Ephesians 2:11-22 – A Single New Humanity (17/5/15)
We’ve only been here in Echuca for a bit over a month, but you might’ve heard me say that I already feel at home. But I know we’re a long way from being considered locals! Last week I was talking to someone that’s lived here for 13 years. She said when she first arrived she was told you have to live here for twenty years to earn the title of local. But now, as she draws closer to the mark people say that actually, you’ve got to be born here to really be a local! This division between a true local and just someone who’s lived here for a while, means there’s not much hope for Sarah and I, although one of our boys will get to earn that right!
There was a similar divide in Paul’s day. In the ancient world, you were either a Jew or a Gentile. This division wasn’t just about nationality, it was about identity, culture and religion. And it was a much deeper divide than the one between Echuca ‘locals’ and ‘visitors’. One writer has said that there was a view among the Jews that the, ‘Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made.’
It’s true that of all the people God chose Abraham and promised to make his offspring into a great nation. But while his intention was that his people would be distinct from all other peoples, they were also meant to be a light to the other nations, drawing in and welcoming all who desired to follow and be faithful to God. But the nation of Israel forgot their vocation and instead of welcoming others, they used the law to build a wall, a dividing wall of hostility, between themselves and the rest of the world. Nowhere was this more on display than at the temple in Jerusalem, as reconstructed by Herod the Great. The temple itself stood on an elevated platform. Around the temple was the Court of the Priests. Beyond that was the Court of Israel and beyond that the Court of the Women. All of these stood on the same level. Then there were five steps leading down to a walled platform. Beyond this were another fourteen steps surrounded by a great stone wall a metre and a half high. Beyond this was the Court of the Gentiles. That was as close as the Gentiles could get. They could look up and see the temple, but that was it. If that wasn’t enough, on the wall, at repeated intervals in Greek and Latin was written a message. It wasn’t ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’, but ‘Trespassers will be executed!’ Imagine if they put that on the signs coming into Echuca!
Now, if the world was divided into Jews and Gentiles, it’s important for us to remember that we’d be on the Gentile side of the wall. I’m pretty sure there’s no one here who was born a Jew. So we need to feel the full force of the exclusion that Paul talks about at the start of our passage:
“11So 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— 12remember 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.” We were not part of God’s chosen people. We had no share in his promises. In fact, we were ignorant of his promised redemption and so were without hope. We were without God, cut off from Christ. We were at a distance, far off, stuck on one side of the wall, with no hope of crossing over.
For thirty years the Berlin Wall had divided not just the city, but the nation of Germany, and you might say the world. And then, on the 9th of November 1989, the Berlin Wall finally fell and as people rushed from the East to the West, two people became one again. Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles. But the result isn’t that we can become Jews now. Paul didn’t have in mind different groups being brought together despite them continuing to be fundamentally different. Paul wasn’t promoting the lumping of apples together with pears; what he had in mind was something more like a nashi; neither apple nor pear, neither Jew nor Gentile but Christian. Elsewhere Paul says there’s no longer Jew nor Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, Greek or Barbarian, slave or free, male or female, but all are on in Christ Jesus who is all and in all! That’s not to say the distinctiveness between us is gone, I’m still a man and still a Gentile, but the division between us is no more because we’re made one, made new in Christ.
How did Christ manage to make a new people for himself like this? Paul says, ‘we who were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.’ He is our peace; it’s in his flesh that he’s made a new people. It’s through the Cross that Christ has ended the hostility between us, between us as people and between us and God.
Paul goes on to say that, Christ created a new people by abolishing the law. But you might say, ‘Hang on didn’t Jesus say he’d come to fulfill the law?’ Isn’t Paul contradicting Jesus here? Well, no I think they’re talking about two different aspects of the law. If you read through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms what we might call the moral aspect of the law. In fact he calls us to a deeper, more radical obedience. So the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ still stands, but it’s extended so that even murderous thoughts are included. Here in Ephesians, Paul’s been speaking of the divide between Jew and Gentiles as a result of the ceremonial aspect of the law, that part which was used to define who’s in and who’s out. And underneath that he says the salvific aspect of the law, the idea that obedience to the law brought salvation has been totally abolished in Christ. Which is a good thing because none of us, neither Jew nor Gentile, could ever earn salvation through obedience to the law. Christ has abolished that aspect of the law in his flesh, when he offered himself up as the one true sacrifice for sin and thus obtained an eternal deliverance for his one new people. We both now have access to the Father, through Christ in one Spirit. There’s no distinction between how we approach God, for it’s only one way, one truth, one life, Jesus Christ.
When you think about it this news that God is creating a single new humanity in Christ has radical implications for how we live our lives and how we think of ourselves as a church. When you think about it the basic stance of our world is one of individualism. We value independence and self-reliance, of the pursuit of our own goals and dreams. Even as Christians, we tend to think individually. At our best we gather together with others like ourselves, of similar race, background or bent. But, Christ is creating a single new humanity in Christ. That humanity is the church. Paul helps us think about what this looks like in the three images he uses for the church.
Firstly, he says we are no longer aliens or strangers, but now citizens of God’s kingdom. It’s not a kingdom like the United Kingdom, or any other geographical territory. God’s kingdom is God himself ruling his people and it knows no international or racial bounds. I had a friend once who had the privilege of meeting the Queen, along with some other Australian immigrants. The Queen asked where she was from. She said her true citizenship was heaven! We as the church are part of God’s people, living under God’s rule. That’s what we seek to be here at Christ Church, one people, living under God’s rule and authority.
We’re not only citizens, but also members of the household of God. We’re part of God’s family! We have access to the Father. We’ve been adopted into the family through the Son. And as one family, we’re meant to love one another as brothers and sisters. Brotherly love, sisterly love, should be a hallmark of the church, of Christ Church. What have the kids been learning about over the past few weeks? Jesus’ words in John 15 – love one another as I have loved you, for by this will all people know that you are my disciples. As I’ve talked to people this week, I’ve heard story after story of how May exhibited this kind of love.
Finally, we’re not just citizens, not just family members, but also a building. Next weekend people are coming to look at the building and admire the handiwork of Vahland, the architect who designed it. But really, if they wanted to see the building, they should come here at 10am! Why? Because the church building is not bricks and mortar, but people! God’s dwelling place is no longer in the temple, it’s here within us. Not as individuals, but collectively as we together are the church. Like any building we’ve got a foundation, which Paul says is the teaching of apostles and prophets. We stand or fall as a church on our dependence on the foundational truths in the New Testament. And in this living temple, the cornerstone is Christ himself. He’s the measure of what is true, straight and level. As we’re built together into a spiritual temple, we’re built around Christ. And it’s only in Christ that we become a suitable dwelling place for God himself.
God has created a single new humanity. Through Christ he has broken down the hostility between people. Through Christ he has broken down the wall between us and God. Through Christ he is making us into a new humanity. As the church, as Christ Church, we are the place where God rules, where God loves, where God lives. Amen.