Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
Last month, at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, there was a big timeline along one side of the delegate hall. It was kind of like the one we have for CMC in the fellowship hall this weekend, but longer – in size and time span. It was maybe 40 feet long, give or take. It began in the 1500’s and led up to the present. On it, were written key events in the Anabaptist and Mennonite story. 1525, Zurich Switzerland, the first adult baptisms. 1660; publication of the Martyrs Mirror, telling the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages; 1789, the first German speaking Mennonites settle in Catherine the Great’s Russia. And so on. We were about to begin the Future Church Summit, and denominational leaders wanted to help us remember where we had been before looking toward where we are going.
There was lots of open space on the timeline, with differently colored markers available for anyone who wanted to add a key event. Walking through the centuries and reading the additions was a fascinating experience of what happens when you crowd source your collective history. Alongside the more standard highlights of immigration waves, official church statements, and the creation of institutions, were less told stories, some painful. Like the three boarding schools Mennonites used to run that tore Native American children from their families and culture.
A few people had felt unrestricted by the chronological range of the timeline, with someone writing at the very beginning, “And on the seventh day, God rested” and someone squeezing in even before that “Big bang.” Someone else had extended the timeline forward two years to the next national gathering in 2019, writing “Membership Guidelines abolished by delegates.” The Membership Guidelines currently in place call for the review of a pastor’s credentials who officiates at the wedding of a same-sex couple.
All in all, it was a lively space, a multi-layered snap shot of where the church has been, and might be going.
Feeling emboldened by the boldness of others, I picked up a marker and decided to write in some local history of national significance, fresh in my mind from scanning through our congregational archives in preparation for this anniversary weekend.. Finding the early 1960’s I wrote “Columbus Mennonite pioneers dual-conference affiliation status.”
As I stepped back to admire the updated history, much to my surprise, who should be walking along the timeline but Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA. He was checking the timeline against an extensive and somewhat official looking chronology of church events on his electronic device. I pointed out to him the recent addition. Even more to my surprise, he pointed to his device and said, “Yep, already had that.” And sure enough, there it was.
If you have no idea what dual-conference affiliation means, that’s fantastic. A very brief explanation is that there are two main historically separate Mennonite groups in North America. When students in Columbus started meeting informally in the late 50’s and chartered membership in a new congregation in 1962, they were coming from both of these traditions. Rather than choosing one, they decided to do something that had never been done – To work with the leaders of both groups and be a dual-conference affiliated congregation. This became official in 1964. (**Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City also became a dual-conference congregation around this time.) It was the leading edge of a trend. In 1969 two seminaries, one from each tradition, moved onto the same campus in northern Indiana. In the decades that followed other congregations would become dual affiliated. In February of 2002 the two groups officially joined to become Mennonite Church USA in this country, and Mennonite Church Canada.
Origin stories are important. They not only set a trajectory for what follows, but they form an ethos. They establish a way of being. In some cases they can be as important as DNA, transferring messages from one generation of cells, or people, to the next.
So when Genesis begins with the Creator declaring creation to be good, and, indeed, very good, it’s more than just an evaluation of a completed project. It’s a statement about the fundamental nature of materiality and embodiment. Goodness, Divine goodness, courses through the fabric of existence, through the veins of our bodies, right here and now.
When Jews remember their founding story of being enslaved in Egypt, delivered from bondage, and given the Torah as a guide for living, it’s more than just an ancient event. Each new generation is to identify with having been enslaved, and delivered, and to live in such a way that keeps themselves and others free from bondage.
When Jesus is gathered at table with his closest companions, and he takes, and blesses, and gives the bread and the cup, and names it as his body and blood, he is inviting everyone willing to receive it to become his body, to be enlivened by his life-blood. And so we re-enter into this living memory every time we take communion.
These origin stories transfer messages from one generation to the next. They tell the community who they are.
Now, granted, that’s a pretty elite class of stories to put alongside the founding of this congregation. I don’t mean to overstate the case.
