Texts: Ephesians 2:11-22, Galatians 1:1-5
Date: July 18, 2021
“There are two ways” begins the Didache, “one of life and one of death; and great is the difference between the two ways.” The Didache, an ancient document of the early church, offers us a clear description of moral decision making – the doctrine of the two ways. According to the authors of the Didache, humanity has two options, two choices, the way of life or the way of death, the way of light or the way of darkness.
This doctrine of the two ways is quite prevalent in our society. I think of the great TV show LOST. Though they try, LOST remains a show unlike anything we will ever see on network TV again. In the very first episode of the series, we learn that the doctrine of the two ways will be central when one of the characters teaches another character how to play backgammon. First he explains that backgammon is the oldest game in the world. Then he says, “there are two players, two sides; one is light, the other is dark.” Two sides, two players, dark and light, this becomes one of the main themes of the entire show. It’s about learning who the two players are and then deciding which side you are on. The doctrine of the two ways is about choosing which path you want to take.
Unfortunately, much of the Christian world only knows how to exist within this framework. They are convinced that the doctrine of the two ways is the only appropriate way of talking about the Christian life. In light of the truth of Christ, each individual has a choice to make: either one can follow God or one can remain in the way of darkness; and great is the difference between the two ways. Ironically, many Christians have turned to Paul to flesh out this framework, to give it Scriptural support. But here’s the thing, that’s not the Paul I know. The one I’ve come to appreciate, cherish, even love. I’m convinced that at the heart of Paul’s theology, he presents us with a completely different understanding of Christianity; an alternative to the doctrine of the two ways.
To understand Paul’s theology and grasp what he means when he calls Jesus our peace, as he does in our reading from Ephesians 2, then we have to grasp how Paul understands history. That’s why I included the reading from Galatians 1. Because for Paul, all of history can be divided into two eras, two epochs – the present evil age and the new creation.
For Paul, the present evil age, is just another name for the time of history dominated by the evil powers of Sin and Death. The two greatest enemies to God’s reign. The powers that continually try to divide humanity, to tear us apart, that beg us to focus on ourselves, on our own wellbeing above all else, and the powers that long for us to always act out of the emotion of fear.
That is why for Paul, the problem which he addresses in his letters is not so much sins, transgressions of divinely given commandments. As biblical scholar Martinus de Boer rightly insists: Paul has no interest in the idea that Christ’s sacrifice delivered humanity from ours sins. Instead, Paul’s focus is on a much larger concept – the concept of Sin; the malevolent enslaving and godlike power under which all human beings were held captive. This may surprise you, but sins in the plural is only found 4 times in all of the Pauline writings. At least two of those times, we know that Paul’s quoting the arguments of his adversaries. When Paul talks about sin, he almost always uses the singular.
For example, in Romans 5, Paul insists that Sin has come into the world, and that Sin achieved domination. And in Galatians, Paul proclaims that Sin has the power to engulf. All throughout his letters, instead of presenting sin as something that humanity chooses, Paul views Sin as a cosmic force which enslaves. For Paul, Sin is not something we do; Sin itself acts. And this actor is the source of all violence, all oppression, all hierarchy, all dominance in our world. Sin is like a virus which infects everything simply because it exists.
If Sin is a virus which corrupts everyone, then it’s not a stretch to say that Paul sees Jesus as the antivirus to Sin. The one who detoxified Sin’s effects on the world. For before Christ, humanity was unable to liberate itself. We were all stuck under the Lordship of Sin. Only God could set the world free, so God invades the world by sending God’s son. For Paul, Christ entered a world in subjection to the enslaving powers in order to liberate not only humanity but the entire cosmos. As Galatians 1:4 states: “The Lord, Jesus Christ, who gave himself to snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age.” I love that imagery, snatch us out of the grasp. I always picture that game I loved to play as a kid, the one with the claw and the stuffed animals. I spent way too many of my quarters on that game, and I think I only ever won once.
What Paul tells us here is that Jesus is kinda like that claw, and he literally plucked us out of the world of Sin; he liberated us forever. And not just us, but the entire cosmos. As Paul states elsewhere: “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the cosmos has been crucified to me and I to the cosmos… Now, what is something is the new creation.”
And how did Jesus accomplish this act of liberation? By refusing to allow Sin to have any power over him, by completely disrespecting Death and living as if his death was already behind him. In other words, Jesus smashed Sin & Death’s power by living a life solely devoted to love. A life of friendship, one always willing to give himself up, to die if necessary, so that others, even his enemies, could live. Love is what defines Jesus’ life at every moment. And love is what drives Jesus to the breaking point, the most significant moment in human history, the cross. And here, when he feels completely abandoned by God, when doubts rage through his body, forcing him to question if his entire life was for naught. He remains faithful to humanity’s mission of living a life sheerly through love. A love so beautiful that it incorporates everyone into him while spitting in the face of Sin and Death’s power, ending their malignant reign, forever.
