Two into one will go - Ephesians 2:11-22
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I am sure that you have heard some of those good news/ bad news jokes. Well, I came across such jokes specifically aimed at clergy. So here's the good news: 'Vicar, your congregation has trebled in the last three weeks.' The bad news: 'You were away on holiday at the time.' The Good news: 'Vicar, your fiercest critic has left the church.' The bad news: 'He has just been made your bishop.'
In some ways the passage that we are looking at together this morning, Ephesians 2 is a little like that but in reverse. In effect Paul is saying that unless we as Christians appreciate the bad news of what our condition was like when we were without Christ, we shall never fully appreciate the good news now that we are in Christ. In fact, Paul is seeking to provide the answer to his own prayer set out in chapter 1 and v 18: 'I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.' He wants us, to really grasp with our hearts and not just our heads, what a wonderful thing it is to be a Christian and to belong to God's people-the church. And that God's eye view of the church is something we desperately need if we are going to be both grateful and fruitful. Grateful in that once we see the church as it really is in God's sight we will give him our praise; fruitful in that once we realise what a privilege it is to belong to the church we shall give over more and more of our time and energy to promote its well being. This is the way the writer Charles Colson describes it: 'The church is no civic centre, no social club or encounter group, no Sunday morning meeting place. It is a new society, created for the salvation of a lost world, pointing to the kingdom to come.' And that is precisely what we see being portrayed here in such vivid imagery by the apostle Paul. If you think that being a Christian is simply making a decision for Jesus, or attending a place like this once a week, then be prepared to have your thinking totally re-shaped.
There are three things we need to do to enter fully into the joy of what it means to be part of God's family: remember the past, appreciate the peace and persevere with the process.
First of all, remember the past, vv 11-13. Martin Luther used to lay great stress on the Latin proverb, 'Nothing ages more quickly than gratitude.' And sadly that is often so isn't it? Even for Christians. A failure to remember the past with gratitude leads to pride and hard heartedness in the present. And Paul knows that, so he writes: 'Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)-- remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.' Now what Paul is saying here follows on from the previous verse, in which he tells us that we are 'God's workmanship.' He is about to unpack the nature of the product that God is making and it is literally out of this world. But first, we have to appreciate how, from a human point of view, things were dark and dire and nigh on impossible; that our position before God, to use the phrase of Humphrey Bogart from the film 'Casablanca', 'didn't amount to a hill of beans.'
We live in we deeply divided world. The world in Paul's day was deeply divided too. But the great fault line of humanity ran between those who belonged to God's people- Israel -and those who didn't-the Gentiles. That was the way the Jews saw things and with good reason. And here Paul takes up all the negatives of not belonging to God's people, what it meant to be left out in the spiritual cold. First, there was a sense of religious inferiority-v 11. The Jews were circumcised, which was a badge of distinctiveness, a sign of God's pledge to his people. And for some of them this meant they looked down on those who were uncircumcised. They felt they were 'in' and the others were 'out' and social and religious exclusion is one of the most painful things for anyone to bear. Secondly, these Gentiles were separated from 'Christ', that is the promised King who was to come from the Jews, the one who would eventually rule the world for God as God and so not to be rightly related to him spelt death for it meant you were in rebellion to your rightful King, so judgement and hell was inevitable. Thirdly, they were excluded from citizenship of Israel which meant being outsiders to all the benefits of God's loving rule amongst his people, such as knowing the One who gives direction to our lives by his laws and defends them by His Spirit. Fourthly, we were foreigners as far as the covenants of God were concerned says Paul. That is, all the promises that God made through people like Abraham, Moses and David. So it is like not sharing in someone's inheritance because you do not belong to the family, why should you be left anything? The result? People had no hope and no God-v12. Sure, people hoped in all sorts of things as they do today- a new change of government, a stroke of good luck- more of a 'hoping against hope'. They also had all sorts of belief in gods- many would have had little statues of them in their bedroom and would pray to them-it was very much a multifaith society as is ours. But such hope had no real foundation-it was mere wish making. And such worship was empty, directed towards a product of the imagination and not towards the one true God who had made himself known to the Jews. Whether they realised it or not, that was the position of every person who did not submit to the God of Israel- whether it was the most powerful King or the most poverty stricken pauper- shut out in the cold, lost in the dark, with precious little hope in the present and none whatsoever for the future. And tragically that is still the position of anyone who has not yet come to Christ-it is so bleak. And Paul is saying-'Remember that- that was you. And it would still be you but for Christ'-v 13 'But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.' Have you ever wondered why the most effective Christians have often been the most joyous Christians? It is because they are people overflowing with gratitude for they can never get over grace-what God has done for them. John Newton , one time slave trader and blasphemer had a deep sense of the 'what might have been' had the Lord Jesus not saved him, and so he went on to pour out his praise in the hymn Amazing Grace. And to be frank with you I simply shudder when I look at the direction my life was heading before I became a Christian- and I pray to God that I will never forget that.
