Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 18, 2021
Ephesians 2:11-22 Commentary
Could Paul say anything more counter-cultural yet hopeful than Christ has made the two one? (14). We live, after all, in a world that’s deeply divided along so many lines. In fact, the gaps those fault lines create also seem to be widening.
Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberal Party members vs. Conservative Party members. Vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers. Masked people vs. unmasked people. People of various races vs. each other. Proponents of traditional understandings of marriage, gender and sexual orientation vs. proponents of more progressive understandings of them.
The list could continue endlessly. There seems to be, in fact, no longer, if there ever was, just Paul’s “two” (14) sides. Even Jesus’ friends now take an almost infinite number of “sides.” Those who proclaim Ephesians 2 may want to explore with their hearers evidences of those deep divisions, exercising care, as always, not just to use local but also worldwide examples.
Yet Ephesians 2 assertion of the unity Christ creates isn’t just profoundly counter-cultural. It’s also deeply hopeful. Its vision of the “two” made “one” is something for which most of God’s adopted sons and daughters long. So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is like a cold glass of water, iced tea or adult beverage on a hot and humid day for Jesus’ friends and followers.
But for the Spirit to give this Epistolary Lesson’s “two-into-one” imagery any traction among its hearers, its proclaimers must firmly ground its unity where the apostle grounds it. Paul has no illusions about creating durable human unity through human enterprises. While human efforts at unity come and go, succeed and fail, “in Christ,” the apostle sings in verse 13, “you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” The unity Christ creates doesn’t wax and wane like so many human efforts to create unity do. It’s a “done deal.”
Certainly God graces people with tools for building unity among diverse peoples who have diverse opinions. Humility, unconditional love and enhanced understanding of the “other” are solid building blocks for deeper unity. However, our hopes for unity and reconciliation among people are most deeply and lastingly grounded in reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ gentile friends were formerly, grieves the apostle, “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (12). In other words, by nature people are alienated, not just from each other, but also from God. What’s more, we’re naturally perfectly content with that estrangement.
Though God included gentiles in God’s promises to God’s Israelite people, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds its readers that most of the people who originally accepted those promises were Israelites. Because our ethnic identity largely barred gentiles from access to God’s covenantal promises, we were not only without hope, but also without God.
It’s a bleak picture that resonates with some 21st century experiences. Epidemics of despair are perhaps even more contagious than that of COVID-19. While even God’s adopted children struggle with them, Paul might argue that those epidemics are particularly endemic among those outside the adopted family of God.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 2:11-22 might scour their own readings as well as media outlets for examples of that despair. We might even carefully share examples of the ways it wreaks havoc in our own personal lives.
“But now” (nyni de) Paul sings in verse 13. Whenever Scriptures’ readers read that phrase, we lean forward, scooching to the edge of our seats. That phrase is, after all, like a bright flashing sign that points toward the hope of the gospel. It’s the onramp to an announcement of the way God is graciously on the move in the world God so passionately loves.
Paul fills this Epistolary Lesson with striking images of God’s reconciling work among alienated people. Gentiles “who were once far away have been brought near” (13). It’s an image of bringing together people who have been scattered, far away not just from God but also each other.
In verse 14 the apostle adds the image of Christ graciously destroying “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” When I read that, I picture Christ taking a sledgehammer to all the barriers to God’s people’s unity, pulverizing the walls we so eagerly erect between others and ourselves.
Consequently, Paul continues in verse 19, we are “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” It’s imagery of God graciously adopting orphans, strangers and enemies into God’s worldwide family.
But my favorite image of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may be its building imagery. Jesus’ friends are, says verse 20, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Their ministries and message are that on which God constructs the building that is the Body of Christ. Christ, the apostle adds, is that building’s cornerstone. God, in other words, “laid” God’s Son as the cornerstone that is God’s people before adding anyone else.
In fact, in Christ, the whole building, made up of prophets, priests and kings, God’s adopted sons and daughters, is joined together so that we may together rise up to become a “holy temple in the Lord” (21). It’s imagery that invites Jesus’ friends to think of Jesus’ friends as those whom God has made the “bricks” that compose the body of Christ, the temple in which God graciously dwells by God’s Spirit.
Few things give some children (and children at heart) more joy than watching someone build a house or some kind of other structure. One of our grandsons especially loves to watch builders construct a new school building in their neighborhood. The massive cranes, bulldozers, backhoes and other construction equipment are an almost endless source of fascination for him.
Is it too much of a stretch to let Ephesians 2 prompt us to think of God as a crane or backhoe operator on God’s building project that is the Church? To take childlike delight in the ways God is graciously working for not just days but millennia to construct the “building” that is the body of Christ?
And is it too much to picture the building materials God is using as God’s adopted children? To think of the bricks and other materials as Jesus’ friends who are people of various colors, Democrats and Republicans, people who wear masks and those who refuse to do so? To think of God’s beloved people as a pile of bricks God is using to build Christ’s body in which God makes God’s home, by the Holy Spirit?
Yet Ephesians 2’s proclaimers might call our hearers’ attention to aspects of that “building project.” For example, all of verses 19-22’s verb tenses are not past, but present ones. They remind us that God’s building project on Christ’s body isn’t yet finished; it’s ongoing. So Jesus’ friends that are its building blocks can and, in fact, must be patient, with God, the Church and Jesus’ friends.
What’s more, proclaimers may want to note who is doing the construction work on the Church. Paul doesn’t claim that Jesus’ friends are building ourselves “together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (22). No, the apostle insists, “you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (italics added).
God’s adopted sons and daughters do what we can to build up Christ’s Church for God’s glory and people’s well-being. But finally, Paul insists, the body of Christ is not people, but God’s construction project. God isn’t just the architect and site supervisor. God is also Christ’s Church’s construction worker. God’s dearly beloved people forget that at our own, as well as the Church’s peril.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson makes me think of the old commercial for Coca-Cola in which scattered people came together singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That’s the real thing.” In the unity forged by the Holy Spirit, however, we unite not to guzzle a soft drink, but to live out our baptism as God’s adopted children.
That’s why a video that recently made the rounds among friends of Calvin University shows a much more accurate image of the way the Spirit of Christ draws God’s people together. It’s of the Calvin Prison Initiative Prison Choir coming together to sing “Amazing Grace.” (The video itself, after ads, is around 4 minutes long.) But beware: watching and listening to it may cause Jesus’ friends’ allergies to flare up.
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