Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve found these beginning weeks in Ephesians quite overwhelming. I feel a bit like Aladdin when he finds himself in the cave of wonders – overwhelmed by the treasure that surrounds him. He has to make himself focus on the one piece of treasure he has come for – the lamp. In preparing each week it’s been a challenge to think about what the equivalent of the lamp is today. What is the message God has for us through this passage? While the previous 3 passages have had universal themes that are readily applicable to us today – the theme of God’s grace, bringing us from death to life, the wonderful advice and insight into how to pray for each other – asking God for a deeper revelation of who he is and his loving purposes for us – and let’s face it, we could all do with that, and a reminder of the blessings God has poured into our lives – this week needs a bit more explaining, a bit more work for us to relate Paul’s teaching to us today – but we’ll have a go!
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the church in Ephesus was a church that was doing well. Well, the good news for us who feel overawed by this community whose exploits of love and faith travelled hundreds of miles to reach Paul in prison in Rome, is that this church had its issues too. For them the issue was division between Jew and Gentile. This was possibly the main issue facing the early church – and it was such a huge issue that it threatened to split the church. Briefly for those who could do with a reminder, Christianity begins in essence as a Jewish sect. Jesus is a faithful Jew, as are his disciples. Jesus understands himself and his disciples believe too that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies that God would send an anointed one, a Messiah, to rescue his people. Moreover, Jesus is, as he said himself, sent to fulfil the law and the prophets.
After his death and resurrection this understanding continues. The fledgling Christian community meets to worship in the temple courts – they see no reason to do otherwise. After all, their belief is that the Jewish God – Yahweh – has revealed himself uniquely through Jesus – and that Jesus’s resurrection is the fulfilment of God’s promises in Scripture. Even at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit falls, it does so on Jews who lived in communities around the Mediterranean and who had gathered in Jerusalem at festival time. Although we see Pentecost as a Christian festival, it was a Jewish festival, also known as Shavuot, (“Festival of the Weeks”), second of the three Pilgrim Festivals of the Jewish religious calendar. It was originally an agricultural festival, marking the beginning of the wheat harvest. The church exploded that day, but still within the racial and religious boundaries of the Jewish faith.
Continue to read through Acts and the church grows, yes, but in Jewish communities. This all changes in Acts 10 when we encounter Cornelius, a soldier and a God-fearing Gentile, who is led to ask to meet with Peter. We may not think this is a big deal, but we need to get ourselves into the mindset of first century Judaism. To receive hospitality from Gentiles is a big no-no for Jewish people. There’s a huge rift between Jew and Gentile, as William Barclay writes, “The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, 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 was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute.”
So, it would require an act of God for Peter to accept Cornelius’s invitation. Indeed, this is what happens. Peter has an extraordinary vision and a very clear command – “‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). So, when Peter received the invitation, he realises it’s from God, he accepts, and is astonished when he hears Cornelius’s account of how God reached out to him. Bemused, he says, Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). This statement is confirmed when the Holy Spirit falls on all “who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-45). Cornelius and his household are baprised and thety take tgeir place as full members of the family of God.
That day is when the world changes forever. Of course, it takes time for people to catch up with the move of God. Peter returns to Jerusalem and is criticised by the other leaders of the church for his actions – he “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” – but he defends himself, arguing he was simply obeying God and, after all, the Holy Spirit fell on the gathering so God must approve. The church has a council so they can weigh this up properly and they agree this is indeed God-inspired, and from that moment the lid comes off and we read in the rest of Acts of new Christian communities being planted all over the known world. St. Paul spends a significant chunk of time in Antioch before embarking upon his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, and in every place he visits he has the same practice of joining in with the Jewish communities and reasoning with them and then, generally after having been thrown out of the synagogues, he goes to the market place to share faith with Gentiles. And so, this way, communities of faith spring up with both Jews and Gentiles. That’s exactly how it should be; but old habits die hard and old attitudes die harder, which means these divisions persist and Gentiles find themselves being treated as second-class citizens.
You can see this has clearly happened in Ephesus. So Paul needs to remind Jews and Gentiles alike that disunity has no place in God’s church.
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
He’s addressing the Gentile believers and saying, “You may be made to feel like you’re 2nd class citizens, because you’re the “uncircumcised”, and you were once – you were separated from God in two ways – you were excluded from being part of God’s people, and, this is more important, separated from God due to the sinfulness that we all share in which has opened up a chasm between us and God – and that’s all of us, Jew and Gentile. A huge barrier – “the dividing wall of hostility” – had been opened up between you and God. Incidentally, Paul is almost certainly referring here to the wall that stood in the temple grounds between the outer court, the court of the Gentiles and the inner courts. As John Stott says,
“From any part of it the Gentiles could look up and view the temple, but were not allowed to approach it. They were cut off from it by the surrounding wall, which was a one-and-a-half metre stone barricade, on which were displayed at intervals warning notices in Greek and Latin. They read, in effect, not ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ but ‘Trespassers will be executed. … This, then, is the historical, social and religious background to Ephesians 2. Although all human beings are alienated from God because of sin, the Gentiles were also alienated from the people of God. And worse even than this double alienation (of which the temple wall was a symbol) was the active ‘enmity’ or ‘hostility’ (echthra) into which it continuously erupted—enmity between man and God, and enmity between Gentiles and Jews. The grand theme of Ephesians 2 is that Jesus Christ has destroyed both enmities.”
