Who listens to sermons? My young friends at Crackers & Grape Juice tell me that younger people listen to podcasts, and may read sermons, at a much higher clip than, well, people my age. Jason does call me an old man. The research they point to actually indicates that sermons matter to more than the one who delivers them. So . . .
Why Can’t We Be Friends?! We Are!
Recently it was observed that for the first time in the history of the Church five generations may be represented in a given congregation. Imagine the nightmare that is selecting music to satisfy the tastes of five generations!
After thinking through the different styles of music covered over the past 24 years here at Snow Hill, I discovered a void. While we have had Blue Grass, Country, New Country, Contemporary Christian, Praise and Worship, Christian Rock, Rock music and Classical Hymns, we have not included 1970’s Funk Music. That is why I asked Rusty if he thought they could do, Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Papa Dee Allen and the band included in their song repetition at its extreme. Forty times in that simple little song we heard, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Repetition at least serves the purpose that you would, that we would remember. Chances are the question will linger with you long after we say our final Amen this morning.
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Maybe you noticed in the grainy 1970’s video what was described as a collection of, “multi-racial, multi-occupational, multi-cultural earthlings.” Harold Brown, the band’s drummer, tells that the group got the idea for the song while traveling in Japan. They learned the more they got to know about people they met the more they realized how much alike people are everywhere.
So, they asked, Why Can’t We Be Friends? The line,
“I may not speak right, but I know what I am talking about,”
was sung by Lee Oskar, the harmonica player from Denmark who was just learning English.
If that is not enough to encourage that we should occasionally add 1970’s Funk music to our worship repertoire, maybe we could tie the timing of the song with our own times.
For more than two years Russia has been in the news. The intensity picked up with the President’s recent trip to Helsinki to summit with President Putin. The year WAR recorded the song, the US and Russia held a summit in Moscow. President Nixon was battling Watergate and he and Brezhnev of the Soviet Union discussed, among other things, nuclear arms limitations.
The very next summer, of 1975, Russia and the United States teamed up for the Apollo-Soyuz Mission. When the two countries spacecraft linked up, NASA played a song for the astronauts. It was WAR’s, Why Can’t We Be Friends?
More than forty years later, we face the question over and again, Why Can’t We Be Friends?
It is not a new question. Even for the Church.
Martin Luther King Jr pointed to the worship hour in the United States as the most segregated hour of the week. His observation in the 1960’s has seen some improvement. A 2015 survey indicated segregation in churches is down to 86% from 97%.
Maybe the reason we can’t be friends is ethnic. It was in Ephesus. It was in Israel. It was in Rome. It still is in our day.
There are plenty of other reasons we offer for choosing not to be friends. We don’t like . . .
Their personal hygiene
Their lack of patience
They don’t listen
They have other priorities
They criticize too much
They brag too much
They don’t value friendship
Not to mention their politics, their position on social issues, their economic status and more.
You see, we would all have more friends if they were like us!
That could well sum up the vibe the Gentile Christians felt from their Jewish counterparts. You may imagine how this would affect a sense of belonging, participation, and self-confidence. The identity issues may well be one reason Paul wrote his long sentence in chapter 1. Remember that one that is 204 words? Hearing you have been adopted by God might well startle us out of our concern we have been neglected, relegated to second place.
When the Apostle Paul gets to this part of his letter that we refer to as chapter 2, we recognize some of the more familiar verses,
For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.
Before he works those verses out for the Gentile Christians, he describes them, and us, as the living dead – zombies. Paul aims to show that there are influences in the world that naturally form us and inform us. Last summer we spent time with Romans, who some say is the longer version of Ephesians. We discovered that the powers of Sin and Death form and inform us. We are subject to them such that here Paul points out that we participate in them as the living dead.
And you were dead in your trespasses, your lapses, and sins, in which you previously lived.
There it is – you were dead, in which you previously lived.
The irony that we would have more friends if they were like us is that we can’t be friends precisely because everyone is like us. Our personal goals and aims create antagonisms that keep us wary that someone will keep us from what we want, they might even take it.
