Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2015
Ephesians 2:11-22 Commentary
Comments and Observations
If ever there were a text that resonates with life today, it is this ancient word. In this text Paul answers the burning question at the heart of the immigration debate in America. What is the right path to full citizenship? Of course, Paul is not talking about full citizenship in a country; he is focused on full citizenship in the church of Christ, that Body that spans all countries. This is Paul’s fully formed, most mature answer to the long raging debate about the place of Gentiles in the originally Jewish church. He answers the question, what must Gentiles do to be fully saved?
That issue had been settled long before by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which laid only the barest essentials of Jewish law upon Gentile converts to Christianity. But as evidenced by the letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians and the Romans, the issue remained a hot button topic nearly everywhere Jews and Gentiles belonged to the same church. This ancient text provides a desperately needed Gospel for a radically divided world. However, just because it resonates so strongly with our contemporary world, we’ll need to be very careful how we preach it. Though this text does have strong ramifications for the way Christians deal with the political issues that divide our world, it is not first of all about politics. It is first and foremost about how Christians relate to each other within the church.
This pericope is clearly divided into three parts. In verses 11-13 Paul reminds his Gentile Christian readers of their condition before Jesus changed everything. Paul’s description of their previous situation will not surprise us; indeed, it will sound like a depressingly familiar echo of our news broadcasts. Verses 14-18 announces the Good News of the surprising way Jesus changed everything, a way our secular peers and even some of our Christian friends will find shocking. Verses 19-22 focus on the results of what Jesus did. Paul describes a new world so counter-cultural that we will struggle to preach about it.
Never one to beat around the bush, Paul addresses his readers as “you who are Gentiles by birth.” And he quickly identifies the main issue between Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was circumcision, the visible rite that signified one’s full inclusion in Israel. Thus, these Gentiles were called “uncircumcision” by those who call themselves “the circumcision.” To many Jewish Christians it didn’t matter that these Gentiles had been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (as Paul has so eloquently said in 2:1-10). The only thing that mattered was that these Gentile believers in Christ had not been circumcised. The Gentiles had not kept the law that God had laid down for his covenant people. Therefore, in spite of their faith, they were regarded as outsiders. Although they had been individually saved by Christ, the body of Christ remained divided.
Paul uses a variety of powerful phrases to describe the outsider status of these Gentiles before they came to Christ. They had been “separate from Christ,” even though they had been elected in him before the foundation of the world (1:4). They had no living relationship with Christ, even though they had been predestined to become sons and daughters of God. As Gentiles, they had been “excluded from citizenship in Israel.” Whatever nation they belonged to, they were not citizens of the one nation that God had chosen. Being outside Israel, they were “foreigners to the covenants of promise.” And because they didn’t know or believe God’s promises, they were “without hope.” Even worse, they were “without God in the world.” Yes, God had set his eye and his heart upon them, but they didn’t know that. As a result, they lived without the knowledge of the true God, without peace with God, without the salvation of God. In a world filled with outsiders, these Gentiles were the ultimate outsiders—separate, excluded, foreigners, hopeless, Godless sinners.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Here’s the sentence that summarizes the shocking thing God has done to utterly change the former condition of these Gentile Christians. There are three things here that will shock and/or thrill our divided world. First, Paul insists that it is only “in Christ Jesus” that divisions can be healed. As we proceed through the second section of this passage, we’ll see again that the only hope for peace in the church and in the world is Christ Jesus, who is “himself our peace.” Second, what does Paul mean by “brought near?” Does he mean “to God?” Well, yes, but that’s not his main message. And, third, note how we have been brought near. It was “through his blood.” It took violence to stop the war, bridge the gap between outsider and insider, and bring peace. This counter-intuitive message is the heart of the Gospel.
In an ultra-violent world, that’s not a message most sensitive peace-loving Christians want to hear. It only reinforces the stereotypical images non-believers have of believers. We’re a bunch of chest thumping, meat eating, warmongering right wingers who worship a fire-breathing genocidal God. Many contemporary Christians would prefer a Christ who was more like Martin Luther King, a preacher of non-violence who was himself a victim of violence. Paul does talk about Christ’s preaching. Indeed, that’s the conclusion of his description of the peacemaking work of Christ. “He came and preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near.” (verse 17)
But it wasn’t Christ’s preaching that actually made peace between Gentile and Jew. It was not his words, but “he himself….” “He himself is our peace.” What does that mean? It has to do with “his blood.” Note the forceful language describing how Christ “made the two one.” He “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….” How did he do that? He did it “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” In his flesh, in his body, Christ kept the whole law for us all and was punished as though he had broken it the same way we do. Thus, the law that divided us from each other has been abolished by Christ’s death. He took away the main thing that made these Gentiles such outsiders, and that made both Gentile and Jew enemies of God. It was Christ’s death on the cross that made the two one and gave us both “access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Paul surely cannot mean that the law of God is no longer in effect. Paul specifically says the very opposite in Romans 3:31. He was simply echoing Jesus who said in no uncertain terms. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” What does Paul mean then? He is referring to the law as represented by circumcision, the law as a requirement for membership in the church, the law as a condition of salvation. Though the moral law is still in force, it is not the thing that saves us. Only Jesus can do that. And only faith will join us to Jesus, and to each other.
