In his compelling book, Blood Brothers, Palestinian Christian Elias Chacour tells the story about his first assignment as a newly ordained pastor. “Elias,” the bishop said brightly. “You are being sent to Ibillin in Galilee, a village of several thousand….The situation is—not easy. We thought maybe you could try it for a month. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll have another look at your assignment.”
As Elias would discover, the bishop’s description of the situation in Ibillin as “not easy” was a colossal understatement. The church in Ibillin was torn up with strife, divided by walls of hostility and deep hatred. So deep was the animosity among members of the church that only a handful ever came to worship. Even families were hotly divided over issues. One of the most tragic cases was a family of four brothers—one of whom was the village policeman—who detested each other with such vehemence that people rushed off the streets when they saw them walking towards each other. It was all made worse by the bitter old man, called “the Responsible,” who was charged with caring for the building and grounds and the finances. This man was a tyrant and took it upon himself to decide who was welcome in the church and who was not. Most people were not.
Elias embraced his calling to be a peacemaker in the name of Jesus, and he went to work trying to bring reconciliation by visiting every home in that village, even those who were not members of the church. He even enlisted three nuns from the nearby town of Nazareth to help by giving minor medical treatment to the children in the village. It was all hard work, slow work, but Elias kept at it. After all, he only had to hold out for one month.
One month passed, and Elias stayed. One month turned into two months, two months into three, and soon Elias had been there for a year and a half without being run out of town. Then one night late in winter, it all came to a head.
An elderly woman in the village became deathly ill. She was the mother of the four feuding brothers. Elias attempted to get the brothers together to be with their dying mother, but they refused to be in the same room with one another. Even after her death, they refused to be in each other’s company to mourn. The oldest of the brothers, the village policeman named Abu Mouhib, warned Elias: “My brothers do not set foot in my house. If they dare come here you will have five funerals on your hands, because we will kill each other.”
Not even the death of their mother could draw these boys together. This was the breaking point for Elias. Enough was enough. That night as he walked home, an ache of grief throbbed in his chest, he prayed for wisdom and courage. And God gave him both. He knew now what he needed to do.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the main melody that carries from beginning to end is this promise that God is “gathering up all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.”
All that is fractured and broken in this universe is being healing and restored and brought into unity under the lordship of Jesus. And here’s where it starts on earth: it starts with the church! As Paul sang out earlier, the church is “his [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:23).
In Christ, God is re-creating a new humanity, drawing together both Jews and Gentiles into the one international family of God. It’s truly remarkable! The Gentiles, who were once aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, devoid of hope and without God in the world—in a word, “outsiders” to God’s covenant—are now brought near, welcomed into God’s family by the blood of Christ. Jews and Gentiles together. Marked as a new humanity, a new creation, not by circumcision and the Jewish laws and codes, but by faith in Christ, made visible in the waters of baptism.
“For he is our peace!” Paul boldly announces. “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” No doubt Paul has in mind the physical dividing wall of the magnificent temple built in Jerusalem by Herod the Great. The temple was the physical dwelling place of God—the place where heaven and earth joined together. But there were several courts where certain people were welcome. The court closest to the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed, was the Court of the Priests—only those elite Hebrews who were part of the priesthood could occupy this space. East of this was the Israel, where Hebrew men were welcome, and east of that a court for Hebrew women. These three courts were all on the same elevation of the temple, respectively, although they were not equal distance to the Holy of Holies, which represented closeness to God. From this level descended five steps to another platform with a dividied wall, and then on the other side of that wall were fourteen more steps to another wall, beyond which was the outer court called the Court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were allowed to look up and view the temple, but they were not allowed to approach it.
The dividing wall was not just the temple, but it was the whole religious system, with the Jewish laws and codes. Listen again to what Paul writes: “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
One of the striking things Paul says here, and Keith brought it up last Sunday, is that as it turns out, both Gentiles and Jews are alienated from God because of sin. All were “children of wrath” and “dead through their trespasses,” says Paul. “But God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us….” Paul cries out “the great adversative”—But God…. And he does it here again. “But now in Christ you have been brought near….” Both those who were far off (Gentiles) and those who were near (Jews) have been reconciled to God, restored to right relationship with the Father. And this is all because of what God has done for us in Christ. Jesus is “our peace”—in his death on the cross he has killed the hostility between us and God. And now, we all have access in one Spirit to the Father.
