life and hope instead of death and despair.

And now we’re going to look at what chapter 2 has to say to us. While identity was the key word in chapter 1, for me the word that could sum up chapter 2 would be inclusion, where people who had been excluded become included and welcomed into the church–God’s family, God’s house.

The inclusion that’s talked about in Ephesians chapter 2 has to do with Gentiles being included in a church that started as a Jewish Christian community.

But before we get to that, I want to touch upon a current matter of inclusion in the church and society, which literally stared me in the face this week when the latest issue of Anabaptist World came in the mail.

On the cover are the words Whole and Holy: Welcoming people with disabilities. God’s timing is perfect, right? The cover image is called “Christ of the wheelchair” it’s also the cover of our bulletin this morning.

It was painted by Derek Yoder, who is pastor at Pleasant View down in Harrisonburg.—maybe some of you are familiar with Pleasant View?

It’s an organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities in living out their goals for meaningful work, relationships and spiritual development. Pleasant View is a conference-endorsed ministry of our own Virginia Mennonite Conference.

Derek has written a poem that goes along with the image, where he asks:

When you encounter someone with intellectual or developmental disabilities, do you recognize the image of God?

In the magazine, there is also a moving testimony by Eleanor Smith, a woman who contracted polio when she was 3 years old in 1946. She believes that she was the first person in a wheelchair to attend Goshen College.

Throughout Smith’s life, she has been social justice warrior who has been arrested 12 times for advocating for better laws and greater accessibility for people with disabilities.

In the article, Smith shared this: “I went through seven surgeries from ages 6 to 16, sometimes with shattering pain. But in my life, social exclusion has caused the most pain.”

Smith also gives a helpful definition of Ableism that she found:

Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability.” –Ashley Eisenmenger

Another article in the magazine was about the baptism of a man with an intellectual disability named Robert Silvers, which took place recently at Lindale Mennonite Church.

It was a very moving story showing that having an intellectual disability is not a barrier to celebrating relationship with God. The writer of the article, Kendal Swartzendruber, said:

Robert’s baptism strips away the prideful intellectualism and pious obligation that many feel are necessary in church”. There’s so much truth to that, right?

The magazine also talks about disabilities that are not as visible. There’s an article by Lori Steiner Jans who is dyslexic. She writes that:

Dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects the way the brain processes language. This makes reading, spelling and pronouncing words difficult. From 15% to 20% of the population has symptoms of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is an invisible disability that can cause someone to feel stupid or be viewed as less intelligent or lazy. Nonetheless, people with dyslexia have great strengths to offer. They think outside the box, are creative problem solvers and are some of the most compassionate people I know.”

I was blessed and challenged as I read these stories in Anabaptist World. I know that the church as well as I myself have some “ablist” attitudes that need to be dealt with to become more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities.

One small thing our church will be doing is putting in an accessible handicap parking space up here near the main entrance to our sanctuary. It will be added when we resurface our parking lot, which should be taking place very soon.

OK now on to our scripture passage for today in Ephesians chapter 2—there’s some good stuff in the first half but I’ll leave that for now and focus on vs. 13-22.

Tom Yoder Neufeld in his commentary on Ephesians says that this passage is a true peace text– it’s the most far-reaching treatment of the biblical theme of peace in the New Testament. And he describes it as a holistic view of peace

peace that people find with God and peace that people find with people they had been estranged from, in this case Jews and Gentiles who had deep enmity, hostility, toward each other.

Neufeld also says this passage shows how peace is central to Jesus’ identity as the Prince of Peace. “He is our peace” some versions say…

We who call ourselves Mennonites take this to mean that peace is not an add on but is central to our understanding of what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.

I was pleased to see that Eugene Peterson emphasized this passage in his book Practice Resurrection. He says that here we see five distinct actions of Jesus that add up to peace:

vs. 13 Jesus brings us home

vs. 14 Jesus brings us together

vs. 15 Jesus breaks down hostility

vs. 15 Jesus recreates a new humanity

vs. 16 Jesus reconciles us all to God

Let’s unpack them a bit:

vs. 13: “Jesus brings us home” Now because of Christ you who were once left out are in on everything, you’ve been brought home to Jesus.

vs. 14: “Jesus brings us together” “he tore down the wall that used to separate us” People would be well familiar with that wall imagery because of the temple and its different walls that kept Jews divided from Gentiles.

vs. 15: Jesus breaks down hostility” there was hostility and division because of the Jewish laws that put up a wall between the two groups. With Jesus, there would be a new law which would be written not on stone tablets or scrolls but on people’s hearts, which would bring people together instead of divide them.

vs. 15: “Jesus recreates us as a new humanity” He blends together two groups that did not mix.

Think of oil and vinegar based salad dressings. You know how most of them stay separate and you have to shake them like crazy to mix them. But did you know if you add an emulsifying agent like mustard or honey to the dressing the oil and vinegar will blend together?

Jesus is like an emulsifier who makes it possible for people who were separated to blend together. And not only to each other but also Jesus reconciles us all to God into one body, as vs. 16 says.

vs. 16: “Jesus reconciles all of us to God”

Now moving on to vs. 17-18– “Christ came and preached peace to outsiders and peace to insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals– one is closer to God than anyone else.

