July 22, 2017 by jmar198013
This week begins a new, short sermon series: Sitcom Theology: Watching the Classics with Ephesians.
Text is Ephesians 2.11-22.
Jesus told parables to illuminate the Gospel. Stories drawn from familiar elements of his hearers’ everyday lives. He took up common, everyday stuff and made God’s plan stunningly clear in high definition. If you read Paul’s letters, or listen to his Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17, you’ll find him doing something similar. But instead of using material a Jewish peasant in Galilee could relate to, Paul quoted the pagan playwrights, prophets, and poets for his Greek-speaking audiences.
In this series, I’m following Jesus’ lead and Paul’s—after all, Paul said: Follow my example, just like I follow Christ’s (1 Cor. 11.1). Only instead of homespun stories or classic Greek literature, I’m using vintage sitcoms. In this series, Sitcom Theology, we’ll be reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians through the lenses of classic television. Even one of his fellow apostles complained that some of [Paul’s] remarks are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3.16). This is true of Ephesians. It’s sometimes hard to get. For instance, Eph. 1.3-14 was originally one long sentence. It’s probably the longest sentence in Greek literature. But even though Ephesians can be hard to understand, it’s one of the treasures of the Bible, showing us how God is not only reconciling all people to himself through Jesus; but how God wants to reconcile all peoples to each other. Ephesians is a hard letter, but the old sitcoms were simple. They can help us see what Paul was seeing.
Also, I love old television shows.
Diff’rent Strokes ran from 1978 until 1986. The premise of the show was a wealthy white Manhattan businessman, Philip Drummond, took in two orphaned African American youths from Harlem—Arnold and Willis Jackson. Their mother had been the Drummond housekeeper before she died. Mr. Drummond was a widower, and his household also included his teenage daughter, Kimberly; and his new housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett. Arnold and Willis sometimes experience culture shock in their new family and surroundings. But the Drummond household also has to learn to adjust to Arnold and Willis, who bring different perspectives and life experiences and baggage into the family.
Something that’s missing from television today is great theme songs. Nowadays you’re lucky to get a 30-second instrumental track as opening credits roll. In the 70s and 80s, you could watch the show opener and listen to the theme song and pretty much know what the show was going to be about. Here’s the opening theme to Diff’rent Strokes.
So the main idea of the show is it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world. In other words, if we’re all the same—think the same way, experience the world the same, all have the same perspectives—we get into a rut and everything stands still. Everybody’s got a special kind of story—we all bring something valuable to the table that can help others. Everybody finds a way to shine. We need to make room for people to just be who they are—who God made us to be.
So what Diff’rent Strokes was actually trying to teach the audience is how to acknowledge, accept, and even embrace the differences between us. That’s not ever easy. It wasn’t easy for Arnold and Willis, who’d lost their parents and had to come live with a strange family in a new environment. Many early episodes saw them tempted to give up on their new family and find a way to go back to Harlem. Eventually, they grow to love their new family and live with their feet planted in two worlds—one in wealthy Manhattan, the other in working class Harlem. But it also wasn’t easy for the Drummonds, learning to live with two boys who are from a very different social world. In early episodes, Mr. Drummond has to confront the prejudices he’d never noticed in his own circle. Once he had to put his own mother in her place after she lit into him for adopting black boys. On another episode, he tries to send Arnold and Willis to an elite prep school he attended, only to learn the headmaster rigged the entrance exams against them. For example, one of the questions on the exam was, How many people can you fit in a 3-bedroom apartment? Arnold answered 18, counting the people you could cram on the floor, the couch, and one person sleeping in the bathtub. That was simply a reality of life where they came from.
