by David Baer, July 23, 2017
Text: Ephesians 2:11-22
When we first worshiped in my parents' church, we sat on folding chairs in the fellowship hall. The church had just broken ground on a new sanctuary, and over the coming months we saw this new building take shape. The foundations were poured, the bricks were laid, and the walls went up. The church had also mortgaged itself to the hilt to build this space--and as the bills came due, the little church struggled to figure out what it was there for. The people realized that in building a sanctuary they had only begun to build a church. The church was built not with bricks and mortar, but as the people's faith awakened, as they formed authentic and living relationships with God and one another, and as they began to discover the ministry that God was doing through them.
That's how a church gets built. That's how this church was built--the founding members of this congregation didn't raise these walls themselves, but they began to build a church nonetheless. But building projects have a beginning and end. A building can be finished, more or less, but a church is constantly building itself in response to what God is doing in the world. A church has to keep on building.
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians wants believers to understand how the church is built. He calls Christian believers to participate in God's grand plan for the world. It's not enough that God has forgiven them. It's not enough that they've been invited into a new relationship with God and one another. They need to think bigger. Eugene Peterson, in his contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message, translates the plan this way: "God set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth. It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for." (Eph. 1:9-11). The letter reminds us that through Jesus Christ we can see God's plan for peace and fulfillment, not just for Christians, not just for the human race, but for all living things and the whole creation. And we build the church by participating in God's plan in the way we live our lives, and in the way we conduct ourselves as a community of faith.
The first people who read this letter lived in divisive times, just as we do. For our part, we live in a divided world, in a divided country even. In our political life, there doesn’t seem to be much room for compromise or unity, only winning. It’s important, as we hear the message of Ephesians, that we not lose sight of how divided their world was too. There are grand words here about how Christ breaks down dividing walls and makes hostile sides into one people. But the reality that the early church faced was not a wonderland of campfires and Kum Ba Yah. They struggled to keep two groups--Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians--in the same community.
The writer of Ephesians wants the church--that's us--to remember what God was doing in Jesus Christ. He starts with the big picture. Remember, he tells his Gentile audience, remember that not too long ago you were on the outside. You were outside the community that knew God's love and received God's promises. That love and those promises were set aside for God's chosen people, Israel. You were shut out. Jews, or at least the men, carried the mark of their inclusion on their bodies through their circumcision.
Do you remember a time when you felt out of place? Three times as a child I travelled into foreign countries, not knowing the language they spoke there. You can see and hear people speaking, and sometimes you can read meaning from the tone of their voice. You know there are relationships forming and fracturing and growing around you, ideas flying back and forth. But you're cut off from all of it, your nose pressed up against the glass of the life going on around you. It gives me some idea of what people who don't speak English very well must experience in our country. But that's what it was like to be a Gentile, looking on as the people of the covenant worshiped God, practiced the rituals that set them apart, and celebrated their special relationship with God. It seemed that there were two races of humanity--the insiders and the outsiders, the chosen and the cast-aside.
Until Jesus. "For he is our peace," the writer tells us. "In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." The gospel tells us that God so loved the world--the whole world--that God gave God's only son. Jesus carries all those who believe in him, all who gather as the church he carries with him to the cross. They die with him, and they find new life with him. "In his flesh he has made both groups into one." The special ceremonies of the Jewish law that drew lines of exclusion--like circumcision and dietary restrictions--fade away in the light of this new relationship. That's why the writer says, "He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross..."
That's the big picture--God breaking down the walls that divide people one from another. God throws open the doors to those with their faces pressed against the glass. God calls out to them in their own language. They can be part of the covenant people as Gentiles, as the people they are. But that's only the beginning of the story. This new community has a purpose, as the writer reminds us:
"... you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God."
The writer uses a play on words--"household" can mean "family," but it also refers to the physical "house." The Temple in Jerusalem, the house built with human hands, lies in ruins, destroyed by Roman soldiers. In a world where physical houses of worship can be destroyed, the people need to be reminded that God's people themselves are being built into a home for God.
In Ephesians we see a lot of poetic language which must have come from early Christian hymns. The writer of Ephesians is eager to draw connections between the practices of worship and the bigger story of God redeeming the world. A few years back, one of my colleagues told me about how his church performed the passing of the peace. The people greet each other, and they say, "Peace be with you." But as they're doing this they move to the outside walls of the sanctuary. They join hands, and they form an unbroken circle. It's messy, he said, and it's a bit awkward, but it tells a story about a people claimed by God's love and called into relationship with each other. It tells a story about a God who is always working for the peace and wholeness of the whole creation, a God whose love has no beginning and no ending.
What are the walls around us that God would have broken down, the distinctions that are erased because of what Jesus has done for all of us? Is there a neighbor or coworker, or someone else you’re feeling cut off from? What if you set aside some time this week to pray about it, then reach across the barrier and see what happens?
It may be a small step, but it's in breaking down barriers, in laying claim to God's plan, that God’s kingdom is built. That's how a collection of people becomes a Temple, a home for God. And in a divided world like ours, God is at home in a place where dividing walls are torn down. God is at home in a place where people make no presumptuous claims on God's favor, but who remember the gift of forgiveness they've received in Jesus. God is at home in a place where people inclined to dislike or ignore one another learn that the shared mercy and call they've received from God outweigh everything that might push them apart. That's the Temple, the place where the God who is reconciling all things to God's self in Jesus Christ is at home. Amen.