And one way of ensuring that we don't forget is to appreciate the peace-vv 14-18. 'For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.' Now what is that all about?
Today we are very much aware of the various 'Peace Movements' usually having the desired aim to bring about the cessation of a conflict through non-violent means. In the 80's it was the women of Greenham Common, more recently it was the massive crowds protesting against the war in Iraq. Well, did you know that Christianity is the original peace movement and, may I add, the only truly effective peace movement ever to come into existence as we shall see? If you think there are barriers between people today, those are nothing compared to the barriers that existed in Paul's time- especially the great Jew-Gentile divide. In v 14 Paul talks about a dividing wall of hostility which was somehow linked to the Old Testament laws and regulations. And that pretty well sums up the problem. This is the way one Jewish writer, Aristeas, who lived around 100 years before Christ describes the situation: '[Moses] surrounded us with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soulworshipping the one Almighty Godtherefore so that we should be polluted by none nor be infected by perversions by associating with worthless persons, he has hedged us about on all sides with prescribed purifications in matters of food and drink and hearing and sight.' So there were all sorts of religious and social taboos which kept non-Jews at a distance-'far off'. But there were literal barriers too in the Temple of Jerusalem which non Gentile would cross on pain of death. The message everywhere was 'Keep Away'- a pretty depressing message if you wanted to come into contact with the one true God. And so not surprisingly there was hostility between the different groups. Would it not be a miracle if these two so totally distinct groups could be brought together? You bet it would.
But Paul has in mind a deeper enmity which underlies all of this, namely, the natural enmity between mankind and God. In part, the Old Testament law testified to this God is holy, his commands are good and true, but we break them at every turn and so draw God's anger towards us. And so there is a twofold problem we all face- first getting the relationship with God settled and secondly, getting relationships between ourselves sorted. It is because we can't do the first that we can't manage the second.
So if we can't manage it, who can? The answer- Christ v 16, who through his death on the cross to bear away our sin positively reconciles us to God and to each other on the one hand and negatively removes the hostility between God and us and between Jew and non- Jew on the other. And notice that this is the only way anyone can be put right with God. In v 14 Paul (the Jew) says to the Ephesian non- Jews, 'He-Jesus- is our peace.' The same point is made at the end of the section in v 18 'For through him we both have access to the Father by the One Spirit.' There are not two tracks to salvation, one for the Jew and one for the non- Jew, there is only one track open for everyone- trusting in Christ. There are no longer two races Jew and non- Jew, there is only one race, one 'new man'-v 15 what the second century world called the Third Race- Christians- who are brought together in one body-the church. And you can be quite sure that Jew and Gentile sitting down together, eating the same food, worshipping the same God through Jesus would have caused everyone to sit up and take notice. How could this be explained? The Emperor had been trying for decades to sort this out and failed. Well, only the real King could achieve this-the Lord Jesus.
