The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, July 19, 2009. The text for this week’s message is Ephesians 2:11-22.
Last week, we looked at Paul’s ridiculously long prayer at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians. If you don’t remember, the reason why I say it is ridiculously long is because verses 3-14 are actually one sentence. Do the math there – it’s 12 verses and 1 sentence, which qualifies it as “ridiculously long.” But at the same time, it is a very important passage. We looked at Paul’s understanding of predestination and spent a good deal of time talking about the directions that we take in our lives. Just as a recap: direction determines destination. You will end up exactly where you are heading unless you change your course along the way.
As we read through today’s passage, we get an idea of what Jewish-Gentile relations were like in the early church. Throughout the Old Testament, there is an emphasis on keeping the Jewish people separate from those who were not. It was a separation that the Jewish people always struggled with, and it led them down the wrong road from time to time. One of the reasons why a monarchy was brought to Israel in the first place was because the people wanted to be like the other nations around them. Solomon is known for having hundreds of wives, and it was because, in the cultures surrounding Israel, treaties were often solidified by the taking of a bride. In an effort to make treaties with these non-Jewish neighbors, Solomon ended up with dozens of non-Jewish brides, which also caused some significant problems down the road for Israel; namely by leading them into idolatry.
The world that the early Jewish Christians were used to was one in which Jews avoided those who weren’t Jews. And remember, the early Christians did not see themselves as Christians, but as Jews who were following the long-awaited Messiah. It is understandable that there would be some tension when the gospel became bigger than just those who were Jewish. But that was the beauty of the gospel in the first century. The early Christians had to deal with a new paradigm regarding their interactions with Gentiles because the old paradigm was shattered by the gospel. The old Jewish-Gentile divisions no longer applied in a world where the gospel of Jesus Christ was making headway.
We read in Acts 15 about how the early Christians dealt with these divisions. There was a council in Jerusalem to discuss what should be done regarding Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus. There were some who taught that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised before they could be saved. Paul and others didn’t agree. They saw what the Spirit was doing in the lives of the Gentiles. They knew that they were already believers in Christ and followers of Christ without being circumcised.
In true Methodist fashion (because early Christians were Methodists to their core), they appointed a task force, proposed an amendment, sent around pamphlets to all the delegates, debated it on the floor and took a vote to see whether or not a two-thirds majority approved it. Obviously, I’m just half kidding here. In the end, it was decided that circumcision wasn’t necessary to be a follower of Christ. They realized that God was not making a distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles anymore, so why should they? This was an absolutely groundbreaking council for these early Christians.
When Paul is writing this letter to the church at Ephesus, the Jerusalem Council had already taken place. Paul is relating the official stance of the early Church when he writes these words. Regardless of what was decided at the Jerusalem Council, however, there were still some who were teaching that circumcision was necessary in order to be a true follower of Jesus. Doesn’t that always happen though? In spite of the official stance, there are always those who fight against it. That got me thinking about some of the divisions that we have in the Church today.
The first, and most obvious, division that we see in the Church (big C) today is denominations. There are literally hundreds of denominations out there, and that’s just the Baptists! Seriously though, just within the Wesleyan theological family (a branch of the Anglican Church that started roughly 250 years ago), there are the Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, Wesleyans, Free Methodists, United Methodists, Evangelical Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, and several more. On a larger scale, there are Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Disciples of Christ, independent Christian churches, Baptists, Presbyterians, and, again, several more; that’s just off the top of my head.
You might hear me joke from time to time about the Baptists or the Catholics, but it’s just that, I’m joking. I don’t buy into the denominational divisions as much as other people do. I recognize that there are people who simply don’t see things the way I do and the way our denomination does. That’s all right. There needs to be a shift in perception when it comes to working with other churches. The churches in a community don’t need to be looking at each other as competitors, but as co-workers for the gospel. That’s the most important thing, not denominational affiliation. It is important for us, as United Methodists, to remain connected to our cluster, our conference and even the worldwide denomination, but that doesn’t mean we look past our neighbors. Imagine what we could do when we are all working together for the common purpose of sharing the gospel with our surrounding community. But then there are some more serious divisions within the Church universal.
