Sermon Notes

Ephesians 2:11-18 October 24, 1999
Community Through the Cross

James Redfield, a therapist from rural Alabama, never considered himself an author. His previous writing was limited to a spiritual newsletter, but when his first novel came out, it stunned him and everyone else by turning into a national bestseller. It began as a self-published paperback which, by word of mouth, quickly sold 100,000 copies. When it became a Warner Books hardcover, it sold 450,000 copies in six weeks, propelling it to number one on the New York Times best-seller list. The book? The Celestine Prophecy, a story of a lost Peruvian manuscript that unfolds the spiritual secrets of life. This book well typifies the post-modern passion for spirituality. Redfield’s novel of a quest for metaphysical significance was not well written nor was the plot complex and intriguing, but it struck a chord with readers who yearned to be spiritual.

Its phenomenal success reveals the spiritual hunger of this generation. But the spiritual hunger is not directed toward the traditional forms of religion. While spirituality is in, religion is out. A consumer mindset has captivated even the Church so that American individualism demands to receive without giving and gets to call the shots of how faith is expressed. It should come as no surprise that a recent survey found that, when asked: "Can a person be a good Christian without ever going to church?" 81% agreed. Two years ago the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the changes taking place in American religion. The title was appropriate: "God Decentralized." There is a tremendous hunger within for spirituality but a constant movement away from organized religion, from community.

Many have taken the advice of one religious counselor: "If you can't find a religion that supports you, start your own." In a culture of do-it-yourself spiritualities, it is no wonder that tradition-based religions are having a hard time of it. People want worship to feel good about themselves; the sermon should give them a hug. We have created a Sunday supplement of what scholar Paul Heelas calls "the Self Religions." We want designer churches geared for the new breed of worshiper who is looking beyond the religious institution for a self-designed, do-it-yourself spirituality.

Bumper sticker theology says it best: "I couldn't have done it without me."

Our passage this morning confronts our culture and us with some uncomfortable news. Paul throws a gauntlet at our feet as a challenge to rethink the implications for spirituality today. Ephesians 2:11-22 is perhaps the greatest passage in Scripture in dealing with the Church, a key and high point of the letter, but very often breezed over with a superficial glance. With typical American myopic vision we glory in the wonders of salvation in verses 1-10, but yawn at the implications of that salvation, of how we are to relate to one another. But there are necessary implications regarding our salvation. Once we grasp what our salvation means individually and internally, then we must move on to its meaning corporately and relationally. A proper view of salvation leads to a proper view of the church.

11. Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)--

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 through the blood of Christ.

14. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,

15. by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace,

16. and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

17. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

18. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

The importance of this section is seen in the first word, "therefore." Paul is not offering random thoughts in his letter. He is not saying: "What shall I discuss next, let me see…" Having laid out that the centrality of our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, now he wants us to understand the pivotal place of Christ alone. We move from the justification to joining.

Alienation precludes community - verses 11-12

Physical distinction precluded community verse 11

Paul wants his Gentile readers to think back what took place prior to their coming to faith. He wants them to consider the great change which has taken place. In parallel to the first ten verses, Paul draws a comparison between what they were before Christ and now. He wants them to remember their exclusion.

This exclusion is evidenced by their lacking the sign of God’s covenant. They were uncircumcised. Ancient Judaism saw circumcision as the primary symbol of obedience to the Torah, of belonging to God. Judaism was always concerned with separation from the surrounding people, and practices such as circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food and other purity laws marked out their difference. The disdain that Jews had for the uncircumcised Gentiles exacerbated the problem, and as one might expect, non-Jews retaliated with equal disdain and disparagement.

What was the Jewish attitude toward Gentiles? There was a saying that God created the Gentiles just so that there would be fuel for the fires of hell. It was considered unlawful for a Jew to help a Gentile woman in labor, because to do so would only bring another cursed Gentile child into the world.

Gentile attitudes were no better, for it was their contention that all civilization sprang from their culture. To speak any language other than Greek was to speak nonsensical syllables - "bar-bar," from which we get the word barbarian.

Spiritual alienation

What is marked externally was understood to be an internal problem as well. As they were physically different, they were seen to be excluded from any grace of God.

They were Christless

Here the alienation from the Jews was due to their alienation from the Messiah. Rather than being allies they were enemies. This alienation is seen throughout the Old Testament as those outside Israel did not have the promises of a Savior. They did not have the comfort of the sacrifices which promised grace. Rather their lives were filled with what they had to do in order to please their angry gods.