To be reconciled to God, then, is also to be reconciled to each other. Jesus is not just mixing together the Jews and Gentiles into a single group, he has created one new humanity in place of the two—a new creation! And so Paul writes elsewhere: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumsized and uncircumsized, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free man, male or female, but Christ is all in all and you are all one in Christ” (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28).
Paul goes on to use three different metaphors to describe this new humanity that we are as the church. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints…” Paul uses the metaphor of being citizens of God’s kingdom—a kingdom that is international and interracial, more splendid and powerful than any earthly nation or empire. And Paul says we are no longer refugees but we have been brought home.
Then Paul changes the metaphor and makes it more intimate: “you are…also members of the household of God.” We are more than fellow citizens under Christ’s rule; we are together, Jews and Gentiles alike, children in God’s family.
Lastly, Paul says we are God’s holy temple, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” The Jewish Temple, as we said, was the earthly dwelling place of God, a holy place the Gentiles were forbidden to enter. But not only has Jesus brought down the dividing wall, Paul tells us that Jews and Gentiles have been brought together to form the living stones of God’s temple. Which is to say, in Christ by the Spirit, we, the church, are the dwelling place of God! Not the bricks and mortar of the facility, but our lives, made into a new community, is inhabited by God’s very presence. Jesus is both our cornerstone who holds us all together and the one into whom we are growing up as God’s holy temple.
And now listen to this: the church is a preview of what God will do in all of creation. Back to the main theme of Ephesians: God is joining all things together in heaven and on earth in Christ. And the church is “exhibit A,” so to speak, put on display for the whole world to see, of what God intends to do for the whole creation.
Not only are we God’s exhibit of new creation, we have also been called and empowered to join him in mission by being agents of reconciliation in the world. So Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 5:17-21: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us….”
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us… God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation, to be “peacemakers” in the power of Christ who is our peace, the whole world’s peace.
But we can’t be this if we’re not first reconciled to each other. If we are going to be agents of reconciliation in the world, it begins with us embracing our unity and making peace with one another. Which is why Jesus says very directly in the Sermon on the Mount, if your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go immediately to them and be reconciled. Too much is at stake for us to be divided by grudges, animosity or whatever else would put up walls. Our witness to the world is at stake!
So that night as Elias walked home, an ache of grief throbbed in his chest. He prayed for wisdom and courage. And God gave him both. He knew now what he needed to do. Listen to Elias Chacour in his own words, taken from the book Blood Brothers:
My year-and-a-half of home visits…had made a dent—a small dent—in reuniting the believers in Ibillin. Few attended the church regularly and walls of hostile silence remained firm. However, most of them would not think of missing services during the Christmas and Easter seasons, coming to be comforted by familiar customs, not out of desire for true spiritual renewal. True to the pattern, attendance increased markedly on the first Sunday of Lent, growing each week as Easter approached.
On Palm Sunday, every bench was packed. Nearly the entire congregation had come, plus a few other villagers whom I had invited. The weather that morning was balmy, with a warm, light wind straying through the streets, so I left the doors wide open, hoping that passers-by might be attracted by our singing. When I stood up, raising my hands to signal the start of the service, I was jolted by stark, staring faces.
Looks of open hostility greeted me. The Responsible’s faction was clustered on one side of the church, almost challenging me with their icy glares. Indifferently, those whom the Responsible had ostracized sat on the opposite side. I was amazed to see Abu Mouhib, the policeman, perched in the very front row with his wife and children. In each of the other three quadrants of the church, as distant from one another as possible, were his three brothers. The sisters, I could tell, felt the tension, too, for their faces were blanched. I rose and began the first hymn, certain that no one would be attracted by our pathetically dismal singing. I thought, with sadness, of the battle lines that were drawn across the aisles of that sanctuary. And nervously, I hoped that no one would notice the odd lump in the pocket beneath my vestment.
