A homemade parable for your consideration today, based on Ephesians 2.11-22. We don’t know if anything like this ever happened. But then again, we don’t know that it didn’t…
Obelius was a mountain of a man. He was tall, thick, muscular, with a shock of dark hair, a bushy dark beard, and dark olive skin. He did not look like someone you wanted to meet in a dark alley. But everyone that knew him knew better. He was a gentle giant.
And he giggled like a schoolboy today, because it was church day. Ever since he had been welcomed into the congregation of Christ-followers in his small town in Macedonia, Obelius liked nothing more than to gather with his fellow sisters and brother and talk about Jesus. On this Lord’s day, he was even more excited than normal. Because a letter had arrived. It was a letter making the rounds to the churches, and brought a new word of hope from the larger Church. It was addressed to the church at Ephesus, but its intended audience was really any and every church. And so, because of Obelius’ size and imposing presence, he was entrusted to hold onto the letter until it was time for the congregation to gather and read it aloud.
And today was that day. They met in the home of one of the members, and Obelius could tell when he entered that every eye was on him. He heard their whispering: “there he is!” “Did he bring the letter?” “Did anyone try to take it from him.” He calmly walked to the front of the room and handed the letter to the “elder,” the leader of the congregation. As he pulled it out of his tunic, there was a sigh of relief around the room.
After the hand-off, Obelius went back to the door. Again, because of his size, he was kind of like a self-proclaimed bouncer. He would sit by the door and make sure that only the right people made it into the congregation’s worship. You couldn’t be too careful, these days. It wasn’t like there were a hundred people trying to get into the church, and in a small town, it wasn’t like it was the best kept secret where the Jesus-followers met. But there were always those who struck fear into the hearts of some in the church. A jealous synagogue leader. A Roman official. It didn’t hurt to have someone near the door who could be counted on to stand in between the church and someone on the outside.
On this day, the singing was particularly boisterous, so Obelius barely heard the knock at the door. He slipped away from the worship and stepped outside to see a young man several years younger than him. It took him a minute to recognize him without his garb, but Obelius recognized him as one of the Roman centurions on duty in his town. He was in street clothes, but that didn’t mean anything. The word was that in other towns, the Romans had sent spies to congregations to see what they were up to, and what they were teaching. Obelius immediately threw up walls of contempt and suspicion as soon as he recognized him. The Romans were hated by many of the people in his town, especially the Jesus-followers. They often roughed up the church leaders and placed heavier taxes on their businesses because they wouldn’t worship the Roman gods. It took everything that Obelius had to not react violently to this man as soon as he saw his face. Everything about him made Obelius sick.
But then this man opened his mouth. It wasn’t the gruff, authoritative voice of a Roman solider, but a simple question, “is this where the Christ-followers meet?” Obelius froze. How would he answer a question like that? How would you answer a question like that? At first he said nothing. Red flags were going off in Obelius’ mind. Why was he asking? What did he want? What would this man do? He looked at him for a long time and the longer he waited, the angrier he got. His very presence at the front door of the church turned his stomach. Everywhere else, he had to deal with the ubiquitous presence of the Romans. He had to allow their presence at his stall at the market. On the streets. When he went out with friends. But not here. Not if he didn’t have to. Not if it wasn’t at the tip of a spear. Obeilus didn’t say much, didn’t engage in a conversation. “No. They don’t meet here.” And he slammed the door behind him.
But as he returned to the worship, he was troubled. There was something about the young man’s face.
He tried to put it out of his mind as the singing and prayer ended and the scroll of the letter was brought out to be read. “Grace and peace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Obelius could feel the blessings wash over him like a refreshing shower on a hot day. As the letter continued, he was filled with a sense of worship, of hope, of love, of joy.
But then the elder took a deep breath and continued:
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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 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.