The consequence is that all earthlings, all people, grow up, come of age, in an environment where competition is the rule, where we aim to be winners and not losers, even if we win by ensuring that someone loses. These impulses come to us naturally for we have been formed and informed by the Power of Sin. Here Paul says that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. That is, our formation is complete when the Power of Sin is our guide such that what we do is choose what is naturally selfish and self-centered. These attitudes and their actions hold us captive. We are prisoners to the Power of Sin and our own personal sins.
Paul uses the imagery of separation, of exclusion, to press the point further.
Remember, at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh – call the uncircumcised but those called circumcised – a handmade act.
Not only were they called derogatory names, they were by their captivity to the Power of Sin and their own practiced sins excluded, foreigners, and without hope without God.
Who wants to be THEIR friends?!
Now we know why THEY can’t be friends.
Now we know why WE can’t be friends.
That’s right. Given the captivity we inherit, the formation and information we receive, the answer to WAR’s question is, We Can’t Be Friends.
Our social climate dictates what is required for friendship. Tim Keller described how this works. We look for a group to which we may belong. We find out what it takes to be part of that group. Once we have discovered what it takes to be in the group we modify our lives accordingly. It may influence our appearance, the music we prefer, and the ideas we find important, even primary. Most often our desire to be in the group will require that we modify our own desires in order to participate. Keller described social knowledge as the most important form of knowing today.
The power of social knowledge holds us captive to a new way of being in the world that requires us to manage our lives to keep us in the group. Exhausting!
When Harold Brown described traveling around the world and discovering that inside earthlings are more alike than different, he was suggesting that the barriers we create require more energy to maintain than accepting others as they are. Who knew that this overly simple song could provide an illustration of the work we create for ourselves just to maintain godlike control over our lives. Making out like gods is more work than we realize.
It appears the Ephesian Christians fell prey to those who with godlike insistence reminded them of all the wrong things. So when Paul began in verse 11, “So then, remember . . . .,” he wanted them not to focus on what made them different than Jewish Christians. Instead, he took out to say there is no difference in Christ Jesus. In fact, Paul will point out that Jewish Christians have no upper hand for they are part of a new humanity that takes the two and makes them one.
Now to this point, we have drawn out what makes it hard for us to be friends. We could now take Paul’s words and make of them a new law that should anyone transgress we could point out their error. That is really what happens most often among Christians.
But Paul is not intent to address the matter at the point of its symptoms. That we can’t be friends is that our captivity and participation in the social matrix of that imprisonment keeps us from grace, from love. The hostility experienced among human beings stems from human beings being poor gods.
The distance between our humanity and our habit to be gods is great. When someone comes along to point out our lack of humanity we build crosses on which to crucify them.
And yes, that is what human beings wanting to be gods did to Jesus. Rather than be a cross builder, Jesus became a cross bearer. He bore the hostility, the antagonisms, that exist when human beings prefer to be gods than humans. The word we use to describe the action God takes for us in Christ is reconciliation.
Paul notes that,
That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us. 2 Corinthians 5:19
Here in Ephesians, he elaborates. The very place where God’s reconciling work was done was in the body in Christ’s body.
No matter the condition of the flesh – circumcised or uncircumcised – it was in the flesh of Jesus that God took the action to be with us when we wanted to be gods. From that action, God made one body – one new humanity. In His body he broke down the dividing wall of hostility that we created in order that we might find peace and in Christ discover what it really means to be human.
What’s more, as my friend Kenneth Tanner wrote,
God does not become what God hates. God does not become what is not good. God does not give up on what he becomes.
In Christ, God became human so that we can stop making a poor showing being gods. And in Christ, we now know what those good works are for which we have been prepared.
Now we can be friends! In other words, God made us friends. We are friends of God and we are friends of others. That is Good News. It is no longer about finding your group to fit in. In Christ, you are in God’s new humanity. That is, in Christ, the Spirit of God makes us no longer foreigners, strangers but fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household.
God’s presence was represented in an Ark, then in the Tabernacle, then the Temple and finally in Mary who bore in her body Jesus the Messiah. Now, Paul says, we whom God has reconciled in Christ become the very place God dwells in the Spirit.
In Christ, the whole building – all of us – being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him, you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.
It seemed awful ironic that a band named WAR would pose the question, Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Then, we learn that WAR stands for, We Are Righteous.
That God has made us righteous in Christ! We are friends!
*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.