Summary: Many things conspire to keep people separate, even in the church. Only God can connect us, and it is the cross that binds us. Are we living out that reality, or have we let separations disconnect us?
When he says it, it feels both enraging and endearing. When he pronounces it, it sounds like irritation, but it also sounds like invitation. It is both attracting and detracting, both including and excluding.
I am referring to those moments in the old TV show, when Felix Unger, the neat freak half of the odd couple, speaks to his housemate: "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar." It doesn’t matter what the dispute is about. It always feels like Felix is very upset, but at the same time tremendously concerned. It sounds as though Felix is profoundly disgusted, but at the same time incredibly bonded. All he has to do to communicate all of that is to pronounce the other man’s name three times in a certain way: "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar."
You likely know the story of the odd couple. Two men, of radically different temperaments, totally incompatible habits, forced to live together because each has gone through a divorce and has no other place to go. One half of the odd couple, Felix Unger, is obsessively neat, compulsively clean, organized to the ultimate. The other half, Oscar Madison, is totally sloppy, strews his bedroom with dirty clothes and empty pizza boxes, and blunders through life with utter abandon.
The odd couple. Common sense will tell you that these two could never get along. And common sense is right. They do fight about everything. But they love each other deeply. They are wonderfully connected.
Felix and Oscar are an image of the human condition. They tell us how deeply divided we are, but they also make us think there is some way in which all the funny fragments of humanity might be able to come together. They make us wonder if there is some way we could all get to be friends, and better than friends, brothers and sisters, instead of strangers.
The world of the New Testament had its share of odd couples too. People were seriously divided. In the infant Christian movement, something was happening that just defied logic, and went against everything in human history. In this early Christian church, all of a sudden, without warning, people of widely differing kinds were coming together and were finding common ground. People who would normally not even deal with each other, much less get involved with each other, were naming each other brothers and sisters. An incredible thing! What was that all about and how did it happen?
First, let me tell you how it didn’t happen. It did not happen just because somebody thought it would be nice for people to get together. It did not happen just because it was Brotherhood Week and time to be nice to your neighbor. The problem is greater than that. It cannot be solved just by deciding that we ought to try harder to get along with each other.
The Apostle Paul, in the Ephesian letter, begins by acknowledging the depth of the differences between Jews and Gentiles. Surely one of the deepest and bitterest divisions in human history, and not something which could have been cured by sitting around the negotiating table or pretending that the differences were not real.
Listen to his description, and you can get a feel for how strong the differences between Jews and Gentiles were. Let’s find out how utterly improbable it was for Jews and Gentiles to be together.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands-- remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Look at everything implied in this short statement. There was a racial difference, and that cannot be erased by human activity. When I went to Baltimore a couple of weeks ago to meet somebody I had not seen for thirty years, I wondered if I would recognize him, but he said, on the phone, "Well, I’m still black." You cannot change race.
There was not only a racial difference, but there was also a religious difference. Different traditions, different beliefs. The Gentiles had come from pagan faith or no faith; the Jews had come from the historic faith of Israel. Different and irreconcilable.
Different race, different religious traditions, different histories. And even a different psychology, a different emotional history. I mean, can you really hear the utter abandonment in these words? "You were aliens, strangers, having no hope, and without God in the world." I don’t know how much more graphic you could be to describe the things that separate one people from another.
And compounding it all, there is the way it is described. The language that puts people at a distance. Get the feel of it: "You were uncircumcised, you were aliens. You are strangers. Foreigners, outsiders." Ouch! That hurts. That feels horrible. That is a lot like using the "N" word. The very shading of the words hurts.