It is still said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. I realize that there are cultural barriers from time to time that would cause this separation, but there is no separation in Christ, so why is there so much separation in His church? That is a difficult question to struggle with. I’ve seen the demographics of our area, and sometimes, there just aren’t a lot of minorities, and that is the primary reason why there is so much segregation in some of the more rural areas of America. But even within larger, more culturally diverse areas, there is a good deal of segregation during the Sunday morning church time. We need to be actively seeking ways to tear down the walls of division.
I love what Paul says in verse 14, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Jesus is our peace. Jesus is the one who tore down the wall between the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus is the one that is still trying to tear down whatever walls we build up to separate us from “those people,” whoever “those people” may be. There was an inscription on the outer wall of the courtyard of the Jerusalem temple warning Gentiles that they would only have themselves to blame for their death if they passed beyond it into the inner courts, which were reserved solely for the Jewish people. There’s just something about that which doesn’t seem right, isn’t there?
Through the blood of Jesus Christ, we are no longer bound up by these walls that were there before, but in spite of the blood of Christ, we put up different walls, maybe without realizing it. So where are the walls that we put up? What are the barriers that we have that prevent people from coming to Christ? How can we tear them down and truly let Christ build up this church?
Paul brackets verse 13-18 with the comment that Jesus came for both those who were far off and those who were near. The gospel is not just for those who come to church, but for all people. In fact, if we take Jesus’ words in Mark 2 seriously, we begin to realize that the gospel is intended for those who are far off. When the Pharisees complain about Jesus eating with the sinners, he simply tells them that the well are not in need of a doctor. It is the sick that need the doctor. We are surrounded by sick people who are in need of the doctor. Yes, we know a lot of people that are physically ill, but I’m willing to bet that we know a lot more that are spiritually sick. They need Jesus in their lives to get rid of the disease of sin. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to tend to the found.
The gospel is for those both near and far; those who know Christ and those who do not. However, those that know Christ are given the charge to make disciples by sharing the gospel and discipling those who do not know him. Jesus’ words are words that give life, eternal life, to all who accept them and put their trust in Jesus. We can’t afford for there to be barriers, divisions, or walls that keep these words of life from those that need it the most.
No longer are we strangers or aliens, but we are citizens of God’s kingdom when we put our faith in Jesus. These three terms – strangers, aliens and citizens – were all terms that had very strong political meaning, especially in a Roman colony such as Ephesus. Strangers to a particular town had no rights whatsoever. They were foreigners in the city and had no rights or privileges at all. Aliens were non-citizens who lived in the city and were given some customary privileges, but they did not have full protection. Citizens had full rights, full privileges and full protection. It was every person’s goal in the first century to be a Roman citizen.
Roman citizens did not have to pay taxes; they had a right to a trial and could appeal all the way to Caesar; they could not be crucified (unless they committed treason). It paid to be a Roman citizen, and the people of Ephesus knew it. For Paul to use this language, some bells would have been going off in their heads. They understand what it means to no longer be strangers or aliens in their town; and Paul was equating that with what happens when they put their faith in Jesus. There were no more barriers to God. Full rights; full protection.
If Jesus removed the barriers, then we need to be intentional about not putting up any barriers. One of the biggest things that we can do to remove barriers within the Church is to be welcoming to all who come in through those doors. I hope and prayer is that we will start getting new visitors frequently. And my prayer is that we are ready to accept whoever comes through those doors; that we are ready to welcome them in, even if we know their history, even if we know their baggage, and even if we know what terrible people they were in elementary school. [If this is your first time here this morning, welcome. We are so glad you are here, and we hope that you have felt welcomed. And if you were a terrible person in elementary school, I didn’t mean to offend you with that last comment.]
One thing I have heard time and time again is that people would like to see this church grow. Now, the question becomes – Is it because it looks better to have a full sanctuary, or because we really believe in the gospel and the need for people to hear God’s word proclaimed. If it’s the first option, this congregation will not do anything but get smaller over the years. I can guarantee it. But, if we want to see the church grow so that more people can hear the gospel, so that more people can become disciples of Jesus and so that more people will be praising the name of God every week, then I think we’re in good shape. But we have to be honest with ourselves regarding our intentions.
If we are intentionally reaching out and sharing Jesus with the people we see through the week, then the harvest will come. Y’all know this more than I do, but I’m pretty sure that if you don’t plant any seeds, your fields will be empty when the time for the harvest comes. That’s a pretty certain spiritual rule as well. Plant the seeds, remove the barriers and watch them grow.