Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 19, 2015

2015.07.19 “Working on a Building” – Ephesians 2: 11 – 22

Central United Methodist Church
“Working on a Building”
Pastor David L. Haley
Ephesians 2: 11 – 22
July 19th, 2015

ChristourPeace

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 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, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then 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. – Ephesians 2: 11 – 22

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote the poet Robert Frost, in his poem, “Mending Wall.” (1914)

However, evidence around the planet seems to be to the contrary. There is the most famous wall on earth, the Great Wall of China. There is a wall separating Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. We tore down an infamous wall in Berlin. But as old walls go down, new ones spring up, like the one between our country and Mexico, or the one in Israel between the Israelis and Palestinians. And this is without including all those “demilitarized zones,” like the one dividing North and South Korea.

One could argue that in our world, strong walls make for peace. Every child who has ever shared a room knows this. Draw a dividing line across the floor – your side, my side – to keep the peace. This is your side of the closet; this is my side. These are my clothes; my toys, my books, those are yours. As long as we keep apart, we will not argue. After all, in the same poem, Robert Frost also said, “”Good fences make good neighbors.”

But we all know that walls are about more than security (after all, even the Great Wall of China didn’t work). What it is about us human beings that makes us feel as if we must separate ourselves from others? There seems to be an innate insecurity in all of us, that makes us want to rate others in comparison to ourselves, mostly to rate ourselves above them and then separate ourselves from them. It is this innate need of comparing ourselves with others that is the root of most “isms” in the world, like classism or racism or sexism. Due to our own insecurity, we seem to need to feel superior to somebody, even if it is from those already on the lowest rung of life’s ladder.

But if we think real walls are formidable, they are only walls of steel and concrete; the walls we build in society and in our minds are even more formidable. Never have we seemed to be more divided. We categorize ourselves and each other by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, by class, by citizenship status. We are aware of our differences in political party and theological position and church denomination. Even those of us who are religious often use our religion not to connect ourselves (which is what the word religion means, to “bind ourselves”), but to further separate ourselves.

How do we begin to dismantle these walls, like we did the Berlin wall? Sledgehammers?  Pulling them apart brick by brick? Where do we begin? And if we tore down those walls, where would we be?

One place we who are followers of Christ might begin is at the foot of Jesus’ cross, where the ground is flat, and we are all equal. And the even better news is this: not only are we all equal, there we are all equally accepted in God’s sight, all fellow citizens of the household of God. To realize this can be a life transforming insight.

We are given this life-transforming insight in the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which we began last week.

As I stated last week, although there are some who think the letter was not written by Paul but by one of his disciples, traditionally it has been attributed to Paul, and likely written around the years 60-62 AD, while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. It was not written just to one church but to a group of churches along the Lycus River valley in Asia Minor. One of those churches was Ephesus, which, while on his 3rd missionary journey, Paul had visited for 2½ years.

Paul is writing after 30 years reflection about what Christ’s life had meant, and for this reason, some call the Letter to the Ephesians his crowning achievement. Underlying the stunning theology of the Letter to the Ephesians are two revolutionary assumptions:

  1. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was about more than what Jesus did in his lifetime, his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. Rather, Paul believed Jesus to be the Eternal Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah. And thus not only was his life of love the fulfillment of the Jewish Law, but his death on the cross was the atoning sacrifice, establishing peace not only between humanity and God, but between formerly estranged humanity.
  2.  And this was the second revolutionary assumption, that what Jesus had accomplished in Christ applied not only to Jews, but to Gentiles, pagans. And Christ had done it in such an absolute way that they no longer needed to observe the Jewish Law to be Christian. Which got Paul into a lot of trouble with Jewish Christian believers, including Jesus’ own disciples, like Peter and James. You might say that never has there been a more perfect example of where life’s divisions leave us, that the death of Jesus Christ. Ironically, appropriately says, Paul, from Christ’s death comes our peace.

Now before you shrug your shoulders and say, “So What?” you should realize that we are Christians today because of Paul’s two revolutionary assumptions. Without Paul, we would most likely be worshiping today. Christianity would likely have remained a movement within Judaism, by Jews and for Jews. (And I don’t want to hear any, “Thanks, Paul – if it weren’t for you I could be out playing golf or shopping at Old Orchard Mall right now!”)

Today in chapter 2, Paul describes for the Ephesians and for us, what God has done for us, in regard to God, but also in regard to each other. In both cases, he reminds them (and perhaps us) of our former life – but even more importantly – of our new standing.

Imagine that we, a community of Christians in Asia Minor, are tightly packed into the largest home available for the first reading of a new letter that has just arrived – the one that will come to be known as the Letter to the Ephesians. We’re gathered to hear it read out, of course, because most of us cannot read. And we hear:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

“BUT GOD, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2: 1 – 10)

But that’s not all. Paul reminds us not only of who we once were, but who we are now:

“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God (atheos) in the world.”

“BUT NOW in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 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, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

You have to realize any talk of peace within the context of Asia Minor in the late first century under Roman rule would be politically charged. Roman emperors, Augustus in particular, were hailed as the semi-divine inaugurators of an unprecedented peace that would settle the turbulent rivalries of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. This Roman brand of “peace,” of course, was an enforced peace wrought through military dominance. The saying was, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.” When necessary, terror would be used; specifically, the terror of crucifixion for anyone foolhardy enough to challenge peace on the Empire’s terms. On state occasions and festival days such as the birthday of the emperor, when the emperor’s “lordship’ would be celebrated, the emperor as “peace-bringer” would be lauded in public speeches.

So imagine that as you listen to the reading of this letter and it gets to the part that says, “You who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . HE IS OUR PEACE,” there is a quick intake of breath and glances toward the door, because [Christ] is our peace” (verse 14) would be a pronouncement bordering on treason. What is being claimed, after all, is that despite all the swaggering claims of Rome’s emperors, true peace has been inaugurated by a man the empire crucified. The dissonance between the chilling rhetoric of the state and the thrilling rhetoric of the Gospel would set any listener’s blood racing.

This is a hymn of hope we need to sing in our world today, because we still live in a world that is all about walls and barriers, insiders and outsiders, privileged and unprivileged.

What walls, invisible or physical, exist in our community or even in our congregation? Can we look beyond the more obvious signals such as skin color, class, and religion and talk about the barriers that hold people back from becoming fully a part of the neighborhood, the classroom, the Sunday School group, or the church? What can we do to begin to tear down those walls in the name of Jesus Christ?

How do look at and listen to and evaluate people, especially when we compare ourselves to them? Do we instantly classify people as different, and therefore against us, or beneath us, or as people with whom we have more in common than we know, all dearly beloved persons whom God loves and for whom Christ died, regardless of their status in life.

Paul concludes chapter 2 by saying this, to the Ephesians and to us:

“So then 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.”

So it comes down to this: as we go through life, are we building walls, or bridges, or a spacious house, in which all God’s children are welcome?

There is an old spiritual entitled, “Working on a Building.” It says,

“I’m workin’ on a building, I’m workin’ on a building,

I’m workin’ on a building, for my Lord, for my Lord.

It’s a Holy Ghost building, it’s a Holy Ghost building,

It’s a Holy Ghost building, for my Lord, for my Lord.

If I were a preacher, tell you what I’d do,

I’d keep on preachin’, and I’d work on a building too.

We are working on a building, in which there is a seat waiting for you. Sorry, there is no separate or single seating, only a seat beside your brothers and sisters. Won’t you join us?  Amen.

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