Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 22, 2018
Ephesians 2:11-22 Commentary
When a text begins with a “Therefore” or a phrase like “After these things . . .”, you as a reader know you have to back up and read what came just before. Sometimes we don’t do that, of course. We have come to view the Bible as so many chopped-up chapters and verses—with convenient sub-headings thrown in by Bible translators and editors—and so we figure we can dive in most anywhere there is a sub-heading and just hit the ground running with nary a backward glance at what came before. The Bible is a Whitman’s Sampler of passages that stand alone just fine on their own.
Not true. “Therefore” Ephesians 2:11 begins. OK, so what follows is the logical conclusion of what Paul had written before. And what is that? That we are saved by grace alone. That we were all once “dead” as doornails in our sins and trespasses but we have been made alive through an out-of-the-blue and completely undeserved fell swoop of divine grace. The Son of God died to make this happen. This is no cheap gift, no inexpensive grace, nothing to sniff or to sneeze at. This is deadly serious, life and death in the ultimate sense of both words. You were dead but now you are alive. It’s all grace so forget about merit or earnings or status or your own moral scorecard and history of achievement. You have been made all new by God’s stunning grace and, as Ephesians 2:10 reminded us, that ought not lead to some quiet life of doing nothing but rather a life of producing the fruit of good works that will be the natural overflow of that tidal wave of grace that saturated your life.
“Therefore . . .” Paul begins in verse 11. And what follows is most remarkable, though all these centuries later we can scarcely imagine how radical Paul’s words here really are. Because especially for the Jews, there was no more wide and deep a chasm in life than the one that separated them spiritually from all other people. They had been elected out of the nations for God’s glory and the difference between them and anyone else you could name could not have been more significant. No mere human being could ever bridge that divide. This was a spiritual Grand Canyon and one did not merely leap across it just by getting a good running start.
True, there were things that could happen to bring an outsider in but it was complicated. A minor surgery (literally) was involved for the men folk. A whole lot of education in a very complex set of Laws was involved for everyone. And then a hyper strict adherence to those Laws was expected. But in truth . . . even when that was all said and done, the outsider remained second class to a degree. Sure, they could be tolerated on the inside of God’s chosen people if they toed the line and all, ate what they were told to eat, did not violate the Sabbath, and so on. But whereas the Jews could trace their relationship back to God with a thick line drawn by a Sharpie, these other folks had a kind of dotted line connecting them to God—not so thick a line, maybe not a permanent line, and for sure not as good a line.
But no more, Paul says. Now everyone’s line of connection to God is as thick and rock solid and permanent as can be. And guess what? Everyone’s line is drawn by the same Sharpie for the same reason and it is all about Jesus and zero about lineage, heritage, ethnicity, obedience, or anything else (and above all it sure did not involve that whole circumcision thing). “Therefore” from now on all comparisons are out of order. All hostility and judging of one another is forbidden. There is no longer an “us vs. them” mentality because there is no “them” in Christ but only “us.”
“We are all bricks in one and the same spiritual edifice,” Paul claims “and we became those bricks by grace alone so that no one can brag or boast or claim some superior path toward brickdom!”
Actually the first few verses of this lection from Ephesians 2 might have sounded pretty good to any Jews reading this letter. It would not be too difficult to read into Paul here a kind of condescending tone. “Now listen up, you Gentiles, you outsiders, you foreign-born non-Jewish folks: you are darn lucky to have been brought near. We used to exclude you for good reasons, you know, so be thankful!”
That is not at all what Paul means, though. Because as you read on, his rhetoric turns to his fellow Jews to say “Same goes for us, folks. We, too, are in Christ now for the same reason and by exactly the same route as our Gentile brothers and sisters. Spiritual pedigree is so yesterday! We are all one now. No difference, no differentiation. Therefore . . . let’s not even use that kind of vocabulary anymore. Words like ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ like ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ have no meaning anymore in Christ. So don’t talk that way. Not anymore.”
Again, our awareness these days of how deep and wide and uncrossable that old barrier was—or how high and unclimbable that old separation wall once was—is dim at best. It’s hard for us to appropriate the level of astonishment this passage deserves. But the idea that in Christ those who once upon a time could not have been more different from one another are now ONE is startling.
Think of any other group today whom you regard as the “other” over against yourself and your group, your tribe. And, alas, there are many options for this. Ours is a divided world along more racial, ethnic, socio-economic fronts than we can grasp at any given moment. Can members of the Ku Klux Klan conceive of being made one with the African-American people they now terrorize? Can Skinheads and Neo-Nazis imagine happily being unified with the Jews? Can those who scream purple-faced about “illegals” crossing the southern border envision what it would take to welcome those people as full brothers and sisters without differentiation?
If we could imagine something of the radicalness of any of those scenarios (or any others you would want to propose), then we might start getting close to grasping the revolutionary nature of Ephesians 2. And if we begin to sense what it would really take to bring unity and reconciliation among those groups today that clearly see themselves as radically different from and superior to other groups they could name, then you start to grasp how hard the work of Christ really was and why it was that it took a supreme act of sacrifice on a cross to pull it off. In truth, humanly speaking we can hardly begin to imagine or hope for the kind of reconciliation among hostile groups just listed here. “It can’t happen” is what we are more likely to say.
Yet in Christ it did happen. The Gospel is that radical, that explosive, that revolutionary, that mind-boggling. To tame the Gospel, to reduce it to some easy steps toward being nicer; to domesticate the Gospel and make it apply to only the small things of our lives . . . . well, that is all a disservice to the Lord and Christ who went so far to bring about the kind of new world of which Paul writes in Ephesians 2.
Do we dare in this divisive age even to dream such dreams? Do we dare to proclaim such radical hope? Do we dare call believers to live in such a radical way?
Be careful with what you do with what comes after the “Therefore . . .”
In the charming movie Babe there is a kind of refrain that describes the social structure (as it were!) of the farmyard at Hoggett Farm where the story takes place. Over and again the narrator of the film would refer to the sheepdogs and their attitudes toward the sheep or the sheep and their attitudes toward the dogs or . . . or, the fill-in-the-blank farm animal vis-à-vis any other animal group. And the line was always the same “Everyone knew that sheep were stupid and there was nothing in the world that would convince the dogs otherwise.” Of course, the humorous irony of the film is that every species thought the same about every other species, except that as viewers we know it’s not true—they are all “intelligent” in their own way. They could talk to each other, reason with each other, respect each other if only they tried. At the end everyone’s affection for the little pig Babe—the pig who thinks he’s a sheepdog—forces the groups to try to communicate. When they do, amazing things happen: they understand each other, can help each other, and can transform life on Hoggett Farm as a result.
I realize this may seem a trite illustration but the filmmakers clearly structured this movie to force us to make the connection to our own lives as people. What group of the “other” do we have hard and fast beliefs about that we are sure no one in the world could ever talk us out of? And how sure are we at the end of the day that we are correct about all that? Are there possibilities we have not thought of before? Are we so certain reconciliation and new ways of thinking about Group X are impossible?
Well, humanly speaking it may be so. But as Christians who believe in the power of Christ, we must never think that “nothing in the world could convince us otherwise” about so-and-so. Because greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world.
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