Add to the culture shock of coming into a new family and environment the regular growing pains of life. Like the time Arnold wanted to know where babies come from. Not wanting to expose his little brother to The Talk at a young age, Willis explained to him how salmon swim upstream to spawn. So Arnold got to thinking women got pregnant from eating salmon. That night Mrs. Garrett fed the family salmon patties for dinner, and Arnold became convinced that his new sister Kimberly was going to have a baby. Even when your world’s being turned upside-down, the normal, day-to-day stuff continues as well.
What if I told you Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is really about the same issues? Through Jesus God had formed a new, blended family made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Everyone brought different experiences, perspectives, and baggage to the table. And they needed to learn to be a family. To accept each others’ differences. To listen to each others’ stories. Paul wants them all to know what the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes teaches us: Together we’ll be fine, ‘cause it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world.
A new family where barriers are torn down
Diff’rent Strokes was all about children being adopted and struggling to fit into their new family. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians deals with the same kinds of issues. In Eph. 1.4, Paul said: God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. Through Jesus, God had adopted the Gentiles—the non-Jewish people—into his people—the Jews—to create a new, blended family. The Jews and Gentiles sometimes struggled with how they all fit into this family; how to get along; and how to understand each other better.
On Diff’rent Strokes, Arnold and Willis were orphans. If Mr. Drummond hadn’t adopted them into his family, they might have gotten lost in the system. Or to the streets. That’s kind of how Paul described the situation of the Gentiles before God brought them into his people through Christ. You were aliens … and strangers, he said. In this world you had no hope and no God. They were spiritual orphans, lost in the world, until God adopted them into his own household.
Here’s another fun tidbit. It only takes about 45 minutes to walk from Harlem—where Arnold and Willis were from—to Manhattan, where Mr. Drummond lived. It’s less than 20 minutes if you drive. But in terms of opportunity and quality of life, working class Harlem was far removed from Mr. Drummond’s posh Manhattan penthouse. In the same way, Jews and Gentiles lived and worked and traveled beside each other every day in the Roman Empire of the first century. But the way they lived, their habits and customs, how they saw the world, their relationship with God—those were worlds apart. Paul told the Gentiles in the church: you who once were so far away have been brought near. Because God had made room for them in his family through Jesus, they were brought into a whole new world. With God as their Father, and a church full of brothers and sisters. Although Jews and Gentiles often shared the same public space in the Roman world, and may have occasionally mingled in the marketplace, they lived in two different universes. They were far away from each other, spiritually, emotionally, and socially. But through Christ, God had brought them near to each other by bringing them together as one family.
With any adoption, there’s a need to adapt to the new situation. For both those who’ve been adopted, and the family they’re brought into. Willis and Arnold had to adjust to life in a wealthy white community. But the Drummond family also had to make adjustments and allowances for them. In one early episode of Diff’rent Strokes, an apartment in the Drummonds’ building is burglarized, and Willis and Arnold are suspected just because they’re poor black kids. Mr. Drummond learns how subtle racism can be, and how to stand up for his new sons against his prejudiced neighbors. They’re his family now, and he’s responsible for them—that includes taking a stand to make sure they’re treated fairly by others. In Ephesians, Paul also senses ongoing racial, ethnic, and cultural tensions between Jews and Gentiles in the church. And he stands up for God’s new Gentile children. He tells them, where the Jewish brothers and sisters can also hear him: you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household.
Diff’rent Strokes was a feel-good family sitcom, but it was also about breaking down barriers between people. And that’s what Paul was all about in Ephesians. He said Jesus broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. Not long before Diff’rent Strokes came out there were legal and even physical barriers keeping you out of certain parts of town, not allowing people access to voting rights or restaurants. And in Paul’s day, there was a literal wall around the Jewish temple that warned any Gentile who crossed it they would be killed. The temple was how you got access to God. Paul says Jesus tore down that wall, and God’s temple now is a people, not a place. Paul says God’s new blended household is being built into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. And that Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit. The church is God’s new temple, where the walls the separate people—race and gender and culture and ideas and language and social and economic privilege—are being torn down. Oh sisters and brothers, let us be that temple!