For Paul, everything revolves around the cross. For it is history’s defining event, it’s greatest apocalyptic moment, the instance when history itself, ends. As Paul states in Romans 5: “One died for all; therefore, all have died. And he died for all, in order that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for the one who died and was raised for them.”
As Paul understands it, on the cross, God redeems everything. And everything as Lauren Hill so importantly reminds us, is everything! Past, present, future. The whole world, both the living and the dead, all of it is crucified and reconciled on the cross, with Christ. At that moment, the entire cosmos is changed. For at that moment, God’s new world inaugurates, a world where polarities, hierarchy, sacrifice, and division have vanished forever.
So when Paul talks about Jesus as our peace, he isn’t saying that Jesus was a great peacemaker or that Jesus calls us to love our enemies. These are true and well and good, but what Paul’s getting at is much larger. Jesus is our peace because Jesus altered the trajectory of history forever. Jesus is our peace because the world of oppression, of injustice, of division, sacrifice and death, that’s over. Ended forever. All the walls that previously divided us. All the ways we have demarcated our difference in order diminish someone else, that has been completely dismantled. And the weapons which the world always turned to, to achieve peace – exclusion, repression, marginalization, war, violence, death -they have been completely broken too. For that old world was crucified with Christ on the cross. It’s finished.
Now that doesn’t mean the reign of Sin and Death have accepted their fate peacefully. It doesn’t mean they aren’t constantly trying to regain their power. There is a reason that Paul calls that the present evil age, not the past evil age. I know that on many days, it can be hard to see that these realities are fleeting, that they have already been defeated. Our world is so divided and it seems like it is becoming more divided every day. But that’s exactly why we gather here each week. To remind ourselves of the things which can be difficult to see. That Christ has already liberated us and the entire world from the clutches of Sin and Death. They have no power over us anymore. For their reign has already been ended by God. As one of my favorite Scriptures from the book of Revelation reminds us: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.” It has become. It is already.
The Didache had it wrong – there aren’t two options before us, one of life and one of death before us. The only real question before us is are we living as if Christ invaded the world, liberating us so that we can enjoy God’s new world – the new creation, where death and Sin have already been defeated. Or are we still trapped in the old world? Do we still live as if death and sin have won? Do we still act as if darkness reigns?
At MennoCon this year, we heard story after story of people who have dared to live as if death and sin have already been defeated. The theme for MennoCon fittingly was bring the peace. We heard stories of churches who were working for prison abolition, churches bailing out mothers from jail so that they could go home and be with their family, churches breaking bread with their Jewish and Muslim bothers and sisters as a way of bringing people together and disrupting the narratives of difference which divide us. We heard stories of churches doing laundry daily for their homeless neighbors; stories of churches working for affordable housing, climate justice, and racial reconciliation. We heard from churches partnering with indigenous communities to listen and learn about the plights they face and then advocate for changes together.
And the question, our executive director, Glen Guyton, asked again and again throughout the week: what new ways are we going to go home and bring the peace? How are we going to extend God’s peace to our neighbors, today? For as Glen and so many others stressed last week, the world in which we live, has changed and is continuing to change. This means that the ways in which we bring the peace must change too. And what our communities need most is for Mennonites to keep trying new experiments in peacemaking, new ways of showing God’s nonviolent love in action. Because peace must always be at the center of all that we do. For Christ is our peace. And peace is the work that Jesus has already accomplished on the cross and continues to accomplish in our world today.
As Christians, as Mennonites, we cannot truthfully say that Jesus Christ is our peace if we are still living and acting in ways which do not proclaim that Jesus has already redeemed everything. We cannot truthfully proclaim Jesus to be our peace if we are still operating within the world of polarity, hierarchy, and division which has vanished. We cannot honestly say that Christ is our peace if our lives are determined by the fear of death instead of God’s new creation which is here already. And we cannot faithfully say Christ is our peace
No, to proclaim Jesus as our peace means reorienting everything through the lens of the slaughtered lamb who reigns, yesterday, today and forever. It means seeing the entire cosmos, past, present, future, as something already redeemed by Jesus through the cross and the resurrection. For everything has been liberated, rescued, snatched by God’s very own hand, to live into God’s new world of liberation and freedom. And now we are being called to display God’s peace accomplished on the cross, by being God’s agents of liberation, agents who dare to display with our lives, that all the powers which are still trying to ensnare the world, have already been dismantled. Put to death and redeemed, some two thousand years ago, with Jesus, on the cross.
This is what it means to proclaim Jesus as our Peace. May we now endlessly work to bring it.