So, Gentiles found themselves in a position of being alienated from God and recipioents of hostility, with a massive barrier between themselves and God and God’s people, but Jesus came to smash it down, to break down dividing walls (v.14) and, where there have been two types of people, two societies that have viewed each other with suspicion and hate, Jesus instead has come to bring peace and reconciliation and to form one people – in verse 15-16, we read, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (vv15-16)
So much for Jews and Gentiles. What about us? How is this relevant to our congregation in Coventry over 2,000 years later?
Firstly, it’s worth recalling that before we come to Christ and experience a relationship with him, we’re in the exact same position as the Gentiles in this passage – we are cut off from
God and his chosen people. We are outsiders, we are without hope and, in the stark language of earlier in this chapter, dead in our sins. But Jesus changed all that … he brought us close to him. He won forgiveness for us, and helped us to become friends with God. So, let’s not forget where we were –
As John Stott says,
“This is what we were before God’s love reached down and found us. For only if we remember our former alienation (distasteful as some of it may be to us), shall we be able to remember the greatness of the grace which forgave and is transforming us.”
So, the first response is gratitude. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus didn’t die for us to give us a warm fuzzy feeling. No, he died to bring us reconciliation between us and God, but also to create a brand new society that lives out reconciliation and is defined by unity – and, as John Stott points out, we desperately need this in our world …
“In today’s world without Christ, Men still build walls of partition and division like the terrible Berlin wall, or erect invisible curtains of iron or bamboo, or construct barriers of race, colour, caste, tribe or class. Divisiveness is a constant characteristic of every community without Christ. … ”
He’s right, isn’t he? We’ve been a society defined by division over the past few years, particularly regarding Brexit, but other issues threaten to divide us – immigration, covid restrictions, and the murder of George Floyd forced us to confront the racism that is still part of our society. Wherever there is difference, it seems there is division. But this isn’t how Christians should be. Jesus went to extraordinary lengths to put division to death. As Christians we are called to do likewise.
Where is there division in Allesley Park and Whoberley? How can we, as a church speak prophetically into this? Where is there division in our church? Are there people who, like the Gentiles, feel like second class citizens? Let’s confront it, repent of it and root it out. Yes, to do so would be costly, but it cost Jesus his life on the cross – and look what he won for us – so I believe it’s a price worth paying. And, I’d rather confront my personal and corporate sin at the risk of becoming uncomfortable then pretend it doesn’t exist … division has no place in God’s church.
In this passage of Ephesians, Paul paints a wonderful picture of a new society defined by unity, peace, and reconciliation with the church at the forefront of this reality. However, as John Stott points out, there is a gap between the vision and the reality in which we live. …
“When we turn from the ideal portrayed in Scripture to the concrete realities experienced in the church today, it is a very different and a very tragic story. For even in the church there is often alienation, disunity and discord. And Christians erect new barriers in place of the old which Christ has demolished, … racism, nationalism or tribalism, now personal animosities engendered by pride, prejudice, jealousy and the unforgiving spirit, … and so on.
These things are doubly offensive. First, they are an offence to Jesus Christ. How dare we build walls of partition in the one and only human community in which he has destroyed them? Of course there are barriers of language and culture in the world outside, and of course new converts feel more comfortable among their own kind, who speak and dress and eat and drink and behave in the same way that they do and have always done. But deliberately to perpetuate these barriers in the church, and even to tolerate them without taking any active steps to overcome them in order to demonstrate the trans-cultural unity of God’s new society, is to set ourselves against the reconciling work of Christ and even to try to undo it.
What is offensive to Christ is offensive also, though in a different way, to the world. It hinders the world from believing in Jesus. God intends his people to be a visual model of the gospel, to demonstrate before people’s eyes the good news of reconciliation. … It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a single new humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship. …
We need to get the failures of the church on our conscience, to feel the offence to Christ and the world which these failures are, to weep over the credibility gap between the church’s talk and the church’s walk, to repent of our readiness to excuse and even condone our failures, and to determine to do something about it. I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the honour of Christ and for the spread of the gospel, than that the church should be, and should be seen to be, what by God’s purpose and Christ’s achievement it already is—a single new humanity, a model of human community, a family of reconciled brothers and sisters who love their Father and love each other, the evident dwelling place of God by his Spirit. Only then will the world believe in Christ as Peacemaker. Only then will God receive the glory due to his name.”