A Faith for those who are Far and Near

As we read the Letter to the Ephesians, we can discern from the Apostle Paul’s words the Church continues to have a unifying mission. Recall he instructed the Ephesians, “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…”[1] The Apostle Paul wrote of Gentiles and Jews, and that was his division of the world in the first century. For him, racial groups made no difference, the world divided on religion. There were those who were near and those who were far off. The people of Israel had knowledge of God; they were near, or at least nearer to God. The Gentiles chased after gods, or deeper spiritual understanding of life but detoured into idol worship, mythology, and philosophy. Paul wanted to bring the two worlds together through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, he reminded the people that they were once without faith. He told them, “…remember that you were at that time without Christ…” Paul described their situation as being aliens and strangers to the promise. Without the promise of the covenant of God, as was once Israel’s, they were hopeless. Then he added, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”[2]

The words, “covenant” and “promise” were central to Paul’s ministry to the Gentile world. The Gentiles of Ephesus were aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise. For the Apostle Paul, a rabbinical scholar, well-educated in the Scriptures and Hebrew law,  also well-educated in rhetoric and Roman law, these words from the Hebrew Scriptures encapsulated the Jesus story.

Further, Paul knew his way around the Gentile world and knew how to preach the Gospel and speak of God with authority. The good news of God in Jesus Christ eliminated, in Paul’s mind, the boundary dividing people who had once been far away from God from those who had claimed to be near. Both could live in hope of the resurrection and the promises given to Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel.

Paul wanted to unite the faith in the covenant promises given to Israel to the promise now found in Christ. In so doing, those who had once been near, or nearer, to God are freed from the rules of Hebrew law to be guided by the new law of Christ–unconditional love. In that freedom, they would experience a unifying joy with the Gentiles, who had found peace in the knowledge of the God of Israel.

Today we face a similar condition. It is not a division among the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised” of Paul’s time. Divided by disillusion, anger, and fear people separate themselves from each other. The promise is in financial successes the covenant is a contract easily broken.

Despite the radical brokenness of today’s world, there are those who remain faithful to the promise and covenant Paul preached.  In the world today are those who have returned to the “works of rules” and those who are freed by the love of Christ. There are those who have abandoned the church but remain “spiritual” and those who find strength in the community of faith.

Because of these divisions into religious, political, cultural, nationalistic, economic, and racial camps, the world faces one dilemma after another. We, the people of the world in all our divisions, are “sheep without a shepherd.”[3]

Today, the world remains without guidance, without hope. This hopelessness may apply primarily to the current generation in the Western world.  A generation identifying itself as “nones,” and “spiritual but not religious,” or simply indifferent to the faith of their parents or grandparents. It is a generation that developed during a time of prosperity and high expectations. The current generation, given the demographic title of Millenials, has grown into adulthood only to find that they may not have the same standard of living as their parents. Moreover, they have found the institutions their parents depended on have failed them.

Wars and terrorism, exacerbated by greed and duplicity, keep them in a state of fear. Racism, inequality, and other divisions seem to prevail no matter how politicians speak otherwise.

The institution that appears to disappoint the most is the Church.  A sad commentary of our time are reports of how, In large numbers, young people have given up on the church;. The Millenials have become, in some respects, the people who are far and the Church has become those that are near—an unnecessary division.

A young Baptist cleric by the name of Rachel Johnson at New York City’s Riverside Church recently commented on this new world separation.[4] She has suggested the breach can be overcome by pointing to the mysteries of faith. It is the mystery of faith—“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”[5]—that will unite people in a faith based in love and peace.

She writes as a Millenial about the crisis of the Millenial Generation and its relationship, or lack of connection with the church.[6] Johnson is optimistic about the church. She asks, “What other institution can look at the valley of dry bones that surrounds us, at a world broken by racism, war, poverty, and neglect, and say those bones will live? What other institution can proclaim that the reality we see is not God’s reality, that beloved community is in our midst?” Then she continues, “These proclamations can only be spoken from a place of prophetic imagination – an imagination that inspires us to live in such a way that others wonder about the world we see.” That prophetic vision belongs to the Church if only it will express it.

Continuing with her assessment she has written, “In my own quest to articulate why I remain in a ‘dying institution,’ I have read voice after voice in the millennial generation pleading with the church for less social accommodation and more mystery and wonder.”  Then she demanded, “Don’t just give us jumbo screens and coffee bars. Don’t give us answers. Inspire us to imagine.”

The story of Jesus is imaginative. The communion between Christ and his followers when taking the bread and wine is a mystical communion of saints—a communion, Johnson says we’ve inherited. Then she concludes, “Show us that it is a faith that can slow the rise of oceans and choose peaceful resistance over war. Show us that it is a faith that can move mountains and dismantle white supremacy. Tell us we worship a God who can make the lame to walk and the blind to see. Show us that this God loves us just as we are and can heal every part of our broken hearts.”

[1] Ephesians 2:17.

[2] Ephesians 2:12-13 (NRSV).

[3] Mark 6:34. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

[4] Rachel Johnson serves as Director of External Communications at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.  She is an ordained Baptist minister who has spent her career working at the intersection of faith and the public sphere.  Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a MAR in Theology from Yale Divinity School.  For over six year she served as Campaigns Director with Eleison, LLC, the leading faith and values consulting firm for progressives.

[5] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Eucharistic Prayer A, Mystery of Faith.

[6] Cf. Rachel Johnson, “Tapping the Millennial Imagination: On FAO Schwarz, Don Quixote, and the Dying Church,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward

One Comment on “A Faith for those who are Far and Near”

  1. Diane Belcher
    July 27, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    Profound, loving, and full of grace and truth, may your words reach the ones that need it the most!


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