I guess that the nearest we can get to having some sort of 'feel' for how miraculous all of this was is to think of South Africa and apartheid. Let me share with you what I saw when I was over in Cape Town which testifies to the life transforming power of the Gospel in the way Paul describes here. I was invited to preach at a little church in the black township of Lavender Hill. Despite its picturesque name this is one of the most socially desolate places I have ever seen in my life. To give you some idea of what it is like living here, one day the church found a decapitated body on its doorstep. The previous Vicar of the church held a confirmation class one year. Two teenage girls left the class and were sent upon to be raped in the street in broad daylight right in front of a watching crowd. Hearing the commotion the Vicar went out to try and stop it- he was threatened with being murdered if he persisted. That is Lavender Hill and that is where I was to preach. Now you may have expected, as I would, that the Vicar of that church would himself have been black or coloured. Not at all. Willhem is a white Afrikaans. He came to pick me up in a battered old a mini-bus- as he went around different parts of the township picking up some of the older women who couldn't make it by themselves. He said he was their taxi driver. His wife, another white Afrikaans turned up to church that morning with her hand bandaged. She had stopped at a traffic light and had her handbag on the passenger seat, and so a man smashed the window with a sparkplug to snatch it and in the tussle she was cut. But in she came, smiling away, thanking God that she had not been seriously hurt. Now what is so amazing about that? Well you will soon see what was amazing when I tell you that Willem was for years a leading member of the Afrikaans National Party- the architects of apartheid. He had held a top ranking job in the health service too. At one time Willem would not have shared a pavement with someone who was black or coloured, let alone a mini-bus. But then Willem responded to this message of the Gospel. His heart was put right with God and so he wanted to get right with his black brothers and sisters. And so he left his job. From his own pocket he trained for the ministry and from his own pocket he funds his ministry, as the people in the church are way too poor to pay him. And do you know what- Willem and his wife genuinely love those people, and they love them in return. Most folk would not dare go to that place if you paid them; Willem pays for himself to go. Now I defy you to point to any other movement on earth which can have an effect like that-changing not just the externals, but people's hearts. But the Gospel can and does. And to be honest with you, going to that church was one of the highlights of my ministry- to see God in action in that way. Christ through his people preaches peace, to those who are near and those who are far away and so bringing us into personal contact with God as Father. Now could I ask: Are you here this morning as a professing Christian and yet you still feel there are some people sitting in this building from whom you feel distant, even suspicious? If so then you are in serious danger of denying the Gospel you claim to believe in. Maybe now is the time to repent of those feelings and take some very practical steps to show that you really are on in Christ. That, as they say, is where the rubber hits the road.
And the fact that we all of such things to work on underscores for us Paul's next point-persevere in the process vv 19-22. Paul uses three pictures to the consequences of coming into a living relationship with God through faith in Christ which all has to do with bringing people together and become progressively more intimate.
First, there is the idea that we become part of a new nation-v19. Formerly we were aliens- wondering aimlessly through this world with no sense of lasting significance or purpose, as many people are doing as they flee wicked regimes and make their way across Europe. Spiritually that was us. Not any longer. We are God's people, the apple of his eye, lovingly ruled by a King who knows us and cares for us far more than we can ever imagine and has given to us his Royal Charter which is his Word, the Bible.
Secondly, we are now members of God's household, his extended family-v19. We now have a common Father- God, an elder brother, the Lord Jesus and a common Spirit who unites us in a way which is thicker than blood. So as you come here Sunday by Sunday you are not to see a group of churchgoers- which sounds terribly dull anyway- but brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. Sure, we come in all shapes and sizes but that variety makes it all the more wonderful and interesting. To be honest that is one of the things I most treasure about St Johns that we do have such a mix- that is what the Gospel does.
But thirdly, Paul changes the image one more time with the final twist of the kaleidoscope and he speaks of us being incorporated into a temple, built upon the foundation of the NT apostles and prophets with the Lord Jesus being the uniting feature, the cornerstone which holds everything in place and determines the shape of the whole building. Now, you might ask: how is this picture more intimate than that of a family? Well, in two ways. First, each stone is personally crafted to form a unique shape so as to fit perfectly with all the other stones which make up the building. This is not a Wimpy house with every brick the same as every other. This is a temple being constructed in heaven. And so don't ever feel inferior that you are not like another Christian who might be a bit more prominent or so called 'gifted'. You are exactly the person God has chosen you to be in order to occupy that unique place in his heavenly building project. Sure, he will chisel away, knocking off some of the rough edges, so we will eventually perfectly fit together. The building work is still in process so persevere, don't give up But secondly, in v 22 Paul speaks of us becoming a 'dwelling place for God in the Spirit.' Think of that for a moment. Just as your spirit is intimately related to your body so the two are inseparable, God is one day in all his glorious radiance and holy beauty going to inhabit his people in heaven as we form his temple. In some measure this is true now as the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives at conversion and works amongst us as a fellowship. But that is just the taster; the full banquet is yet to come.
So remember the past, what you were, appreciate the peace which cost the Son of God his life, and persevere in the process because the benefits are literally out of this world.
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