They were Stateless

Pointing out their exclusion from citizenship was ironic, for to the Greek there was little more important than having the rights of a citizen. To be excluded from citizenship was to be a barbarian; it was to suffer the worst kind of oppression.

They were Friendless

The promises found in God’s covenant with His people were alien to them. They did not possess the great promise reiterated throughout Scripture where God says: "I will be your God and you will be my people." God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants meant nothing to them. They had no sense of belonging to a people on whom God’s favor rested.

They were Hopeless

Here Paul draws the previous together. Since sin alienated them from God and His people, they lacked any sense of a Savior, of a family, of a friend. Given that, the future held no promise for them. They were without hope. As one philosopher has said "What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of life."

They were Godless

Literally, they were atheists. Such a term appears ludicrous, for their multiplicity of gods meant they were not lacking in spirituality. The city of Ephesus boasted the greatest temple of the ancient world, the Temple of Diana. But they were godless for they were without the one true God, having no knowledge of His mercy and grace.

This is the paradox of our time, is it not? As one anonymous writer has pointed out:

We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints; we spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it less.

We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness.

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life; We've added years to life, not life to years.

We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We've conquered outer space, but not inner space. We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've split the atom, but not our prejudice. We have higher incomes, but lower morals. We've become long on quantity, but short on quality.

These are the times of tall men and short character; steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare; more leisure, but less fun; more kinds of food, but less nutrition. These are days of two incomes, but more divorce; of fancier houses, but broken homes.

The answer to this alienation is simple, but the implications are frightening

Reconciliation provides community - verses 13-18

Christ eradicated hostility thus creating community verses 13-15a

Hostility is eradicated by Christ’s death  - verse 13

The alienation which was once present is gone. Its eradication, its annihilation was accomplished in the past, not by us, but by another. Just as we saw in the beginning of the chapter, how Paul describes our alienation from God, he then provides the answer with a simple phrase: "but God…" So also here. "But now in Christ Jesus…."

We all have those stories of being an outsider, of trying to make a sports team; of entering a entering a crowded room where no one knew us but everyone looked at us; of visiting prospective in-laws for the first time; waiting to be asked to join a professional organization. Have you ever had to move in the middle of a school year and struggled to find your place when relationships had already been established? We can remember the emotional relief that engulfed us when we were no longer an outsider, a new sense of joy, wholeness, and peace swept us over. How much more is the change here. Once alienated from God, once an outsider, we are not on the inside. The only reason…the blood of Christ.

Hostility is erased by Christ’s peace - verses 14-15a

Christ does not just bring peace; He is our peace.

To speak of peace is to speak of Christ. There is an echo here of Micah 5:5 where the shepherd from Bethlehem will come to lead His people and "he will be their peace."

Peace dominates this passage (verses 14,15,17) as Paul describes the benefits of being in Christ.

The peace discussed here is not about good inner feelings; it is about relations. Far too many people have distorted ideas about religion, that religion is what they do when they are alone, quiet and thinking of God. They forget that the vertical relation with God is bound to and expressed in horizontal relations with people. Note too that the text does not say, "He is my peace;" it says, "He is our peace."

The establishment of this peace is likened to the destruction of a barrier wall.

What Paul most likely is referring to here is a literal wall in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish Temple was comprised of a series of concentric courts. At the center was the Holy of Holies where the High Priest entered just once each year. Then the Holy Place, where the priests did their daily work. Beyond that Jewish men could gather to worship. Beyond that, the Jewish women could gather. At the edge of that court there was a five foot high barricade separating the Court of Women from the furthest circle, the Court of the Gentiles. Several years ago archeologists discovered plaques cautioning Gentiles from stepping over the line:

"No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death."

Paul likewise draws a comparison between this physical wall and the law, that in Christ the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been destroyed by abolishing the law.

The first question would be: "How is law an instrument of division?"

When we want to make a distinction between ourselves and others, we run to a law to help us know who we are.

Even in prison there is a hierarchy. Criminals will make a distinction between a violent and a supposed victimless crime. Even a murderer isn’t as evil as child molesters and child murderer is the lowest form.

As Christians we do the same thing: "Well, I may have my struggles in the Christian life but at least I don’t gossip like so and so."

Whenever we think God looks on us either positively or negatively based on the law, there will be an arrogance. Where there is an arrogance there will be hostility.

Self-righteousness is the reason I am hostile. Hostile says: "I would never do that!"

Christ’s death brings to an end the use of the law as a means to say "Well, at least I don’t…(fill in your pet sin)" The law is removed from us to use as our personal pepper spray to stop people we don’t like.

