We Are a United People

Text: Ephesians 2:11-22

In the Garden of Eden, the wily serpent played against a human trait that still persists among us today. That serpent approached Eve and encouraged her to compare herself against God. The serpent further suggested that God was actually scared of what Eve and Adam might become should they taste that succulent but forbidden fruit that would garner each of them the knowledge of good and evil. Eve listened. And she began to compare. And that comparison led to envy. And that envy led to pride. And that pride, as it always does, led to sin.

As Eve did with God, we are quite adept at comparing ourselves to each other. We are well oiled in the art of surveying a gathering of any size and estimating our place in the pecking order. Paul chastised the Corinthians regarding their arranging themselves at fellowship meals in order of perceived importance. But we all do it. It is second nature. There is, indeed, a pecking order among any group of people that establishes a chain of importance and arranges all of our interactions with one another.

The arts of comparing and its twin, contrasting, help us to see where we are alike – and so what circles we can run in – and where we are different – and so what circles we cannot or should not run in. India is famous for having codified such systems into five social circles, called castes, which were fixed by birth. They ranged from the high and privileged Brahmins that interpreted spiritual beliefs to the low, outcast, and untouchable Dalits.

While the system was codified in India, it is no less rampant anywhere else in the world. We excel at comparing ourselves and differentiating ourselves. We gather with those who are most like us, look longingly among those who are most like what we want to be, and shun those who we dread ever becoming. India had five circles, but we might have more or less in our hierarchy.

Among the Jews of Paul’s day, there were two. Either you could enter into the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem as a Jew or you were forbidden by penalty of death as a Gentile. Only those who kept the law of Moses would have been clean and therefore able to enter into the proximity of God’s presence. Gentiles, those from outside the bounds of Israel, naturally did not obey a law they most likely did not know, so they could not approach the seat of God’s presence on earth. While the intention was for Israel to serve as priests on behalf of the whole world, this never happened. The circumcision that showed their allegiance to Yahweh instead became a dividing symbol that allowed exclusion and derision of those who did not bear it.

This is what we do. We separate ourselves. There are those who are in and those who are out. Those who belong and those who do not. Those who are welcome and invited and those who are unwelcome and cast out. In view of a relationship with the one and only true God who created and sustains all things, Gentiles were out, excluded, barred, forbidden. And as any of you who have ever been on the outside of any group know, there is almost always no path of any kind to get in. This was true of all the world outside Israel. There was no path for them to approach God. No way to be included. No way to join in. The bloodlines were sealed.

The Jews always kept their stark separation from Gentiles. They would allow proselytes who could learn about God and even obey the commands of Moses, but they would always be only proselytes, never one of God’s chosen people. The separation was stark and permanent. How do we separate ourselves today? We do so by such things as income, access to health care, access to transportation, choice of clothing, health status, borders – whether community borders, state lines, or international boundaries; ethnicity; education level; occupation; citizenship; religious affiliation and membership. All of these are means by which we differentiate ourselves, by which we separate ourselves from those outside our circle and forbid them to come in.

We are good at creating the very same kind of separation that Paul says the Gentiles endured. And we are good at keeping the same kind of distance that the Jews kept from the Gentiles. And all too often, we are just as good as some Jews often were at deriding the other who doesn’t belong.

Paul describes the Gentile predicament this way, beginning in verse 12: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Separated. Alienated. Strangers. Promise-less. Hopeless. Godless. Do any of these things ever  describe your experience with people around you today? Do you ever feel so excluded? Turn that question around. Do you ever make someone else feel this way? Spiritually, these markers described all of us prior to our salvation.

Then there is verse 13. “But” it begins. “But” is an adversarial conjunction. That is, it joins the statement that comes before it with the statement that comes after it, but it does so in a contrasting way, setting each statement against the other. Separated is what we all were, but now we who are in Christ no longer bear any resemblance to those who are cast out in the outer places, those dark and undesirable locales where teeth are gnashed and weeping and wailing persist. Instead of being separated, now we are reconciled.