But here’s what I find especially noteworthy about the establishment of Columbus Mennonite Fellowship which became Neil Avenue Mennonite Church which became Columbus Mennonite Church:
In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist. I’ll say that again. In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist. It had to pioneer a new way of being in the world. Like that lovely phrase from John writing to his community in the letter we know as our New Testament book of 1 John. He writes: “Beloved, what we will be has not yet been made known.” It continues by saying, “What we do know is this: when it appears, we shall be like (Christ)” 1 John 3:2. In other words, whatever shape this thing takes on, it’s going to look like Christ, and that’s enough to go on for now.
In my relatively brief time here, I’ve experienced an openness in this congregation to become something that has not yet been made known. That founding spirit is still alive and well, transferred through all of you here, and the hundreds of others who aren’t. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not an easy thing, but it has a recognizable shape. When it appears, it looks like Christ, and we learn more about who Christ is by walking towards it together.
Ephesians 2 has more to say about that shape.
It’s got the whole two becoming one thing going on, only rather than the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Old Mennonite Church, it’s Jews and Gentiles.
In Ephesians 2, the whole work of Christ is set up as the work of peace. “For Christ is our peace,” this letter declares. And how so? How has Christ, in the words of Ephesians, “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us?” It goes on to name the radical way the early Jesus followers came to interpret his brutal death on the Roman instrument of torture and capital punishment, the cross. Rather than Jesus and everything he represented dying at the hands of the all-powerful empire, Rome killing Christ on the cross, it is Christ who kills hostility on the cross. Hostility dies on the cross, thus making peace. That’s what this letter to a little group of believers in the city of Ephesus proclaims.
Christ is our peace. A peace beyond the peace of Rome, now available to all who wish to enter. A peace not founded on a reign of fear and terror, the supremacy of one group over another. A peace founded on a vitality and depth of being that even death can’t kill.
And the result of this peace, is, as verse 15 says, “one new humanity.” Humanity 2.0 we might say. Humanity beyond categories of us and them, Jew and Gentile. Perhaps even beyond homo sapiens, which means “clever human.” Christ opens up the way for a new humanity, homo pacificum, peaceful human.
Ephesians has a really, really high view of the church. It proposes that the church is to be nothing less than a manifestation of the new humanity, an embodiment of peace, a post-hostility society in miniature.
I wish the timeline of church history was one of ever greater peace among ourselves, and justice in the world. I wish even just the timeline of our little spiritual tribe, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, whose namesake wrote the words to the hymn, “We are people of God’s peace…” I wish we could get this thing at least mostly right. The two that became one in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA have already reverted back to 2, or 3 or 10 or more depending on how you count. And hostility may have been crucified on the cross, but its phantom is on the loose, newly emboldened on the streets of this country in the form of white supremacy.
I wonder if the present moment is calling on us again to become something that does not yet exist. To not just look for a category to claim as our flag, but to help pioneer a different way of being, and thus make peace. What you will be has not yet been made known.
There’s the joke about the seminary student who asks her professor how many points a good sermon should have. The professor replies, “At least one.” I’m not sure how many points this sermon has had, but I’ll end with at least one.
It’s a phrase that comes out of this Ephesians 2 passage, and it’s something I see this congregation doing all the time, something that springs from its origins. A number of folks told stories last evening that fit right into this theme. After celebrating the death of hostility and the possibility of a new humanity, the writer of Ephesians says, “For you are no longer strangers, but…members of the household of God.”
Strangers becoming siblings. That’s the movement I see happening throughout the entire story of this congregation, starting from the very beginnings. Strangers becoming siblings. People who were previously strangers to one another join together in worship, take care of each other, and share in a common mission of peacemaking and justice-doing. And, over time, the strangers become siblings. Not that siblings live in a state of peaceful bliss. But siblings share a commitment to each other’s well being. Siblings share a household, and share a story.
And when strangers become siblings, you can’t quite predict what’s going to result. What new thing God might do among us. What new shape it might take. What we do know, is that when it appears, it will look like Christ. And Christ is our peace.