Obelius felt his face growing red as the elder read this part. Christ has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us. In a flash, he understood why he was having a hard time shaking the image of the young man at the door. He was the outsider. The one who was different. The one who Obelius mistrusted without even knowing him. Out of his fear and out of his prejudice, he had rejected that man without even getting to know him. Without even asking him a follow up question. As the words of the Apostle continued, Obelius thought in his mind of all the dividing walls that he had put up. Gender, as he thought of a woman in the church just that morning that he had treated with contempt. Race, as he pictured a man with dark skin from across the sea in Alexandria who he had watched with suspicion as he loitered near his place in the market. Ideology, as he remembered a heated disagreement about politics that he had had with another church member…now whenever he saw the man he felt a distrust. And now this young man at the door…simply because of his job. So many walls of hostility. Again and again and again, he had put up walls of hostility, of distrust. He paused to think, “what other walls of hostility have I put up in my own heart? Who else have I slammed the door on in my life?”
At once, he recognized the look on the young man’s face as he slammed the door on him. It was the same look on his own face several years prior. He had been invited by some church friends to go with them to Jerusalem to visit family. They had been born Hebrew, and while they were there, they went to the Temple to worship. As Obelius started to enter the Temple with them, an official grabbed him by the arm and asked if he was a Hebrew. Maybe the official was tipped off that he was Greek, or just had a hunch. And so when Obelius told him his name, he pointed his finger in his face, “you don’t belong in here. You’re a Gentile. You stay on this side of the wall.” At once, Obelius knew what the young solider at the door must have felt. You stay on this side of the wall, on that side of the door. You aren’t good enough, acceptable enough. You don’t belong here.
But the letter had pleaded for a new way in Christ. No longer were the dividing lines between “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” what mattered. No longer were the boundaries of race or gender or ideology or politics what mattered. Ironically, the congregation who had accepted him as a Gentile, Obelius now felt he had to enforce the walls of hostility to protect. All he could think about was the look on that man’s face. To be rejected by those who proclaimed the love and acceptance of Christ. To be shut out by those who had been so lavishly welcomed in. To be told, “you don’t belong here” by the ones who Christ had died for. Before long, the huge shoulders of Obelius were violently shaking up and down as he wept. The sobs were loud enough to stop the elder in the middle of the letter. Those who were nearby put their arms around him and held him, as he was convicted by the love of Christ. He wept for that young man. He wept for all of God’s children who had ever been told that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t belong.
As the sobs subsided, he elder continued to read:
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 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.
Before long, Obelius’s shoulders were shaking once again. But this time, it wasn’t with tears but with laughter. As convicted as he felt for the walls that he put up, he now was given a new hope. The image of all of God’s children – insiders and outsiders – joined now together without the walls the separate. The image of the foundation of the apostles and the preachers of the Church. The image of a high arch with Christ as the top-most cornerstone, welcoming all to enter in. The image of a new house, a new temple, a new dwelling place of God on earth. As he looked around at the house church around him, he saw that vision. He saw women and men, Jews and Gentiles, children and youth and adults, people of every ideology and political persuasion gathered together to sing and pray and preach and worship and be Church together. That’s what drew him to the church in the first place, and that must have been what drew that young man at the door. He could tell by the look on his face…he just wanted somewhere to belong. To be who he was without being told he was wrong or unwelcome or deficient. To hear the story of grace told by a people who tried their best to live it. Obelius’s shoulders shook with laughter as he took in the room around him and felt unadulterated joy.
Once again, every eye in the room looked at him, and the elder had to stop the reading. As everyone turned toward him, he suddenly stopped laughing. And to everyone’s shock, he jumped up and ran out of the house. He ran, laughing, through the streets. He knew where the centurions lived, so he knew which way to go. He ran up and down the streets, looking for the young man. Finally, he saw a glimpse of a huddled mass down an alley. He saw the face and knew at once it was him. His face was red and Obelius knew his tears. Tears of loneliness, of rejection, of abandonment. For the young man, the dark alley grew darker as huge being blocked the sunlight. He felt a massive hand on his shoulder, and as he looked up, there was the gentle giant, with an invitation. “It’s time to come home.” And together they walked through those streets, and together they walked into the church, to be welcomed by the people of redemption, the people of inclusion, the people who had been loved enough by Christ that they could knock down walls of hostility and open up doors of grace.