Jesus breaks down so God can build up
Ultimately, Paul’s idea in Ephesians 2.11-22 is that Jesus broke down the barriers between people, so that we could be joined together again. So God can build us up into a colorful and inviting temple that reflects God’s glory. There are several ways Diff’rent Strokes can help us see what Paul was talking about.
Diff’rent Strokes came out during a time when seeing African American children living with a white family was still pretty shocking to some. It hadn’t been all that long ago that Jim Crow laws in the South literally separated whites and blacks in schools, restaurants, and water fountains. Discriminatory housing and financial practices like redlining—refusing to loan money or rent to people of color—continued even in supposedly more progressive regions of the country. There were detailed rules of the Law that divided whites and blacks, and fueled hatred, hurt, and resentment. That’s what Paul was dealing with in his ministry, too. The Jewish Law, the Torah, had set up a dividing wall, a barrier of hostility that divided Jews and Gentiles. But Paul said the church was not a place for such division. Christ is our peace … With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. We see now that our world, our nation, our communities are still deeply divided in many ways. Along racial and political and ideological lines. There’s absolutely no place for that in the church. We shouldn’t be taking sides and deepening the divisions, fueling the hostility, or adding to the hurt. Since we are the body of Christ, the church is the place where the barriers that divide our neighbors in the world are torn down. Sisters and brothers, let us pray to God would show us all the ways we need to adapt to welcome new people into this family. Let’s be willing to learn and stretch and grow.
Whenever there’s conflict or difference of opinion or perspective, you might hear someone say: Let’s just put our differences aside and work together. That’s not what Paul teaches in Ephesians, or anywhere. Paul would say, Let’s put our differences together, and make it work. On Diff’rent Strokes, Willis and Arnold didn’t become affluent white kids when they moved in with the Drummonds. The Drummonds and the Jacksons didn’t put their differences aside—they put their differences together and became a new sort of family. And it changed all of them. This wealthy white family and these working class black children related to each other in ways they never could have if they didn’t live together. No one lost anything; they all gained. They learned from each others’ perspectives. They stretched themselves to adapt to one another’s needs and desires. They bonded. And they all grew. That’s what Paul had in mind for the Jews and Gentiles in the churches he ministered with. He didn’t want them to stop being Jews and Gentiles altogether. He wanted them to learn from each other, to bond, to grow, and form a new kind of people in the world. By bonding the Jews and Gentiles together as a family through their adoption in Christ, Paul said God was creating one new person out of the two groups. In the world, differences are often a source of division, anger, and hatred. But in the church, our strength is in our differences. Like the theme song said: And together we’ll be fine, ‘cause it takes different strokes to move the world.
What happens when the barriers are torn down, and we put our differences together? Paul says we’re joined together in Christ, and we grow up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Heaven meets earth in us, in our community. We become a reconciled, beloved, and loving people. 1 Pet. 2.5 puts it like this: You … are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. The living stones that build up God’s temple are every size and shape and hue of humanity. A rich mosaic of vibrant, brilliant color. People of every tribe and tongue. Rich and poor and middle class. Millennial, Gen X, Baby Boomer. People from every walk of life. Again, the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes said: Everybody’s got a special kind of story, everybody finds a way to shine. We shine brighter, and our stories take on deeper and richer meanings when God fits us together in the temple he’s building. We need to just accept that God wants the temple he’s building to be full of color and depth and character. If you’re a strange stone, you don’t think you fit in, God wants you anyway. He doesn’t want us all to look the same, think the same, or even agree about everything. The more differences among the church, the more vibrant and beautiful and appealing we’re going to be to the world.
Diff’rent Strokes was a show about how barriers were torn down to create a new, beautiful family. It wanted to teach us that the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum … it takes different strokes to move the world. Paul wanted the Jews and Gentiles in the church to understand that. And God wants us in the church today, with all our differences, to understand that, too.