Ephesians 2: 11-22
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
When I was a student at Allegheny College in the mid 70’s, I was a member of a fraternity.
Delta Tau Delta.
We were one of seven fraternities on campus.
Each of the fraternities had different rituals and.
Yeah, handshakes and passwords and other stuff that proved you were a member.
Each fraternity also had a certain attitude.
A feeling that the brothers were different in some significant way from al the rest.
Each fraternity was a community separate and apart from the rest.
Better than the rest.
Exclusive, in fact.
So we were somewhat segregated.
We lived in our own houses.
We wore our Greek letters.
And we were competitive.
We recruited from the same pool of people.
So we had to explain to our recruits why we were better than the rest.
We would assign uncomplimentary adjectives to the other fraternities.
Talk them down while we talked ourselves up.
And sometimes that led to open conflict – rarely physical, but sometimes destructive.
When that happened, the college administration would call all of us together and remind us that we were first and foremost all Allegheny College students, and that was to be our first allegiance.
Each side of the conflict believed that the administration would side with them.
But then …
We were all reminded that though we had separated ourselves into smaller groups, we all were part of a greater community, Allegheny College, and we all needed to act like it.
Why do people do such things?
Separate themselves into exclusive and often conflicting groups?
Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind says it’s because humanity is both selfish and “groupish”.
As self-centered individuals, we look for like-minded people we can combine with to support our similar selfish interests.
That is what humanity has always done, for good or bad, and it is what was happening in the church Paul founded in Ephesus.
Like the splintering of a college community into fraternal factions, the Ephesian church was splintering into religious factions.
It caused conflict and was destructive.
And like the administration at Allegheny, Paul intervenes.
He writes this letter.
What were the divisions?
Why was there conflict?
A bit of context.
Ephesians was written when the Christianity generally and in the Ephesian community specifically was becoming increasingly gentile in composition.
The Jewish Christians who considered themselves the founders of the church were becoming a minority.
While both groups claimed to be part of the Christian community, they defined themselves as being separate and distinct.
Each believe themselves to be special in some way and so better than the other.
The Gentiles believed that they were special because they were becoming the majority in the church.
The church was growing principally because of them.
The Jews thought they were special because Jesus was a Jew, right?
Jesus fulfilled the law.
The Jews followed that law and thought that the gentiles were inferior because they did not.
And the Jews spoke in rather hostile terms about gentiles.
The language borders on “hate speech”.
Gentiles are unclean.
They are atheists – uncivilized.
Destructive conflict indeed!
And then they received Paul’s letter.
They gathered to have it read to them.
Each side of the conflict believed that Paul would side with them.
But then …
Paul had to teach both what being a church of Jesus Christ meant.
First Paul addresses the gentiles.
Paul reminds them that they were once without Christ.
That they had been aliens to Israel and strangers to the covenants God had with Israel.
Far from God.
Alien to God.
And now they were saved by the God who had a special relationship with and was introduced to them by the Jews.
I have an image of Paul ending this brief scold with the line: “So show a little respect, folks.”
The Jews were likely all smiles at this point.
Then Paul turns to them.
The Jews thought that so long as they knew and followed the rituals and traditions passed down from Moses they were still Israel, God’s chosen.
I’m not sure about handshakes or passwords but there was circumcision.
Then Paul says something like this:
“And you Jews – those commandments and rules and that circumcision – these that you use as a wall between you and everyone else?
Jesus has abolished them.
That barrier that kept Jews and gentiles separate for all those years?
There is no distinction between you and the gentiles in the eyes of God.”
We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a proud Jew in the church when those words were read aloud.
Paul goes on:
You need to make peace!
And that peace is Jesus.
He is our peace.
So, what is this peace?
It’s a spiritual peace, certainly.
It is an individual peace, surely.
But to Paul here, it is a communal peace.
A sense of community well-being, and fulfillment that comes from God.
The word Jesus would have used is shalom.
Shalom is a sense of wholeness.
The community as a whole and complete and unified entity.
It is a mindfulness that God is present.
A sense of harmony even in troubled or stressful times.
A presence that gives us a sanctuary from the anxiety of life.
We must love each other the same way.
Paul’s admonition remains relevant.
Like Jewish and gentile Christians of the first century, we might have different histories, different cultures, different races, but we must be one in Jesus Christ.
In other words, like the college administration that told the fraternities regardless of your differences, you are all students here, Paul is telling the Ephesians that regardless of their differences, they are all disciples of Jesus.
Then, like the college administrators, Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to act like it!
Kyle Fever is the Director of Beyond Ministries, Ingham-Okoboji Lutheran Bible Camps, Lake Okoboji, Iowa.
He describes the impact our text should have on our congregations.
The point is that God’s reconciliation and transformation of humanity finds expression in a unity marked by welcoming and hospitality. Consider areas of divisiveness within the church, or even within culture. We even in the church should not presume that those outsiders need to become like us. The church should be a light that paves the way by welcoming [all]and uniting them into God’s mission in Christ.
As Paul put it in his letter to the Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
God’s reconciliation is not just individual but communal.
God commands reconciliation between all his people, regardless of theology, culture, race and even politics.
And Jesus is the source of any peace that can exist.
This is big.
Sally A. Brown, the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Seminary puts it this way.
Today’s reading … is not tame.
No doubt some relatively tame sermons have been preached from this text from time to time — maybe taking to task a congregation fussily divided over the color of the carpet or over the price of adding ten parking spaces to the parking lot. But the text is meant to do more than coax cranky congregants toward compromise. This is a text meant to shake empires.
When Paul wrote this, it was in the middle of the Pax Romana.
The Roman peace enforced by legions of Roman soldiers.
Live in peace or die.
But Paul is saying that there is only one true peace, and that is Jesus.
How does Paul describe that?
15[Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens … of the household of God …
Which brings us to Paul’s conclusion.
When we become citizens of the household of God, a community of disciples of Jesus, we are in fact the dwelling place God on earth.
A household that is built on the cornerstone of the peace of Jesus.
And as Paul finishes:
21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
So when I read this text, it tells me that it is just such a community that becomes the dwelling place for God.
But this is hard.
Because we are still groupish.
And we have difficulty living our Paul’s message.
The church of Jesus Christ has never been unified.
The Catholic Church divided into the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church.
The Roman Church split at the time of the Reformation.
The “Reformed Church” split into dozens of denominations.
And our own Presbyterian Church into several different groups.
Even here at JMPC, people leave because of theological, ritual, and practical differences from time to time.
Is it possible to follow Paul’s admonition on our text?
Maybe, maybe not.
But we must try.
And we must be reminded.
Oso it is part of our Sunday morning liturgy.
We welcome all comers in the name of Jesus Christ.
We acknowledge our corporate and private sin and hear words of pardon.
We pass Christ’s peace after we share joys and concerns.
We proclaim that God is in our midst when we pray for illumination.
And we depart with a charge to demonstrate Jesus’ peace to the world around us and invite others to join us in it.
With no barrier that divides.
Where we allow everyone who seeks God to get in.
That is peace.
That is shalom.
That is the wholeness we enjoy when we come together as disciples and welcome each other as a unified people.
A new people.
So what does that mean to us here?
Well, I am going to talk about these things in August.
We are going to hear about how where Jesus comes down on these things.
How Peter comes down on these things.
How Phillip comes down on these things.
What it means to believe that Jesus is our peace.