The second obvious question is: "What does Paul mean, the law is abolished?"

Does this mean that with Christ’s death God the Father no longer cares at all about how we live? Does this mean there is no longer right or wrong? Certainly not. What Paul is saying here is what he also says in Colossians 2:14. Apart from Christ the law stands opposed to us; it condemns us. There is nothing to stand between us and God the Judge. But with Christ’s death on the Cross, the law stood firm, but rather than us paying the penalties for our infractions of the law, Christ paid the penalty for us. Paul explains this same truth in Galatians 3:13 when he says that Christ took the hostility of God’s wrath on Himself so that He would destroy the hostility between people.

What is abolished is the law’s condemnation, the law’s hostility which separates us from God and from each other. The dividing wall is removed. Paul certainly agrees with Jesus in Matthew 5:17 that Jesus did not come to destroy the law but fulfill it. Paul spends the second half of this letter explaining God’s moral law in terms of how we are to relate to one another today.

What has stopped is the use of the law to divide. The law can not ever be used to justify ourselves, to grade ourselves, to judge ourselves in any positive manner.

Christ established harmony in the community  - verses 15b-18

Harmony is both being united to Christ - verses 15b-17

What is God purpose for all this? Notice the emphasis is not on individual salvation, but on corporate unity. A divided humanity is reconciled in Christ and joined into a unified worshipping community. Two divergent groups are brought together to create one new man. It is not that the Gentiles just become good Jews, but God creates something new and different

Some in churches love to speak of a distinction between the Church and Israel. This passage sets that aside. The New Testament church is not just a continuation of Old Testament Judaism nor is it a plan B or an alternative. Rather Christ’s work does something completely new.

The word new (kainos) is not simply new in point of time, but new in the sense that it brings into the world a new kind of thing, a new quality of thing, which did not exist before.

What is that new thing - this new man, this new race, this new community who are now reconciled to God and to each other? The result of our justification is not a privatization of spirituality, but a joining together. This salvation by grace alone through faith alone will never leave us alone. It joins us together.

Harmony is both having access to God - verse 18

The benefit of this harmony, of the end of hostility is that we both, together, can have access to God. This word "access" was used in oriental courts. There was a prosagogeus who brought a person into the presence of the king. The thought could be that Christ is the one who introduces us to the King. This is similar to what Jesus says when He refers to Himself as the door.

But notice who has access. With emphasis Paul focuses our attention on the unity of access; both together have access to the Father by means of the Spirit. Next week as we finish up this chapter we’ll see more what this means, how this is. But here we have a glimpse - the indwelling work of the Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul says; "for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body -whether Jew or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink."

This is corporate access, not individual, as the focus. We have access not as a group of individuals, but as a body, the Church.

What then does all this mean? In contrast of the movement in our age to disunity, for people to create God in their own image, to worship the god of their own psyche, God tells us that we are united to Him not as a group of individuals, but as a body, as one new man.

Modern evangelicals tend to focus on Christianity as a religion of the individual. Faith, for many people, is about "me and Jesus." To talk of the Body, the church gets all too formal. But Scripture knows nothing of this privatized faith. The Christian life must be lived out in community. God is not decentralized.

What does this mean for you and me here at Cornerstone?

This image plays havoc with our desire for autonomy. We fought hard to be left alone. Our suburban lifestyle screams independence. We are pleasant enough to one another, but we live lives shutting ourselves off from the Body.

We show up on the Lord’s Day…when we feel like it, looking for warm fuzzies for ourselves. If we don’t get the right strokes, we withdrawal. For some our level of commitment to worship, to people goes only so far, only to the level of my own comfort. Who here knows you, knows your struggles, your dreams? Who here knows your sins better than you? This passage describes the life of one who is saved by grace alone through faith alone as a person who is not alone. They are organically related. Their access to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit is an access as a body.

Are you connecting with others here?

If not, why not? Oh, I know…because they’re cold and withdrawn? Perhaps, but so what?

They are sinners like you. What is more, that wall of division has come crashing down. The hostility is removed by the Cross.

God’s presence inhabits a group.

The more alone you are in your Christianity, the less intimate you are with God. The more Christians you know intimately, the more intimately you’ll know God. God inhabits a building, a Body.

What is the answer?

Withdrawing from others because you just can’t connect? Making a myriad of excuses that you just don’t have time, that others aren’t friendly enough, that you’ve tried and nothing happened? We’ll see the answer fleshed out more next week, but the key is found in verse 16; the hostility between you and the other person is found on the Cross. There the division is ended; there the distinction is done away with once and for all.

Sermon Notes