It’s like with Jesus there is no “VIP” or “gold circle” seating that puts us closer to God or gives us better access than anyone else. Every seat is equally important.

And then the last section of the chapter uses the metaphors of exiles, strangers, and outsiders—some versions say “aliens”, to emphasize that everyone who finds faith in Christ has a seat in the house of God, a place in God’s family.

It’s funny because that word “aliens” is used in Peter’s second letter to say that we are all aliens—“resident aliens” Stanley Hauerwas says– because our citizenship is ultimately not in this world, but first and foremost in God’s kingdom.

Another quick Greek lesson- the word “Strangers” in Ephesians is xenoi, the root of the word “xenophobia” which means fear of strangers.

Let me tell you a quick story when I really felt like a stranger. It was one of the first times I was visiting Karen’s family in their small town of Berne, Indiana.

Her dad Roger invited me to join him for his morning routine of grabbing breakfast at the local restaurant in town, the Palmer House. We walked in, and Roger greeted everyone—they all knew each other. But I was a stranger to them, so they looked at me like I was E.T. or worse.

I followed Roger to the counter where he sat in his normal seat, and told me to sit down next to him. No sooner had I sat down when another regular walked in, greeted people and was headed for his normal seat, which was where I was sitting.

He got all out of sorts, and I said something like “oh, I’m sorry—is this where you usually sit?” And the guy goes “oh, uh, no…you’re fine. I’ll sit somewhere else.”

But I knew that in a classic passive aggressive manner, he was upset that an outsider, stranger like me would sit in HIS seat at the counter.

I guess it’s kind of that way in churches, where people have their usual pew or row they feel is “reserved” for them! In Jesus’ church, everyone is welcome to sit at whatever seat they want in the Palmer House!

I want to lift out a question that was raised by Eugene Peterson in Practice Resurrection. He asks,

if Paul is right that Jesus is our peace who breaks down walls that divide us and reconciles us to one another, then why isn’t the church with Christ as its head the most peaceful place on earth? (Like a Christian Disneyland!)

Most of us know what he’s talking about right? Peterson gives three answers to the question:

First, he says that peace is personal, not an abstract idea, so it requires participation by imperfect people (all of us). It’s like that saying, “if you’re looking for a perfect church, as soon as you walk in, it’s not perfect anymore”!

Second, Peterson says that peace is something that Jesus doesn’t force on us; we have to do the hard work of dealing with our prejudices, resolving conflicts, and working toward reconciliation.

And third, Peterson says that just like making peace for Jesus led him to the cross, living in peace with one another sometimes requires sacrifice on our part. It can be costly.

Now I’d like to add a couple of more thoughts of why inclusion and breaking down walls in the church can be challenging, based on my experience in the Mennonite church:

First, it’s not so true here in our congregation, but there’s a Mennonite culture, like Jewish, or Amish, that if you haven’t spent much time in it, you feel like an outsider looking in.

We have our own foods and last names and all these acronyms that we throw around like MCC and MDS and EMU that people outside of the Mennonite world have no idea what we’re talking about.

So there are cultural barriers that some people have to overcome, and we insiders need to work hard to make people just coming in feel like they be at home here.

Also, inclusion can be resisted because of how our tribe began.

Mennonite/Anabaptist history began by excluding ourselves from the established church. Our forebearers felt that to be faithful to their beliefs, they couldn’t stay in the existing church, either Catholic or the newly formed Protestant movement.

Things like adult baptism and separation of church and state were important matters of faith and conscience that our faith forebearers wouldn’t compromise on, and so began the Anabaptist movement. So we have putting up walls in our DNA, for good reasons.

As the pastor of a historic peace church, I would never want to see our church mix faith with American politics and the military to the point of putting up a flag in the sanctuary and having patriotic celebrations on days like the 4th of July.

I know that a lot of other churches do this, but my conscience and convictions wouldn’t allow it. If someone came in and wanted to tear down our wall as a peace church, I would do all I could to stop them…peacefully, of course!

Now of course everyone is welcome here, no matter where you stand on these issues. But our leadership’s role is to keep us true to our vision and values as a peace church; it’s an essential part of our identity.

Then there are times when we discern that walls should come down. Mennonite Church USA and Daniels Run Peace Church as well have taken down the wall which prevented LGBTQ persons from full inclusion in the church.

It’s been a long and painful process, and it has led to divisions in congregations and in the larger church, because others believe that to be faithful, that wall should be kept up.

We are called to treat those with whom we disagree with humility and grace. And we need to keep seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and keep discerning which walls need to stay up and which need to come down.

Tom Yoder Neufeld asks an important question:Which boundaries are of the essence, and which are obstructions or barriers? Which boundaries safeguard the gospel of peace, and which suffocate it?”

There’s a quote that I’d like to close with that in some ways provides a guideline for these questions of boundaries and inclusion. It is attributed to Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th century German Lutheran theologian:

“in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

May it be so. Amen.