Reconciliation is a dramatic turn of events for anyone who stands on the far side of the excluding line. To be allowed to cross over, or to discover that the exclusion line has been moved so that you are now inside instead of outside, it is a remarkably freeing and relieving experience. Between verses 13 and 17 Paul focuses on the themes of peace and hostility.

Most of you here remember the Berlin wall that divided west from east, a physical incarnation of the symbol of the iron curtain that separated communism on the east from democracy in the west. And most of us remember the euphoria of 1989 when the wall was turn down. The 1990s proved to be a remarkable decade as much because the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union as anything any one government leader succeeded in accomplishing. The reconciliation that took place between east and west, however briefly it may have lasted, changed the world as fast as that wall in Berlin could come down.

Reconciliation allows differing groups to talk to one another again in normal and even appreciative tones, rather than constantly seeking ways to tear the other down or undermine them. What Jesus accomplished by his cross was the leveling of the playing field between Jew and gentile. No longer was one group preferred over another. Now both had equal access to God, not through a temple, but through the blood of Jesus Christ. That which allowed the separation to persist was thrown aside. And of this we – all of whom are Gentiles – are the great beneficiaries. We are now free to approach the throne of grace with confidence and assurance, with no fear of a deadly reprisal for coming too close to the proximity of God like Gentiles had to  fear with the Temple in Jerusalem.

What walls of separation can you tear down? What things keep you apart from another person or group that God loves just as much as He loves you? What facades of differences do we keep up in order to create the illusion of justification we need in order to keep others at a safe distance, separate from us, quarantined? Jesus conquered the greatest dividing wall of all. Our petty walls of political differences, ethnic distinctions, cultural artifacts, and educational pride need to go by the wayside in favor of treating everyone with the equal love and respect with which Jesus has treated us. Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Or perhaps even stronger, do unto others as Christ already has done unto us.

But merely ending the separation by acts of reconciliation is not enough. In reconciliation, we acknowledge one another as equals. Jesus would not be satisfied with merely acknowledging that Gentiles had a place before God. No, Jesus also incorporates those who were apart from each other into the same unit, the same body, the same new Temple of God. No longer are Gentiles a lower and separate class, and no longer are Gentiles just given a head nodding in acknowledgment that God loves them too. Now Jews and Gentiles are both treated and utilized as equals. No distinctions. No differences. Both are useful bricks in building the Body of Christ that is the Temple of God. We are fellow citizens, saints, and members, joined together on top of the same foundation.

Reconciliation can be fleeting when it is only a tacit acknowledgment. It is when reconciliation leads to full mutual incorporation that real change has been accomplished. This is what Jesus has accomplished between Jews and Gentiles. Both together are used with no difference between them to build up the Temple of God that is the Body of Christ, the Church. There is now no distinction between Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. There are no lines of separation now remaining dividing those who have access to God from those who do not have such access.

This is perhaps the most marvelous wonder of what God in Christ has accomplished in and through the church. No longer do we need to establish a pecking order. No one is greater or lesser than anyone else. We all stand equal before God, wearing the same white robes cleansed in the same blood of Christ. It is not that we were Jew or Gentile. It is that we were all sinners in need of salvation. Old differences matter not. Circumcision matters not. Observance or even knowledge of the law matters not. Christ saves all, and He incorporates all of us into His one body.

Our challenge this morning is to remember this: that all of those whose differences we like to espouse, to distinguish ourselves from – all of those separations Christ has wiped out. There is now only one difference that matters: are you or are you not washed in the blood of the Lamb, with your sins wiped clean? Black and white do not matter. Republican and Democrat do not matter. Rich and poor do not matter. Citizen status and illegal alien status do not matter. Debt-free or debt-full do not matter. Born a Jew or born a Gentile do not matter. Only one thing matters. It is our job to be sure that everyone we encounter has heard this message. Are you free from your sins? Do you have a white robe washed pure? Is your name in the Lamb’s Book of Life? If yes, then we are brothers and sisters in one family, making one body. If not, then can I show you how you, too, can have all of the walls of separation knocked down?

Let’s pray.

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