What followed was undoubtedly the stiffest service, the most unimpassioned sermon of my life. The congregation endured it indifferently, fulfilling their holiday obligation to warm the benches. But then, they did not suspect what was coming. At the close of the liturgy, everyone rose for the benediction. I lifted my hand, my stomach fluttering, and paused. It was now or never.
Swiftly, I dropped my hand and strode toward the open doors at the back of the church. Every eye followed me with curiosity. I drew shut the huge double doors….From my pocket I pulled a thick chain, laced it through the handles and fastened it firmly with a padlock.
Returning to the front, I could almost feel the temperature rising. Or was it just me? Turning to face the congregation, I took a deep breath.
“Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian.” I began awkwardly. My voice seemed to echo too loudly in the shocked silence. The sister’s eyes were shut, their lips moving furiously in prayer.
“You people are divided. You argue and hate each other—gossip and spread malicious lies. What do Moslems and unbelievers think when they see you? Surely that your religion is false. If you can’t love your brother that you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the body of Christ to be disgraced.”
Now the shock had turned to anger. The Responsible trembled and seemed as though he was about to choke. Abu Mouhib tapped his foot angrily and turned red around the collar. In his eyes, though, I thought I detected something besides anger.
Plunging ahead, my voice rose. “For many months, I’ve tried to unite you. I’ve failed, because I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one who gives you power to forgive. So now I will be quiet and allow Him to give you that power. It you will not forgive, we will stay locked in here. You can kill each other, and I’ll provide your funeral gratis.”
Silence hung. Tight-lipped, fists clenched, everyone glared at me as if carved from stone. I waited. With agonizing slowness, the minutes passed. Three minutes…five…ten…I could hear, outside a boy coaxing his donkey up the street and the slow clop-clop of its hooves. Still, no one flinched. My breathing had become shallow and I swallowed hard….Then a sudden movement caught my eye.
Someone was standing. Abu Mouhib rose and faced the congregation, his head bowed, remorse shining in his eyes. With his first words, I could scarcely believe that this was the same hard-bitten policeman who had treated me so brusquely.
“I am sorry,” he faltered. All eyes were on him. “I am the worst one of all. I’ve hated my own brothers. Hated them so much I wanted to kill them. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.”
And then he turned to me. “Can you forgive me, too, Abuna?”
I was amazed! Abuna means “our father,” a term of affection and respect. I had been called other things since arriving in Ibillin, but nothing so warm.
“Come here,” I replied, motioning him to my side. He came, and we greeted each other with the kiss of peace. “Of course I forgive you,” I said. “Now go and greet your brothers.”
Before he was halfway down the aisle, his three brothers had rushed to him. They held each other in a long embrace, each one asking forgiveness to the others. In an instant the church was a chaos of embracing and repentance. Cousins who had not spoken to each other in years wept together openly. Women asked forgiveness for malicious gossip. Men confessed to passing damaging lies about each other. People who had ignored the sisters and me in the streets now begged us to come to their homes. Only the Responsible stood quietly apart, accepting only stiffly my embrace. This second church service—a liturgy of love and reconciliation—went on for nearly a full hour.
In the midst of these joyful reunions, I recalled Father’s words when he had told us why we must receive the Jews from Europe into our home. And loudly, I announced: “We’re not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let’s celebrate it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.”
I began to sing. This time our voices joined as one, the words binding us together in a song of triumph: “Christ is risen from the dead. By his death He has trampled death and given life to those in the tomb.”
Even then it did not end. The momentum carried us out of the church and into the streets where true Christianity belongs. For the rest of the day and far into the evening, I joined groups of believers as they went from house to house throughout Ibillin. At every door, someone had to ask forgiveness for a certain wrong. Never was forgiveness withheld. Now I knew that inner peace could be passed from man to man and woman to woman.
…Before my eyes, I was seeing a ruined church rebuilt at last—not with mortar and rock, but with living stones. (pp.175-179)
“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.