That last phrase is Paul’s major point here. In verses 1-10 he talks about our salvation as individuals, though he uses the plural “you.” Now in verses 11-22 he turns to the corporate effect of that individual salvation. Jesus didn’t die only to save us individually from our sins and get us individually to heaven. He also died (can we say he died primarily?) to undo all the divisive effects of the Fall. “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two,” that is, one new humanity out of the deeply divided human race. Christ’s death was not just about forgiveness; it was about the re-creation of the whole human race.
But Jesus wasn’t only interested in re-uniting a divided humanity. Often times today we talk as though the ministry of reconciliation is purely horizontal. But Christ’s ultimate goal was to reconcile the world to God; “and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death the hostility.” Paul concludes this part of his argument, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” No longer is access to God restricted by rules and regulations. We all have free access “through Christ… by one Spirit.” I love Calvin’s explanation of those prepositional phrases in verse 18. “Christ is the gate by whom we come to the Father, the Holy Spirit is our guide by whom we come to him.”
Lest we miss the fullness of salvation in Christ, Paul spells out the radical impact of Christ’s death. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people (the Jews) and members of God’s household….” This sentence would have been almost incomprehensible to the Jewish leaders of Paul’s day; it was hard enough for the Judaizers in the church to swallow. The situation that prevailed before Christ’s death has now been completely reversed. There are no outsiders in the church, no second class citizens, no tourists who just visit for a while but don’t really belong, no resident aliens. Everyone who believes in Jesus is not only a full citizen, but even a dearly beloved member of God’s family.
The only thing that counts is that we believe the teachings of the apostles/prophets, because that is the foundation of the church (cf. Matthew 16:18). What unites us is not race or ritual or observance of rules; it is Christ and Christ alone. He is the cornerstone. Some scholars express surprise that Jesus isn’t the foundation; after all, “the church is built on nothing than Jesus blood and righteousness,” as the old hymn put it. But Paul knew what he was saying. The cornerstone is the first stone laid in constructing a building. Thus, it is part of the foundation. But even more, it is the stone that joins the two walls and sets the direction for the rest of the building. It is in Christ that the two opposing parties become part of the one building.
Now it is the church’s task and privilege to grow until it stands in the world as the temple stood in ancient Jerusalem. It was the place where God dwelled in a special way, the place that witnessed to the nations that there is a God in Israel, the one true God who is the hope of the world. So today it is our calling as a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural body to show the world that there can be peace among radically different kinds of people. Thus, the church shows the world where we can find God. Jesus died so that people could find God and hope and peace in a church that knows no outsiders. Outsiders are now the very temple of the living God.
If we preach this text faithfully, our people will be challenged mightily. Some will immediately see implications for the immigration debate in the United States or for the gay rights issue or for the sectarian wars in the Middle East. It is legitimate to consider those implications, but we must be very clear that Paul’s words here do not tell us how to solve the immigration debate or any of those other political issues. Paul is talking about the church, not the state. All we can say for sure about those political issues is that Paul reminds us of the priority of faith in Christ.
As we engage in political issues or the culture wars, we must remember that worldly distinctions, even distinctions created by God himself (circumcision, for example) are not as important as unity in Christ. The grace of God in Christ destroys and abolishes the divisions and hostilities of humanity in order to build a new humanity that becomes God’s house in the world. Don’t use these words of Paul to argue for one or another side in a political argument. Use them as Paul intended—to call God’s people to a unity that will show a warring world that Christ himself and Christ alone is the only hope for peace with each other and with God.
Many theologically conservative churches are filled with so many Republicans that Democrats feel like outsiders in their own churches. The opposite is true with many theologically liberal churches. Democrats are so dominant that Republicans feel like strangers in a foreign land. Both sides in this culture-wide divide must remember that our allegiance to Christ is much more important than all other allegiances, even if we’re convinced that our side is Christ’s side. There were no Republicans or Democrats when Christ died, just Gentiles and Jews. And Paul insists that Jesus died to make those two into one new human race for the sake of God’s world-wide plan to bring Shalom.
To stimulate our congregants’ thinking about God making peace through the blood of Christ, you could refer to the blockbuster movie, American Sniper, which is based on the book by sniper Chris Kyle. After his multiple tours of duty in Iraq, during which he killed over 160 enemy soldiers, he formed a security company with this slogan. “Despite what your mama told you, violence does solve problems.” This will be a big issue if you preach this text, so Kyle’s words may give you a way to confront the issue of violence and peace head on. Maybe too head on.
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