Friday, February 23, 2007

Sermon on Ephesians 2:13-22, 9th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Epistle reading from Ephesians 2:13-22. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

It’s unfortunate but true, that enmity and hostility are a regular part of our human experience. we're all too familiar with hostility, from the grandest scale, to the smallest. From the wars and violence between nations in worldwide conflict, to the strife and disputes between co-workers on the job, to the fighting that goes on in the family, between brothers and sisters--yes, even at church, we also experience enmity and hostilities arising. From the first hostilities that broke out between Cain and Abel, until today, humanity has shown no shortage of enmity, even though we're all created of one blood--a common human race descended from Adam and Eve.

But all humans share more than just a common ancestry, we also share the common inheritance of sin, which produces such enmity between us. It is precisely this enmity and hostility, and it’s root cause of sin, that St. Paul addresses in the letter to the Ephesians that we read today.
Hear St. Paul again: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 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, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility.” Did you catch the way He described that enmity? He spoke of a separation and hostility in two directions: not only was there hostility between Jew and Gentile, but there was also hostility between man and God! But what kind of hostility is he speaking about?

First Paul addresses the Ephesians as once being “far away,” but now having been “brought near through the blood of Christ.” How were they far away? In the same way that we were once far away. Sin fixed an un-crossable chasm between God and us, because God cannot tolerate the sight of our sin. Far away from God spiritually, not physically. There were plenty of people who got to stand right next to God in the flesh, and walk the same ground, when Jesus came to teach among the crowds in Galilee and the surrounding lands. Yet even as close as they were physically, it did them no good if they didn't believe in Him. Those who rejected His message were still infinitely far off from God spiritually. With hearts hardened, and minds rebellious to the Word of God, they were separated from God by a gulf of sin that they couldn't cross. So also we do not gain nearness to God, by merely sitting in a church, any more than we could find God by doing a thorough exploration of the earth.

No, we can’t get to God by ourselves, we must be drawn near by the blood of Christ. Do you remember what it was like to be far away? Some remember their former way of life, before coming to Christ, and know what it was like to be separated from God by sin. For others of us, we were saved in the waters of baptism as a child, and were brought near at a very young age. And still others have wandered off from the faith they once knew, and need to be drawn near again. Do we recognize those who are far away, even now? Around us every day, there are people who are “far off” from God. They are separated from God, as we once were, by the gulf of sin. Sometimes it is easy to forget that people near to us, whether family, co-workers, or neighbors, may still be far off from God.

This enmity extended beyond just God and man, it was also between Jew and Gentile. There was a “dividing wall of hostility” between them because of the law. The church experienced this hostility very early, as the Jews and Gentiles clashed over the covenant of circumcision, eating unclean foods, associating with each other across cultural boundaries, and other things. This hostility was not easily overcome. We have the record of some of those disagreements and strife written down for us in the New Testament. It wasn’t easy to get past the issue of circumcision and the abolishment of the ceremonial law, but God did bring reconciliation. And this reconciliation didn’t come about by mere human effort or by doubling their persistence to get along, but the reconciliation came, and still comes through the blood of Jesus on the cross. His reconciliation broke down the dividing wall of hostility and made peace for us.

God took our ugly situation, with our two-fold hostility directed at Him, and directed at one another, and He sent us His reconciliation through Jesus! He entered the gap which no one could heal, and in Jesus’ death He brought a two-fold restoration to mankind. Jesus broke down the greater barrier, the barrier of our sin before God, by taking all the ugliness and hate of our sin, and nailing it to the cross in His flesh. There at the cross, He was laden with the heavy burden of our sin, after living a life without sin, perfect and blameless. He satisfied the law with its commandments and regulations, and took the hostility of sin and put it to death. And in breaking down this greater barrier between God and man, He laid the groundwork for breaking down the lesser barrier between Jew and Gentile. Jesus entire life and death filled up all the requirements of the law. Therefore, all those ceremonial laws and regulations given to the Jews to point toward the Messiah were no longer needed. And these were the main point of division between Jew and Gentile, in terms of their hostility toward one another. So the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility that had stood between them, was now removed. Christ paved the way for reconciliation by removing that barrier, and preaching peace to Jew and Gentile, those far away, and those near to God. Peace that comes through sins forgiven.

But after breaking down the dividing wall, Jesus didn't just leave the two to remain divided. He brought them together to make one new man “out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility.” How did He bring the two together, after such a long-standing hostility had existed? Just as the text says, it was by reconciling both of them to God through the cross. Once again the cross is at the center of reconciliation--not because a splintered old, nail-studded tree has any power in it. But because of the body of Jesus that hung there. Because in His body, the hostility was put to death. And so also we must put our hostility, anger, enmity, and all other feelings of ill-will to death on the cross. There is no room for hostility in the body of Christ. He made that sacrifice to put the hostility to death. And it's this forgiveness that Christ gives, that enables us to direct ourselves toward peace and reconciliation, rather than hostility. The church is the one body of Christ, and we're called upon to practice this peace and forgiveness with one another. When we look at one another as members of the body of Christ, we're to look at each other through the blood of Christ. What do I mean by that? That when we see a fellow Christian, we look at them as God sees them through the blood of Christ--namely that their sins are forgiven. So we see each other not for our sins and faults, but as forgiven sinners!

And here’s one of the most interesting things to me about today’s reading. St. Paul talks about being reconciled as one by Christ into one body, but then by vs. 19 he starts to mix metaphors. Hear it again: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and [grows into] a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” Did you notice how it changed? He started by talking about our unity in one body, then switched to a metaphor of citizenship and belonging to a household. But by the end, we're actually part of the building itself, and a building that grows (like a plant!) no less! It all works together beautifully to describe our being brought near to God in Christ Jesus.

We were once foreigners and aliens, still far off from God in the unbelief of our sins. But being drawn near in Christ, we were reconciled and joined to Christ’s body as our sins were forgiven! So once being outsiders, we're now insiders! Living in the household of God. Heirs of His kingdom and the inheritance of life! People that were once at enmity with God, and with one another are now joined into one household, and what’s more, are fused together as fellow bricks in a living building, a holy temple in the Lord. This is what I found so interesting--and you may have noticed that I tweaked one word in the translation to read that the whole building “grows into” a holy temple, instead of “rises to become.” The original is grows, just like a plant grows. But buildings don’t grow! That’s the amazing thing about our being joined together into this living building in the Lord. We’re living bricks, bricks of flesh you might call us, thriving on the life we draw from our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. You see, the cornerstone is the most important part of a building. It’s the crucial first piece of a building--the stone which bears the weight, and with which everything is aligned. It’s the support that anchor’s the whole building.

Likewise Christ bears all our weight, the weight of our sin, and He guides and directs us as to how we “grow up” as a living temple. His death and resurrection anchor us firmly in the life that is His, the life of God. It's this life that transforms and pervades our every being, to build up a living temple where fellow “bricks” are mutually supportive and loving, where the burdens of the body are carried through the whole structure so that no one stands alone. Jesus’ life has the power to do this, because He overcame the barrier to peace--peace with God, and peace with one another. Because we were once at enmity with God, and with one another, but Christ reconciled us to be one by His death on the cross. So may His peace, the peace of sins forgiven, ever guide and direct our ways in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

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