Is One New Humanity Possible?

October 7, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Ephesians 2:11-22

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.”

The problem in Ephesus 2000 years ago was a divided humanity and the animosity that came with it – not all that different from the times in which we live, in many ways.

“So Christ Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”

From a Jewish perspective the population of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus was split in two, those “who were near” – Jews, members of the covenant community of God’s people – and those “who were far off” – Gentiles, outside the circle of the covenant community. “Near” and “far off” are not geographic terms; they refer to neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, people you see in the store, between whom there existed, in the words of Ephesians, a “dividing wall of hostility.”

In Ephesus those not sharing the same faith tradition or language, culture or politics did not share the same humanity. They were separated. They were other. They were alien. They were far off and someone else was at the center.

The problem of “the other” is as old as humanity itself. It was there in Ephesus, and it is here, among us, today. It appeared in a variety of guises back then; the world was divided into male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek. There was always the other.

It’s no different in our time. Racism grows out of an othering based on skin color. People with differing abilities become the other. Or people making minimum wage. Or immigrants. Or people of wealth. Or people living on the streets. And on and on it goes…rural-urban, left-right, Republicans-Democrats, men-women.

Sometimes we’re the other; sometimes we do the othering. We all tend to conjugate humanity into what we perceive to be its constituent parts – as if that will solve something or somehow satisfy us.

On the contrary, that tendency, if left unchecked, will be our undoing. That’s true not only in our national life, but on the global stage, as well. If we continue to approach the world and life in our communities as if our particular group or nation were at the center, isolated from others not like us, that center will not hold. The dividing walls of hostility between them and us, if not dismantled, will ruin us.

The response of the Christian Church in ancient Ephesus was to use their imagination and develop a dream of an utterly different world in which people celebrated and welcomed the other. The followers of Jesus referred to it as a new humanity, and they saw it as God’s intention in Jesus Christ. The goal was not to do away with differences or cover them over or negate them, as if they weren’t real, but, rather, to learn to live with them, and to see them as a strength…in fact, places where God might be found.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,” the writer of Ephesians says, “But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Václav Havel argues that only by transcending the self – which is the goal of religious traditions – will we overcome our tendency to deny the humanity of the other. He defines transcendence as…

“A deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, with what we do not understand, with what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.” (Quoted in Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 45)

One new humanity.

At the conclusion of one of the most rancorous and dispiriting and painful weeks in recent American history, and a month away from a pivotal, acrimonious election, one new humanity seems impossible to attain – almost ludicrous to consider, even laughable. Political culture has been debased to a take-no-prisoners approach in which survivors of sexual assault are mocked, opponents are bullied, and lying has become acceptable.

As followers of Jesus we’re committed to a moral vision for our life together, but it doesn’t look like that.

One new humanity will not abide division based on race or economics, gender or social position or power. It will insist on the inherent worth of every individual. It will never stop asking how to make the world more just. It will seek to sustain the one, beautiful planet we have. And it will reject fundamentalism of any kind, because fundamentalisms, whether religious or political, are always declared at someone else’s expense. They thrive on an “other,” who is wrong, who is outside, who is not included.

This is not a secular vision, devoid of spiritual content. It’s a religious vision – our religious vision. Ephesians is clear about this, and we should be, too. For us, Jesus Christ is the wellspring of one new humanity. To follow Jesus means to enter into the difficult work of learning to live together with all our differences and disagreements. Our faith in Jesus compels us to speak the truth, yes, sometimes with righteous rage, but always in love, trying not to let anger over injustice turn us into that which we protest.

One of our daughters learned this lesson when she was in second grade. At school a boy in her class kept asking her for the quarter she had for milk at lunch. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, day after day. It was second grade bullying. She told us what she’d been going through and we suggested she tell the teacher. The next day she came home and said he had done it again.

“Did you tell the teacher?” we asked.

“No,” she said, “I told him I wouldn’t give him the quarter but I would be his friend.”

That brought an end to the bullying.

One new humanity. I like to tell that story because it illustrates that small steps matter. It will take disarming imagination to do this, like that of a seven-year old. We’ll need a new way of seeing the world, born of our religious conviction and counter to everything the world tells us. We’re going to have to resist and reject the way the world is and offer an alternative vision.

Václav Havel says a divided, rancorous, hostile world calls for transcendence that refuses to let the way things are, be the way they have to be. Can we not dream beyond the ugly reality that has such a vice-grip on us and then work together toward that dream, that vision that emerged from Ephesus so many years ago?

The monk Thomas Merton described a vision, about which I have spoken before because I find it so moving and so descriptive of the essence of what we’re trying to do with a religious vision that reaches past the otherness in which we dwell. It happened to him on March 18, 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky.

“At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district,” Merton writes,

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” (https://www.spiritualtravels.info/articles-2/north-america/kentucky-a-thomas-merton-tour/thomas-mertons-mystical-vision-in-louisville/)

Our nation is desperate for such a vision to begin to remove the dividing wall of hostility – not to make us all the same and agree on everything, but to teach us to live with our differences in a way that honors them and respects them, and each one of us. I’m not talking only about political differences, although they may be uppermost in our mind these days. But I’m also thinking about race and socio-economic status, and education, and geography, and where we live in the city.

The old order was based on fear, and when we are afraid of one another we turn each other into enemies. The new order that comes out of the gospel is based on hope – and, as Maya Angelou says, “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.”

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. It was the imperfect vision of the nation’s founders, with which we are still blessed and which we are still trying to get right.

Last summer in New Mexico we climbed to the top of a high mesa one day. It was a stunning view. We could see for miles over the desert landscape. Another couple soon joined us. They were immigrants from Albania. We talked, and they told us their story. They had fled as refugees to Greece, Italy, and other countries, before finally being welcomed to the U.S. They were so happy to be here. They both had settled and found jobs, and now they were on a road trip to take in their new country.

“God bless America,” they said in heavily accented English. They were alien no more.

“Citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

One new humanity is possible, but it will take vision, and work. It’s the calling of the church. Some of us will have to set aside the privilege we enjoy, by virtue of where we fit in the culture, in order to enter the narrative of people considered the other, because our very status is a wall, whether we want it to be or not, between us and them. A good way to begin might be by listening to one another, listening to one another as we have never listened before.

Westminster’s Race and Grace dialogues are one place where that listening is happening. It happens, as well, in our global partnerships in Cuba, Palestine, and Cameroon, as we listen and then learn the stories of people who have been othered by history. And it can happen where we work, with our neighbors, at school. Even in our families. I know families are feeling these dividing walls of hostility. I hear it all the time from church members.

I had my own Thomas Merton-like moment last week. We went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant 15 blocks south of here called Quang’s. It has one big, open room, no divisions, with lots of tables, and they were all full. It was like walking into the world at dinner. There were people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe sitting at the tables. Older folks, young families, single adults, children running around. Different languages. People who drove fancy new cars and others who came on the bus. Mixed groups eating together and talking with one another.

It was noisy and steamy and smelled of good food, and I suddenly felt kinship with them all, as if everyone were at the same table. It was World Communion Sunday a few days early. I had glimpsed – in Quang’s – the friendship within the human family that God so desires of us.

One new humanity is possible, through the transcendent power of God’s love, as we know that love in Jesus Christ – a love that can overcome anything that wants to keep us apart, even the dividing walls of hostility among us. And then one new humanity, one new humanity, has a chance of growing.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Latest Sermons